The government of the United States has been floundering overseas for at least two decades now because of a critical disparity between its ends and its means. That disparity in turn reflects a fundamentally wrong view of history, how it got where it is, and where it is going. And sadly, I am not aware of almost no one either in government or in academia who is thinking realistically about the future. The price of entry into the elite is the surrender of critical thinking.
Following Keith Windshuttle in his important book from the 1990s, The Killing of History, I would argue that Francis Fukuyama defined the prevailing view of history after the collapse of Communism in his book, The End of History and the Last Man. (I have often been tempted to write a brief book myself called The End of History, by the last man, but I probably never will.) Windshuttle pointed out that Fukuyama had really revived the view of Georg Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher who inspired Karl Marx, who saw post-Napoleonic Europe as representative of the triumph of what he called the "world spirit." This was both a dialectical and a somewhat mystical process, whose mechanism could not be thoroughly explained.
In the same way, clearly, American "thinkers" on international politics in the last twenty years have assumed in the teeth of increasing evidence that the destiny of the world is be made of democracies like the United States. This seems to apply not only to neoconservatives like Elliot Abrams and William Kristol, but also to Democratic types like Susan Rice (the National Security Advisor) and Samantha Power (the Ambassador to the UN.) Any one who refuses to get with the program, it seems, can easily be dealt with either economic sanctions, air strikes, or demonstrations in their capital's main square.
A number of people who have known me for many years will never understand how I got so interested in Strauss and Howe. One of many big reasons was that they provided an alternative and much more sophisticated sense of history. To be sure, they had an optimistic, neo-Hegelian strain themselves. Reviewing the 80-year cycles of American history since the colonial period, they concluded that each one had advanced civilization somewhat. However, more importantly, they convinced me that history is made in 80-year cycles, driven by human beings with unique beliefs. It didn't take me long to start applying their theory to other nations, especially in Europe, and that convinced me that there was no predetermined course of history. Every Prophet generation (those born in the wake of the last great crisis, like Boomers) eventually reshaped their nation according to their beliefs, emotions, and whims. Often they seemed to repudiate the past merely for the sake of doing so. And thus it is now obvious to me, frankly, that what is happening in the Middle East on the one hand, and in Russia and Ukraine on the other, is not a blip in the curve of progress towards democratic utopia, but a sign that large parts of the world are taking a different path altogether--one which the United States does not have the power to reverse.
The problem all these Americans ignore is this: democratic traditions
are made, not born. Our own developed over centuries, beginning in
Britain, where the House of Commons became the key organ of government
in the 18th century. Only after our own civil war saved democracy in
the US, as Lincoln understood, did democracy definitely become the model
form in northern Europe and even in Japan. We experienced another
neo-Hegelian moment in 1919, at least in Central and Eastern Europe, but
those democracies didn't survive for very long. The same thing
happened again after 1990.
Let's look at ISIS first. It has been clear in the Middle East at least since the Iranian revolution of 1979 that the western model had lost its appeal to many among the more recent generations of the region. Helped by Saudi money, Salafi Islam was on the rise among Sunnis, while Shi'ites looked to the theocracy in Teheran. Lebanon, back in the 1970s, was one of the canaries that died in the coal mine. The United States embarked upon a long-term effort to weaken Iran through economic sanctions, but it didn't really take notice of what was happening among Sunnis until 9/11. That resulted in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush's attempt to combine Hegel with military might. In both of those countries we stationed tens of thousands of soldiers and tried to set up something looking like a western democratic government. Both attempts have been almost complete failures. In Iraq the first real election, as I noted at the time, revealed a country divided almost entirely on sectarian lines. Maliki has been running a Shi'ite dictatorship, with our help, for a long time.
We were to some extent lulled into false confidence by the nature of Al Queda itself. While it carried out a few spectacular terrorist act, it had no talent for political mobilization or governance. ISIS seems to be another matter altogether. It is establishing a real government where it rules. It's a dreadfully brutal government, but it is clearly exercising very effective authority. And what do we have to put against it?
Yesterday President Obama announced that we must defeat ISIS. He does not, clearly attempt to use American troops. The experience of Iraq suggests they wouldn't be effective, anyway. Instead, he is counting on air strikes and local and regional political forces. But in Syria, he still refuses to consider allying himself with President Assad on any terms--the only real countervailing force in the region. In both Syria and Iraq, he is looking for a "third force" (my words, not his) of friendly, well-meaning, neo-Hegelian Sunnis, who will perform the astonishing feat of triumphing over both Assad and the ISIS and establishing a new Syria more to our liking. Similarly we have now decided to dispense with Maliki in Iraq, but we have absolutely no idea if anyone else can heal the divisions between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
In my opinion, as I have said before, the Middle East has embarked upon its own Thirty Years War, a struggle between Shi'ites and Sunnis that will last for a very long time, at a tragic cost to its peoples and its civilization. But I have no confidence that the United States can do anything to affect the process. I would like to see an international coalition call for cease-fires and reconciliation as soon as possible, along with arrangements to allow Sunnis and Shi'ites to share the same territory. That will eventually be the solution, but only, probably, after the loss of tens of thousands of lives. We already did much too much to accelerate the coming of the regional civil war in Iraq. We shouldn't do anything more.
As for Russia and Iraq, Vladimir Putin has devised a rather clever strategy to take advantage of the weakness of the other successor states of the USSR. He can use money, ethnic Russians, and his own troops, disguised or not, to create chaos in certain regions. Ukraine is trying to defeat him militarily, and might do so. But the Ukrainian government may have to give up part of its territory, and again, there will be nothing that we can do about it. Putin's new strategy has made him more, not less, popular among his people. Our use of economic sanctions reflects another aspect of neo-Hegelian thinking. Because he is part of the world economy, the President seems to think, he must bow to sanctions. But no tactic has been less successful in changing the behavior of modern states than economic sanctions.
When and if these strategies fail, as I think they will, we will face a huge turning point. On the one hand, we may try to apply more force to make history go in our direction. This I think would be an even worse and potentially catastrophic mistake. Otherwise, we will face a world divided into regional blocs based upon fundamentally different world views, as Samuel Huntington, the real prophet of the 1990s, seemed to predict. That however will not be an unmitigated disaster. It will force us once again to focus on our own civilization, and perhaps to get it back on track.