Commentary Magazine

America at the Crossroads by Francis Fukuyama

America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy
by Francis Fukuyama
Yale. 240 pp. $25.00

In 1989 Francis Fukuyama wrote an article, “The End of History?,” that made him famous. Like George Kennan four decades earlier in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” another famous article, Fukuyama managed to grasp the essential features of a newly opened chapter in human history before most observers had recognized its existence. His thesis—that liberal democratic capitalism represented the highest form of social development and was destined to spread throughout the world—was embraced by some, attacked (and often misinterpreted) by others, but became overnight an indispensable part of the intellectual toolkit of anyone trying to make sense of the post-cold-war world.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Fukuyama has used the past fifteen years to produce a body of work remarkable for its scope and seriousness. After expanding his article into a book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), he turned to such topics as the role of culture in economic growth (Trust, 1996), the impact on advanced societies of the movement from industrial to information-based economies (The Great Disruption, 2000), and the implications of the biotech revolution (Our Post-Human Future, 2003).

Since 9/11 Fukuyama has also returned to foreign affairs, writing on the challenge of fixing failed states (State Building, 2004) and launching a new journal, The American Interest. In addition, he has emerged as a prominent critic of administration policy in Iraq—as well as of the neoconservative movement of which he has long been considered a part. In this new volume, based on a series of lectures at Yale, he concludes that since “the entire neoconservative agenda” is likely to be discredited by our “perceived failure in Iraq,” he himself is ready to “abandon the label and articulate an altogether distinct foreign-policy position.” In America at the Crossroads, Fukuyama is thus at a juncture of his own.



Before turning to Fukuyama’s new doctrine, I should say a word about the controversy his arguments have already aroused. Although he now asserts that he had deep misgivings about the Iraq war before it started, he did not offer any public criticism of it until the spring of 2004, at which point the insurgency was raging and hopes of a quick end to the American occupation had evaporated. Then, instead of seeing U.S. difficulties in Iraq as the result of inadequate planning, bureaucratic bungling, poor early decisions, and/or a measure of bad luck, he contended that the entire enterprise had been misconceived from the beginning. Moreover, while rejecting crude accusations that American policy had been hijacked by a shadowy, pro-Israel, neoconservative (i.e., Jewish) “cabal,” Fukuyama drew a crucial connection between the pre-war writings of at least some neoconservatives and the Bush administration’s ultimate and, in his view, disastrous decision to invade Iraq.

Some of Fukuyama’s critics, most notably Charles Krauthammer, have responded by accusing him, in effect, of cowardice, opportunism, and treachery. When the going got tough, they say, he jumped on the antiwar bandwagon, joining the chorus of blame being directed at his longtime intellectual allies and claiming to have known all along that they were wrong. To this Fukuyama has replied in turn that Krauthammer has become an uncritical cheerleader for the Bush administration.

This dispute is unfortunate in purely human terms, and it is also a distraction. Whatever one’s views about Iraq then or now, the pressing question before us concerns the principles and goals that should guide American strategy going forward. What is the character of the threats and opportunities we face, and how should we respond to them? While I disagree with him in many respects, Fukuyama has important things to say on these questions, and his views deserve to be taken seriously.



The structure of Fukuyama’s book is straightforward. After a largely familiar portrait of the founding fathers of neoconservatism, he seeks to distill “the basic themes or principles of neoconservative thought” on matters of foreign policy. By the end of the cold war, he writes, these constituted a distinct school, differing in important respects from the three leading alternative approaches: liberal internationalism, realism, and what Fukuyama, following Walter Russell Mead, labels “Jacksonian” American nationalism.

Unlike most realists, Fukuyama points out, neoconservatives take the view that “the internal character of regimes matters and that foreign policy must reflect the deepest values of liberal democratic societies.” Unlike most liberals, who place their faith in international law and institutions, neoconservatives believe that certain problems can be solved “only through the prudent exercise of [American] power.” Finally, neoconservatives harbor a well-founded mistrust of “ambitious social-engineering projects.”

In Fukuyama’s view, the sudden and largely peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire was an “extraordinary vindication” for the neoconservatives, who in the 1970’s and 80’s had urged confrontation rather than accommodation and who asserted, correctly as it turned out, that the cold war would end only with the overthrow of Communist regimes across central and eastern Europe. But these events also “laid the groundwork for [a] wrong turn” in the next decade, encouraging many neoconservatives to believe that further dramatic breakthroughs to democracy were imminent in other parts of the world.

Fukuyama is himself, of course, the best-known advocate of the view that the end of the cold war would be followed by the global spread of markets and democratic institutions. Here, however, he describes his position as essentially predictive rather than prescriptive; for him, economic development would lead to the spread of democracy on its own steam and at its own pace. In contrast to this essentially “Marxist” conception, other neoconservatives unfortunately adopted the more “Leninist” stance that “history could be accelerated through American agency” and, in particular, through the application of American military power.

Although he does not directly tag them as such, Fukuyama clearly regards William Kristol and Robert Kagan as the leading “Leninists” of the 1990’s. In their hands, the complex, multistranded legacy of neoconservative thought was rendered into something cruder but politically more effective: “the expansive, interventionist, democracy-promoting position that has come to be seen today as the essence of neoconservatism.” During the 1990’s, these ideas were used to “justify a highly militarized American foreign policy that led logically to the Iraq war.”



