Issue 3, 2006 | Michael L Ondaatje

Francis Fukuyama's After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads

On 10 February 2004 neoconservative commentator Charles Krauthammer rose to deliver the annual Irving Kristol lecture to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington DC. The paper, entitled ‘Democratic Realism: An American Foreign Policy for a Unipolar World’, forcefully endorsed the Bush Administration’s contentious post-9/11 strategies of unilateralism and pre-emption, and recommended they be encapsulated in a clearly defined doctrine of national security. ‘We will support democracy everywhere’, Krauthammer argued self-assuredly, ‘but we will commit blood and treasure only in places where there is a strategic necessity – meaning, places central to the larger war against the existential enemy, the enemy that poses a global mortal threat to freedom’. Given the backdrop of conflict against which these words were spoken, there could be no doubt that one of the places Krauthammer had in mind was Iraq and that the ‘existential enemy’ was Arab-Islamic totalitarianism. The year-long military campaign in Iraq had been a resounding success, Krauthammer insisted: Saddam was gone and all dictators of the world would now think twice about acquiring a nuclear arsenal. What is more, freedom and democracy were now more than empty slogans: American intervention had made them realistic possibilities in the former Baathist stronghold. The AEI’s largely neoconservative audience reportedly liked what they heard. Upon hearing the good news, everyone present stood as one – triumphant – and wildly applauded ‘their man’.

Well, almost everyone. That Krauthammer’s address was received so favourably that night troubled at least one of the guests in attendance, the high-profile American philosopher and political economist Francis Fukuyama. In an earlier life, of course, Fukuyama had written The End of History and the Last Man, arguing controversially that the disintegration of communism demonstrated not just the desirability of liberal democratic capitalism, but ‘the end point of mankind’s evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’. Although there was much to debate in this essentially Hegelian interpretation of human affairs, a genuine debate was never really had. Fukuyama’s right-wing supporters were simply too busy celebrating their ‘victory’ over the ‘evil empire’, and everything else, to be interested in discussing such trivial a thing as history, while his detractors were more likely to misrepresent his argument and then to attack their own misrepresentations than sincerely engage him. But these are arguments for another time. The idea of the ‘end of history’, though not necessarily original, was sufficiently dramatic to capture the public imagination and propel Fukuyama from the Rand Corporation and State Department into the role of pre-eminent neoconservative ‘public intellectual’. A former student of Allan Bloom’s and a friend to Paul Wolfowitz and Irving and William Kristol, the neoconservative badge is one that he has worn proudly – that is, until recently. But now, according to Fukuyama, another eschatological moment is upon us – ‘the end of the neocons’. Indeed, this audacious assertion forms the basis of his latest book After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads. What exactly is going on here? With neoconservatism seemingly so ascendant, how does one make – and then sustain – such a remarkable allegation?

In After the Neocons Fukuyama makes his case by presenting neoconservatism as a ‘revolution betrayed’ – let down by the tactics employed and championed as part of what he sees as the increasingly dispiriting ‘war on terror’. At the most fundamental level, then, the book is an extensive critique of the Bush Administration’s bitterly divisive approach to foreign policy, as promoted by Krauthammer, in the aftermath of 9/11. In response to ‘the single most destructive terrorist act in history’, Fukuyama argues, the President and his friends saw a golden opportunity to remake the world in line with American interests and took four crucial decisions to this end. First, the Administration created the Department of Homeland Security and introduced the controversial Patriot Act. It then invaded Afghanistan and, to the relief of many, toppled the al-Qa’ida-supporting Taliban. These were understandable and indeed perfectly legitimate responses to the terror threat, Fukuyama insists; not surprisingly, they enjoyed bipartisan support and met with the approval of the ‘overwhelming majority’ of the American people. Then, however, the Administration erred. It declared a new strategy of pre-emptive action1 and – surprise, surprise – followed this up with the decision to invade and occupy Iraq. Saddam’s regime, we were told, had acquired weapons of mass destruction with the ambition of inflicting further pain on the United States. These latter developments, according to Fukuyama, were far more problematic. Not only did the Bush Administration fail to anticipate the extent to which the rest of the world would turn against the United States over Iraq; it did not make adequate plans for reconstruction and economic development once the military campaign was complete. ‘By invading Iraq’, Fukuyama writes,

…the Bush Administration created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, training ground, and operational base for jihadist terrorists, with plenty of American targets to shoot at…Before the Iraq War we were probably at war with no more than a few thousand people around the world who would consider martyring themselves and causing nihilistic damage to the United States. The scale of the problem has grown because we have unleashed a maelstrom.

