What Fukuyama got right.

“An end has been put to the ‘Cold War,’ … The threat of a world war is no more” highlighted the end of a bipolar world in place since 1945. In this context, international relations experts sought to explain how the transformation of the post-Cold War world. The claims represented by Mearsheimer in ‘Back To The Future’ (BTTF), Huntington in ‘the Clash of Civilisations’ (CoC) and Fukuyama in the ‘End of History’ (EoH)  attempted to frame that new world order. The following argues that Fukuyama came closest to capturing the essence of post-Cold War world politics. Fukuyama accurately predicted the significance and impact liberalism would have on a post-Cold War era, though his conclusions were in the end overdrawn. In contrast, Mearsheimer and Huntington grounded their approaches in realist theory, thus unable to persuasively account for the interdependent nature of the emerging post-cold war era, not least the impact of globalisation. However, several important elements of their arguments remain valid and can inform international relations theory.

To cross evaluate these three approaches, reference is made to the theories of realism and liberalism. Liberalism is narrowed to neo-liberalism (reflecting Fukuyama), while two incarnations of realism are emphasised –  classical and offensive realism. Neo-liberalism revises classical liberalism’s claim the global spread of democracy prevents conflict among states. This is due to the shared values that shape the inter-relationship between economic liberalism underpinned by free trade and open markets. Alternatively, classical realism identifies human nature as the primary source of conflict in world politics. Conflict occurs through state actors –  flawed by their human nature – who behave as self-serving power maximisers in an anarchic world. Finally, offensive realism (a variant of neorealism) suggests that for a state to sustain its security in an anarchic international system, it must maximise its comparative power, by establishing regional hegemony per offensive means at the expense of neighbouring states.

Section I -Back To the Future (BTTF)

In his 1990 BTTF essay, Mearsheimer asserts a neorealist assumption about the nature of post Cold War world politics, due to his arguing that global stability would decline with the fragmentation of the bipolar structure of the Cold War. Mearsheimer believed the ensuing multipolar world would increase instability internationally in a way not seen since 1945. The collapse of the Soviet Union facilitated a dispersion of global power among a range of state actors, reducing certainty, increasing instability and tension and thus the likelihood of conflict in a fundamentally anarchic world. The interest of state actors would necessarily, per offensive realism, be to defend themselves by maximising their personal security capabilities to deter existential threats.

Mearsheimer concludes “the stability of the last 45 years is not likely to be seen again in the coming decades.”. Military conflicts and political tensions have continued since Mearsheimer published BTTF in 1990. The notion, however, these conflicts have disrupted the stability of world politics to the extent Mearsheimer was expecting is less obvious. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 by Russia, its presence in Syria, along with China’s actions in the South China Sea and beyond (both militarily and economically), have certainly proved concerning to the US and its NATO allies as well as other countries, like Australia and New Zealand. Yet, these instances of political disputes and sporadic tensions – challenging though they are – have not resulted in the level of instability that Mearsheimer predicted.

The somewhat Panglossian notion of stability during the bipolarisation of world politics of the Cold War is disputed. There were times when nuclear war between the US and USSR appeared imminent (Cuban Missile Crisis(1961) and the Missile Crisis (1981)). The proxy wars in Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan were certainly destabilising for those countries, and indeed the wider Asia-Pacific regions, further undermining Mearsheimer’s assumption of stability.

In the absence of bipolarity, it was neoliberalism which has helped sustain a level of stability in the post-Cold War era, further emphasising the relevance of Fukuyama’s identification of neoliberalism’s significant role in contemporary world politics. The conclusion of the Uruguay Round (1994), the establishment of the World Trade Organisation/WTO (1995) and the accession of China to the WTO in 2004 allowed for an interdependent structure that tied together, via economic links, countries regardless of their geographical position. The explosion of trade driven by globalisation cemented the inter-dependence of state actors who understood conflict would impose unacceptable economic costs on their populations. In addition, the emergence of institutions which were conceived with strong trade and economic focus such as the European Union (EU) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), were all not foreseen by Mearsheimer.

