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Ukraine shows history has not ended, or returned to the 19th Century

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In the summer of 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay “The End of History?” Do recent events in Ukraine validate Fukuyama’s use of a question mark instead of an exclamation point in his title?

Fukuyama’s essay was inspired by the end of the Cold War and came only months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, a little less than a year before the reunification of Germany in May 1990 and a little more than two years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in December 1991. The American system of government stood supreme and vindicated at that moment in time, and it seemed there was nothing left for the rest of the world to do but catch up.

Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine may not be the first restart of history since 1989, but in it some see retrograde movement back to the great power conflicts of the 19th Century. This turn backward is not preordained and lacking any coherent – let alone inspiring – philosophy will not come to pass.

In writing his essay in 1989, Fukuyama’s thesis was that “it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history.” And that “fundamental” occurrence was the triumph of the economic and political system of the United States – American liberalism, classically defined – over all other forms of government, whether they be authoritarian, totalitarian or some other unsavory flavor.

“. . . . [T]here is some larger process at work, a process that gives coherence and order to the daily headlines. The twentieth century saw the developed world descend into a paroxysm of ideological violence, as liberalism contended first with the remnants of absolutism, then bolshevism and fascism, and finally an updated Marxism that threatened to lead to the ultimate apocalypse of nuclear war. But the century that began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: no to an ‘end of ideology’ or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism."

The evidence for his thesis was the pending demise of Soviet communism, under glasnost and perestroika, and the commercialization of China.

Proposing an alternative thesis in light of events in Ukraine, Peter Beinart opines this week in the Atlantic,

“Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine doesn’t represent as sharp a historical break as 9/11 did, but it does offer the clearest glimpse yet of what the post-war on terror era may look like. To quote Secretary of State John Kerry, what comes after the war on terror is the ‘19th century.’ . . . . [T]his new era will be more like the 19th century than either the bipolar, ideological Cold War, the relatively placid post-Cold War era of the globalized 1990s, or the post-9/11 war on terror, in which U.S. policymakers focused overwhelmingly on terror networks and small, rogue states.”

So does the end of the Cold War and War on Terror necessarily mean the revival of Balance of Power as the predominant theory of our day? Should we break out the old writings of Metternich, Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger for a refresher course on what to expect in the coming decades?

Even Beinart is quick to point out that “[d]emocracy, nationalism, economic interdependence, and human rights are stronger forces in today’s world,” marking obvious differences between the 21st and 19th centuries.

But Fukuyama’s original 1989 essay foresaw nationalists, like Putin, and declared them not to be a worthy, long-term adversary of liberal capitalism:

“. . . [I]t is not clear that nationalism represents an irreconcilable contradiction in the heart of liberalism. In the first place, nationalism is not one single phenomenon but several, ranging from mild cultural nostalgia to the highly organized and elaborately articulated doctrine of National Socialism. Only systematic nationalisms of the latter sort can qualify as a formal ideology on the level of liberalism or communism. The vast majority of the world's nationalist movements do not have a political program beyond the negative desire of independence from some other group or people, and do not offer anything like a comprehensive agenda for socio-economic organization. As such, they are compatible with doctrines and ideologies that do offer such agendas. While they may constitute a source of conflict for liberal societies, this conflict does not arise from liberalism itself so much as from the fact that the liberalism in question is incomplete. Certainly a great deal of the world's ethnic and nationalist tension can be explained in terms of peoples who are forced to live in unrepresentative political systems that they have not chosen.”

Fukuyama did forecast that the Russians were at a fork in the road. They could either start down the path of market liberalism staked out by Western Europe at the end of World War II or “remain stuck in history” based upon a recurrent “chauvinism.” Still, he believed that whichever path Russia chose “we have already emerged on the other side of history.”

Writing on Ukraine this week in his New York Times column, Thomas Friedman updated Fukuyama’s theorem in light of current events:

“Any man who actually believes, as Putin has said, that the breakup of the Soviet Union was ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th century is caught up in a dangerous fantasy that can’t end well for him or his people. The Soviet Union died because Communism could not provide rising standards of living, and its collapse actually unleashed boundless human energy all across Eastern Europe and Russia. A wise Putin would have redesigned Russia so its vast human talent could take advantage of all that energy. He would be fighting today to get Russia into the European Union, not to keep Ukraine out. But that is not who Putin is and never will be. He is guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations toward his people and prefers to turn Russia into a mafia-run petro-state — all the better to steal from.

“So Putin is now fighting human nature among his own young people and his neighbors — who both want more E.U. and less Putinism. To put it in market terms, Putin is long oil and short history. He has made himself steadily richer and Russia steadily more reliant on natural resources rather than its human ones. History will not be kind to him — especially if energy prices ever collapse.”

So, yes, we can see events in Ukraine through the lens of realpolitik, the repatriation of Crimea to its regional Russian hegemon and Putin’s assertion of a 19th Century version of the Monroe Doctrine among former parts of the Soviet Union.

But as a universal theory of international relations, the world has spun tens of thousands of times on its axis since the 19th Century ended, and nostalgic nationalism is really no match for the positive, forward-looking philosophy that has been America’s contribution to historical progress. Some veterans of the Cold War have noted that Russia's own embrace of market capitalism makes a return to the bad old days improbable. It's a little early in the 21st Century to embrace a wholesale paradigm shift in foreign policy that requires a 200 year throwback in history.

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