The four central chapters of Fukuyama’s book are devoted to an examination of the links between the writings of some neoconservative theorists and the misjudgments and errors of the Bush administration. First, just as the neoconservatives “tended to overestimate the level of threat facing the United States” after the end of the cold war—wrongly seeing China, for example, as a looming great-power rival—so they and the Bush administration exaggerated the danger posed by Islamist terrorism, misdiagnosed its root causes and potential cures, and “conflated the threat of nuclear terrorism with the rogue state/proliferation problem.” This overestimation caused Bush to make preventive war against a prospective enemy (as opposed to preemptive attack on an enemy getting ready to strike) into a “central feature” of American grand strategy.

But those “mobilized to commit suicide terrorism against the United States” constitute, in Fukuyama’s view, “a relatively small number of people,” with limited appeal and little chance of seizing political power; the danger they pose should therefore be “manageable.” Moreover, while the threat of a mass-casualty terror attack cannot be altogether written off, “there is reason . . . to think that the probability of such an attack has gone down since September 11.” Finally, since the most likely candidates for recruitment are not “pious Muslims in the Middle East but alienated and uprooted young people in Hamburg, London, or Amsterdam,” spreading democracy in the Middle East “will not be a short-term solution to the problem of terrorism.”

Next, neoconservative arguments in favor of “benevolent American hegemony” combined with the Bush administration’s tendency to believe in “its own good motives” to lead it into a second error: the failure to anticipate the “global reaction to the war before undertaking it, particularly in Europe.” The United States may, in fact, be different in its goals and behavior from other great powers or empires; but, Fukuyama reminds us, the appeal of “benevolent hegemony rests on a belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible.”

A third set of problems arises out of what Fukuyama describes as a collision between the neoconservatives’ belief in the desirability (in some cases) of regime change and their longstanding suspicion of large-scale social engineering. Instead of seeking to resolve this contradiction, the administration and its supporters allowed themselves to be guided by one principle while simply ignoring the other. As a result, they “vastly underestimated the cost and difficulty of reconstructing Iraq and guiding it toward a democratic transition.”

A fourth and final set of errors had to do with the alleged failure of both the neoconservatives and the Bush administration to take international institutions seriously. While Fukuyama shares their generally bleak view of the United Nations, he asserts that they have allowed their fear of multilateral constraints, their confidence in their own judgment and rectitude, and their lack of concern for international legitimacy to get the better of them. Despite the neoconservatives’ claim to be willing to work with organizations made up of other democracies, they even “rejected” NATO when it failed to fall into line over Iraq. As for the administration, thanks to its aversion to multilateralism it will leave behind “no lasting architecture for addressing problems of world order.”



What then of Fukuyama’s “altogether distinct” doctrine, which he labels “realistic Wilsonianism”? To this he devotes comparatively little space, but certain general features are plain. First, preventive war and forcible regime change must be understood to be “very extreme measures”; thus, Fukuyama advocates a “dramatic demilitarization of American foreign policy and reemphasis on other types of policy instruments.” Analogously, although the United States should continue to “care about what happens inside states around the world,” its efforts to promote democracy should rely primarily on the use of “soft power.” Finally, the democratization of the Middle East would be a good thing for its own sake (even if it will not solve our terrorism problem); but, having lost our moral authority and credibility over Iraq, we will have to cede the task largely to others, especially “alternative international institutions.”

In line with this last point, Fukuyama urges the U.S. to encourage the ongoing proliferation of regional and global multilateral mechanisms, including a revitalized NATO, a worldwide community of democracies, and various new security organizations in East Asia. Above all, Washington should seek ways to “downplay its dominance,” and be more cautious, “subtle,” and “indirect” in its efforts to shape the world.



Whether Fukuyama has succeeded in devising a distinctive new doctrine is open to question. With perhaps the partial exception of his desire to sideline the UN, the “realistic Wilsonianism” he espouses seems virtually indistinguishable from the mainstream liberal internationalism common in academic circles and among the foreign-policy gurus of the Democratic party.

But novelty is not the main issue here. Whatever its label, a successful post-cold-war, post-9/11, post-Iraq American grand strategy will have to provide clear and persuasive answers to the questions suggested earlier. What are our goals? What are the threats and opportunities we face? Through what mix of means, and what sequence of measures, can we best meet these challenges and achieve our objectives?

Both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists agree that a primary goal of American foreign policy should be to promote the global spread of democracy. Where they differ is on the prominence and priority to be accorded this objective. Since the end of the cold war, most liberals have tended to believe that the impersonal forces unleashed by economic globalization would eventually draw even the toughest and most distasteful holdouts toward political liberalization. In the meantime, they caution that making too much of regime differences risks challenging the legitimacy and sovereign equality of non-democratic members of the “international community,” thereby undermining prospects for cooperation and the all-important work of institution-building.