These inter-linkages created through trading relationships stabilised the international system in ways that Mearsheimer’s neo-realist paradigm failed to account for. The development of enforceable international rules (eg through the WTO), provided even greater certainty and stability to frame state relations, furthering the relevance and significance of neoliberalism in contemporary world politics. Thus BTTF failed to acknowledge the relevance and significant role neoliberalism would have in linking countries in a way that deterred them from engaging in conflict, something Fukuyama accurately discussed in EoH.

Section II -Clash of Civilisations (CoC)

Huntington’s analysis as described in CoC reflects a classical realist approach claiming that contemporary world politics in the aftermath of the Cold War would see conflicts transform from occurring between states to ones occurring between competing cultural, historical, and religious identities;  ‘civilisations’, rather than between individual states. Huntington suggests globalisation serves only to exacerbate and highlight ‘civilisational’ differences between these competing entities, thereby enhancing the risk of further tensions and inevitable conflicts. Huntington identifies a range of competing civilizations, such as Western Christian, Islamic, Eastern Slavic-Orthodox, Confucian, and so on.

CoC is underpinned by an assumption about the civilisational and trans-boundary instincts that inform cultural and religious communities in world politics, which in itself is expected to drive tension and conflict, and thus instability. Taken together, a central element of Huntington’s thesis is that clashes between the West and Islamic civilizations will increase, causing instability and that this will characterise the post-cold War era. It is empirically true that conflicts between Western states and Islamic extremists have occurred, though it is far from clear that these are ‘civilisational’ struggles, as envisaged by Huntington. The US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were in many cases supported by other Islamic nations (Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States) and the struggles between Ukraine and Russia are not necessarily conflicts deriving from civilisational tension, not least because parts of Crimea and the surrounding eastern part of Ukraine share the same (Eastern Orthodox) religion as Russia.  Moreover, these conflicts have been unconventional, with actors and non-state actors playing major roles – none of which neither Mearsheimer’s nor Huntington’s analyses were able to account for. Whether Huntington indicated in CoC that conflicts would remain conventional, or become increasingly unconventional, is unclear.

Like Mearsheimer, CoC believes that a multi-polar world will be inherently more unstable. With reference to the impact of globalisation, Steger’s (2009) analysis undermines Huntington’s sweeping assumptions. He makes the point that “Bin Laden may have denounced the international ‘crusaders’ … but … his organization was … dependent on information and communication technology [via Globalisation]”. The interdependencies created by globalisation are transboundary and invalidate the notion that cultural entities will be free of opposing cultural practices. This proves problematic for the CoC thesis, which assumes that cultures are exclusive, ultimately leading to conflict due to competing cultural norms etc. CoC is unable to persuasively account for the significance and role of neoliberalism and its accompanying forces of globalisation in contemporary world politics. Therefore inadequate evidence fails to support CoC prediction – conflicts in the post-Cold War era have been more contained than expected and there has generally been limited destabilisation. CoC’s neglect of the role of neoliberalism driving greater inter-dependence and eroding cultural difference, enabling stability, is due to its reliance on realist theory, which Fukuyama comfortably dismisses as relevant in EoH.

Section III – End of History (EoH)

Fukuyama distinguishes himself from Mearsheimer and Huntington by asserting a neoliberal model of international relations in End of History (EoH).  Fukuyama asserts that the fall of the USSR signalled an ideological victory which was so significant that humanity had reached its peak in ideological evolutionary terms with the triumph of liberal democracies over communism. Fukuyama believed that capitalism underpinned by liberal democracy had won the contest of ideas and would shortly achieve global dominance, ultimately becoming and humanity’s final and overriding form of governing ideology . Fukuyama further clarifies, however, that his is less of an empirical assertion and rather a normative prescription “of liberal democratic political institutions” . While for a time Fukuyama’s argument appeared prescient –the emergence of China via its accession to the WTO (binding it into a set of enforceable international rules) and the apparent democratisation of the former members of the Soviet Union, not least Russia suggested the inevitable victory of liberal democracy. More recent developments suggest that his conclusions in 1989 and 1995 are no less contentious than his peers.

