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The End of the End of the End of History?

The End of the End of the End of History?

August 27, 2008

One minor casualty of the recent conflict in Georgia was the doctrine of peace through McGlobalization -- a belief first elaborated by Thomas Friedman in 1999, and left in ruins on August 8, when Russian troops moved into South Ossetia. “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s,” wrote Friedman in The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

Not that the fast-food chain itself had a soothing effect, of course. The argument was that international trade and modernization -- and the processes of liberalization and democratization created in their wakes -- would knit countries together in an international civil society that made war unnecessary. There would still be conflict. But it could be contained -- made rational, and even profitable, like competition between Ronald and his competitors over at Burger King. (Thomas Friedman does not seem like a big reader of Kant, but his thinking here bears some passing resemblance to the philosopher’s “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective,” an essay from 1784.)

McDonald’s opened in Russia in 1990 -- a milestone of perestroika, if ever there were one. And Georgia will celebrate the tenth anniversary of its first Micky D’s early next year, assuming anybody feels up for it. So much for Friedman's theory. Presumably it could be retooled ex post facto (“two countries with Pizza Huts have never had a thermonuclear conflict,” anyone?) but that really seems like cheating.

Ever since a friend pointed out that the golden arches no longer serve as a peace sign, I have been wondering if some alternative idea would better fit the news from Georgia. Is there a grand narrative that subsumes recent events? What generalizations seem possible, even necessary and urgent, now? What, in short, is the Big Idea?

Reading op-ed essays, position papers, and blogs over the past two weeks, one finds a handful of approaches emerging. The following survey is not exhaustive -- and I should make clear that describing these ideas is not the same as endorsing them. Too many facts about what actually happened are still not in; interpretation of anything is, at this point, partly guesswork. (When the fog of war intersects a gulf stream of hot air, you do not necessarily see things more clearly.) Be that as it may, here are some notes on certain arguments being made about what it all means.

The New Cold War: First Version. A flashback to the days of Brezhnev would have been inevitable in any case -- even if this month were not the 40th anniversary of Soviet tanks rolling into what was then Czechoslovakia.

With former KGB man Vladimir Putin as head of state (able to move back and forth between the offices of the president and of the prime minister, as term limits require) and the once-shellshocked economy now growing at a healthy rate thanks to international oil prices, Russia has entered a period of relative stability and prosperity -- if by no means one of liberal democracy. The regime can best be described as authoritarian-populist. There have been years of frustration at seeing former Soviet republics and erstwhile Warsaw Pact allies become members of NATO. Georgia (like Ukraine) has recently been invited to do so as well. So the invasion of South Ossetia represents a forceful reassertion of authority within Russia’s former sphere of influence.

We have reached "the end of the end of the Cold War,” goes this interpretation. Pace Fukuyama, it was a mistake to believe that historical progress would culminate in liberal, democratic, constitutional republicanism. The West needs to recognize the emergence of a neo-Soviet menace, and prepare accordingly.

This perspective was coming together even before the conflict between Russia and Georgia took military form. For some years now, the French philosopher Andre Glucksmann (whose musings on Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago were influential in the mid-1970s) has been protesting the rise of the new Russian authoritarianism, quoting with dismay Putin’s comment that “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century is the dissolution of the Soviet Union.”

Vaclav Havel, the playwright and former president of the Czech Republic, has done likewise. In a recent interview, Havel said, “Putin has revealed himself as a new breed of dictator, a highly refined version. This is no longer about communism, or even pure nationalism.... It is a closed system, in which the first person to break the rules of the game is packed off to Siberia."

Why be skeptical of this perspective? Certainly the authoritarianism of the Putin regime itself is not in doubt. But the specter of a new Red Army poised to assert itself on the world stage needs to be taken with a grain of salt. A report prepared by the Congressional Research Service in late July notes that budget cuts have forced “hundreds of thousands of officers out of the ranks” of the Russian military, and reduced troop strength to 1.2. million men (compared to 4.3 million in the Soviet military in 1986).

“Weapons procurement virtually came to a halt in the 1990s,” the report continues, “and is only slowly reviving. Readiness and morale remain low, and draft evasion and desertion are widespread.” Raw nationalist fervor will only make your empire just so evil.

The New Cold War: Take Two. Another version of the old template regards an East/West standoff as inevitable, not because Putinist Russia is so vigorous, but because such a conflict is in the interests of the United States.

We're not talking here about the more familiar sort of argument about the U.S. needing access to oil in the Caucus region. Nor does it hinge on strategic concerns about nuclear cooperation between Russia and Iran. It has less to do with economic interest, or geopolitical advantage, than it does the problem of ideological vision (or lack of it) among ruling elites in the West. A renewal of superpower conflict would help to prop up societies that otherwise seem adrift.

