Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Let's Be Frank, Part I

The Ineluctable Rightness of Being

Francis Fukuyama's recent article in the New York Times Magazine has set off a flurry of activity and chatter in the blogosphere and the punditry more generally speaking. Two blog-based essays in particular delved into the underlying philosophical shift undertaken by Fukuyama in his latest attempt to clarify his position vis a vis other neoconservatives. Publius at Legal Fiction provides an interesting philosophical backdrop to the perhaps not-so-subtle rearranging of hats that Fukuyama attempts in order to refine his thesis on the inevitability of democracy as an irresistible force of history. First, Fukuyama in his own words [emphasis mine throughout]:

Many people have also interpreted my book "The End of History and the Last Man" (1992) as a neoconservative tract, one that argued in favor of the view that there is a universal hunger for liberty in all people that will inevitably lead them to liberal democracy, and that we are living in the midst of an accelerating, transnational movement in favor of that liberal democracy. This is a misreading of the argument. "The End of History" is in the end an argument about modernization. What is initially universal is not the desire for liberal democracy but rather the desire to live in a modern — that is, technologically advanced and prosperous — society, which, if satisfied, tends to drive demands for political participation. Liberal democracy is one of the byproducts of this modernization process, something that becomes a universal aspiration only in the course of historical time.

"The End of History," in other words, presented a kind of Marxist argument for the existence of a long-term process of social evolution, but one that terminates in liberal democracy rather than communism. In the formulation of the scholar Ken Jowitt, the neoconservative position articulated by people like Kristol and Kagan was, by contrast, Leninist; they believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will. Leninism was a tragedy in its Bolshevik version, and it has returned as farce when practiced by the United States. Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.
As Publius noted, this new - or revealed - Fukuyama is more of a materialist: arguing in favor of economic/societal conditions rather than the latent desire for an abstract ideal as the means to bring about the transition to liberal democracy. It is modernization, with its ability to spread wealth and power - not the universally human and omnipresent appeal of the ideal of "democracy" - that spurs change. Publius extends the analogy:

The gist of [the idealism vs. materialism distinction] is that idealists think that ideas can move and shape history, whereas materialists tend to see ideas as the byproduct (or superstructure) of material forces such as economic relationships and power imbalances.

Iraq provides an excellent example of how these schools of thought work. Because materialists see democracy as the byproduct of (relatively) evenly balanced and widespread wealth, the materialist would stress economic reforms as a necessary precondition of democracy promotion. The idealist, however, believes that introducing the idea of democracy is enough – or more specifically, that introducing the idea can produce the economic wealth. The actual invasion of Iraq (and the greater neocon vision for the Middle East) depends entirely on idealism in that it bets the house on imposing Western ideas top-down rather than helping them develop from the bottom-up.

Personally, I think the materialists have the better argument because I think most things can be explained by underlying economic arrangements. For instance, I think economics explains why the American Revolution worked and the French Revolution didn't. In many ways, the American Revolution wasn't a revolution at all, but a defense of the status quo. The colonies rebelled when Britain tried to reassert top-down control and alter existing economic relationships that were favorable and (slavery excluded) relatively egalitarian. The French Revolution, by contrast, was a revolt of the property-less masses. Because money is power, the masses never really had any real power even after the revolution. And so it was inevitable that a tyrant would replace a tyrant – the underlying economic balance simply wasn't there to sustain true democratic reform (see also evolution from czar-to-Bolshevik).
Along similar - though separate - lines, Michael Signer at Democracy Arsenal examines Fukuyama's claims regarding the overarching principles permeating certain neoconservative circles. These beliefs relate to the premise that democracy is "ineluctable" and eternally poised on the verge of fruition should certain oppressive and democracy-thwarting forces be removed from a nation - even by force. Interestingly, many neoconservatives developed ideas related to this democracy in waiting theory based on their observations of change in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War. From Fukuyama:

The way the cold war ended shaped the thinking of supporters of the Iraq war, including younger neoconservatives like William Kristol and Robert Kagan, in two ways. First, it seems to have created an expectation that all totalitarian regimes were hollow at the core and would crumble with a small push from outside. The model for this was Romania under the Ceausescus: once the wicked witch was dead, the munchkins would rise up and start singing joyously about their liberation. As Kristol and Kagan put it in their 2000 book "Present Dangers": "To many the idea of America using its power to promote changes of regime in nations ruled by dictators rings of utopianism. But in fact, it is eminently realistic. There is something perverse in declaring the impossibility of promoting democratic change abroad in light of the record of the past three decades."
But what Kristol and Kagan ignore are important, if not integral, parts of the equation: rather than invade Eastern Europe, change evolved from within. Further, assuming that change could have occurred in these countries through invasion, there are myriad societal, cultural and historical factors that would make some regions/nations more or less amenable to the presence of outsider forces (American at that) and more or less capable of managing the upheaval of the massive re-ordering of social order attendant to democratic change. Taking limited evidence of domestic, relatively peaceful change in European nations and extending the conclusions to broad based sweeping generalizations about universality even when different means are adopted and cultures targeted is dangerous thinking. Again Fukuyama:

