America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy by Francis Fukuyama (Review)
April 23, 2006        

America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy by Francis Fukuyama. Yale University Press, 226 pages, $25.00.

By George Scialabba

Lamentable debacles make for lively debates. The Iraq war may have cost the United States more casualties, money, and international goodwill than even its severest critics anticipated. But it has stimulated some welcome second thoughts in at least one well-known Washington intellectual, who has produced a critique of neoconservatism and its influence on American foreign policy that even his former comrades from that faction – normally not very attentive to criticism – will be unable to ignore.
Francis Fukuyama made an extraordinary debut fourteen years ago with The End of History and the Last Man, a very wide-ranging interpretation of modern Western history that mixed Plato, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche with social science and international relations theory. Since then he has written a startling number of books, including Trust (1996), The Great Disruption (1999), and Our Posthuman Future (2003), and has recently founded a policy journal, The American Interest, as a counterweight to the neoconservative The National Interest.
What is, or was, neoconservatism? On Fukuyama’s account, it had four chief tenets: contrary to traditional diplomacy, foreign policy must take account of other nations’ values and ideologies as well as their interests and power; contrary to isolationists and amoral realists like Kissinger, the United States can and should use force for moral purposes; contrary to liberals and leftists, ambitious schemes of social and economic reform are dubious a priori; and contrary to pacifists and Wilsonian idealists, international law and international cooperation are frail reeds and must not compromise America’s freedom of action.
Fukuyama agrees with much of this, in principle. But schools of thought evolve. Whether or not the Platonic idea of neoconservatism is valid, its leading representatives have in recent years overemphasized military intervention, undervalued international institutions, and neglected the problems of economic development. As a result, “neoconservatism has become inevitably linked to concepts like preemption, regime change, unilateralism, and benevolent hegemony as put into practice by the Bush administration.” If he thought this strategy would work, Fukuyama would still be a neoconservative. But he doesn’t: intelligence is uncertain, allies are recalcitrant, much of the world is anti-American, and good government cannot be implanted by invaders but must have local roots.
In place of an overconfident, over-militarized, unilateralist neoconservatism, Fukuyama proposes “realistic Wilsonianism.” Like neoconservatism, it will “take seriously as an object of foreign policy what goes on within states” – ie, it will advocate democracy, human rights, and free markets. But unlike neoconservatism, it envisions “a much higher degree of institutionalization across nations than exists currently” and “an agenda of multiple multilateralisms appropriate to the real, existing world of globalization.”
Why should the United States promote democratization and development? The moral reasons are obvious (which is not to say they’ve compelled more than lip service from most American administrations), and the strategic ones are not hard to perceive either. Democratically legitimate states are more stable and orderly; developed states are more likely to be democratic. But, Fukuyama insists, it is not merely a matter of overthrowing unfriendly dictators and lecturing unfriendly ones. Societies modernize gradually, by evolving cultures of trust, responsibility, law-abidingness, and other essential virtues. Outsiders can help primarily through the exercise of “soft power”: training, advice, financial support, and setting a good example.
When the use of force is necessary, having several forums in which to seek endorsement is preferable to having only the United Nations, Fukuyama argues. He recommends a stronger commitment to NATO, in particular: since its members are all liberal democracies, “it is not a bad habit of mind for policymakers in Washington to feel they have to be able to sway opinion in this key group of countries.”
Compared with neoconservatism – especially as practiced by the Bush administration – realistic Wilsonianism would be an enormous improvement.
But in one respect, at least, it is not particularly realistic. Fukuyama professes to share with neoconservatives “a strong sense of the potentially moral uses of American power, which has been employed throughout the republic’s history to fight tyranny and expand democracy around the world.” As a description of America’s international behavior in the 19th and 20th centuries, this is beyond unrealistic; it is surreal. In the Western Hemisphere, especially, it would be truer to say that American power has been employed throughout the republic’s history to fight democracy and expand tyranny. Coming to terms with this ghastly record would seem to be prerequisite to reforming American foreign policy.
George Scialabba writes about books frequently in the Globe.