I have long defended in these Chronicles (e.g., Chronicles 35, 247, 344…) the fundamental point of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that liberal democracy constitutes the ultimate form of human organization, and that in this narrow sense he was correct in calling the end of the Cold War in 1989 the “end of history.” I won’t go over the point that this “end” should rather be understood as the beginning of a new era with its own problems, but one can say with conviction that despite the occasional yearnings of such as Thomas Friedman for Chinese-style authoritarianism, we have seen nothing since 1989 that gives the slightest hint that there is a more productive social ethic than the one that grew out of the English and American Revolutions. (In contrast, the value of the contribution of the French Revolution will probably always remain ambivalent. The Trotskyite “permanent revolution” idea is too deeply implicit in it for it to be forgotten. Burkean wisdom could only be brought to French governance through a series of oscillations that took up most of the 19th century, and even today, the West’s Revolutionary nostalgia reserves an indulgent smile for Bakunin and Che Guevara while holding the Napoleon IIIs and Pinochets in contempt.)
I am still guardedly optimistic about the future of the USA and by extension of the West in which it remains, even under the current administration, the leading power and model. But the other side of the argument deserves consideration, and that is the purpose of this Chronicle.
The liberal-democratic system is founded on an in principle free economic market, “capitalism” if you like, but subject to a legal system controlled by a political “market” where citizens each have one vote, and where the interests, or as I prefer to put it, the resentments, of the different elements of society are negotiated. All such political systems contain “checks and balances,” more elaborate in the US than elsewhere, designed to prevent the tyranny of the majority. But whether the executive be an emanation of the parliament or an elected official in his own right, these systems all function to permit the market to operate as freely as possible, given the inequalities it perpetuates and/or generates.
Needless to say, this is an extremely schematic description of a liberal-democratic polity. But Fukuyama’s essential point is not that some specific arrangement, that of the US or of another nation, is the final stage of social evolution, but merely that the basic formula of a “free” market coupled with “free” elections cannot be improved upon—and in particular that “planned economies” run by authoritarian rulers with little or no feedback from the citizenry cannot operate as efficiently as democracies. The Hayekian principle that the market, if left to its own resources, is “more intelligent” than its participants has shown itself to be true. China’s recent stock market difficulties provide the latest demonstration that the market can only be truly free in a democratic system. “End of history” or no, Fukuyama surely had a point in seeing the end of the Cold War as a watershed; Soviet communism was the final attempt by an alternative system to outperform “capitalist” economies, and it failed.
There is great wisdom in Churchill’s famous quip that democracy is the worst political system with the exception of all the others. What this means is that the “others” impose constraints that limit social creativity, whereas democracies go off in all directions. But this is only possible when the participants share a common faith in the overall justness of what has been historically a national system. The negotiation of resentments requires that these resentments be kept under control, that whatever one’s loyalty to a subgroup, ascriptive or otherwise, one is first and foremost a citizen of the nation-state. This is of course a matter of degree, but the current victimary ideology is not only self-perpetuating but tends to link together those whose resentment against the current state of affairs is stronger than their loyalty to the whole. The Black Lives Matter movement’s insistence that persons apologize to it for asserting that “all lives matter” is as good a symbol of this as any.
The problem is not that blacks or women or Jews, or white males for that matter, feel resentment. Resentment is both humanity’s original sin and its means of perceiving injustice. But the social order must be very careful not to let it be understood that any particular resentment is ipso facto a proof of injustice. That this seems to become increasingly possible—in the universities, certainly—is a sign that the (mostly white) ruling class of American society is running scared. White Guilt, as I affirmed in a discussion with Adam in 2007 (see Chronicles 341 and 342), is less a sign of inner turmoil than a fear that those who share the privilege of Western civilization cannot protect themselves from the resentment of those who claim the status of its victims, whether at home or (in far vaster numbers) in the Third World.
That the West lacks the will to rid the world of the Islamic State or even Nigeria of Boko Haram is not a good sign. Since WWII, the US has acted as the world’s policeman in reaction to threats to the world order. But now our leaders prefer to be concerned with climate change. For in this, we can imagine that all the world’s people can act as one; all can commune in the White Guilt of despoilers of the environment.
Perhaps the most fundamental change in international relations since the end of WWII is the end of total war. The recoil from the victimary horrors of Auschwitz is inseparable from the apocalyptic visions conjured up by Hiroshima.
The postwar vision of economic productivity replacing war as the crucial field of international competition was a great optimistic act of faith in human firstness. Today we can recall Khrushchev’s 1956 “we will bury you” speech—a few days after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution—as an almost idyllic moment that made clear that, whatever their differences, both systems were competing in the same court. Post-Stalin Communism and Western democracy had similar roots and, without thinking much about it, obeyed similar social norms. We owe at least a glimmer of sympathy to Putin’s declaration that the demise of the Soviet Union was the great tragedy of (the second half of) the 20th century. The great powers understood each other in ways inconceivable between the West and such entities as the Islamic State or Islamic Iran. The turmoil that reigns today throughout the Middle East is more bloody and more hateful than the Cold War. For the leaders of these societies are quite aware that, insofar as the West is concerned, under current “asymmetric” conditions, the very conception of war as a maximal competition between states, as theorized from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz, is no longer in force. They too hope to “bury us,” but neither on the battlefield nor on the production line.