While this dim view of American adventurism in Iraq hardly makes Fukuyama unique (indeed, as one fellow reviewer has noted: ‘even Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America puppets know Freedom Isn’t Free’), his measured articulation of this position does serve to distinguish him from less credible figures like Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky. And After the Neocons is more than simply an indictment of the Iraq War. It is also a rejection of neoconservatism or, more accurately, a rejection of what neoconservatism, in Fukuyama’s view, has come to mean.

It is Fukuyama’s contention that neoconservatives such as Krauthammer have, in their support of the Iraq war, strayed radically and dangerously from the precepts of their own beliefs. But what are – or were – these beliefs and precisely how far have Fukuyama’s former friends strayed from them? In an endeavour to answer these questions, he takes his readers on a trip down memory lane. Tracing the roots of neoconservatism to the New York Trotskyist intellectuals of the 1940s, Fukuyama explains how their anti-Stalinism evolved in the ‘50s into a hard-line anti-communism and then, in the ‘60s, fused with conservative resistance to New Left ‘social engineering’. Gradually, he continues, neoconservatives generated a ‘coherent set of ideas, arguments and conclusions from experience’ – ideas, arguments and conclusions that came, famously, to define American foreign policy in the last two decades of the 20th century.2 There are, of course, many layers to this story. But Fukuyama, donning his political economist’s hat, is content to reduce neoconservative doctrine to four neat and tidy principles: (a) the belief that the internal character of regimes matter; (b) confidence that American power can be used to spread good in the world; (c) distrust of ambitious social engineering projects; and (d) scepticism about the effectiveness of international law and institutions to achieve either security or justice. Given that liberal democracies are more inclined to ‘respect the basic human rights of their citizens’ and are ‘less externally aggressive than dictatorships’, was it not good and just to ‘reach inside states’ and ‘shape their basic institutions’ towards liberalism and democracy, neoconservatives asked? Traditionally, Fukuyama argues, ‘the faithful’ answered ‘yes’ to this question; but ‘yes’ in a qualified sense, ‘yes’ always with a mature sense of the limitations to what the United States could realistically achieve.

Unfortunately the neoconservatism that had once been an effective counter to dreamy liberal idealism and the amorality of Henry Kissinger-style realism descended after 9/11, Fukuyama argues, into little more than a morally belligerent, militaristic posture for American global supremacy. The recognition that military power had the potential to influence international affairs morphed into the conviction that only military power could address serious problems in this sphere. Historical suspicion of the UN and other international bodies developed into outright hostility towards any nation that did not fall automatically in line with the US. In Fukuyama’s view, neoconservatives properly attuned to the dangers of social engineering, ‘should have induced caution in expectations for the kind of political transformation that would be possible in the Middle East’. But Messrs Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld did nothing of the kind. Attached inexorably to the notion of absolute American sovereignty, these leaders sought dominion over the Middle East with little concern for the feasibility of such a project and with no apparent consideration of its implications for America’s place in the world. ‘Although political reform in the Arab world is desirable,’ according to Fukuyama, ‘the US has virtually no credibility or moral authority in the region’ and should have pursued an altogether different course.

