Not quite the end of history
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 26 July 2008)

The final word in the title of Robert Kagan's latest foreign-policy book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams, recalls the giddy, excessive optimism with which some Americans, perhaps even Kagan himself, greeted the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This week, the Post's series of excerpts from his book has provided a surprising and uncomfortable spectacle: Kagan, a man who normally writes in the cool tones of realism, dealing in something so evanescent as dreams.

As Kagan tells it, Americans decided around 1992 that the defeat of the Soviets, and the end of a four-decades-long nuclear stand-off, would lead to a flowering of democracy across the world. It didn't happen, Kagan reminds us. Instead, autocracy has taken a firm grip on much of humanity and shows no sign of weakening. Newly awakened forms of nationalism increasingly impose a hostile tone on world politics. In outline, the 21st century looks like the 19th, when Europe was dominated by empires struggling for position.

There's no democracy in China, which imprisons its citizens at will, supports dictatorships in Burma and elsewhere and nevertheless demands respect for its economic accomplishments. Russian democracy has become no more than a facade. And there's even less freedom now in Arab lands.

But who expected anything else to happen? Whose dreams died?

Kagan's book is full of useful details and shrewd observations. Yet there's something glib and presumptuous in his way of configuring recent events as "the end of dreams." Granted, the dream of universal democracy in our time is for certain dead. But was it ever alive? How many believed in it?

Consider the year 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall provided the world's most graphic expression of optimism in more than a generation. Suddenly, it was clear that communism was finally crumbling. But the same year brought the cold-blooded killing of perhaps 1,000 Chinese in Tiananmen Square, a massacre authorized by the late Deng Xiaoping, the architect of Chinese market communism.

Surely, no one could have digested that year's events and concluded that democracy was everywhere on the march. China set its face against both the hopes of its own citizens and the urging of foreigners who wanted Beijing to liberalize its political institutions. Since that day, no one has had any sensible reason for a benign view of freedom's future in China.

It turns out that even the most optimistic of Americans in the early 1990s, Francis Fukuyama, now wants it known that he wasn't all that optimistic. In 1992, Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man, to which Kagan's book is a reply; or, as Fukuyuma puts it, "Kagan's book is obviously targeted at me."

Now Fukuyuma points out (in London's Sunday Times) that he merely identified a broad, virtually universal process of modernization, "one of whose long-term outcomes was strong demand for political participation and accountable government." He didn't say when that demand would succeed. If you go back to his original text you find him depicting "Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government" -- someday, presumably. Otherwise, he doesn't think much of what he calls "the post-somnambulist Kagan."

There is another kind of dreaming within the world of the autocracies. While autocratic governments see no reason to change their ways, there are nevertheless thousands of individuals around the world hoping and working for more open forms of government. Look at a Chinese Web site (with English translation) such as to glimpse the ferment. Those brave people might regard Kagan's dismissal of their dreams as callous. My own skepticism about enlightened governments ruling the world goes back more than 50 years. I was old enough, during the Second World War, to follow the news -- but not old enough to avoid being fooled. Leaders of the Western governments, above all Franklin Roosevelt, promised that victory over Germany and Japan would lead to a democratic world, responsibly shared with our friends the Soviets, all of us under the benevolent guidance of the United Nations.

I failed to understand that this official account of the future violated every lesson of history. As Kagan writes, nations have the attributes of the humans who live in them: "love, hate, ambition, fear, honour, shame, patriotism, ideology and belief, the things people fight and die for, today as in millennia past."

I had an excuse for not knowing that. I was just 13 as the war ended. Almost immediately, a surprising and dismaying future began to unfold.

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