What's the Big Idea?

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As the 20th century drew to a close, foreign policy strategists struggled to imagine what would drive world politics after the end of an era that saw two world wars and a global order defined by the clash between communism and capitalism. Three ideas from that time stand out, argued in the pages of well-known books by Francis Fukuyama, Samuel P. Huntington, and John Mearsheimer.

These three thinkers presented contrasting frameworks for understanding the struggles for global power, and their prescriptions for U.S. policy were starkly different. But today, when one takes account of events since September 11, 2001, and examines “the conditions the authors set for their forecasts, it turns out that they point in a remarkably similar—and pessimistic—direction,” argues Richard K. Betts, director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
Of the three, Fukuyama’s vision in The End of History and the Last Man (1992) is seemingly the outlier. Fukuyama, a former U.S. State Department official who is now a professor of international studies at Stanford, argued that globalization was bringing about the “homogenization of all human societies.” With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of liberal democracy, states would no longer have anything important to wage war about.
Huntington’s idea, propounded in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), “was the most novel and jarring,” in Betts’s opinion. The Harvard political scientist and former U.S. national security adviser saw globalization as a force for generating conflict, not consensus. He argued that civilizations could modernize without accepting Western political ideals. Pushing liberal values would only promote resistance; America would be wise to follow a more isolationist course.
The homogenization Fukuyama made so much of, in Huntington’s opinion, pertained only to elites, who make up less than one percent of the world’s population. “Somewhere in the Middle East a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner,” he wrote, five years before 9/11.
Mearsheimer, who Betts describes as “an unregenerate realist,” was, like Huntington, not optimistic about the future. The University of Chicago political scientist argued in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001) that conflict would continue because societies always fight for power, not the spread of “nice ideas.” He predicted that coming conflicts would make people miss the “simplicity and stability of the Cold War.” Walls may fall, but nothing really changes.
Betts argues that some of Fukuyama’s conclusions bring him more in line with his peers than is obvious at first. Fukuyama foresaw a struggle for recognition by many groups, stirring the potent forces of nationalism and religion. He conceded that history could “restart,” particularly if people who felt unrecognized politically sought to assert greater power on the world stage. Fukuyama said little about China, leaving “an elephant-sized exception to the end of history.” If China “restarts” history, the distance between the Fukuyama thesis and the pessimistic scenarios of Mearsheimer and Huntington shrinks considerably.
Big ideas are essential for policymakers, who need an overarching vision as they grapple with daily challenges. But none of these three ideas has become the consensus position for shaping policy; they are “out of step with the attitudes that have dominated U.S. foreign policy and made it overreach after the Cold War.” What is needed, Betts says, is a fourth vision, one that preserves the “compatible elements” of Fukuyama, Huntington, and Mearsheimer, and provides policymakers with a framework to help guide them as they navigate the 21st century.
Photo credit: Evan Lane, via flickr


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