Neoconservatives, generally more impatient, have been inclined instead to draw sharp distinctions between democratic and non-democratic states. For them, authoritarian regimes are not merely distasteful but demonstrably unreliable and untrustworthy. This, rather than simple animus, is why most neoconservatives are deeply skeptical of the notion that a China ruled by the Communist party can ever become a true “strategic partner,” or that the present leaders of North Korea and Iran can be relied on to live up to paper commitments to abandon nuclear weapons. Regime change may not be around the corner in any of these places, but until it comes, the prospects for genuine cooperation will be severely limited.

The lesson the neoconservatives drew from the collapse of the Soviet Union was not that change would necessarily be easy but that it was possible, even in places where most experts did not believe it to be and where many warned that change would be more dangerous than a continuation of the status quo. To the neoconservatives, finding ways actively to encourage the further spread of democracy has thus been a matter both of urgency and of strategic (as well as moral) importance. The United States has an essential role to play in this process; no other nation or international grouping can be expected to take the lead.

Time is of the essence. Especially if America is at or near the peak of its ability to influence events, it must use its advantages wisely while it has them. If liberalization does not take hold in the Middle East, the threat of militant Islam will only grow. And elsewhere, too, reversals are all too imaginable. A continued constriction of freedom in Russia will transform that country finally into a corrupt, unstable, and hyper-nationalist dictatorship equipped with vast energy reserves and a large stockpile of nuclear weapons and driven by revanchist dreams. If reform remains blocked in China, the United States will find itself facing an authoritarian competitor of unprecedented wealth, military power, and technological dynamism. The further spread of democracy is therefore not just an outcome devoutly to be wished, it must be a central goal of American strategy.

In his assessment of the “post-9/11 threat environment,” Fukuyama has little to say about such potential great-power challenges. Nor does he have much advice on how to prevent rogue states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Duly noting that the nuclearization of the Middle East would add “a huge new element of danger to one of the world’s most unstable regions,” he contents himself with warning against the dangers of preemption. He offers no suggestions as to how the United States can persuade or frighten others into joining it in applying the sort of intense, omnidirectional pressure that might stand some chance of compelling Iran (or North Korea) to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Has the Bush administration overestimated the threat of jihadists armed with weapons of mass destruction? Even as he concedes that “there is no methodology that allows us to come to agreement on the scope of this threat,” Fukuyama believes the answer is yes. Unfortunately, however, the extent of the threat is not a function of the size of the jihadist movement. That, as he suggests, there may only be thousands rather than millions of people willing to commit acts of unprecedented barbarism against the United States and its allies provides scant comfort. Nor does the fact that active jihadists represent a tiny fraction of the Islamic world mean that they are incapable of seizing power in countries that have nuclear weapons (Pakistan) or the resources to buy them (Saudi Arabia).

Fukuyama is confident that the increased resources we have devoted since 9/11 to the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists must surely have reduced the level of danger. This optimism is probably misplaced. True, we are not yet at the point where rogue states supply nuclear weapons to terrorists. But if Iran and North Korea are permitted to pass safely across the nuclear finish line, we will likely be a great deal closer. It would be ironic if the events of the last several years were to cause us to lower our guard at precisely the moment when the threat might actually be growing—ironic, and potentially catastrophic. And this is to say nothing of the danger of biological weapons or the potentially enormous disruptive effects of repeated “conventional” attacks on the scale of 9/11 or the Madrid and London bombings.



The bulk of Fukuyama’s criticism of neoconservative thinking and administration policy is focused less on ends or threats than on the issue of means. Although, in its details, Fukuyama’s analysis can be nuanced, he seems in general to endorse the crude caricature of an administration and its “Leninist” backers obsessed with the use of military power and committed to “an open-ended doctrine of regime change and preventive war.” One is left with the impression that, had it not run into difficulties in Iraq, the Bush administration would now be using force to topple one dictatorship after another, spreading democracy throughout the Middle East at the point of a sword.

If there are individuals who have held such views, I have never met them, either in or out of government. Nor is it the case that either the administration or its supporters were ever as reflexively unilateralist, or as dismissive of “soft power,” diplomacy, or international institutions as they are routinely made out to be. Fukuyama is no doubt correct that the last several years have underscored the importance of consulting closely with allies, cultivating the perception that one’s actions are legitimate, revitalizing the conduct of public diplomacy, and rethinking the structure of international institutions. But these, again, are means, not ends in themselves, and they are far less likely to be effective if they are not backed by American military power and the demonstrated willingness, where necessary, to use it. Without hard power behind it, soft power turns quickly to mush.

Following the appearance of “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in 1947, George Kennan spent much of the rest of his career arguing that he had been misunderstood, and that others had wrongheadedly militarized the doctrine of containment he sketched there. Whether he was misread or not is a matter of debate. What is undeniable is that Kennan himself, having with great prescience identified the goal and the broad outlines of American cold-war grand strategy, recoiled from the means necessary to attain it. It would be a pity if Francis Fukuyama came to resemble him in this respect as well.


About the Author

Aaron L. Friedberg teaches politics and international affairs at Princeton. From 2003 to 2005 he served in the office of the Vice President as deputy assistant for national-security affairs. He is writing a book about the U.S.-China rivalry.

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