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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:

The Return of History
Is Russia a Superpower? Cold War II?


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Andrew Zvirzdin on :

I think the evidence supporting Friedman's "petropolitics" is stronger than Haber and Manaldo let on. And for a number of reasons, I disagree with their methodology and question their assertion that all other studies are biased. It should be emphasized too that the relationship between oil and authoritarian regimes appears to be closer than with other natural resources. Because oil is such a strategic asset, there is a political benefit of this asset in international diplomacy. And on this point, Fukayama is right. Petroregimes do act differently than authoritarian regimes of the past. We are seeing a changing international system, but one that revolves more on economic issues rather than simple hard power. Oil is a big gun in today's world.

Don S on :

Areed. I think petroleum is so highly correlated with repression because of all natural resources it seems to be the most productive of revenue with the least need for the local labor force to be propitiated. In fact since petroleum is such easy money it tends to repress other forces in the society which tend to force liberalisation. That can be one effect of the 'Dutch Disease' that Freidman mentions. If you have oil it raises the value of your currency and therefore supresses the creation of industrial jobs and therefore labor unions are weakened or surpressed. It also makes it less important that knowledge workers be educated. Historically knowledge workers often are the engines of increased liberalism within country. The blessing of oil is also a curse, because a country can become dependent on it. Also the social and economic forces that result from petroleum riches can inhibit the growht of other sources of national wealth. And when oil prices fall there are no other sources of national wealth to fall back upon.

Joe Noory on :

Bull. Repression can be corellated with a lot of things, but not being in possession of a valuable resource. The plupart of repressive regimes have been the ones with the least resources. It's a present-day fixation on oil that makes people say this, and it's only use appears to be like that of a Rohrchach test. Were oil itself some sort of specific feature, the US, UK, and Norway would have to be counted among them. It's more likely that we're making specific note of oil in failed societies, because the people living in them will fight over any resource that's there - i.e. diamonds.

Don S on :

Hmmmm, That's partly true. But posession of petroleum does seem to correlate with repressive regimes becoming more oppressive and more active in their foreign policy vis their neighbors, no?

Don S on :

ANpther thing, Joe. Look at one of your data points, Bolivia. Bolivia has no oil but it does have the Chavezian nut in charge right now. You might call it a data point against Freidman's theory. I might argue it's a point for the thoery - given that the guy's rise was in part financed by Venezuelan oil money.... You say tomato & I say tomatoe....

Pat Patterson on :

But Bolivia's essentially identical exports are soybeans and natural gas. Though many, including the FBI, have argued that coca production is the largest export and employer in the country. It may not necessarily be oil but there does seem to be a connection between being a commodity nation, or rather one product, and being a value added nation.

Don S on :

Pat, you sure that you didn't mean Bolivia imports soybeans and exports natural gas? Well, I probably know a lot less than you do about Bolivia than you do. It would be hard to know less than I do about Bolivia, except that it has a history of poverty and repression, exports some mean pipers to Europe at holidayt time, and was the place where Che Guevara saw a great opportunity to start a guerilla war, a notion which he may have regretted for a short time before the generalissimo's caught him and sent him to join that great Revolution in the Sky.

Pat Patterson on :

Yeah, that is odd considering that Bolivia does import soybeans as well but that's not surprising when they can get a better price outside their borders than their own market can allow. Part of the problem is the terrain which allows for marginal subsistence farming which fails to attend to local food needs and the latifundias of the lowlands which are almost explicity aimed at exporting. But on a dollar basis they export more soybeans than natural gas. Bolivia is known in South America uncharitably as the donkey sitting on a gold mine! The larger landowners have only an interest in protecting their interests and have absolutely no incentive to add value to their products. And the poor and marginalized have no stake as they own no property. And like dozens of other commodity despotisms they struggle over a few profitable resources and use undemocratic means to either control or take that control for another group. Unfortunately unlike Saudi Arabia, Russia or Venezuela which make some attempts, the Saudis more than the other two, at seeing to the well-being of their citizens, Bolivia simply has only enough wealth to keep the local kleptocrats busy.

John in Michigan, USA on :

"you sure that you didn't mean Bolivia imports soybeans and exports natural gas?" Is that a joke? It stinks!

Don S on :

I couldn't possibly comment, John.....

Daniel Fitzgerald on :

"In the modern era, democracies have pursued foreign policies to make the world safe for democracy." Someone has been drinking the Bushite kool-aid if this is in reference to the United States over the last 7 years.

Joe Noory on :

Where is that true? The "great democracies" run by Saddam Hussein and the Taliban were somehow degraded? NAME ONE nation whose democracy has been lost as a result of 'Bushite' policy. Well, I know where your reflexes will take you, but our current election cycle may be an indicator, even to you, that the US is still a democratic republic.

John in Michigan, USA on :

"(at least until the emergence of post-humans)" So, Nanne, are you by any chance a science fiction fan? Me too. Do you have any particular post-human scenario in mind?

Nanne on :

I have to confess that I am a superficial science fiction fan. The only SF I've [i]read[/i] being Arthur C. Clarke -- and I liked his essays better. I do like the movies and have to confess to loving Battlestar Galactica. In this case, I'm just channeling Fukuyama's own arguments - he wrote [url=]a book[/url] on how biotechnological advances could come to threaten the liberal order. As any good liberal transhumanist behoves, I favour the cyborg option and am opposed to genetic enhancement...

John in Michigan, USA on :

I, in turn, must now confess, I am a superficial Francis Fukuyama fan. And maybe fan is too strong a word. I had no idea he was interested in post-human ideas, perhaps I will have to give him another look. My fear is that it will make him seem even more pretentious than I already think him to be. It is interesting that liberals find the idea of a cyber-human less threatening than a genetically-modified human. If either of these technologies become sufficiently advanced to qualify as post-human, they will both present the same kind of potential danger. Do you "infect" yourself with artificial DNA, or do you "infect" yourself with little nano-robots? In science fiction, very few people worry about DNA molecules becoming self-aware and taking over. Whereas, everybody knows that nano-bots instantly network themselves and achieve "swarm intelligence", even when they're not designed for it. It is a constant concern.

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