Friday, August 29, 2014

At sea abroad

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.


Mourned_Cause said...


I feel as though Hegel was moderately misrepresented in the article.

Hegel says that history is a never ending motion between

1. Thesis - The current world order.
2. Antithesis - The movements against the world order
3. Synthesis - The movements against and for the world order reconstitute a more rational society.


Hence, it is that crucial misinterpretation (by Marx especially) which leads to great harm, because it assumes a "Realism" position which makes reform unnecessary.

"Neo-Hegelianism" is simply a rejection of Hegel, by claiming that one is smarter then history.

On this, I would agree.

Unknown said...

Good Morning:
I love your last paragraph and agree completely.

I have to comment on one thing though. Any suggestion that ISIS has a talent for political mobilization or governance is quite arguable. Any group of thugs can force a people to bow down when they are supposed to at gunpoint, but whether they can keep this up over a long period as well as progress in any sense of the word remains to be seen.

The administration is accommodated in their endeavors to create public support for a new and wider war by a compliant lapdog media.

I worry as they are working so hard at it.

Professor: May I make a suggestion for all of us who read to learn from your posts. Would you agree to at times mention at the bottom of your post books you find helpful in the subject you are discussing? I'll bet many would appreciate it.

Most of us do not have anywhere near your knowledge.



David Kaiser said...


Regarding the first part of your comment, yes, I heard an NPR story yesterday to the effect that Mosul is in an utterly disastrous state, without basic services. So in that sense ISIS might self-destruct.
Regarding books, I think I already do what you have in mind to the extent that is appropriate. The Windshuttle book is the only one, I think, that contributed substantially to what I had to say this week. You probably wouldn't be interested in the whole thing but the chapter on Fukuyama was brilliant.

Anonymous said...

I like the Hegelian concept, which i find in my own development as in a Bildungsroman. Religious, agnostic-atheistic, synthesis of both. Usa patriot-democratic-capitalistic, peak oil stone age climate change anticapitalism envirofreak, wait and see attitude. Various mindsets come and go in societies forming basis of action like communism, capitalism, environmentalism and syntheses very popular in practical Germany, home of Hegel-social welfare state with enviro bent, half protestant, half catholic. The German approach to ideology is astonishingly similar to the jewish/israeli joke about themselves,"ask an israeli his opinion anr you get several answers", i imagine answers based on hegelian method.

I find the middle east madness gruesomely interesting. Mass beheadings, etc. Ghehgis Khan, nazi and robespierre, russian revolution all took similar course but "revolution eats its children" as they say. Only russia lasted in that system a whole cycle, france and germany got destroyed by combined european and in latter case american military power. Communism collapsed due to economics just as turbo-corrupt capitalism combined with social welfare state(ratio old to young) is overindebted, overextended hitting resource/climate change wall like Rome(roman climate optimum, expansion maxed out),and other civilizational experiments.

Anonymous said...

It would be an interesting thought experiment if a caliphate of taliban, isis, boko haram, and all other extremist islamist groups formed sharia states in muslim world after Peak Oil and climate change destroys modern capitalist liberal democracy and similar, leaving behind a global ideological and military power vacuum. If bombers don't fly, only sail ships do trade, cars cease to exist and TV, satellites, phones, internet nonexistent along with central heating, plumbing then isis, taliban types, like ghengis khan could sweep large parts of the world, also in Europe and America. Think Mad Max writ large.

Although i strongly disagree with your Russia analysis, oil and climate change are central there but Russia has lots of wood and could feed a smaller population and live cut off from the world quite nicely. Their attempt at integration as an equal partner in western system gas met with "gnashing of teeth"by plutocratic controlled media/govt. who are doing what they can to end competition to Euro-American centuries old global colonial power monopoly. Russia is turning to the powers outside of western european poer monpoly cultural sphere-BRICS plus ex ussr buddies and usa enemies of shia bent-syria and iran. This is a sort of high powered non-aligned movement , not just a talk shop.