The last real wars we fought, in Korea and Vietnam, ended first in stalemate (nonetheless with a successful outcome in “our” half of the peninsula) and then in defeat. We might perhaps have won the Vietnam war, or at least maintained our commitment to the South, but the public was fed up, and the draft aroused anxiety and anger in those asked to risk their lives when the nation was not under threat. More importantly, it was already clear that the kind of transformation in enemy attitudes that followed WWII could not be brought about in a former colony whose communist insurgency could appeal to nationalist sentiments. Communist Vietnam, after a brutal start, has followed the Chinese hybrid of centralized power and capital market, but neither Vietnam nor China itself seems anywhere near converting to Western-style political pluralism.
But there was worse to come. The “asymmetric” wars in the Middle East have not only been limited by the propaganda-driven need to avoid civilian casualties; they were never true contests of civilizations in the first place. The economic superiority of the West over states such as Iraq and Syria was never in question. It was in accordance with what appeared at the time the irresistible example of the conversion of the Warsaw Pact states to the Western model that George W. Bush, with what we see in hindsight as naïve over-optimism, invaded Iraq in the belief that once its brutal dictator had been removed, it, and eventually the other states of the region, would likewise turn to liberal democracy. We have now been disabused of this illusion. Had Obama maintained a military presence in Iraq after 2010, we might have learned whether some new mode of liberal democracy had a chance of emerging in this region; that is a chance we are not likely to see again for quite a while.
As things stand today, international asymmetries in values and access to means of destabilizing violence make it possible for Islamists with no thought of rivaling Western liberal economies to challenge the West in peripheral areas and even to aspire to its eventual destruction in its home territory. 9/11 was in this regard a watershed.
That IS’s weaponry—as well as its glitz and its means of publicity—are parasitic on the West is the inevitable result of Western firstness. Firstness does not mean “privilege” in the sense in which we are told to check our privilege; firstness is human innovation that will by the nature of humanity be shared with others. But whereas sharing cell phones and Facebook—and plastic explosives—requires very little infrastructure, sharing the means to produce these things, let alone to improve them and invent new ones, is far more difficult. But it is also unnecessary. Whereas China, and even Russia, see themselves vis-à-vis the West as rival industrial powers, the Islamists of Iran and above all of IS are motivated primarily by religio-ethical rather than socioeconomic considerations.
It is a thought horrible to contemplate, but the integration of Western technology into the tribal society of the Middle East may well be better accomplished by IS than by either ramshackle faux-Western governments such as we find today in Iraq or secular dictatorships like Syria. The Caliphate is so to speak Islam’s natural political form, as the nation-state has been that of Western Christianity. Islamic governance tends to adopt an imperial structure overlaying civil societies of tribal rather than national composition, and as we discovered in the second Iraq war, this underlying tribal configuration is highly resistant to change. The jihadists are unconcerned with providing a higher living standard than Western civilization, so long as their access to oil wealth (not to speak of extortion, the drug trade, etc.) provides general prosperity. Aside from some publicity-oriented massacres, the day-to-day level of tyranny in IS is probably not markedly higher than in Saudi Arabia or Iran (not to speak of China, Cuba, or North Korea), and one can imagine that for the average person who obeys Sharia and stays out of trouble, the level of fairness and governmental honesty is probably greater.
Thus Fukuyama may well have been right, theoretically and empirically, that measured by any objective standard of human welfare over a reasonable time span, liberal democracy is the “final” social order, and yet wrong to the extent that, now that for the first time the world order is truly global, liberal-democratic nations cannot bring their economic superiority to bear either to convert or to subjugate the polities practicing other systems. It is useless to seek to determine whether the impossibility of total war in the era of nuclear weaponry and terrorist insurgency or the West’s loss of faith in its civilizational superiority is the chicken or the egg. Both go together, and the latter surely feeds on the decay of traditional Western religious and social norms and the concomitant attraction of the far cruder version of these norms enforced by Islamists. Perhaps we should broaden our conception of the “boredom” Fukuyama predicted for the West to refer to the developed world’s citizenry’s increasing disinclination to risk their lives by defending themselves or to insure their civilization’s future by reproducing themselves.
Yet the practitioners of liberal democracy in the West, along with nations such as Japan that have adapted its values and institutions, nonetheless remain—but for how long?—humanity’s chief exemplars of firstness. And firstness, like the Hebrews’ “election” that made them a “light unto the nations,” is meant to be shared with others as the foundation of human progress.
It is easy to condemn the colonialist ideal of the “white man’s burden.” But if we call it instead “Europe’s burden,” and refuse to equate its implementation with sinister paternalist caricatures like Leopold’s Belgian Congo, this ideal at its best was an assertion of firstness not as a racial but as a human responsibility. What indeed were the efforts of Médecins sans frontières and the US Army during last year’s Ebola epidemic other than generous examples of Western firstness in action? Not only did these agencies do their best to cure the sick and prevent the spread of the epidemic, but they helped to train and equip local African medical teams to handle future emergencies. Skin color has nothing to do with such activity; it was simply a case of the better organized societies helping the less well organized.
For Western nations to maintain their liberal-democratic advantage and help spread it to the rest of the world, they must be motivated by generosity, but also by a modest degree of patriotic pride. Firstness operates by example. Where White Guilt promotes resentful parasitism among its “victims,” pride and generosity encourage positive emulation. Whatever his other views on economic matters, I think the Pope as a good Christian would agree with me on this point.