In immediate response to the Russia-Georgia war, it has been popular to say that we are witnessing the 'return' of history. This was the title of a post by Stanley Crossick, crossposted on the Atlantic Review. There have been many who have heralded the return of history, some even more or less directly after Francis Fukuyama wrote his seminal essay 'The End of History?'. Most recently, Bob Kagan has written a book called 'The Return of History and the End of Dreams', which stems from the essay 'End of Dreams, Return of History'.
Francis Fukuyama answers some of the critics in his Washington Post column 'They Can Only Go So Far'. One interesting point Fukuyama makes is that we can't paint all forms of autocracy with one brush, that there are important differences between various forms of authoritarianism. He also argues that none of the current forms have an idea:
The facile historical analogies to earlier eras have two problems: They presuppose a cartoonish view of international politics during these previous periods, and they imply that "authoritarian government" constitutes a clearly defined type of regime -- one that's aggressive abroad, abusive at home and inevitably dangerous to world order. In fact, today's authoritarian governments have little in common, save their lack of democratic institutions.
The thing to say about 'The End of History' is that people generally misunderstand it. Fukuyama himself says so, and Blake Hounshell nods in agreement on Foreig Policy's Passport blog. It's unclear to me whether the idea is misunderstood by the many who have debated it in writing. Bob Kagan certainly gets the point.
But Kagan disagrees with Fukuyama's contention that the dialectic of competing ideologies has ended, noting that autocracies have a mutual interest in propping each other up, as they are all threatened in their existence by liberalism:
The foreign policies of such states necessarily reflect the nature and interests of their governments. In the age of monarchy, foreign policy served the interests of the monarchy. In the age of religious conflict, it served the interests of the church. In the modern era, democracies have pursued foreign policies to make the world safe for democracy. And autocracies pursue foreign policies aimed at making the world safe, if not for all autocracies, at least for their own continued rule. Today the competition between them, along with the struggle of radical Islamists to make the world safe for their vision of Islamic theocracy, has become a defining feature of the international scene.
Kagan's point is backed up by empirical evidence, in the standoff in the UN Security Council over issues like Iran's nuclear programme, the conflict in Darfur, or Mugabe's dictatorship of Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, it can be asked to what extent authoritarian governments do and will continue to see liberalism as a direct existential threat, and halting its spread as an overriding priority in international affairs. And on the other side, it can also be questioned whether the west will continue to be eager to intervene in the domestic affairs of autocratic states. Fukuyama's argument that authoritarian governments are often different in important aspects points to further opportunities for exploiting disagreements that may exist between them.
Although Fukuyama holds on to his notion that there are no more ideological competitors to liberalism (at least until the emergence of post-humans), he does not think that the current international system will necessarily continue to trend towards order:
We should also not let the speculations about an authoritarian resurgence distract us from a critical issue that will truly shape the next era in world politics: whether gains in economic productivity will keep up with global demand for such basic commodities as oil, food and water. If they do not, we will enter a much more zero-sum, Malthusian world in which one country's gain will be another country's loss. A peaceful, democratic global order will be much more difficult to achieve under these circumstances: Growth will depend more on raw power and accidents of geography than on good institutions. And rising global inflation suggests that we have already moved a good way toward such a world.
It seems Shell's 'scramble' scenario has made its way to the foreign policy discourse.
There are plenty foreign policy thinkers who, like Tom Friedman, argue that natural resources are an important driving factor for autocracy. This would further increase a trend towards authoritarianism. However, the data on that idea is not very strong.
In some ways, the current discussion between Fukuyama and detractors like Kagan is a bit absurd, as it fully ignores any threats to the domestic liberal order that we have seen emerge in the past seven years. The United States, Europe and Japan are just assumed to be liberal democracies, and any violations of human rights or moves to curtail domestic freedom and increase surveillance are apparently unimportant in the larger scheme. This omission is unfortunate, as the relative shift towards illiberalism does have a very real effect on international politics. Russia and China are only able to successfully paint the 'west' as hypocritical because there is a core of truth to their argument.
And the success of their argument can be read in real ways, such as in the declining influence the EU has in the United nations, as a recent European Council of Foreign Relations report demonstrates. The countries of the EU have lost sway in the UN, the authors argue, partially "by a failure to address flaws in its reputation as a leader on human rights and multilateralism."
This leads to the somewhat obvious conclusion that any international defence of liberalism must also be domestic.
P.S. How big does the Russia-Georgia war look, a month and a half afterwards?
Related posts on the Atlantic Review: