The Old War (not the Cold War) is back, along with History

When my former colleague Francis Fukuyama wrote about the “End of History” he was right in one respect. The harsh universal ideologies seeking to remake the world: communism, fascism, Nazism — the threats to free countries and peoples of the 20th century — were on their way out. The end of the cold war and the collapse of communism in the U.S.S.R. and eastern Europe, and its transformation in China and Vietnam into Party-led capitalism, seemed to auger an era in which the ideal of liberal, free-market democracy as the proper way to organize a modern society had no challengers.

And yet, what we have learned in the 21st century is that while everyone may desire freedom and prosperity, there are still many obstacles to moving societies toward the embrace of democratic institutions and economic freedoms.

It is worth recalling that the ancient Greeks, who invented democracy, also feared it. Even though Plato was a product of Athens’ democratic tradition, he had seen popular votes for a nationalist war — the great war against Sparta — lead to Athens’ ruin. So Plato argued that societies should be led by an oligarchy of rulers chosen for their merits. His “Republic” was a republic of virtue (to use a phrase popular among later revolutionaries seeking to remake society), not a democracy!

The reasons many Greek leaders feared democracy were several: they felt that crowds make bad decisions; that the arguments within government in democracies made them weak, especially in the face of war; and that in cases of extreme internal conflicts, democracy would lead to chaos.

Such are exactly the warnings we hear today from authoritarian leaders in Russia, China, Egypt, and even Turkey. Warning that a free media will convey contradictions and lies, these leaders are seeking to shut down any free media and keep tight control of what people can read or view. Warning that political competition is chaotic, they keep tight control of who can exercise authority, run for office, and hold meetings. Warning that criticism of the government or themselves is damaging to the nation, they arrest and intimidate critics and stifle all criticism. And playing up nationalism, they argue that only a strong leader like themselves can preserve a strong nation, providing stability and prosperity (even when the latter seems unduly concentrated among their closet supporters).

So the struggle for democracy, and of democratic vs. authoritarian leaders, will go on. The arguments over democracy in theory and in practice are thousands of years old, with the conflicts with fascism, communism, and Nazism simply one round out of many in a very long battle. The latest war in which the U.S. was engaged — the war in Iraq — was not a war against communism, or even Islamic extremism (as was arguably the case in Afghanistan). It was simply a war against an authoritarian regime that was acting opportunistically to expand its reach, and to show its strength to its own people, first by invading Kuwait, then by sustaining the fiction that it was secretly working on nuclear weapons.

As we have seen with the Crimea, such episodes will continue. So the Old war — between the ideal of democracy and the practice of authoritarianism — is back. Or perhaps it never truly left. Either way, we had best recognize that democracy and freedom remain things that people throughout the world will still often have to fight for.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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4 Responses to The Old War (not the Cold War) is back, along with History

  1. Solaiman Afzal says:

    In one of your earlier blogs you had mentioned that it’s unlikely that Russia would expand it’s land grab beyond Crimea, do you still believe that?

    • I still think it unlikely that Putin will invade other parts of Ukraine. For Crimea, the costs of seizing it were substantial, but lower than the costs (losing control of Sevastopol, looking weak in the face of the regime change in Kiev). Ukraine has already been sent a message. Going into other parts of Ukraine would be far more costly (sanctions would be raised sharply) and provide much smaller gains. The incremental increase in prestige from adding to the Crimea would be much smaller than the gains made by taking vs. losing it. So I expect no major offensive from Russia. In Georgia, Russia occupied the easy parts and left the hard parts alone. The same should hold in Ukraine.

  2. Zhengbin Dou says:

    Is the democracy one of the several codes of the modern society which can be widely found and be used? We know, democracy only can be created from the conditions where there lie equal individuals. If the individuals can live by themselves, then they can have the power to be independent from each others and from the governments, and then they have the chance to pursue their own rights to develop themselves better, thus we created modern valuable things such as democracy, freedom, love, and so on. We even advocate some of them as the “be borne” rights of the human being. But they are actually the results of concrete conditions. So they might be explained in different ways, not because of explainers are from different nations or with different perspectives.
    Then let us be back to the “world-wide spread tendency” of democracy. It is a result of the existence of independent individuals, and more and more countries recognized that the market economy is one of the best ways to develop the modern society, so many of them are struggling to adopt the market system to show their adaptation to the out world. But the question is the democracy has its natural creature with the market system where they encourage and develop independent individuals with free will, so the democracy, legislation and other beliefs are becoming the codes of modern countries. But in different countries, due to the different stages, people don’t have the rational ways, such as fully developed laws to guarantee the democracy. So, as one part of the constitution, the democracy is also the result of the human being’s ration. So that is to say it can play its role only with the guarantee of the rational environment, without that, it perhaps can bring chaos. To this point, the democracy may really not be transmitted from abroad directly.
    The ultimate goal of the human being may be that they can live a “good life”. The freedom, as part of the human nature, may help them to fulfill that target, but democracy and the authoritarianism are two kinds of mechanisms we used, both them can help people to lead a “good life”, so we should take the democracy apart from the freedom, a man in the authoritarian regime can also has his freedom: for example, he may prefer to follow the will of the leaders, it is also really a kind of his freedom.
    Confronting with the “tendency” of being a long way to go to fight for the democracy and other valuable pursuits, it is may be more wise to cultivate the spirits from the domestic surroundings due to avoiding the interfering from abroad.

  3. I recently re-read Fukuyama’s book after hearing John Ralston Saul trash it @ the Jaipur Literature Festival. Fukuyama argues that Hegel saw the end of “History” as the realization of human equality and dignity that ended the dialectic of master and slave. I argued that the ideals of democracy (equality and individual dignity) and (to a lesser extent) market economics have not been surpassed as ideals. However, although it lacks any real intellectual credence, authoritarianism continues. It’s as if having reached “the end of history”, a good deal of humanity wants to retreat. (The problem of the “last man”?) Perhaps the offending note of triumphalism in the Hegel-Kojeve-Fukuyama theory needs tempered by a cyclical theory. Your work, along with that of Peter Turchin & Ibn Khaldun, among others, might be the right mix for a better understanding of where we’re at & where we might go.

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