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The Modernist vs. Post-Modernist Divide and the Middle East

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As the “Arab Spring” withers, or at least struggles to assert some kind of modern political identity, Syria seethes, Hamas and Hezbollah gird for renewed action, and Islamic Jihadism proliferates across the region. Is this the culmination of debased Western policies or the millennial surge of Islamic expansionism? Against this is the continuation of Iranian nuclear proliferation and the incipient, yet problematic Iraqi democracy.

The nation-states have divided up into players in this drama, i.e. the traditional West and its allies against the rest, i.e. China, Russia and its allies. This echoes back to the geopolitical demarcations of the Cold War. However, when the Cold War ended in 1989 and China had yet to attain its current economic status, the West found reason enough to thwart itself.

Nothing brought out the differences between America and Europe more than the lead-up to the US’s war against Iraq in the spring of 2003. The bitter acrimony and recriminations, at that time, led many to believe that the old alliances had died, that the core strength of the “free world” – the US and Western Europe – had fractured and was moving in opposite directions. The common bonds that had knit these two regions together for so long were coming apart over the many contentious issues preceding the Iraq war. Those issues involved the relevance of the UN, the unilateral exercise of American power, the applicability of international law, and the utility of imposing democracy in an area of the world known for a history of sectarian violence.

These issues came to a head as the US positioned itself to implement its neo-conservative foreign policy of addressing terrorism, liberating Iraq, and introducing the conditions for democracy in the Middle East. Yet what could account for the split in the partnership that the West had enjoyed since the end of WWII and that on the eve of the liberation of Iraq was coming asunder?

Were there different national interests? Was it different goals? Had their respective cultures changed? In varying degrees, it was all of these, but more importantly it was a profound change in the ideological worldview of one of the Western partners, i.e. Europe. Europe had moved into a political and economic environment of interdependence and cooperation unlike anything the world had yet seen -- a post-modernist world. But it was a development, one might add, due to the leadership of one of the other Western partners, the US; and an evolution that put Europe at odds with its long standing ally.

Former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, an advocate of strong US leadership in the world, expressed the dichotomy between the US and Europe, at a meeting recently of the Global Strategy Forum. In his presentation before that body Bolton noted that “There is too much of a view in Europe that you have passed beyond history. That everything can be worked out by negotiation … we [Americans] don't see it that way.” He impugns the notion advanced by Francis Fukuyama that the “end of history” has been achieved, at least to such an extent that the world can rest on its laurels. America, on the other hand, still lives in the modernist world of power politics. Bolton asserts that the threat to world peace does not come from American neoconservative foreign policy, but from the perception that "we have passed beyond history". The “we” Bolton is referring to is the post-modern post-industrial Western world, typified by Europe, i.e. the “end of history” world depicted by Fukuyama.

The End of History

The word “history” in Bolton’s statement refers to the thesis advanced by Francis Fukuyama that what we know as history -- “the evolution of human societies through different forms of government” – is a process that would culminate in the “end of history”; an apotheosis whereby modern liberal democracy and market-oriented capitalism would establish a preeminence and justification as society evolves through historical trial and error.

The “end of history” does not mean that historical events would cease, but that all other systems of governance would be discredited and that modern liberal democracy would no longer have any serious legitimate challengers -- not Monarchy, not Marxism, not Nazism, not Fascism, not militarism, and certainly not Islamism. For example, the political systems of North Korea or Cuba do not represent a viable and legitimate alternative to liberal democracy. Nor does the theocratic state system of Islam have any attraction among non-Muslims, and a problematic one among Muslims themselves, and does not have a universal appeal. Thus, according to Fukuyama, the prevailing trend is for non-Western states to become modern, whether economically, politically, or militarily. And the only way for them to challenge the West or to seek parity with it, is for them to move in the direction of modernity.

Furthermore, the concept asserts that the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the final form of human government is Western style liberal democracy and that these basic principles of the liberal democratic state cannot be improved upon. Thus the character of the state that emerges at the end of history is liberal democracy: liberal, insofar as it recognizes and protects, through a system of laws, man’s universal right to freedom; and democratic, insofar as it exists only with the consent of the governed.

For Fukuyama the conduct of life for that part of the world that has reached the “end of history” would be far more preoccupied with economics than with politics or strategy. Those countries would be so dominated by economic concerns, that there would no longer be ideological grounds for major conflict between nations, and consequently, the use of military force would become less legitimate. Additionally, this period will be underwritten by the abundance of a modem free market economy and the absence of state conflict. This characterization matches the situation in Europe at the present time.

Europe, the Post-Modernist State

Because the European Union embodies this “end of history” political construct it is the quintessential post-modern state system. It is based on based on the primacy of multi-national negotiations and the rule of international and regional law. The US, on the other hand, is more a traditional modern state which continues to see the world in terms of power and security. In other words, the Europeans are now living in an ideal world beyond Hobbes, while the US is still in the Hobbesian world governed by the old rules from the end of the Thirty Years War. Those rules involve balance-of-power politics, the doctrine that national security is paramount, and the presumption that states are fundamentally aggressive. Therefore the US, according to this European view, is mired in the politics of force and coercion; while the Europeans see themselves as having achieved a state of affairs uplifted by compromise and negotiation supported by a multi-national regional hegemony.

Furthermore, European multi-nationalism is the idea that the modern state system of national political sovereignty is no longer an absolute ideal. In their new post-modern system countries now accept interference in each other's domestic affairs; there is the dissolution of the distinction between “domestic” and “foreign”, “home” and “abroad”; there is acceptance of the jurisdiction of international courts of law; where monopolies of force are subjected to intrusive verification and self-imposed constraints; and there is the growing irrelevance of borders and the territorial imperative. That is why the Europeans are more amenable to the constraints of the UN, while the Americans are not.

The International System

This post-modernist multi-nationalism, Bolton says, are the true threats to world peace for they lull the practitioner into a false sense of security, thus making him prone to indecision, manipulation and danger, as in the case of Iran defying the provisions of the NPT and international community.

The modernist v. post-modernist divide is exemplified by how the international community deals with problems that may arise between, say for example, France and Germany. In such a case negotiations can take place. But there are other leaders one cannot negotiate with. For example, it is extremely problematic to treat people like Saddam Hussein the way one treats one’s neighbors. Thus Bolton refutes the notion that neoconservative foreign policy is a threat to world peace; rather the notion that negotiation and compromise are agreeable to all; at all times is the threat to real constructive peace.

America, post WWII, and Bolton are of the view that international system is essentially anarchical; all nations vying for influence and control -- given their resources -- and attempting to further their interests. In the modernist worldview there is no social contract among the international community as there is in the domestic arena where citizens acknowledge the authority of the state to make and enforce laws. There is no final arbiter on the international scene, save a strong political actor exercising disproportionate power.

In the pre-modern world, war was a way of life. Now in this European post-modern, “end of history” view, war is anathema. Thus Clausewitz' dictum that war is an instrument of policy, in the post-modern world, is a sign of policy failure. But in the modern view, manifested by US foreign relations, war is still an instrument of policy. While the members of the post-modern European world may not represent a danger to one another, nations in the modern and pre-modern zones still pose threats to their neighbors and the world.

Thus, the Europeans are postmodern states living on a postmodern continent, at odds with and ill prepared to deal with, the real world of power politics, in an anarchic international system -- while America, recognizing the problematic nature of world politics, still is.

Therefore, the current grouping of nation-states around the issue of Iranian nuclear proliferation and theSyrian revolution re-surfaces the old alignments of the Cold War and brings us back to “history”.

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