[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Sands of Empire': Civilizations and Their Discontents

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'Sands of Empire': Civilizations and Their Discontents
New York Times Book Review, 5.6.26
[First chapter appended.]

The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias.
By Brian C. Anderson.
191 pp. Regnery Publishing. $24.95.


    Robert W. Merry fingers what he calls the ''idea of progress'' as the
    dangerous delusion that has given us neoconservatism. Its European
    forefathers include Rousseau, who believed in the perfectibility of
    human society through its political institutions, and Hegel, who
    foresaw an end to history. In America, the ''idea of progress'' has
    captured the imaginations of optimists from Woodrow Wilson to Francis
    Fukuyama, Thomas Friedman and William Kristol -- leading them, in
    Merry's view, to dangerous flights of fancy.

    Merry, the president and publisher of Congressional Quarterly, argues
    in ''Sands of Empire'' that history does not follow a linear course
    with the West out in front, so much as a cyclical one in which
    civilizations rise and fall. There will always be multiple power
    centers, multiple cultures and fundamentally incompatible systems of
    value. Following Samuel Huntington's famous thesis about clashing
    civilizations, Merry divides the globe into broad categories, each
    defined by an unchanging cultural essence. To interpret world events
    -- say, the 1992-95 war in Bosnia or the current war on terrorism --
    in moral terms, as humanitarian interventionists and neoconservatives
    do, is to obscure the real story of intractable conflict among, for
    instance, Islam, Western Christianity and Orthodox Christianity.

    In such a Hobbesian world, grand idealistic designs will avail the
    United States nothing. Nor will a quest for American dominance in the
    name of the good. Merry calls instead for a foreign policy that seeks,
    without swagger or sanctimony, to protect American lives, parry
    threats and foster a global balance of power. In the Middle East, that
    means unashamedly supporting dictatorships so long as they thwart
    Islamic fundamentalist ambitions. Since the United States is leading a
    civilizational war against the forces of Islamism, why behave as if we
    had the time or resources to re-engineer alien societies?

    In a foreign policy debate increasingly clouded by illusions of
    American omnipotence, Merry often strikes a welcome note of humility.
    He rightly cautions that cold war analogies cannot fruitfully be
    extended to the Islamic world, where religious politics claim deeper
    roots than Communism ever did in Eastern Europe. But the intellectual
    framework into which he squeezes America's foreign policy options
    seems barren, and his alternative vision for the post-cold-war era is
    fundamentally tendentious.

    To begin with, the idea of progress, which Merry scorns, and the clash
    of civilizations position, which he champions, are more similar than
    he indicates. Merry argues that through the idea of progress
    Westerners project their own values onto the world. But the clash of
    civilizations perspective also projects values onto the world -- the
    benighted, alien values Westerners imagine others possess, and will
    possess for all eternity.

    Islamic civilization, in Merry's description, has always held religion
    to be inseparable from politics, and will always view women as
    inferior to men. These and other precepts are ''etched in the cultural
    consciousness'' of the world's Muslims. But what about the centuries
    of Muslim quietude under the premodern Islamic empires, let alone the
    emerging Islamic feminist movement? With a sweep of his hand Merry has
    flattened huge swaths of the globe into ahistorical, monolithic

    What's more, Merry holds that the boundaries between civilizations are
    impermeable, but then expends enormous energy in arguing that they
    should be made and kept so. The world, in actual fact, is untidy, and
    so categories must be imposed and policed. Turkey's bid for European
    Union membership, for example, should be rejected on the ground that
    the inclusion of so many Muslims would dilute Europe's so-called
    cultural identity. Although a great many Turks themselves identify as
    much with Europe as with the Middle East, Merry advocates that the
    West push Turkey away and urge it to become a leader of Islamic
    civilization instead. Similarly, cultural heterogeneity within the
    United States threatens the Western order. The American government
    should ''seek to hold down . . . Muslim population growth.'' Merry
    dresses these notions up as cold-eyed realism, but they smack of
    old-fashioned racism.

    Indeed, Merry expresses sympathy for the Serbian argument in favor of
    ethnic cleansing in Bosnia -- namely, that the Bosnian Muslims were
    seeking to establish a fundamentalist state. The only evidence Merry
    produces is an academic book written 35 years ago by the Bosnian
    Muslim leader Alija (not Aliza, as Merry has it) Izetbegovic before a
    Bosnian state was forced into existence by the Yugoslav
    disintegration. Never mind the cynical power politics of Yugoslavia's
    post-Tito politicians; never mind the centuries of peaceful
    coexistence up to the emergence of Western-style nationalism in the
    late 18th century. As Merry describes them, the Yugoslav wars were
    rooted in ancient ethnic hatreds that are ''part of the essence of
    Yugoslavia and its peoples,'' at least since ''cultural venom'' was
    ''injected into the hearts of the peoples there through half a
    millennium of Turkish rule.''

