The End of the End of History

Back in 1992 Francis Fukuyama wrote a highly influential but seriously flawed book; “The End of History and the Last Man”. The general idea was that after the fall of the Berlin Wall the great ideological conflict between liberal democracy and communism had been settled. Liberal democracy had won, was spreading rapidly around the world and in due course every country would become a one. Good would triumph over evil.

The end of history meant the end of ideological conflict. Democracy would continue but the disagreements would be relatively minor. Ironically this view was similar to the Marxist belief in historical determinism; the idea the human societies go through different stages; slavery, feudalism, early capitalism, late capitalism, socialism and communism. Communism being the end point, effectively the end of history. A Utopian society so good no one would want to “go back”.

In order to understand why it was that Blair and Bush supported regime change in Iraq and were totally unprepared for rebuilding the country afterwards, then it was this belief that once a totalitarian regime had been overthrown a grateful population would automatically want to replace it with liberal democracy. Anyone bringing up arguments about WMD would look daft amid the jubilation. The neo-Conservative hawk Paul Wolfowitz claimed that “we would be greeted as liberators” after the invasion.

The reality turned out to be different of course. History continues apace. Opposition to the west is as strong as ever in the Middle East. China – authoritarian and prosperous – is quickly becoming a role model country for many, Brexit, Trump and right wing populism is on the rise in the EU. Trump himself has become a role model president for Brazil, Turkey and the Philippines. Liberal democracy is by no means inevitable anywhere.

So what lessons should we learn from Iraq? Some in the Liberal Democrats argue we have learnt the wrong lessons, we should still support hard power where necessary and not assume it will fail. Personally I am struck by the reluctance to debate the failure of our policy in Libya during the Coalition. Although not the same as Iraq, the parallels are striking. We actually repeated the same fundamental mistake in not preparing for the aftermath of regime change – this we previously criticised Blair for – and we hardly talk about it. The removal of a terrible dictator was followed by political chaos and a huge refugee crises. The rise of right wing populism in EU countries is blowback from that.

Given what is at stake there is a lot of moral pressure to do something and often resort to hard power, notably in Syria. My argument is that at a time of declining western power, hard power is often ineffectual and counter productive.

We – the west – are lacking allies with grassroots support in the Middle East so anything we do is treated with great suspicion. And whatever we do decide to do, we need to work out as objectively as possible whether it will do more good than harm. And that means we can’t rely on the End of History ideology; often the answer would be no. That is to say no matter how good the moral arguments are to intervene with hard power, it won’t work, it will do more harm than good. That said, I supported the defeat of Daesh and the associated rescue of (some of) the Yazidies in Iraq, despite the enormous price of destroying Mozul and Raqqa. So exceptionally the answer may instead be “yes, but…”.

* Geoff Payne is the former events organiser for Hackney Liberal Democrats

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  • The most liberal countries in the Middle East are Israel and Saudi Arabia. This will not please the extreme left or extreme right – hence all the anti-semitism and Saudiphobia, but is the reality of the situation.

  • Alex Macfie 22nd Jan '19 - 9:05am

    Stimpson: Israel, yes, for its flaws, is perhaps the most liberal country in the Middle East. But Saudi Arabia? You’ve got to be joking mate. Try telling that to Rahaf Mohammed.

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