The Duck of Minerva

In Defence of Flawed Giants

30 July 2011

OK, its confession time. I don’t really agree with them much, but I loved reading the post-Cold War ‘blockbusters’ of Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama and John Mearsheimer, (all beautifully surveyed a little while ago by Richard Betts).

I was psyched to read Fukuyama’s prophecy that with the American-led era of market democracy, humankind had overcome the historical dialectic struggle of ideologies and had hit upon an ultimate way of being that would satisfy its fundamental longings, both material and psychological.

Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations was also audacious, in its opposite claim that far from the triumph of the Atlantic, world history was entering a period of dangerous pluralism where the global forces driving us all together would accentuate difference, and where unless we were careful, disparate cultural identity would fuel conflict and fragmentation.

And John Mearsheimer’s case for Realpolitik was a great read, making the case that no new paradigms were on the horizon, but that a multipolar power-struggle between nation-states would resume, even with the prospect of Germany and Japan unlearning their new peaceable ways and going nuclear.

So what? Go on Patrick, tell us more, I hear you thinking (get on with it, Ed).

Certainly on the UK side of the pond, academics routinely dismiss these works and other biggies like them. Not, one suspects, primarily because they, gasp, made bad predictions or were wrong on the main point.

To be sure, it seems slightly too early to proclaim the final triumph of democratic capitalism, or at least this form of it. The global financial crisis gives Fukuyama’s Hegelian ontology a day at the races, while it seems that dictatorship and the appeal of authoritarian solutions is still seductive in crisis, including in the West.

Contra Huntington, most conflicts since the Cold War have between within, not between, the civilizations and metacultural blocs that he identified. No matter how hard he argued that the first Gulf War was a signpost of the cultural clashes to come, the most impressive pattern of that conflict was how willing many Islamic states were to side with the great American Satan against the would-be Saladin to check his bid for power in the region. Not to mention the fact that in the ‘Arab Spring’, many protesters have shouted universalist, humanist and democratic slogans, not parochial or ethno-religious ones.

And against Mearsheimer’s anticipation of a return to muscular balance of power politics, EU nations aren’t yet reapplying to go back to the nineteenth century.

No, academics like to dismiss these works because the authors have appealed to a mass market, made meta-scale interpretations and predictions, and come as close to intellectual celebrity as possible for anyone who isn’t Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein. In an academic world that cherishes specialism and hair-splitting, that largely devotes its energy to internalised dialogues in exclusionary language, and which looks on fame and glory with envious suspicion, its no wonder that the mention of all three causes respectable scholars to roll their eyes.

Most strikingly of all, many folk who pronounce on these books simply haven’t read them. Huntington wasn’t issuing a racist call to arms. His book was written as a warning of the cultural complacency and triumphalism of America’s ‘unipolar moment’ and arguing that only a restrained sense of pluralism and cultural spheres of influence could lead to peace between civilisations. Ok, civilizations do not really exist in the hermetically sealed, unitary ways he told it, but there’s some value in a sense of the limits of power, the vastness of the world and the multitudes it contains.

Fukuyama’s End of History, for heaven’s sake, didn’t actually announce the end of history as a literal claim where stuff wouldn’t happen much any more. He meant history as an evolutionary, traceable process of competing ideas, and his account built consciously on Hegelian dialectics, not to mention the belief that the thymotic desire for recognition was critical to understanding why other systems had failed. He did think the rest of history would be probably quite boring, managing the gradual conversion of the world to the Atlantic way. On the other hand, the work was tinged with an apprehension that the boring-ness of market democracy would itself contain the seeds of violent revolt…

And Mearsheimer may have overstated his case for the reversion to old school power struggle, but if we migrate his interpretations Eastward, the large-scale investments in blue water navies, the scramble for bases and listening posts, the buying up of commercial clients, and the resumption of territorial rivalries in East Asia doesn’t exactly destroy his argument. There is an insecurity that seems persistent in the anarchical condition of world politics, and nation-states themselves are proving resilient both in their determination to reassert control and in the increasing demands we make of them.

Finally, a cruder point, hard to make politely. Some who dismiss these works aren’t really fit to clean the closet of a Fukuyama, a Mearsheimer or a Huntington. There is probably more virtue in their error, in terms of prompting richer and deeper debate, than in the safe, marginal and unaudacious output of most of the rest of us.

So hooray for flawed giants. Their minds might be mistaken occasionally but their shoulders are still worth climbing on.