Why Liberalism Means Empire: Democracy Isn't the End of History, It's a Product of Power

By McCarthy, Daniel | The American Conservative, July-August 2014 | Go to article overview

Why Liberalism Means Empire: Democracy Isn't the End of History, It's a Product of Power


McCarthy, Daniel, The American Conservative


History ended on October 14, 1806. That was the day of the Battle of Jena, the turning point, as far as philosopher G.W.F. Hegel was concerned, in humanity's struggle for freedom. Once Napoleon triumphed over the reactionary forces of Prussia, the ideals that post-revolutionary France represented--not just liberte, egalite, and fraternite, but the modern state and its legal order--would serve as the model for Europe and world.

When Francis Fukuyama revisited this idea in "The End of History?"--with a question mark--in the pages of The National Interest a quarter century ago, he had to remind readers what Hegel had meant. Events would still happen, including big events like wars. What had ended was a sequence of political and cultural forms whose internal contradictions each gave rise to the next step in freedom's development: from the ancient world to medieval Christendom to, finally, what one 20th-century interpreter of Hegel called "the universal homogeneous state." Or as Fukuyama called it, "liberal democracy."

By 1989 it was obvious that Hegel had been right: the long series of rear-guard actions attempted by Europe's reactionary powers came to an end after World War I. Fascism and Soviet Communism thereafter proposed themselves as alternative endings to history--competing modernities--but neither could prevail against liberal democracy, whether on the battlefield or in the marketplace.

This was welcome news to America's foreign-policy elite. Fukuyama had not set out to justify a "unipolar moment" or America's world role as the "indispensable nation"--indeed, he thought boredom lay ahead for those unlucky enough to live beyond history's end--yet his essay could not help but add to the triumphalism of the time. The Cold War was over; henceforth, the American way of life would be everyone's way of life: inevitably, forever, from Moscow to Beijing to Baghdad.

"The victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas of consciousness," Fukuyama wrote, "and is as yet incomplete in the material world." America's mission would hence be to complete it, through international trade agreements, promotion of human rights, and of course war.

But what if Fukuyama was wrong and liberal democracy is not the end of the history after all? What if, on the contrary, the American way of life is an accident of history--one made possible only by a special kind of global security environment?

What in fact has triumphed over the last 250 years--not since the Battle of Jena in 1806 but since the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763--is not an idea but an institution: empire. Successive British and American empires created and upheld the world order in which liberalism could flourish. Fukuyama's "liberal democracy" turns out to be a synonym for "the attitudes and institutions of a world in which Anglo-American power is dominant."

Britain's Liberal Empire

Victory against France in the Seven Years' War confirmed not only British naval superiority--and thus the ability to project power more widely than any other nation in the late 18th or 19th centuries--but also the superior resilience of British financial and political institutions. Britain paid a steep price for the conflict, with the loss of 13 North American colonies that rebelled against the taxes king and parliament levied to pay for what colonists called the "French and Indian War" But while King George III lost America, the king of France lost his head. To get his country's finances in order after the Seven Years' War and the American Revolution, Louis XVI fatefully summoned the Estates-General in 1789, and thus was the French Revolution begun.

Seventeen years later, Hegel was not wrong to see in Napoleon's armies an unwitting force of progress. In 1806, the possibility was wide open for the 19th century to be the French century--or the German century, after defeat at Jena spurred Prussia to modernize and ultimately become the nucleus of a unified Germany. …

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