This thesis is argued a British think tank called the Institute of Ideas, which takes much of its inspiration from the work of Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent. Having started out decades ago as Marxists of a rather exotic vintage, writers associated with the institute have moved on to a robustly contrarian sort of libertarianism. Their perspective is that state and civil society alike in the industrialized world are now prone to waves of fear and a pervasive sense of aimlessness.

“It is difficult,” writes Furedi in a recent essay, “to discover clear patterns in the working of twenty-first-century global affairs....The U.S. in particular (but also other powers) is uncertain of its place in the world. Wars are being fought in faraway places against enemies with no name. In a world where governments find it difficult to put forward a coherent security strategy or to formulate their geo-political interests, a re-run of the Cold War seems like an attractive proposition. Compared to the messy world we live in, the Cold War appears to some to have been a stable and at least comprehensible interlude.”

Hence the great excitement at recent events - so rich are they with promise of a trip backwards in time.

There is something at least slightly plausible in this idea. A quick look at Google shows that people have been announcing “the end of the end of the Cold War” for quite a while now. The earliest usage of that phrase I’ve seen comes from 1991. A kind of nostalgia, however perverse, is probably at work.

But Furedi's larger argument seems another example of an idea so capacious that no counterevidence will ever disprove it. If leaders are concerned about what’s happening in the Caucusus, it is because anxiety has made them long for the old verities. But if they ignored those events -- well, that would imply that the culture has left them incapable of formulating a response. Heads, he wins. Tails, you lose.

The End of ... Something, Anyway. Revitalizing the Cold War paradigm keeps our eyes focused on the rearview mirror. But other commentary on events in Russia and Georgia points out something you might not see that way -- namely, that this stretch of paved road has just run out.

The Duck of Minerva – an academic group blog devoted to political science – has hosted a running discussion of the news from South Ossetia. In a post there, Peter Howard, an assistant professor of international service at American University, noted that the most salient lesson of the invasion was that it exposed the limits of U.S. influence.

“Russia had a relatively free hand to do what it did in Georgia,” he writes, “and there was nothing that the U.S. (or anyone else for that matter) was going to do about it.... In a unipolar world, there is only one sphere of influence -- the whole world is the U.S.’s sphere of influence. Russia’s ability to carve any sphere of influence effectively ends unipolarity, if there ever was such a moment.”

Howard points to a recent article in Foreign Affairs by Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, about the emergence of “nonpolarity: a world dominated not by one or two or even several states but rather by dozens of actors possessing and exercising various kinds of power.”

This will, it seems, be confusing. Countries won’t classify one another simply as friends or foes: “They will cooperate on some issues and resist on others. There will be a premium on consultation and coalition building and on a diplomacy that encourages cooperation when possible and shields such cooperation from the fallout of inevitable disagreements. The United States will no longer have the luxury of a ‘You're either with us or against us’ foreign policy.” (One suspects the country is going to afford itself that luxury from time to time, even so.)

A recent op-ed in The Financial Times does not explicitly use the term “nonpolarity,” yet takes the concept as a given. Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the public policy school of the National University of Singapore, sees the furor over Georgia as a last gasp of old categories. The rise of Russia is “not even close” to being the most urgent concern facing the west.

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he writes, “western thinkers assumed the west would never need to make geopolitical compromises. It could dictate terms. Now it must recognise reality. The combined western population in North America, the European Union and Australasia is 700m, about 10 per cent of the world’s population. The remaining 90 per cent have gone from being objects of world history to subjects.”

Framing his argument in terms borrowed from Chairman Mao, Mahbubani nonetheless sounds for all the world like an American neoconservative in a particularly thoughtful mood. “The real strategic choice” facing the wealthy 10 percent “is whether its primary challenge comes from the Islamic world or China,” he writes. “If it is the Islamic world, the U.S. should stop intruding into Russia’s geopolitical space and work out a long-term engagement with China. If it is China, the U.S. must win over Russia and the Islamic world and resolve the Israel-Palestine issue. This will enable Islamic governments to work more closely with the west in the battle against al-Qaeda.”

From this perspective, concern with the events in Georgia seems, at best, a distraction. Considering it a development of world importance, then, would be as silly as thinking that the spread of fast-food franchises across the surface of the globe will make everyone peaceful (not to mention fat and happy).

Well, I’m not persuaded that developments in the Caucasus are as trivial as all that. But we’re still a long way from knowing what any of it means. It’s usually best to keep in mind a comment by Zhou Enlai from the early 1970s. Henry Kissinger asked for his thoughts about the significance of the French Revolution. “It is,” Zhou replied, “too soon to say.”

 

 

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