If Francis Fukuyama is right, the neoconservative movement is dying. Good riddance. Through their network within the Bush administration, these intellectuals wreaked havoc on American national security interests, ruined the international reputation of the country and drove up a staggering national debt. In his February 19 New York Times magazine article, “After Neoconservatism,” Fukuyama pronounces the theory a failure, noting that all its major tenets have been discredited, including predictions about the need for and consequences of invading Iraq. He should know. He was one of the leading architects of the movement he now dissects.
“The so-called Bush doctrine,” he writes, “is now in shambles. The doctrine…argued that, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, America would have to launch periodic preventive wars to defend itself against rouge states and terrorists with weapons of mass destruction; that it would do this alone, if necessary; and that it would work to democratize the greater Middle East as a long-term solution to the terrorist problem.”
Fukuyama argues that the Bush administration is now in a full-scale retreat from these positions. Last year, when he was writing the book that forms the basis of his article, it may have seemed that way. Then, as he points out, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was tacking back to the center with more pragmatic diplomatic efforts on both North Korea and Iran that were bearing fruit.
But Fukuyama missed or underestimated the conflict within the administration. Officials still fixed on regime overthrow struck back, crippling the North Korean diplomacy and confusing an already complicated Iranian effort. As Jessica Mathews points out in her recent New York Times opinion piece, the administration still “cannot decide whether the top priority of its Iran policy should be regime change or non-proliferation; as a result, others of the major powers do not trust and will not fully support its antinuclear efforts.”
The Way We Were Wrong
Fukuyama says he and his fellow movement theorists were wrong on the idea of the United States ruling the world as a “benevolent hegemon,” on the use of military power to transform the world, and on the ease of democratic transitions. He compares the Neoconservatives to Bolsheviks for believing “that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will.” He says, “The problem with neoconservatism's agenda lies not in its ends, which are as American as apple pie, but rather in the overmilitarized means by which it has sought to accomplish them.”
The current danger is that some still cling to this view, encouraging military action against Iran despite the obvious consequences. Fukuyama warns, “The United States does not get to decide when and where democracy comes about. By definition, outsiders can't ''impose'' democracy on a country that doesn't want it; demand for democracy and reform must be domestic. Democracy promotion is therefore a long-term and opportunistic process that has to await the gradual ripening of political and economic conditions to be effective.”
Fukuyama is at his best demolishing the naïve assumption that the world would welcome the benign hegemony of the United States. He is particularly harsh on William Kristol and Robert Kagan’s pre-Iraq war claim that “It is precisely because American foreign policy is infused with an unusually high degree of morality that other nations find they have less to fear from its otherwise daunting power.” He writes:
“It is hard to read these lines without irony in the wake of the global reaction to the Iraq war, which succeeded in uniting much of the world in a frenzy of anti-Americanism. The idea that the United States is a hegemon more benevolent than most is not an absurd one….[But] it was premised on American exceptionalism, the idea that America could use its power in instances where others could not because it was more virtuous than other countries. The doctrine of pre-emption against terrorist threats contained in the 2002 National Security Strategy was one that could not safely be generalized through the international system; America would be the first country to object if Russia, China, India or France declared a similar right of unilateral action.”
There are domestic problems as well, he notes, for the American people have sharp limits to how much they are willing to bear for “projects oversees that do not have clear benefits to American interests.”
But he saves his sharpest knife for last: “Finally, benevolent hegemony presumed that the hegemon was not only well intentioned but competent as well. Much of the criticism of the Iraq intervention from Europeans and others was…[based] on the belief that it had not made an adequate case for invading Iraq in the first place and didn't know what it was doing in trying to democratize Iraq. In this, the critics were unfortunately quite prescient.”
Fearful that the backlash against the Iraq war from “realists” and conservatives will swing America towards isolationism, he argues for a new set of policies he dubs “realistic Wilsonianism.” While welcome, this is not really a new policy but more like the combination of liberal internationalism and realism that formed the basis of pre-Bush policy for decades. The non-proliferation regime, for example, successfully contained the spread of nuclear weapons, reduced global stockpiles and convinced almost a dozen nations to abandon weapon programs through a combination of international treaties, global norms and security alliances backed up by military power.
This is the sort of arrangement Fukuyama recommends for the promotion of democracy. Recognize, he says, that “promoting democracy and modernization in the Middle East is not a solution to the problem of jihadist terrorism; in all likelihood it will make the short-term problem worse, as we have seen in the case of the Palestinian election bringing Hamas to power.”
Do not abandon this goal, though, rather accept that “good governance, which involves not just democracy but also the rule of law and economic development, is critical to a host of outcomes we desire, from alleviating poverty to dealing with pandemics to controlling violent conflicts.” Then realize that it is not the military that plays the lead role in these efforts. Rather,
“If we are serious about the good governance agenda, we have to shift our focus to the reform, reorganization and proper financing of those institutions of the United States government that actually promote democracy, development and the rule of law around the world, organizations like the State Department, U.S.A.I.D., the National Endowment for Democracy and the like.”
Good advice. The essay itself and the policy prescriptions are so well written that they should be read as a piece. For more Fukuyama, click on the article below, or buy his book, “America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy,” at a bookstore near you.
“After Neoconservatism,” Francis Fukuyama, New York Times Op-Ed, February 19, 2006
“Speaking to Tehran, With One Voice,” Jessica Mathews, New York Times Op-Ed, March 21, 2006-04-04