    Merry suggests that the humanitarian interventionism of the 1990's
    rested on the same American hubris that considers the United States'
    hegemony to be desirable, as well as sustainable in perpetuity. But it
    hardly seems necessary to adhere to an idea of American exceptionalism
    to press the country to act when it can to stop mass slaughter. Merry
    contends, moreover, that our interventions in the Balkans have been
    disastrous. Unfortunately for him (if not for the Bosnians and
    Kosovars), they haven't been. And while he repeatedly declares that
    Bosnia has become a ''geopolitical monster,'' a ''Muslim staging area
    and recruitment ground for actions aimed at killing Americans in
    Iraq,'' he doesn't provide anything like the evidence that would
    support such catastrophic and sweeping claims.

    What Merry's analysis reveals, in spite of itself, is the bankruptcy
    of the dichotomies into which foreign policy thinking is too often
    forced. Why must we choose between American exceptionalism and
    xenophobic relativism? Both views are arrogant. Neither deals with the
    world as it actually is -- complex, crosscut by strains of similarity
    and difference, shaped by politics and moral striving as well as by
    history and culture. The difference between the two worldviews Merry
    describes is not so much the difference between the real and the
    imaginary as between the utopian and the dystopian. Merry rightly
    notes that the dangers of the utopian imagination are -- have always
    been -- blindness, arrogance and overreach. Yet Merry's vision of
    eternal civilizational strife prescribes its own fulfillment. It is
    hard to imagine a worse outcome than that.

    Laura Secor is a staff editor for The Times's Op-Ed page.


First chapter of 'Sands of Empire'


    Globalization and the End of History

    In 1910, a starry-eyed British economist named Norman Angell published
    a book called The Great Illusion, positing the notion that war among
    the industrial nations had become essentially obsolete. "How," he
    asked, "can modern life, with its overpowering proportion of
    industrial activities and its infinitesimal proportion of military,
    keep alive the instincts associated with war as against those
    developed by peace?" The book was an instant smash, translated into
    eleven languages and stirring something of a cult following throughout
    Europe. "By impressive examples and incontrovertible argument," wrote
    Barbara Tuchman in her narrative history The Guns of August, "Angell
    showed that in the present financial and economic interdependence of
    nations, the victor would suffer equally with the vanquished;
    therefore war had become unprofitable; therefore no nation would be so
    foolish as to start one."

    At major universities throughout Britain, study groups of Angell
    acolytes sprang up. Viscount Esher, friend and confidant of the king,
    traveled widely to spread the gospel that "new economic factors
    clearly prove the inanity of aggressive wars." Such wars, he
    suggested, would spread "commercial disaster, financial ruin and
    individual suffering" on such a scale that the very thought of them
    would unleash powerful "restraining influences." Thus, as he told one
    military audience, the interlacing of nations had rendered war "every
    day more difficult and improbable."

    In recounting all this, Tuchman barely conceals her contempt for
    Angell and Esher, which seems understandable given the carnage
    unleashed upon the European continent just four years after Angell's
    volume began its massive flow through bookstores. And yet there's
    something remarkably durable about the Angell thesis. In 1930, a year
    when the memory of World War I's rivers of blood must have been vivid
    in European minds, the king of England gave him a knighthood. Three
    years later he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his earnest agitations
    for world tranquillity. And in 1999, nearly ninety years after The
    Great Illusion appeared, a prominent New York Times columnist, Thomas
    L. Friedman, pronounced Angell's thesis to be "actually right,"
    although he leavened his endorsement with a bow to Thucydides'
    observations about the causes of war.

    All this poses a question: to what can we attribute the durability of
    Angell's discredited thesis and its reemergence after nearly a century
    filled with global conflict? The answer lies in the convergence of two
    developments of significance to Western thought - one distant and
    occurring over centuries, the other recent and bursting forth with
    stunning rapidity. The recent development was the West's Cold War
    victory over the Soviet Union in 1989 after nearly a half century of
    eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. The distant development was the
    emergence of that seminal Western concept, the Idea of Progress.