Considering the immature western boomer approach to governing and lording over the world-see for example wal mart exploitation in 3rd world and Goldman Sachs derivative piracy-hundreds of millions of those in generations without own memory of cold war and resultant anti-russian prejudice in the West as in other countries can greet this as liberation from a slowly developed us global economic-military-cultural dictatorship. Rooseveltwas a hero, Boomer USA are in effect The new fascist power on earth and the antithesis is what Putin is forming against WTO, NATO, IMF with its allies. This as direct resistance to Washington arrogance. Russia could have been integrated. Too late. Radical islamism is the othrr result(including iranian revolution) of Wasington's missteps. I think culturally Boomer USA is perhaps lazy, unsophisticated. TV, jeans, mcdonald's, rat race does not foster a highculture to subtly lead the world into a new age.Kennedy was smart, Putin is similarly so.The big picture of understanding and moral humility is important in leadership.

Gloucon X said...

If one is aware of the real goals of US foreign policy, then the US has not been floundering. Making sure that the Muslim countries of the Middle East are too weak to be a threat to Israel is a major goal. Invading or bombing them and leaving them in various states of chaos and civil war is a sign of success, not floundering.

The recent kerfuffle with Russia is related to this process. Russia had the impertinence to interfere with our goal of helping to destroy Syria, i.e., break it up and leave it in chaos. So we created a chaotic situation for them in Ukraine as punishment. Will see if EU states like Germany, France, and the UK are willing to go along with this idea and allow the situation to become a full fledged civil war that would initiate a major refugee crisis for them and disrupt their economies enormously. It looks like the US thinks that price is worth paying, of course, it is the EU who would pay it.

As for concern for “the future”, the prime directive in the ME is to maintain the long term dominance and security of Israel and the Persian Gulf state tyrannies who are our allies, and to destroy or suppress any actor who resists that status quo. The US has been fairly successful at this so far, the only major failure of the post-war period has been Iran.

Globally, the near term and long term goals are quite simple. Maintain and promote national economies that favor the dominance of unrestricted corporate capitalism, so that each country is dominated by an amoral group of corporate capitalists who are loyal only to an international system that fosters unrestricted greed above any other human concern. Under this system, the only “world spirit” humans are allowed to contemplate on this planet today is the spirit of global capitalism.

Midwegian said...

"...we will face a world divided into regional blocs based upon fundamentally different world views,.." Is this not what is happening in the Middle East at this time? The right wing Theocracy of Islam is carving new nations along religious lines, relying on fatwa to reinforce them. The "If God is with me, who can be against me" philosophy has been frighteningly effective in rallying the discontent and the bloodthirsty world over. It brings to my mind the most frightening words I've ever read: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" (Yeats)

Skimpole said...

(1) I've finally read your book, the library is my San Francisco size city finally got a copy. I noticed two errors: first, Italy is said to be the only country with universal manhood suffrage around 1865. In fact less than 5% of Italian men could vote, and universal male suffrage didn't come to Italy before 1913 and 1918. Were you perhaps thinking of Second Empire France, which did universal male suffrage for the not entirely unfree elections for the not entirely useless Parliament? Also the book says twice that LBJ, born in 1908, was 33 in 1940.

(2) Another point: the book says the American Communist Party were the "most determined and effective" of FDR's antiwar opponents. "Most determined" is a matter of debate. But surely not most effective: with the Nazi-Soviet Pact the party, never very popular, lost whatever indulgence American liberals were willing to grant it, without gaining any more from FDR's enemies. Aside from John Lewis' faction of the CI0, it's hard to think of any non-communists who did not violently dislike the party before June 22, 1941. The larger point is the book suggests the strike waves of 1940-1941 were at least partially the result of Communist attempts to sabotage the war effort. Certainly the army and the dollar a year businessmen floating around the war effort made that claim. But given their prejudices, they would claim that regardless. Scholars who have looked more closely at the events, like Steve Fraser, Nelson Lichtenstein and Ellen Schrecker are much more skeptical about such claims.

David Kaiser said...


I will have to check about Italy but I think you are mistaken.
I quoted the Pearson/Anderson column which said LBJ was 33 in 1940,. but I inserted a [sic] next to that.
I provided ample data myself from contemporary and later sources to show that the Communists were indeed behind the key strikes of the first half of 1941. And those strikes did more to impede the war effort than anything else I can think of.
Glad you read the book!