Two major prophecies about international order emerged as the Cold War ended. One was Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, first outlined in an article in the National Interest in 1989 then elaborated in a book published in 1992. It pronounced total victory for Western capitalism and liberal democracy over all other competing ideologies and even predicted a boring future of peace and tranquility. The other was Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, first presented in a Foreign Affairs article in 1993 and then in a book published in 1996. He was decidedly pessimistic, predicting that the end of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry would be followed by a new wave of conflict fueled by civilizational competition and animosity.
Both Fukuyama and Huntington might claim vindication in the recent turn of events. Many have interpreted the emergence of the Islamic State as evidence of the truth of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. On the other hand, in an article last year in the Wall Street Journal and in his book, “Political Order and Political Decay” Fukuyama who foresaw the end of great power rivalry but continued strife in the Third World, claims that his “end of history” thesis remains “essentially correct” even as he acknowledges that liberal democracies and civil liberties might suffer from “decay,” as may be happening in the United States. In a 2002 op-ed for the International Herald Tribune, now the Global New York Times, I challenged the Fukuyama thesis by arguing that liberal democracy in the United States and the West could be in “retreat” due to the attack on civil liberties in the name of the war on terror.
Let’s start with Fukuyama. The original end of history article pointed to the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism,” and claimed that the “triumph of the West, of the Western idea is evident in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” This was an ironic claim, since the defeated alternatives to Western liberalism, namely fascism and communism, were still Western ideas. So the end of history was really the victory by one set of Western ideas over another.
Yet Russia and China might signal the “return of geopolitics” in the international system.
What about the Islamic world? Fukuyama dismissed the potential of Islam to offer a political alternative to either liberalism or communism. Certainly Islam, without a large or great power in its ranks, could pose no traditional Realpolitik challenge to liberalism. Yet history does not begin or end with the big ideas of big powers. The Islamic world is a massive demographic entity. There are 49 Muslim majority countries in the world, about one fourth of the total U.N. membership. The world’s Muslim population, at 1.6 billion, constitutes 23 percent of the total world population, with significant growth among its youth. Indeed, these demographic facts feature prominently in Huntington’s list of reasons for the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. Adding China’s 1.35 billion to the equation means that about a third of the world’s population theoretically remain outside of the West’s triumphant ideology. Even an ardent believer in democracy, such as this author, finds Fukuyama’s claims that there are no “real alternatives” (what constitutes real?) to Western style liberal democracy and that “we should have no doubt as to what kind of society lies at the end of History” too sweeping, arrogant and deterministic.
Did the Arab Spring vindicate the Fukuyama thesis promoted by the neo-con ideologues of the George W. Bush administration, whose invasion of Iraq was legitimized as a means to promote democracy in the Arab world? No. The impetus for the Arab Spring came mainly from within Arab societies and had little to do with Western help. There is no direct link between the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the Arab Spring. By now, it is also clear that the Arab uprisings were more of a protest against corrupt and repressive regimes than a call for the establishment of Western style liberal democratic institutions. If they were, they have certainly failed in most places except Tunisia.
While it would be wrong to say that a single or consistent Islamic world view runs through Muslim states and societies, it is equally wrong to assume that they simply identify with or adopt Western liberalism. This should not be confused with an acceptance of the Hungtingtonian clash of civilizations. The vast majority of Muslims and Muslim nations who do not accept Western liberalism similarly have no sympathy for al-Qaeda or the Islamic State or other form of Islamic extremism. In fact, several are themselves targets of the terrorist groups.
Huntington’s clash of civilizations has gained support in recent years as the new paradigm of global conflict replacing the Cold War and identifying the threat against which the US and the West could focus and mobilize its strategic response. It reinforced the fear of Islam and might have offered an implicit justification for the United States invasion of Iraq. However, like Fukuyama’s, Huntington’s thesis has flunked its test in the Islamic world and elsewhere. Much of the Islamic world rallied to the United States after 9/11. Islamic states were far more critical and uncooperative when the United States under the George W. Bush presidency invaded Iraq in 2003, but this was because the invasion flouted international norms and disdained the UN Security Council. Now, some of the most prominent Islamic countries have joined hands with the United State to fight the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. At the very least, as I had argued in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks, Huntington’s thesis underestimated the power of national interest, regime security and resilience of state sovereignty over civilizational affinities.
While some point to the conflicts in Middle East and Ukraine as proof of Huntington’s pessimism—and bearing in mind that Fukuyama too believed that conflicts other than those among the great powers would persist—recent and long-term trends in violence may come as a surprise. The 2013 Human Security Report finds that between the early 1990s (when both ideas emerged) until now, “overall conflict numbers have dropped by some 40 percent, while the deadliest conflicts, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by more than half.” The Armed Conflict Survey conducted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) paints a more negative picture, estimating a rise in the number of fatalities from major conflicts from 56,000 in 2008 to 180,000 in 2014. Interestingly enough, only two countries, Iraq and Syria, take up about half of deaths: approximately 88,000 of 180,000 in 2014. Even if one assumes that these two conflicts are civilizational in nature—rather than social, economic or political causes like repression—the evidence of a world on fire caused by a clash of civilizations is still limited at best. The IISS survey also confirmed that the overall conflict numbers in the world is still going down, from 63 in 2008 to 42 today.