The return of history

26 July 2008

The return of history

Jasper van Dijk

In The Return of History and the End of Dreams (Random House, 2008), Robert Kagan argues that as the dreams of the Cold War period evaporated the liberal democratic world should have given more consideration to its reaction. The years since, with the rise of the great autocracies of Russia and China and the beginnings of the campaign of the Muslim fundamentalists, have divided and diverted the attention of the democracies. History is back, and it is up to the democratic nations of the world to put their differences aside in order to shape this history. If they don't, others will shape it for them.

Kagan is a power politician and an advisor to John McCain and so not exactly a natural ally of the SP, but that does not make his book any less interesting. The book and its title are, of course, a reaction to Francis Fukuyama The End of History, the 1992 tome which argued that with Communism defeated, and liberalism victorious, it was only a question of time before the rest of the world joined the US and Europe in becoming liberal – or neoliberal – democracies.

According to Kagan, history made its comeback on 11th September, 2001, though the rise of Russia and China also played a role in its revival. Two new sources of competition for the west had arrived – autocracy and Muslim fundamentalism. Russia and China represented the latter, while the former came out of the Middle East, and above all out of Iran.

Kagan's book contends that China and Russia are new superpowers which will not allow themselves to be told what to do by the United States. Kagan sees his country as the noble superpower which, together with the EU, must provide an answer to this new world order. And with this, thinking on the basis of power blocs is justified: us against them, good against evil.

There is a great deal wrong with China and Russia, but it isn't hard to understand why they are unwilling to trail unthinkingly after the US. Aside from the controversial war policy, there is the neoliberal politics of the United States. “More market and less government” was for many years the slogan. But the lingering credit crisis is also creating problems for this set of beliefs, so that the economic policy as well as the military is now under pressure.

To exchange this for Muslim fundamentalism or autocratic politics does not appear to me a very good idea. But there is in fact a fourth way, that of cooperation and international solidarity. You won't find these in Kagan's book, but they are out there, for certain, and certainly worth the trouble of fighting for.

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