America at the Crossroads

Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy by Francis Fukuyama

by Tim Whitelaw

17 April 2006


For its European publication, America at the Crossroads was re-Christened After the Neo-cons, apparently on the assumption that the latter was a more desirable mental image to a European audience. I’m not so sure. The vendor I bought it from took a quick look at the title and informed me “after the neo-cons, we’ll all be dead.”

Like the name “Wolfowitz”, “neo-con” seems almost etymologically destined to sound nasty. That dismal semantic karma is, of course, only a small part of the reason that everyone these days has an opinion on the neo-cons (and judging by how forthright my bookseller was volunteering his, most are assumed to have the same opinion). But if there’s a reason to read Francis Fukuyama’s denouncement of neo-conservatism over any of the others than line the bookshelves, it’s for the simple reason that he is, or at least was, one of them.

cover art

America At the Crossroads

Francis Fukuyama

Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy

(Yale University Press)

A distinguished foreign policy wonk for many years, Fukuyama became a minor celebrity back in 1992 for his book The End of History and the Last Man Standing, which postulated that with the fall of communism, mankind’s Hegelian struggle for the system with which to best organize society had come to an end, and liberal democracy was where it was at. That was enough to secure him as a neo-con par excellence for the rest of the decade.

That was then. Twelve years later, suffering from cognitive dissonance having allegedly heard Charles Krauthamer declare the Iraq war an “unqualified success” (in a Washington Post article a few weeks ago, Krauthaumer emphatically denied he said any such thing), Fukuyama embarked on his latest book, an altogether more sobering read. Fukuyama’s purpose with America at the Crossroads is clearly to distance himself from the Bush administration and the actions of what most people would term the neo-conservatives. It’s a one-man mutiny whose timing leaves much to be desired, but Fukuyama is far from an apostate. Indeed, if anything, he seems to believe it is the latter day neo-con-verts who have fallen from the true faith.

Much of the first part of book is devoted to a detailed examination (and not least, a defense) of the origins and intellectual values of neo-conservatism, providing a brisk but detailed account of the contributions of Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, Patrick Moynahan, and Irving Kristol, as well as an emphasis on the ideological schisms within the movement. It is clear Fukuyama still subscribes to much neo-conservative thinking including (with a lengthy amount of qualifying small print) the essential benevolence of American hegemony (Chomsky fans will find much to froth about here), the existential intolerability of non-liberal democratic regimes, and a rejection of the leveling impulses inherent in open-door transnational institutions like the United Nations.

For Fukuyama, the root of neo-conservatism’s present woes lies in its response to the fall of communism. It was at this point, in his opinion, that many in the neo-conservative movement mistook what might well be regarded as a miracle - the largely bloodless implosion of the Eastern bloc—for a total vindication of the Reaganite hard-line, its with its implicit rejection of accommodation and coexistence with non-liberal democratic ideologies. In his opinion, it was this that inspired the moral assurance that would eventually lead the US on the road to Baghdad. While not denying the pivotal role of Reagan, Fukuyama points up other unique factors in Communism’s fall, namely its lack of any root in its adoptive societies, and what he terms its “moral rot”, which meant in the end that not even its most hard-line generals were willing to fight to sustain it. And those factors are carefully chosen, since neither applies to the Islamic world, whose populations and governance are rooted in either history or necessity, and whose profound religiosity would seem to usurp any chance that radical Islam will ultimately prove as hollow a creed as communism. This lack of proper analysis and subsequent disconnection from detail and reality, lies at the heart of Fukuyama’s critique of neo-conservatism.

Although somewhat agnostic on the principle of pre-emptive American interventionism (stating only that it must be used more sparingly and more realistically), he is clear that the shapers of the Iraq policy made critical errors in its execution. Foremost among these errors was a neglecting of the importance of institutions in planning the occupation—of using them to shape burgeoning societies, and the massive difficulties of building nations where even nascent governmental institutions are thin on the ground. Much of these debates engaged the wider foreign policy community throughout the nineties, and Fukuyama points out that prominent neo-conservatives were largely absent from that debate. Instead, the pages of conservative rags such as the Daily Standard gravitated towards broad-brush foreign policy prescriptions for regime change in Serbia and Iraq, with scant regard for what would replace them. The essence of his critique is that no matter how idealistic the principles underlying neo-conservatism are, it was the abandonment of sound judgment in translating the principles in to policies that has eroded its credibility.

If there is an un-addressed contradiction stemming from these pages, it is this; while Fukuyama is, and perhaps always has been, more lukewarm about nation building than many of his ideological brethren, any advocacy for liberal democracy, whether though military or other means, has within it a certain requirement for social engineering. With conservatives like Fukuyama, it’s has never been clear how the circle enveloping much of this was squared; if government is, so profoundly lousy at maintaining and improving its own society, why should one have any faith in its ability to re-mould other people’s societies from scratch? It is perhaps an inevitable ideological knot in a world where the US no longer, in any real sense, has the option of isolationism, but it would have been nice to see it confronted.

Despite the emphasis on the schisms, contradictions and disagreements within neo-conservative ranks regarding the war, Fukuyama seems aware that ultimately the movement’s legacy will rest on the outcome of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at least in the short term, the prospects for those appear bleak. The latter part of the book takes it as read that those failures will come to be seen as complete, and that foreign policy realism will enjoy a new vogue. It is Fukuyama’s hope that future American foreign policy will steer away from Kissingerseque cynicism or the wannabe isolationism characteristic of much of both the right and left in the US. Instead, he favors a more or less de-militarised policy of pro-democratic engagement.

It is to this tentative prescription that he dedicates the latter chapters of his book, detailing the best ways, as he sees it to enhance the use of “soft-power” (structural funding, loans, support of pro-democratic interests etc), in order to influence the internal dynamic of states. He also proposes an increased role for multiple over-lapping, democratic transnational institutions (as opposed to the monolithic, largely undemocratic United Nations). It all amounts to a sort of real politik with a conscience. He dubs this curious admixture “realistic Wilsoniasm”, an epithet he seems to realize is unlikely to capture the imagination—the book’s introduction contains a sheepish invitation for anyone with a suggestion for a better name to get in touch.

America at the Crossroads is, among other things, a rather colorless read: Fukuyama’s prose often leaps right off the page and straight over the cliff. The book begins “During the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency the US was attacked on her soil own by the radical terrorist group Al-Quaeda.”, which, by any standards, just about sets a new bar for redundancy. By the same token, I’m not sure “realistic-Wilsonionism” either needs or deserves a better name. The creeping sense of opportunism that is latent throughout the book is perhaps best exemplified in these final sections: what it is presented as “realistic Wilsonionism” is not so much a prescription for action as it is a consolidation of likely possibilities. With the US military overstretched, further military interventions in the vain of Iraq virtually impossible, and the United Nations more discredited than ever, much of what emerges here seems to be simply gauging the way the wind is blowing.

None of this is to say that there is not a lot of good sense in what Fukuyama proposes, but these are measures primarily aimed at restoring US legitimacy, consensus and a sense of solidarity to the international order. Crucially, he offers very little of use when it comes to the great geo-political conundrums of our age. On Iraq, the Palestinians, North Korea, Iran and the broader question of radical Islam, the world faces a succession of bad and worse choices. And on the evidence of this book, one can only conclude that Fukuyama has been sufficiently burned by the last few years to err on the side of no choices.

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