The America of Tomorrow

Written by Corey Spaley  •  September 2008 PDF Print E-mail

While the Bush Doctrine of unilateral intervention has been discredited in front of a global audience, the central foreign policy questions of a post-Iraq era have yet to be fully considered by the international community.  What are the limits to sovereignty (if any)?  When can a country legitimately use military force and what role is there for international institutions?  America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, attempts to answer some of these questions in an era when a once dominant American power seems to be receding.

Part examination of the neoconservative movement (of which the Fukuyama once considered himself a member) and part foreign policy proposal, the book is a critique of American power from a thinker comfortable with the moral exercise of military power.  And while many recent books claiming to examine Bush Administration policies (or neoconservatism) also argue for the modest goal of restoring America’s international standing, Fukuyama’s book stands apart in arguing for a new internationalism and new institutions to bolster global democracy.

Fukuyama is probably best known for his book The End of History and the Last Man, a work of political theory that sees free-market liberal democracies as the last stage in history’s clash of ideologies.  It’s this “big idea” historical perspective (which Fukayama excels at) that provides the book’s greatest service: an examination of neoconservative thought.  Fukuyama separates the word from various popular conceptions which use the term as everything from a catch-all for “Bush administration policy” to a derogatory word for military force.

Fukuyama chronicles neoconservatism’s beginnings with thinkers like Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell in the pages of The Public Interest and The National Interest in the mid 1960s, later morphing into the democracy-promoting interventionism of William Kristol (Irving’s son) and Robert Kagan during the mid 90s in the pages of The Weekly Standard.  Connecting these strains is the idea, among others, of “regime type”—be it liberal democracy or authoritarian dictatorship—as central to understanding the international order. For neoconservatives, encouraging global democracy is essential since liberal democratic regimes represent a uniquely moral order that offers a lasting stability, unlike the temporary order of dictatorships.

For neoconservatives of the Regan era (which included Fukuyama), this meant strong international democracy promotion (or at least anti-communism) and bright-line moral rhetoric, as when Regan declared the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” But with the Soviet Union’s disintegration in the early 1990s, younger neoconservative thinkers began see America’s role as more than just a bulwark of global democracy.

That role was a kind of “benevolent hegemony” of the international order.  If the UN and other international institutions were insufficient for keeping order and preventing conflicts between states (as it was in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 90s) then America, with its political will and military dominance, could—and should—provide that order.  In a post September 11th America, however,  neoconservatives like Robert Kagan, Bill Kristol, and Charles Krauthammer came to believe that benevolent hegemony would mean more than managing conflicts and intervening where other countries feared to tread.  It meant committing to preventive war.

This is where Fukuyama and other neoconservatives parted company.  It’s also where he shows the most insight into the limitations of neoconservatism specifically and militarism in general. Fukuyama argues that the concept of “preventive war” as a doctrine is fraught with limitations of both information and effectiveness. Though theorists and politicians can analyze and explain the past with surpassing accuracy (though perhaps not always consensus) we should have grave doubts about the future.

Importantly, Fukuyama argues that America’s predictive powers aren’t merely limited by its intelligence gathering capabilities; a bigger CIA budget or a new cabinet post won’t allow the U.S. to look any more clearly into its foreign policy crystal ball.  The more one knows about a particular country’s actions and internal dealings, the more information one has to interpret.  Predicating a doctrine of intervention on an ability to peer behind the veil of different regimes is a risky proposition, and nation building is a task that the American military is ill-equipped to deal with, especially without help from other countries.

It is this last aspect which Fukuyama sees as most crucial to a future American foreign policy and of a piece with the earlier form of neoconservatism of Irving Kristol and The Public Interest. The neoconservatives of the 1960s were deeply skeptical of what they considered “social engineering” projects like Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs. They argued that the problems of poverty and crime couldn’t be changed with top down welfare programs, however well intentioned, because such programs didn’t change the learned behaviors of citizens.  Government programs attacked the symptoms of the problem (or often, exaggerated them) not the causes.

Similarly, regimes can be changed, but the fundamental character of a country and its people cannot be altered simply though military force and holding elections; true “nation building” is a slower process, one that America ultimately lacks the political will and competency to accomplish, at least on its own.  It’s here that Fukuyama finds common ground with liberal internationalists, arguing for greater participation in international intuitions, though not necessarily existing ones like the UN.

As the Bush administration draws to a close, one of the primary questions for the 21st century is how America sees itself in the international community. Liberals and conservatives must answer what the limits to America power are (if any) and how it— or others will—restrain itself.  Fukuyama’s answer is through multilateral frameworks that not only convey legitimacy but are also powerful enough to be effective.  What this multilateral organization will look like depends on the choices of the next American president and the leaders of emerging powers like China and India.

But for the near future, Fukuyama’s observation that “American power remains critical to the world order” is less hubris than a pragmatic understanding that America has a central role to play in that order.   Not as benevolent hegemon imposing its whim but as a great power that, like it or not, needs the international community as much as it needs America.

Author: Francis Fukuyama
Publisher: Yale University Press (February 2006)
Pages: 240 pages, Hardcover
Price: $28.00
ISBN-10: 0300113994
ISBN-13: 978-0300113990
Other Editions: Paperback

Corey Spaley is a graduate student at George Mason University and lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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