Sunday, August 3, 2008

Did history ever go away?

This keeps happening to me. By the time I read Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man” – a couple of years after it was published – the main thesis, always rather hard to sustain, in my opinion, was out of date.

Now I have started Robert Kagan’s considerably smaller and more digestible “The Return of History and the End of Dreams” a little after it has caused much discussion on the other side of the Pond, though it has not been out in Britain for very long. Its thesis is not out of date but I cannot help wondering what the fuss is about.

Eventually, I shall write a proper review on the book. In the meantime, let me make just one or two points. The basic theme of the book is that the great hopes of the early nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the world would come together, forget all enmities and proceed forward in a more or less amicable, economically and politically ever more open fashion towards a liberal, post-national future, have died.

We are back, says Mr Kagan, in a situation where great or not so great powers (of which, apparently, Europe or the European Union used interchangeably, is one) are battling for power and influence just as they did in the bad old days; where liberalism and autocracy are at war, though not openly; and where the West and Islam or, rather, some form of it are at war fairly openly.

History is back, according to this, with a vengeance. The question is did it go away. It seems to me that some of Mr Kagan’s assumptions as to what happened in the nineties and immediately after are a little foggy.

First of all, the collapse of the Soviet Union was not the beginning of a post-national period that, according to Mr Kagan, did not last. The Soviet Union was supposed to be the first and finest example of a post-national state (unlike the multinational states that were all the rage in the nineteenth century though Mr Kagan seems to avoid that point) and its collapse brought back a number of strongly nationalistic states into the political arena. Confusing the Soviet Union and Russia gets us nowhere very far. Russia’s reviving power (severely overrated by Mr Kagan in my opinion) is a reaction not to the post-national liberal world order that was supposed to be constructed in the nineties but to the nationalism of the erstwhile Soviet republics and colonies.

Secondly, the European Union, whose aim is to create a new nation possibly and a new state certainly, is not a twenty-first century construct that is facing a nineteenth century power, Russia. It is a twentieth century idea, dealing with twentieth century problems and providing twentieth century answers: doing away with the nation state, which has, in fact been reviving everywhere since the late eighties.

Thirdly, the EU’s weakness, which Mr Kagan rightly notes, comes from its basic structure and ideology. To have a common foreign policy, as we keep saying ad nauseam, one must have common interests. Absent those, there can be no common policy and, clearly, no real desire to put it into action. This is true for all transnational organizations which put policies into place as decided by their unaccountable elites. (Mr Kagan seems to think that it was the nations of Europe who decided to gamble in the nineties and put into place economic and political integration.) A world run by these organizations is not a dream but a nightmare.

More on the book and its very interesting ideas to follow in future postings.


Jonathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Homophobic Horse said...

Human history will go on a long as there are people. The more interesting question is why Fukayama pronounced the end of history in the first place:

"Voegelin argued that one of the defining marks of modernity was the increasingly popular view that politics was essentially about the pursuit of secular salvation. Transcendental objectives and standards...(did not)...define and guide political existence. Voegelin traced a connection between gnosticism and political ideologies that claim to
have the key to history's laws and (so) promise happiness, peace and fulfillment on this side of eternity."

Jonathan said...

The last of Mr. Kagan's essays that I read was a flat-out masterpiece (Power and Weakness, Policy Review, June/July 2002). It was such an epiphany that I have to believe there is something of value in his new book, or he wouldn't have bothered. The fact that Helen hated it is causing me some cognitive dissonance. I guess I'll have to read it for myself.

Helen said...

I don't hate the book - still a little to go. I merely think that some of the arguments are muddled. However, I certainly think you should read it for yourself, Jonathan. In fact, many people should read it. Not long and easy to digest, as I said. But not everything in it is accurate and a lot is very superficial.

BrianSJ said...

Following the kind link to Power and Weakness confirms my view that Kagan is right; the US and Europe don't understand each other, and he really doesn't understand what the EU is up to. The EU has assimilated the Baltic states and is keen to go on assimilating; a different style of empire building to the use of military might, and probably much more cost-effective. If the expansionists had managed to assimilate Turkey, would Kagan have still said this was inward-looking post-imperialism? Probably he would. He won't wake up till Saudi Arabia is in the EU.

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