This overoptimism about postwar transitions to democracy helps explain the Bush administration's incomprehensible failure to plan adequately for the insurgency that subsequently emerged in Iraq. The war's supporters seemed to think that democracy was a kind of default condition to which societies reverted once the heavy lifting of coercive regime change occurred, rather than a long-term process of institution-building and reform. While they now assert that they knew all along that the democratic transformation of Iraq would be long and hard, they were clearly taken by surprise. . . . Democracy promotion is therefore a long-term and opportunistic process that has to await the gradual ripening of political and economic conditions to be effective.
As Signer observes, this view of the genesis of democracy and its interaction with underlying social, political and economic conditions should have serious implications in terms of choosing the means to encourage democratic change. If one appreciates the difficulty of establishing democracies, it becomes apparent that the use of force to provide top-down impetus for this type of transformation is an extremely risky proposition at best - even in friendly settings. Attempting to create those "ripe" conditions ex nihilo as an occupying power is, under even ideal circumstances, a prohibitively difficult task. But if one does not fully appreciate the complexities involved, and one does not acknowledge the unique challenges that a region like Iraq would present, as Fukuyama claims of certain players in the Bush administration, it greatly lessens those already long-shot odds for a positive outcome. Unfortunately, with respect to Iraq, key policymakers ignored, or worse yet, silenced those that recognized potential problems and touted the need for a comprehensive and far reaching nation-building apparatus post-invasion. From Signer:

Fukuyama goes to great pains in his piece to conceptualize why the Administration failed to anticipate the post-invasion insurgency. His key finding is that neocons twisted their own belief in the moral ineluctability of liberal democracy into a more forcible, will-based imperative.

As Fukuyama notes, these two contradictory principles (force vs. ineluctability) married badly in the Iraq invasion. He says we went in on the premise of preemptive war (force), but failed to plan the post-war phase because of our naive optimism in liberal democracy's power (ineluctability).
From Fukuyama:

The problem with neoconservatism's agenda lies not in its ends, which are as American as apple pie, but rather in the overmilitarized means by which it has sought to accomplish them. What American foreign policy needs is not a return to a narrow and cynical realism, but rather the formulation of a "realistic Wilsonianism" that better matches means to ends.
As I have argued at every turn, the recognition of the limitations of the effectiveness of the imposition of democracy through invasion, together with the comprehension of the intricate network of prerequisites needed to succeed and the appreciation of the costs involved (financial, military, logistical, diplomatic, hearts and minds, etc.), combine to make this overall strategy a means of dubious value in the war on terror. Put simply: this is high risk, low reward and, as Fukuyama would argue, based on a fundamental mis-reading of the nature of the power and universal appeal of the ideal of democracy as it applies across all settings, cultures, time periods and contexts. But I think we can extend the lessons of Fukuyama's analysis in another related direction. First, an observation regarding the pillars of neoconservative thought from Fukuyama [my emphasis]:

The Bush administration's first-term foreign policy did not flow ineluctably from the views of earlier generations of people who considered themselves neoconservatives, since those views were themselves complex and subject to differing interpretations. Four common principles or threads ran through much of this thought up through the end of the cold war: a concern with democracy, human rights and, more generally, the internal politics of states; a belief that American power can be used for moral purposes; a skepticism about the ability of international law and institutions to solve serious security problems; and finally, a view that ambitious social engineering often leads to unexpected consequences and thereby undermines its own ends.

The problem was that two of these principles were in potential collision. The skeptical stance toward ambitious social engineering — which in earlier years had been applied mostly to domestic policies like affirmative action, busing and welfare — suggested a cautious approach toward remaking the world and an awareness that ambitious initiatives always have unanticipated consequences. The belief in the potential moral uses of American power, on the other hand, implied that American activism could reshape the structure of global politics. By the time of the Iraq war, the belief in the transformational uses of power had prevailed over the doubts about social engineering.
Coupled with an admonition from Signer:

The premise of ineluctability -- of either the Hegelian or Kantian brands -- should alarm us wherever we see it, especially when the idea of ineluctability is seized by political opportunists, those who are interested in power for its own sake.
I would argue that while the theory-in-practice concerning the "ineluctable" nature of democracy has been discredited thoroughly in Iraq and elsewhere, there is another "alarming" ineluctable still out there that is largely treated as conventional wisdom - despite its rather audacious and unfounded claims. This is the article of faith that democracy will necessarily curb (if not eradicate) terrorism. Despite Fukuyama's warning about the propensity for "unexpected consequences" to result from outside interference based on grandiose visions, and Signer's cautionary words concerning various politically expedient inevitability doctrines, far too many well intentioned and erudite thinkers have adopted this particular "ineluctable" as an irrefutable premise upon which to base our actions.

In Part II, I will attempt to look a little closer - as I have in the past - at the "ineluctable" truth that spreading democracy to undemocratic regions is a solution to our terrorism related problems. We should be considering now whether this second inevitability doctrine will have the same confrontation with reality as the first, and if so, where we should place democracy promotion on the hierarchy of priorities with respect to the war on terror.

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