I read Fukuyama’s The End of History when it first came out and remained totally unconvinced by his premise that “At the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy.” It struck me as simultaneously arrogant – since the “serious” part is in the beholder’s eye – and naive because the worst aspects of human nature will always find regimes where liberal democracy will be despised and dismissed. At the time my friends and I had lengthy and animated discussions on “the end of history”.
Unfortunately, the core assumptions of the post-Cold War years have proved mistaken. The absence of great power competition, it turns out, was a brief aberration. Over the course of the 1990s, that competition reemerged as rising powers entered or reentered the field. First China, then India, set off on unprecedented bursts of economic growth, accompanied by incremental but substantial increases in military capacity, both conventional and nuclear. By the beginning of the 21st century, Japan had begun a slow economic recovery and was moving toward a more active international role both diplomatically and militarily. Then came Russia, rebounding from economic calamity to steady growth built on the export of its huge reserves of oil and natural gas.
International order does not rest on ideas and institutions alone. It is shaped by configurations of power. The spread of democracy in the last two decades of the 20th century was not merely the unfolding of certain ineluctable processes of economic and political development. The global shift toward liberal democracy coincided with the historical shift in the balance of power toward those nations and peoples who favored the liberal democratic idea, a shift that began with the triumph of the democratic powers over fascism in World War II and that was followed by a second triumph of the democracies over communism in the Cold War. The liberal international order that emerged after these two victories reflected the new overwhelming global balance in favor of liberal forces. But those victories were not inevitable, and they need not be lasting. Today, the reemergence of the great autocratic powers, along with the reactionary forces of Islamic radicalism, has weakened that order and threatens to weaken it further in the years and decades to come.
Does the United States have the strength and ability to lead the democracies again in strengthening and advancing a liberal democratic international order?
Robert’s brother Frederick asks, What Is To Be Done?
In addition to the many good ideas for responding to Russia’s aggression that have been proposed elsewhere–expanding NATO, stalling WTO negotiations, kicking Russia out of the G-8–Washington should offer a revamped military assistance program to our NATO allies in Eastern Europe, as well as to Ukraine and Georgia. This program should aim to turn each of those states into a daunting porcupine capable of deterring the Russian bear. We should drop our resistance to the creation of large trained reserves in those countries alongside the small professional militaries we are already helping to create. And we should expand our military advisory presence so that we can help threatened states have the capability to respond to unforeseen Russian attack by denying Russian aircraft control of the skies and Russian tanks free entry into their territory.
All of these actions are defensive. We need not give Russia’s neighbors advanced tanks, strike aircraft, or long-range precision weapons. NATO should extend a guarantee to Georgia and Ukraine, but this program could help deter Russian aggression even without such a guarantee. The aims of this effort are very different from our Cold War strategy. We would not be trying to contain Russia in the expectation that it would ultimately collapse of its own contradictions. We would simply be trying to assist independent, sovereign states to protect themselves, and thereby helping persuade Russia to engage the world like any other responsible member of the international community, something that the Russians–in contrast to the Soviets–constantly claim that they are endeavoring to do.
In its own interest and in the interests of its allies, America must reject Vladimir Putin’s attempts to rewrite international law to suit Russia’s revanchist ambitions. We must reject the Russian fairy tale that aid to Russia’s neighbors is a threat to Russia. And we must reject the idea that helping Russia’s neighbors stand up to Moscow will create a new Cold War that appeasement would somehow avoid.
Because, no matter what Francis Fukuyama believes, history never goes away.