We are only a decade in to the twenty-first century, and anyone who hopes to analyze long-term geopolitical trends for America and its place in the world must begin by conceding that change is happening fast. Large scale ideological shifts that began taking place at the end of the twentieth century -- most particularly the end of the Cold War, that tense and heavily-armed standoff between rival ideologies which concluded not with a bang but a whimper as Gorbachev's Soviet Union devolved into Yeltsin's and then Putin's Russia -- have been occurring for long enough now that Francis Fukuyama's prematurely triumphalist announcement of "the end of history" seems closer to the end of twentieth century history, the end of an era. But the dawn of a new era is tempting for prognosticators, and I would like to address the varying overviews that three of the most influential commentators -- Fukuyama, Samuel Huntingdon, and Tom Friedman -- have offered by way of predictions for the twenty-first century. I focus on these three as authors of influential grand narratives that have been offered, and offer both summary and critique of each of them in turn. But to conclude I will apply the theories of each to the most recent sort of history -- the events of the past two months, still in progress as of this writing -- in order to assess their success thus far in predictive skill.
Fukuyama was the first scholar to leap into the business of prognostication on behalf of American imperium, unless we count astrologer Joan Quigley's sub-rosa employment with the Reagan administration. To be honest, Quigley's services might have been just as reliable as Fukuyama's in this regard, for contemporary analysts will forever regard Fukuyama as a once-influential thinker who declared an "end to history" shortly before 9/11. But it is worth resurrecting Fukuyama's thesis to see what his ground base for analysis had been, and if there is anything worth salvaging once the cringeworthy title of his most famous work has been disregarded. Fukuyama was basically trying to determine what the large scale ideological shift within the West would portend after the fall of the Soviet Union -- his announcement of "the end of history" was really a strong statement in support of the proposition that liberal capitalist democracies carry within them a transformative power such that all Western governments, or possibly all governments in Fukuyama's opinion, aspire to their condition. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a validation of those ideological tenets which were held across a varying spectrum of states, including a number which fell to the left of the U.S.A. And represented a more socialistic form of liberal democracy. Fukuyama concludes that 1989 represented a victory for the basic principle of capitalism, but that inherent in this capitalist principle is the notion of universal human rights. This seems muddle-headed given that the origin of the western notion of individual rights is to be found precisely two centuries before the transformative events Fukuyama is addressing, the very transformative event of the French Revolution. Does Fukuyama somehow see a necessary linkage between the ideology of human rights as put forward by France's revolutionary government and the onward march of freedom that would then be propounded by Napoleon's territorial ambitions for all of Europe under French imperial rule? In point of fact, Fukuyama's own ideas would play quite easily into the hands of Straussian neoconservatives who would use his championing of a universal Enlightenment standard of rights into a justification for their own belligerent ambitions, more worthy of Talleyrand than Napoleon really, in Iraq. The events of the past decade in the Middle East -- in which the vast influx of capital has created a situation not like that of East Germans struggling to shake off ideological control in the late 1980s, as Fukuyama might have predicted, but has rather created a nervous oligarchy not unlike France's ancien regime -- show the particular limtiations of Fukuyama's approach. If the Middle East was indeed the cradle of civilization, it is no surprise that it keeps giving birth to surprises which make any announcement of the end of history premature. So why does Fukuyama retain credibility? The answer to that is simple: his predictive force was sufficient to enable analysts to apply the obvious lessons from the fall of the Berlin wall to an analysis of the ostensibly Communist regime in China. And Fukuyama's analysis has largely held true for the gradual introduction of market reforms into the Chinese system -- although it is worth noting that, contrary to his predictions, the Chinese government is still engaged in distinctly authoritarian behavior, and has shown no signs of abandoning centralized control of its economy. Fukuyama may have been right about the general trend, but in China it seems to be taking slightly longer than he anticipated. But his analysis seems helpless in the face of analyzing change in the Middle East.
But statesmen of a rightward bent were quick to embrace Samuel Huntingdon's "clash of civilizations" thesis to remove the Middle East itself from any large scale analysis. Rather Huntingdon proposes the Middle East as the very model for large scale analysis, one that explains away the thing that so fascinates Fukuyama, namely the complete collapse of an organized Marxist-Leninist ideology which dominated a huge portion of the world's population for a huge portion of the twentieth century. Ideologies, in Huntingdon's view, are not so sturdy a thing as "civilizations," with which he invokes a host of additional issues -- most specifically religion -- which do not fit into Fukuyama's specifically economic and neoliberal trumpeting. But Huntingdon's willingness to entertain the notion that we will undergo a replay of the medieval Crusades is undercut by a certain falseness about his premises. In order to promote a specific misreading of the situation in the Middle East, Huntingdon's idea of "civilization" is willing to quietly define the West as "Judeo-Christian," which rather silently elides one of the most important facts to consider in analyzing the Middle East. If one asked a Jew at the time of the Russian pogroms (roughly a century ago) or the imposition of the Nuremberg Laws under Hitler for an opinion of "Judeo-Christian civilization," one would have met with dumbfounded surprise: Jewish history in the twentieth century witnesses both the assimilation of western Jews into the cultural mainstream to create "Judeo-Christian civilization," but only after both the Shoah and the creation of the state of Israel. Huntingdon's willingness to entertain the notion of Israel as a western outpost in the Middle East ignores the fact that amity between Jews and gentiles even within the west itself is hardly a guarantee.
It is somewhat refreshing to turn then to Tom Friedman -- as an American of Jewish descent, and moreover as an actual journalist (rather than a lofty Harvard theorist and Kissinger-cum-Kennan manque like the dread Professor Huntingdon) he is well-placed to actually interview people on the ground in all sorts of places (like the Middle East) where the opinions may diverge wildly not only from each other, but from those assessments of them conducted at a distance. Friedman certainly follows from Fukuyama's starting principles in assuming the transformative powers of Western capitalism -- he notes that Joseph Schumpeter's notion of "creative destruction," which is itself merely capitalism's own rebranding effort for the phenomena more accurately described by Marx. What Marx identified as the capitalist's willingness to sell even the rope whereby he will be hanged -- and the sense that, under the perfectly free market, "everything that is solid melts into air, everything that is holy is profaned" -- is troped by Schumpeter as a kind of necessary mulching process. The same thing that makes capitalism transformative also sparks popular resistance to…