‘End of History’ Hits Bump

Amid the triumphalism of the Cold War’s end, Francis Fukuyama foresaw the “end of history” with capitalist liberal democracy prevailing. But that hubris has confronted failures of both capitalism and democracy in recent years, raising doubts about history’s course, ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar observes.

By Paul R. Pillar

In the 24 years since Francis Fukuyama wrote his seminal article in The National Interest describing liberal democracy as a sort of steady-state culmination of the history of political and economic organization, others have gone in different directions on the question of whether that history embodies a grand trend, whether it is leading to some sort of final equilibrium, and if so what the nature of that equilibrium will be.

Many thoughts on the subject are, unsurprisingly, influenced by salient events of the day, just as critics of Fukuyama thought he was overly influenced by the Western victory over Soviet communism in the Cold War, which was getting wrapped up just about the time he was writing. More recently it has been the Middle East that has been supplying most of the salient short-term events that inspire thoughts about long-term trends such as democratization.

Political theorist Francis Fukuyama.

“Short-term” in this case means even shorter than the less than three years that the regional upheaval known as the Arab Spring has been going on. Fast-moving events have led to quick changes in prognoses about things such as trends in democratization. Early in the upheaval one heard lots of talk about democracy inexorably breaking out all over. More recent news from the likes of Syria and Egypt has led to similarly sweeping pronouncements that the Arab Spring will prove to be a bust.

Many of the arguments on this subject have appropriately focused on factors specific to the Middle East. There are, for example, the ways in which abundant natural resources can paradoxically redound to the political as well economic disadvantage of those who have them — a dynamic sometimes referred to as the oil curse.

Then there is there is religiously driven conflict related to how the region is the birthplace of the three big monotheistic relations. It is also appropriate, however, to plug the Middle Eastern events into that broader question of grand trends in human history and perhaps link them to data points from elsewhere in the world.

One interesting data point from last week’s news comes from China. A memo, known as Document No. 9, circulating among cadres of the Chinese Communist Party warns about the dangers from seven subversive influences, with “Western constitutional democracy” being at the top of the list, followed by such others as freedom of the press, civic participation, and ideas about universal human rights.

What is striking, even for a document evidently not intended for external consumption, is how direct and blunt a rejection this is of values associated with liberal democracy. It is not a given that this would be the response of the CCP.

If these values have such attractiveness — as followers of Fukuyama’s argument would expect — to be seen as a threat to the current political order in China, one can imagine more nuanced and clever ways for party leaders to co-opt, adopt, or spin these values that would reduce the threat, rather than simply warning party members not to be tempted or tainted by them.

There are explanations that can be made for Document No. 9 in terms of internal CCP politics. Perhaps, for example, this was red meat that Xi Jinping believed he had to throw to party leftists to help get their support or acquiescence with other things on his agenda, such as fighting corruption.

But there also is a simple and straightforward way of interpreting Document No. 9 — as simple and straightforward as the document itself — that addresses the big-picture question of long-term political evolution. Most authoritarian rulers (whether individuals or, as in China, a party or collective leadership) want to retain their power.

Having power means they have wherewithal to do something about retaining that power. That is especially true in states that are big or wealthy. When feeling threatened by democratic or other sentiments challenging their rule, they have all the more incentive to step up their game and push back harder against such threats, and they do exactly that. And all of this is a major reason the world never gets to a worldwide liberal democratic end state.

Authoritarian regimes are focused on retaining power in (and of) their own countries, but in so doing they may retard democratic trends elsewhere. Saudi Arabia is doing exactly that by opening its checkbook for the benefit of the generals in Egypt.

The Saudis are concerned about any Muslim Brotherhood influence in their own kingdom, because the Brotherhood demonstrates how Islam can be combined with democratic electoral politics and constitutes a direct challenge to the Saudis’ own claim to religious legitimacy for their authoritarian rule. But the main effect of what they are doing is to set back hopes for democratization in the most populous Arab country, Egypt.

