I spent the 1990s as a young seargent in the Air Force. A reflective type even back then, I had the rare experience of knowing my place in the world: I was a speck riding the crest of American power at high tide.
One never knows in real life when a thing has reached its peak, because one hasn’t got to the downside of it yet (Kierkegaard: We only understand life in retrospect.) But I had lived through two epochal dramas that told me clearly the United States stood alone at the top of the international order.
First, as a young Airman in the first Gulf war, I witnessed the overawing display of high tech firepower that announced to the world that we had no military peer. Second, from my perch in Germany from 1991 to 1995, I viewed the death of totalitarianism in eastern Europe and the political reunification of the continent that followed the Iron Curtain’s demise with miraculous speed.
By the late 1990s, I was wondering how good it could get for U.S. power. The thing was, we dominated in both the conflicts I witnessed–militarily in the Gulf and politically in Europe–
because we had History on our side, and it seemed inevitable that things would keep going our way. Fukuyama had told us in The End of History And the Last Man that no nation that achieved liberal democracy would willingly turn around. Once on our side, an ally would never go back. Fukuyama also hinted that our talent for economic innovation guaranteed a leading place in the world’s arms race. War was a bad thing, but we would always be the best at it.
The demise of these myths is too well raked over to review here. If I have time later I would like to defend Fukuyama to the extent that he was widely misinterpreted rather than substantively wrong. His basic arguments for the preeminence of liberal democracy and free market economic development remain sound. What we have learned since the 1990s–and this is to riot in understatement, as Gore Vidal was fond of saying–is that the Fukyaman principles were never meant for military export. One cannot simply conquer a foreign country and expect it to join the train of Fukuyaman History. But more of that later, inshallah.
Today’s lesson is in hubris, particularly the hubris of the Neocon attitude awoken by Fukuyama’s idea. The feeling of it came rushing home to me this morning as I was reading Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh. In the book, a native grandee returns to East Africa with a degree from Oxford, a handful of European connections, and a Big Idea about how to civilize his homeland through military conquest and reform by fiat.
This passage of high farce is Waugh at his absolute best. The young Europeanized African king explains to an aide why his forces will prevail in a civil war against the native tribes:
We are Progress and the New Age. Nothing can stand n our way. Don’t you see? The world is already ours; it is our world now, because we are of the Present. Seyid and his ramschackle band of brigands were the Past. Dark barbarism. A cobweb in a garret, dead wood; a whispering echo in a sunless cave. We are Light and Speed and Strength, Steel and Steam, Youth, Today and Tomorrow. Don’t you see? Our little war was won on other fields five centuries back.
As I read this passage, my youthful belief in Fukuyama resurfaced, and I was ashamed for a brief moment. I had once sincerely believed the political philosophy that Waugh skewers so indelicately here. Right wins because it is based on superior ideas, born centuries ago: its forward march is inevitable. Luckily (for me), I grew out of my Fukuyaman excesses. Less luckily, for our republic and the world, men much more powerful than myself (led by Podhoretz, followed by Cheney & Co.) only entrenched their belief in the mythologized version of Fukuyama. What horrible mischief followed!