From the rubble of neoconservatism, then, Fukuyama seeks to salvage its original meaning by proposing a new framework for international engagement – ‘realistic Wilsonianism’. Under this nomenclature, he suggests that the United States should retain a principled ‘Wilsonian’ commitment to the promotion of liberal democracy abroad, but through ‘realistic’ multilateral co-operation and engagement rather than self-defeating exertions of military force. What is more, he argues that if fostering good governance and political accountability in the Middle East and elsewhere is a genuine American goal, then strategists must reconsider the nation’s attitude to development – the historical ‘stepchild’ of US foreign policy – and share more of its wealth. The United States, Fukuyama writes, ‘cannot avoid provoking fear and resentment given its de facto power any more than Bismark’s Germany could, but it can try to minimize the backlash by deliberately seeking ways to downplay its dominance’. A firm believer, then, in the potentially positive influence of American power despite his critique of the Bush Administration’s failings, Fukuyama’s overall position on US foreign policy might be summarised thus: ‘Let us continue to try to influence the world, but let us, in the future, be more sensible about how we do it’.

Fukuyama’s analysis evidences the ideological chasm that now divides him from his former neoconservative friends. Why, one might ask, in view of his new impassioned support for multilateralism, did he ever identify with neoconservatism in the first place? It is undoubtedly a legitimate undertaking to highlight the spirit of liberal internationalism to which neoconservatives have traditionally subscribed. But how does Fukuyama then neglect that other central component of neoconservative doctrine – imperial ambition and pride? Arguably it was imperial nationalism that forged the alliance between neoconservative idealists and the disciples of brute force who dominate the Bush Administration. But while it may serve their rhetoric from time to time, the Cheneys and Rumsfelds have never really taken seriously the lofty ideal of democracy exported to far away places. Perhaps, in the end, Fukuyama’s thesis on the relationship between the ‘betrayal’ of neoconservatism and the Iraq venture would have been more convincing had he himself not originally backed the invasion. It is easy to forget that after September 11 Fukuyama co-signed a public letter to the President calling for the removal of Saddam Hussein from power ‘even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack’. To now turn around and reprimand the Administration for taking his advice seems just a tad rich.

But when the evidence defeats their original position, intellectuals should be congratulated, not censured, for having the courage to change their minds. As Fukuyama himself explains, ‘I changed my mind as part of a necessary adjustment to reality’. ‘As it turned out’, he says, the United States ‘overestimated the threat from Iraq specifically, and from nuclear terrorism more generally’. The unmitigated disaster that is the Iraq War – no Weapons of Mass Destruction, tens of thousands of innocent dead, the failure to win the peace and escalating terrorist activity – is a reality that the Bush Administration and its supporters, like Krauthammer, have steadfastly refused to confront. While some elements of the left portray the war as a deliberate criminal conspiracy, and the right attacks the patriotic credentials of anyone who dares question it, Fukuyama simply subverts this dichotomy, putting the invasion down to a tragic policy mistake. The simplicity of his analysis, albeit convenient to his ends, belies Fukuyama’s overriding preoccupation with American strategic interests, a preoccupation which in some 200 pages precludes all but cursory acknowledgment of the awesome human toll wrought by this ‘mistake’.

What, then, does Fukuyama contribute to the growing body of literature on the neoconservative phenomenon and the struggle against terrorism? Some might charge that Fukuyama’s conclusions are at times so self-evident as to be valueless. He tells us, for example, that the collapse of a dictatorship does not necessarily lead to democracy and that not all Muslims are extremists. He tells us also that most of the world does not believe in US benevolence: post-Iraq, European allies will not be easily regained and the Middle East will remain hostile. Nonetheless, Fukuyama’s After the Neocons systematically dismantles the contents of the Bush Doctrine in a worthy endeavour to redefine US foreign policy and move America in the world and America and the world beyond the troubles of the past few years. While news of the death of Krauthammer may have been exaggerated, we will no doubt hear more about Fukuyama’s ‘realistic Wilsonianism’ in the future.

  1. Fukuyama, however, is reluctant to dismiss this doctrine altogether. He writes: ‘there are certain historical instances in which preventative war might retrospectively have saved the world a great deal of misery. The classic case cited by many was Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936’.
  2. This is a history already well documented but Fukuyama puts his own interesting spin on it, downplaying, for instance, the influence of political theorist Leo Strauss, who is seen elsewhere as a key figure for the neocons.