American intellectuals and foreign policy wonks have been engaged in a spirited exchange of late, not for the first time prompted by one of their own: the intellectual and former foreign policy wonk Francis Fukuyama. In the dying days of the Cold War, Fukuyama wrote an illustrious essay in the neoconservative journal The National Interest, which he later turned into a book. He made the case that the defeat of communism signaled an ideological “end of history.” As he described it, this “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” saw “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Now Fukuyama is back, having published America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, an essay in which he no less illustriously, judging from the reaction, took to task American neoconservatives and the Bush administration for leading the country into a calamity in Iraq. Initially among friends when it came to the neocons, he used his essay to loudly broadcast his divorce. Like any messy separation, the results are bracing: Fukuyama’s newfound skepticism has provoked a no-less spirited response from critics, not all of them neocons.
Fukuyama proceeded dialectically: the neocon approach, embodied in the so-called Bush doctrine, outlined a policy of preemptive war to block looming threats to the United States from rogue states and terrorists; but it also held that the way to dry the terrorist “swamp” in the Middle East was to advance democracy there. For all intents and purposes, he wrote, this failed in Iraq. But Fukuyama also argued that a US withdrawal from global responsibility due to the Iraqi fiasco would be a “tragedy”, since “American power and influence have been critical to the maintenance of an open and increasingly democratic order around the world.”
What did Fukuyama propose as a synthesis of these two impulses – modesty imposed by the difficulties in Iraq, but also recognition of the beneficial uses of American power? Something he calls “realistic Wilsonianism”, by which he means the US must continue to support democracy and good governance around the world, but avoid imposing it. “Democracy promotion,” he writes, “must be a long-term and opportunistic process that has to await the gradual ripening of political and economic conditions to be effective.” And where should the US put its money? In government- or congressional-funded organizations such as the US Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the like, which have experience in the matter.
Fukuyama’s critique is worth considering, and his proposals include at least one good idea, namely that the US create flexible new institutions with international partners to confer legitimacy on collective action. However, his conclusion wilts hopelessly when recommending operating through USAID, NED, or the many nongovernmental organizations devoted to democratic issues. All of these institutions have mostly failed to enhance broad Middle Eastern democracy, and we have decades of disappointment with which to judge them.
The shape of the future Middle East will, unfortunately, not be determined by intellectual debates in the US. Given the situation in Iraq, the looming crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, a new Palestinian government that endorses suicide attacks as legitimate resistance, and more, there is little room for a sober, academic, discussion of free Arab minds and markets. But Fukuyama’s musings, because they are effectively directed at the administration from a critical sympathizer, in other words from within the same camp, are revealing in that they expose deep divisions in the American political-intellectual elite over how to spread democracy and capitalist culture in a region which has taken on vital interest.
The US stands at a crossroads. In a recent interview, the prominent Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya argued that he didn’t anticipate a return to deep-seated US support for Arab autocrats. In this sense, he echoed Fukuyama’s “realistic Wilsonianism.” But if stalemate persists in the Middle East, or if a broader conflict breaks out in the coming year, could the present and future administrations resist relying on those despots whom they are used to dealing with? Would they resist the familiar pull of traditional “realism”, with its respect for national sovereignty, and look the other way on random abuses of human rights?
Fukuyama is right in arguing that the US needs a new approach that highlights advancing freedom. But his preferred solution for the Middle East is fanciful, and would be as sterile as previous attempts to effect change. Without factoring in the use of force, somewhere, in advancing democracy, realistic Wilsonianism may end up being unrealistic claptrap.