The Return of the Return of History

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia last month, many commentators have been quick to proclaim that the war signals "the return of history." But attentive observers could be forgiven for responding to these pronouncements with a sense of déjà vu.

History, after all, was already supposed to have returned once before – seven years ago, following the Sep. 11 attacks. Then, "the return of history" was meant to signal the commencement of an all-out struggle against the forces of radical Islam and secular Arab nationalism.

The appropriation and reinterpretation of the phrase in recent weeks – in many cases by the same commentators who first made use of it in 2001 – may be indicative of a new turn in US foreign policy debates, as hawks move away from a focus on the Islamic world and push for more aggressive confrontation with Russia and China.

It has also touched off a heated media debate about the future of world politics, notably pitting erstwhile neoconservative allies Robert Kagan and Francis Fukuyama against each other.

It has been nearly 20 years since Fukuyama wrote his influential 1989 essay "The End of History?," later expanded into a 1992 book. Published just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama’s essay argued that no further ideological alternatives existed to market-based liberal democracy, and that the era of large-scale ideologically-driven conflict was over.

Many hawks initially embraced Fukuyama’s thesis, seeing in it the promise of a "unipolar" world in which the United States could exercise "benevolent hegemony." In the years that followed, with no clear rival in sight, much of US foreign policy was oriented toward peacekeeping operations in far-flung places like Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans.

But after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, many of the same hawks were quick to fault Fukuyama for his optimism. According to an instantly ubiquitous phrase, the 1990s marked a mere "holiday from history," and radical Islam was destined to replace fascism and communism as the consuming focus of US foreign policy.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, a prominent neoconservative, spoke for many in a Weekly Standard article published two months after the attacks, proclaiming that "[o]n September 11, our holiday from history came to an end." US foreign policy, he wrote, had "acquired a new organizing principle: we have an enemy, radical Islam…and its defeat is our supreme national objective."

Krauthammer explicitly rejected the notion that Russian and Chinese power posed serious threats to the US, instead viewing them as potential allies. If cooperation in the war on terror required recognition of Russia’s Great Power status in Central Asia, he argued, then so be it.

"Radical Islam" was defined broadly enough to include Sunnis and Shiites, religious fundamentalists and secular nationalists. And although Afghanistan was the first front, hawks inside and outside the Bush administration immediately looked ahead to Iraq – and beyond that, to Iran and Syria.

Much as they derided Fukuyama’s optimism, what neoconservatives proposed was the armed imposition of the universal liberal democracy that he had predicted. But Fukuyama himself was not coming along for the ride; he was skeptical that liberal democracy could be imposed by force and broke with his former neoconservative allies in opposing the Iraq war.

It would be an understatement to say that the war against radical Islam has not gone as its planners had hoped. Whether or not the US can salvage acceptable political outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the large-scale democratization of the Middle East appears to be off the table for now.

And as moderates seem to have gained the upper hand over hardliners within the Bush administration, the US has shown a new willingness to use diplomacy in its dealings with the Islamic world.

With the apparent stalling of the war against radical Islam, many felt that hawkish elements in Washington had begun casting about for a new threat to serve as the "organizing principle" of US foreign policy.

Russia and China, both longstanding neoconservative fixations, made for something of a natural fit. In the months before 9/11, the Weekly Standard in particular had pushed for more aggressive confrontation with China – a Jun. 18, 2001 editorial accused the US State Department of engaging in "appeasement of Beijing’s Communist rulers."

If there has been a central figure in reformulating the "return of history" to push for confrontation with Russia and China, it has been Kagan, a neoconservative stalwart based at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace who serves as an advisor to John McCain.

Kagan’s latest book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams, published this past April, argues that the 21st century will be dominated by conflict between the forces of democracy (led by the US) and autocracy (led by Russia and China), in a sort of return to 19th century great power politics.

Kagan’s influence was important in leading McCain to call for a "League of Democracies" to counter Russian and Chinese power, and in the weeks since the Russia-Georgia war his predictions have attracted significantly more attention.

But although few would argue that Russia and China have gained increased salience recently, many critics have questioned whether direct confrontation is the only way to deal with their rising power.

Foremost among these critics has been Fukuyama himself. In recent weeks, he and Kagan have penned a series of opinion pieces that were clearly written in response to each other.

In an Aug. 24 Washington Post op-ed, Fukuyama cautioned against "facile historical analogies," and argued against the view that autocratic governments inherently share the same interests or seek aggressive territorial expansion.

In an earlier debate with Kagan on the website Bloggingheads.tv, Fukuyama also claimed that Kagan’s predictions of conflict with Russia and China could prove to be a "self-fulfilling prophecy." If Washington simply assumes that conflict with Russia and China is inevitable, he and other analysts caution, then it may end up making such conflict inevitable.

In a Newsweek article bluntly titled "This Isn’t the Return of History," prominent foreign policy realist Fareed Zakaria argued that Russia’s invasion would be remembered as a blunder rather than a show of strength, and that globalization and economic integration would continue to promote a convergence of interests between great powers.

Much of the debate has come to revolve around which side can lay claim to the realist mantle. In an Aug. 30 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Kagan fired back at Fukuyama and Zakaria, accusing them of betraying the disillusioned worldview of their realist predecessors by espousing naïve predictions about the end of large-scale geopolitical conflict.

Fukuyama, for his part, remains skeptical that even a return to the 19th century world of great power politics would justify the aggressive policies espoused by Kagan and other neoconservatives.

"You can’t have it both ways," he said in his Bloggingheads debate with Kagan. If one accepts the notion of a return to a great-power world, "then you take that seriously, and say what do great powers do when we can’t expect to get everything we want?"

"The normal great power understanding of what you do is you come to an accommodation, you give some things up in order to get what’s more important to you."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban writes for Inter Press Service.