Somewhat similarly, when China provides no-strings-attached bilateral aid it is usually doing so to gain access to resources for the economic benefit of China itself. But the main political effect in many of the recipient countries is to bolster authoritarian rule.

We can see some of the effects in one of the best scorecards for keeping track of trends in implementing liberal democratic values: the annual survey by Freedom House. That scorecard tells us that if there is, or was, a trend toward more liberal democracy, it has flat-lined for at least the last 15 years or so, since the improvements in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet empire. The proportion of countries that are free, that are not free, and that are electoral democracies are all essentially the same as they were in the mid-1990s.

Maybe there is a sort of end-state in political evolution, but it does not entail the global triumph of liberal democracy or any other single type of system. Instead, it is an equilibrium in which democratic and authoritarian forces pushing against each other lead to the kind of balance reflected in the relatively static Freedom House numbers. The balance involves actions and reactions, including authoritarian rulers pushing back harder at the very times that democratic forces might otherwise be gaining some momentum.

That observation, however, which primarily uses a time frame of a couple of decades, must immediately be coupled with a couple of caveats, one with a shorter frame of reference and the other with a longer one.

The short-term caveat is that none of these observations lessens the immediate policy challenges of dealing with a problem such as Egypt. Political trends as they manifest themselves there or anywhere else are not the inexorable outcome of some sort of historical determinism. Choices matter, choices have to be made, and important interests are at stake in making them.

The long-term caveat is that patterns we see over the past couple of decades are only suggestive of what might be the correct answer to the questions about political evolution and end states; they do not nail down the answer with certainty. Much more time may be needed to do that, if we can do it at all.

In some natural systems a very long time frame is needed to get the whole picture of what is going on. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould emphasized that most evolution has taken place in spurts, with long periods of relative stasis in between.

If you looked just at one of the more static eons, you might mistakenly believe Darwin was wrong. We probably won’t know in our lifetimes whether Fukuyama, his critics, or the observations above about equilibria will turn out to be right.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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4 comments on “‘End of History’ Hits Bump

  1. incontinent reader on said:

    Excellent, thoughtful analysis.

    Re: the Chinese, I suspect they also fear the US and West are using the notion of “democracy”, and the institutions that they are using to promote it, such as the NED, as a way to subvert China’s political and economic system, especially given their imbedded memory of 19th and early 20th century Western (and Japanese) imperialism and its exploitation of their country. The ideological battle of capitalism vs. communism no longer exists. China’s system today is more one of ‘cadre capitalism’ with both the corruption that comes with it, and a coordinated approach to problems of national interest that the party addresses, e.g., in their development plans, which allows it to leverage much greater economic power than any, or almost any private institution in the West.

    Likewise, the Russians seem to have the same fear as the Chinese, which doesn’t seem unreasonable, given the West’s attempt to undo the election of President Putin, its unconditional advocacy of “Pussy Riot” under the pretext of protecting free speech, and now its condemnation of Russia’s legislation banning the advocacy and propagandizing the gay lifestyle to minors, which will depend as much or more on the implementation of that legislation and how it is interpreted by the authorities, as the legislation itself- i.e., the concern that the West is less interested in protecting human rights than in changing Russian society in a way that would permit the West to contain or neutralize Russia as a geopolitical ‘threat’, or in controlling its political system, resources and economy. Furthermore, the whole approach of ‘soft power’, which traditionally was used to refer to the influence one nation might have over another by showing or demonstrating the advantages of its system and freedoms (as in a courtship), has been perverted into something different articulated by our neocons and neo-liberal, such as Suzanne Nossel, i.e., something including ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘right to protect’. (It’s a bait and switch through the redefinition of words that meant something different before, and that now has a soft meaning for a hard end- i.e. a shotgun wedding.)

