Setting History's Course

By Jowitt, Ken | Policy Review, October-November 2009 | Go to article overview

Setting History's Course


Jowitt, Ken, Policy Review


THERE IS A wonderful concluding scene in the movie Trading Places, when the leading characters Louis and Billy Ray toast their crushing victory over the nasty Duke brothers. Stretched out on the beach, drink in hand, Billy Ray yells, "Looking good Louis." Louis stands in his yacht with a glass of champagne in one hand and Jamie Lee Curtis in the other and yells back, "Feeling good, Billy Ray." In 1991, the American foreign policy and academic communities were filled with Billy Rays and Louis's.

The response in the United States to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and more generally to the "Leninist Extinction"--the abrupt, accelerated, and comprehensive demise of Leninist regimes worldwide--was a growing and euphoric expectation and declaration that a global democratic capitalist revolution led by and modeled on the United States was imminent. (1) The same prophetic ideas and expectations had failed to materialize after World War I and World War II, however. Victory in World War I led President Woodrow Wilson to call for democratic self-determination in Eastern Europe and the creation of a League of Nations to prevent aggression. The United States failed to join the League, the League failed to prevent Italian, German, and Japanese aggression; and by the mid 1930s, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, all of Eastern Europe was led by monarchical or military dictators.

Nonetheless, anticipated victory in World War II led President Franklin Roosevelt to call for a United Nations where the Soviet Union and the United States would continue their wartime cooperation, prevent further instances of aggression, and oversee the democratic decolonization of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Only three years after that victory the Soviet Union created a set of geographically contiguous replica regimes in Eastern Europe, and the Cold War had begun. As for decolonization, it produced dictatorships not democracies, socialism not capitalism, from Ghana to Egypt to Indonesia.

Never mind. When the USSR collapsed, people thought, "Perhaps third time lucky." After all, the Soviet Union had been a much more substantial military, economic, and ideological challenge and threat to the West than Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. Furthermore, defeat of the major threat to liberal capitalist democracy was accompanied by a purported democratic tsunami, or at least a "third wave" of democratization, sweeping the world. If any further proof was necessary of liberalism and America's final and complete (to borrow a Stalinist phrase) victory in the world historical battle against communism, one had only to look at the mass transformation of Western socialist academics to postmodern film critics.

Francis Fukuyama, in his 1989 essay "The End of History?" offered the most radical and theoretically sophisticated interpretation of the West's unique victory. In his words, "the triumph of the West, of the Western Idea" was "evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism." He continued: "At the end of history it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society." Because in Fukuyama's mind liberalism has essentially, if not yet practically, let alone completely, solved the problems of war, poverty, equality, and scientific discovery; there is no room for new world historical competitors, only critics.

Fukuyama's philosophical argument was supplemented at a lower level of generalization by Thomas Friedman's apologia for globalization, the technological logos for liberalism's victory. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman saw globalization as the future, the global name and reality replacing the Cold War. According to Friedman, globalization was the world's "tiger"--an irresistible, benign, homogenizing force that would make nation-states relics. …

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