In order to consider whether EoH captures the essence of world politics following the end of the Cold war, neorealism is used to frame a theoretical critique of Fukuyama’s assertions. Fukuyama believed that the US would lead the West to drive and facilitate capitalism on a global scale. Robert Kagan (2009) counters this analysis with reference to neorealism highlighting how the rise of China economically, and Russia both politically and militarily, have not been characterised by any tendency towards liberal democracy. Both now threaten US global supremacy and are forceful counters to the ideological victory asserted by Fukuyama. The Global Financial Crisis in 2008 further undermined confidence in the ‘end of history’ with the liberal economic structure badly damaged by the excesses of capitalism across the US and the EU. These points of consideration are shaped by neorealism and realism in general, and stand in contrast to the normative assertion of Fukuyama’s emphasis; how neoliberalism championed by the remaining superpower would conquer all representing the final point “of mankind’s ideological evolution”. Azar Gat extends Kagan’s analysis emphasising how the rise of Russia and China may well establish an alternative model to liberal democracy, thereby jeopardising the inexorable drive to a unipolar world which Fukuyama assumes will manifest. In response, Fukuyama suggests that even in China and Russia there is still a recognition of the need to “conform” to pro-liberal democratic rhetoric. As China and Russia across both positing their own systems, they become rivals to Fukuyama’s liberal democracies, thus the competition to drive the new world order is yet complete.

Recent developments further underline this point. Brexit saw a democratic rejection of a neoliberal institution in the form of the European Union; while the election of Trump was in part informed by a democratic rejection of globalisation. Even though Fukuyama concedes that illiberal movements will persist, particularly in developing countries, his abiding assumption remains that ultimately these same countries will return to a pro-neoliberal position. It is no longer obvious that this is plausible. Brexit has galvanised anti-EU and anti-globalisation movements, while the election of President Trump, Duterte and President-elect Jair Bolsonaro combined with the ‘leaders for life’ in Moscow and Beijing highlight a resurgence of anti-liberal and anti-globalisation populism.  Taken together, these elections undermine the central tenets of EoH. That said, Fukuyama did accurately capture the essential Zeitgeist of World Politics in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. Indeed, his analysis correctly predicted the significant and influential role of neoliberalism in driving globalisation and economic interdependence. This in and of itself, however, has not been sufficient to allow for ‘an end of history’ as the rise of China and the re-emergence of Russia has underlined.

With the end of the Cold War, a range of paradigms were developed to try and explain the essence of the post-Cold War era. Notable among these were those developed through BTTF,  CoC and EoH. Both Mearsheimer and Huntington’s approaches were founded on realist theory, albeit in different ways, while Fukuyama’s reliance on liberalism allowed him to somewhat more persuasively suggest that – for a time at least – the apparent triumph of liberal democracy in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War had occurred. Events since then have undermined Mearsheimer’s contention in BTTF that the collapse of bipolarity would cause instability. While conflicts continue, these have been contained in much the same way as similar engagements during the Cold War, ie by developing modus operandi to manage and mitigate the risk of any expansion of conflict.

Huntington in CoC appeared to have identified an important new strand in international relations theory, particularly following the apparent conflict between the US and Islam. Over time, however, these conflicts have become more of a tradition – even if they are still as serious, if not as destabilising, as expected. Both Mearsheimer and Huntington also failed to account for the important role neoliberal interdependence and globalisation would have in a trans-boundary, cross-cultural sense, imposing a measure of risk mitigation across the post-cold war order. While Fukuyama at first appeared the most prescient with his provocative suggestion that mankind had found its ultimate ideology in a free market liberal democracy, this did not prove sustainable over time. At present, the dominance of neoliberalism is under threat. While none of the proposed frameworks has been able to effectively explain the post-cold war period, all three have offered useful insights’ most particularly Fukuyama. Yet unfortunately, such frameworks appear static when confronted by the dynamic and rapidly evolving nature of world politics.

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