    My own sense is that we will always have “people’s wars” with the tension to which you alluded between ‘democratic movements’ and authoritarian systems, except that there has been a third trend surfacing over the past 50 years, and that is a transnational one, in which the economic and political power of those nation states- whether in the developed or the third world- that have fallen under Western hegemony, are being eroded and/or transferred to multinational corporations which are themselves authoritarian, with the result that some authoritarian governments, while corrupt and dictatorial, are protecting their national sovereignty and resources and the culture and way of life of their own peoples, and in some sense ‘human rights’. (We are seeing this transnational trend formalized in NFTA and the WHO and most recently in the TPP and US-EU Trade Agreement.)

    Moreover, while we speak of capitalism and privatization, I suspect the pendulum will eventually begin to swing in the other direction where one will hear more of a call for nationalization of critical industries, or at least of one or more of the major players in those industries, to protect the common or national interest. Privatization of large

  2. Frances in California on said:

    I wish I thought, as you say, I.R., that we could even have the pendulum swing back toward nationalization of essential services . . . the planet can’t support it however, so the sooner we begin Horizontalidad in earnest, the better; rather, the “less worst” for the most who can be hoped to escape the coming Collapse of Empire.

  3. incontinent reader on said:

    That last paragraph was truncated. It was supposed to read:

    Moreover, while we speak of capitalism and privatization, I suspect the pendulum will eventually begin to swing in the other direction where one will hear more of a call for nationalization of critical industries, or at least of one or more of the major players in those industries, to protect the common or national interest. Privatization of large organizations does not always improve efficiency, but too often it results in predator corporations that exploit the public, frequently hemorrhage money to preferred beneficiaries, rule with an authoritarian hand over its employees, and use their money, control of the media, and political influence to induce legislate changes that further increase their power.

    Frances- it may be unrealistic to hope for nationalization, but there is no way that the system as presently configured can sustain itself, and we are, after all talking about a common or national interest that is being eroded as people get poorer and we lay waste to anyone who refuses to give us the keys to their house.

  4. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Does anybody really believe there even is such a thing as a “communist” or a “capitalist”? This all reminds me a bit of the comedy routine that Dave Chapelle used to do. Some thought it was misogynistic, but I disagree. It got to the crux of the issue. I had to spend many painful hours reading Marx and Engels during my college days. The only thing I can truly remember is that they didn’t describe anything that could be found in China today or the Soviet Union of that era. I recently read another article which sought to sort out today’s political ideologies. I was tempted to make a list of the labels they used, but it would have been almost as long as the article. “Neoliberals”, “Paleoconservatives”, “Reagan Republicans”, “New Deal Democrats”, “Alinsky Anarchists”, “Tea Party Reactionaries”, and the list went on and on. Paraphrasing Dave, “If I were to dress up in a police uniform and walk down a dark street in a bad neighborhood, what would someone say if I refused to intercede in a crime?”

    We are in the same conundrum. The economy does not run on management, speculation, marketing or international politics. It runs on production and jobs. It was recently announced that we would be purchasing steel girders from China to repair our crumbling bridges. That state of affairs has been orchestrated by people in this country we call “capitalists”. But what is “capitalism”, anyway? Is it just wrapping paper, like we put around one of those inexpensive gifts we have to take to the office Christmas party for the “white elephant” exchange?

    So, back to Dave. He describes the heavily made up woman in a bar who is wearing a revealing outfit obviously intended to provoke attention. Just like our “capitalists”, who extract massive profits, outrageous bonuses, and a glorious lifestyle, she’s not exactly what she seems. That they were willing to export the means of production to our enemy, and cause our government to incur massive deficits by isolating those profits from revenue does NOT make them traitors. That our Federal Reserve and financial sector sells our debt to that same enemy to finance the debt those “capitalists” have caused us to incur does not make them “communist sympathizers”. That our jobs have been sent off-shore to needy third world labor markets by legislation our politicians support does not make them “socialists”. But when Dave approaches the provocatively clad woman and propositions her, she asks, “How dare you insinuate that I’m a whore?” Dave answers, “Well you sure are wearin’ the uniform.”