Mark Collins – No “End of History”, or, Don’t Expect Any Lovely Converging International Community

Further to this post last year,

Francis Fukuyama: Not the End of History, Just Poor History

Harvard Prof. Stephen Walt uses real history to illuminate current realities and prospects:

The (Con)Fusion of Civilizations
Larry Summers and Kishore Mahbubani think that globalization will eventually lead to world peace. Except that it hasn’t — and probably won’t.

By Stephen M. Walt

Is all for the best in this best of all possible worlds [see also: [“Tout n’est pas pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles”]? If you’re looking for an upbeat assessment of recent global trends, check out the essay by Kishore Mahbubani and Larry Summers (“The Fusion of Civilizations”) in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Instead of a world of dysfunctional democracies, violent extremism, eroding institutions, and incipient Sino-American rivalry, they depict a globe where once-disparate civilizations are increasingly connected by shared values and constrained by a rules-based international order.

In contrast with the dark and violent “clash of civilizations” anticipated by the late Samuel P. Huntington, Mahbubani and Summers believe cultural groups are melding rapidly and creating “areas of commonality.” Extreme poverty is on the wane, a global middle class is growing, and the “march of reason” that began with the Enlightenment is supplanting superstition and spawning “problem-solving cultures” around the world. Western symphony orchestras are wildly popular in China, Asian flavors are infiltrating Western kitchens, American universities are opening franchises in the Middle East and Asia, and global diasporas are helping knit previously distinct cultures together. In their words, “the world is actually coming together, not falling apart.”

Unfortunately, in challenging the “glass-half-empty” view of contemporary world affairs, Mahbubani and Summers have swung too far in the opposite direction. They correctly identify a number of positive trends, but their article offers no theory that explains why these developments will ward off interstate competition. Indeed, the various developments they highlight have little to do with the prospects for peace.

For starters, does a rising middle class make states less likely to compete with one another and less prone to use force? It would be nice to think so, and I can think of various reasons why this might be true. But history is at best ambiguous on this point, and scholarly efforts to explore the links between economic inequality and interstate conflict have been inconclusive. Europe’s middle class grew dramatically between 1850 and 1914, for example, but that development did not prevent the continent from plunging into World Wars I and II, two of the bloodiest conflicts in recorded history.

Mahbubani and Summers’s faith in human reason is even more puzzling. The Enlightenment occurred in the 18th century, and dozens of wars have taken place since then. Moreover, countries where Enlightenment values were embraced and extolled, such as revolutionary France, were involved in many of those fights. If human reason and pragmatic cost-benefit analysis were a reliable barrier to war, then surely the past two centuries would have been far more peaceful than they were…

as I noted when Huntington’s book first appeared, civilizations are not actors and they do not make decisions for war or peace. Even now, the main actors in world politics are states and the most powerful political ideology in the world is nationalism. Nationalism explains why the number of countries continues to rise, why supranational institutions like the European Union are in trouble, and why China and its neighbors are increasingly at odds over seemingly minor chunks of territory in the open seas [see “South China Sea: USN Freedom of Navigation Ops vs China–Plus Vietnam“]. And in China, nationalism and the middle class seem to be on the rise simultaneously…

In a world where states remain the primary actors, and where there is no central authority to protect or prevent them from fighting, powerful countries will watch one another carefully, keep a wary eye on the balance of power, and do whatever they can to minimize their vulnerability to outside pressure. That is why Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to derail the relentless extension of Western influence into Russia’s traditional sphere of interest [and is working hard to expand the Bear’s influence west–see “Bad Vlad’s Dezinformatsiya in Action in Europe“], and that is why China’s rise has raised concerns throughout Asia and led the United States to “rebalance” toward that critically important region. None of the favorable trends highlighted by Mahbubani and Summers are likely to arrest these tendencies…

Do read it all. More here on that supposed “international community” that so many love to invoke. Plus two earlier posts based on Prof. Walt:

The Continuing Failure of US Neo-Imperialism

The US “Promoting Democracy” Abroad, or, “Look Homeward, Angel”

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


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