    This convergence is reflected in two publishing events of deep
    significance in America's recent intellectual life. One was the 1989
    publication, in an obscure scholarly journal called The National
    Interest, of that essay by Francis Fukuyama entitled "The End of
    History?" Fukuyama, then a functionary on the State Department's
    planning staff but now a prominent academic, posited the notion that
    the West's coming Cold War victory represented "the end point of
    mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western
    liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Borrowing
    from Hegel, he said this represented "the end of history" in that the
    ideological struggles of the ages had reached absolute finality, with
    profound benefit to the cause of world peace. It was a bombshell
    article, stirring debates that still reverberate among academics and

    The other publishing event was the 1999 publication of Thomas
    Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree, an analysis and celebration
    of what he called "the new era of globalization," characterized by the
    triumph of Western-style democratic capitalism and by greater
    prospects for global tranquillity than ever before in history.
    Friedman's book was widely reviewed, generated abundant favorable
    comment, and spent several months on the New York Times bestseller
    list. One reviewer called it "[perhaps] the first indispensable book
    of the new millennium."

    These two efforts to explain the post-Cold War world reflect a
    fundamental reality of current Western thinking - namely, that the
    Idea of Progress remains for many the central underlying philosophical
    precept and the wellspring for much of what we see today in the way of
    perceptions, outlooks, predictions, and convictions. Both "The End of
    History?" and The Lexus and the Olive Tree are distillations of the
    Idea of Progress, applied to the post-Cold War world. And both embrace
    the mischievous corollary and the two great contradictions of the
    Progress concept. The mischievous corollary suggests that progress can
    alter fundamental human nature. The contradictions are, first, the
    notion that this inexorable progress can actually stop at a perceived
    end point of history; and, second, the persistent underlying idea of
    Eurocentrism, the perceived superiority and universality of Western
    ideas and ideals.

    Francis Fukuyama, the son of a Congregational minister and religion
    professor, grew up in a middle-class housing development on
    Manhattan's Lower East Side. At Cornell, he majored in classics and
    lived at a residence called Telluride House, a haven for philosophy
    students who enjoyed sitting around and discussing the great thinkers.
    After Cornell it was on to Yale, where he did graduate work in
    comparative literature, and then to Paris to further his literary
    studies. But he became alienated from what he considered the
    postmodern nihilism of the prominent scholars there, and he redirected
    his focus toward the tangible world of geopolitics. Three years later
    he had a Ph.D. from Harvard in political science, with a specialty in
    Middle Eastern and Soviet politics.

    Upon getting the doctorate he joined the RAND Corporation in Santa
    Monica, where he spent several years writing papers of informed
    speculation on the fine points and likely implications of Soviet
    foreign and military policy. Then in early 1989, just before he was to
    join the State Department's planning staff, he delivered a lecture at
    the University of Chicago that sought to place the day's geopolitical
    events in a broad perspective. Owen Harries, editor of The National
    Interest (just four years old at the time, with a circulation of
    5,600), read the speech and considered it precisely the kind of
    attention-grabbing analysis he wanted. Running to ten thousand words
    and appearing in the summer issue, it instantly thrust Fukuyama into
    the role of intellectual celebrity.

    Fukuyama's embrace of the Idea of Progress is manifest in his
    provocative title, in his declaration that Western democratic
    capitalism represents the final destination point of human civic
    development, and in his belief in the universality of Western
    political ideals. But more fundamental is his reliance on the
    philosophy and dialectic of Hegel, the great nineteenth-century German

    Penetrating Hegel and his thinking is not an easy task. Irving
    Kristol, the neoconservative intellectual, calls Hegel "the most
    unreadable of our great philosophers." But more than anyone else Hegel
    established the history of philosophy as an important area of study.
    Robert Nisbet calls him "without question the preeminent philosopher
    of the nineteenth century." Kristol calls him "along with Kant the
    greatest philosopher of modernity." Aiming to develop a field of
    philosophy that would integrate the thinking of all his great
    philosophic predecessors, he posited the notion that these
    predecessors represented so many states of mind, each signifying a
    particular stage in the development of the human spirit toward ever
    greater levels of maturity.

    Thus he was crucial to the development of the Idea of Progress. "In no
    philosopher or scientist of the nineteenth century," writes Nisbet,
    "did the idea of progress ... have greater weight than in Hegel's
    thought. There is scarcely a work in Hegel's voluminous writings that
    is not in some fashion or degree built around the idea of becoming, of
    growth and progress." In his essay replying to the Fukuyama article,
    Kristol offers a penetrating analysis of Hegel and his significance to
    Fukuyama's End of History thesis. On one level, he writes, Hegel's
    outlook was rather conventional in that he viewed history as an
    evolution from the more simple to the more complex and from the more
    naive to the more sophisticated. "All this," he writes, "was familiar
    to the eighteenth century under the rubric of Progress."

    But Hegel went further, suggesting that this evolution represented a
    destiny determined by an inner logic - "an inner dialectic, to be more
    precise" - of which the historical actors were themselves ignorant.
    Thus, it was left to Hegel to reveal this whole inner dialectic and
    this destiny. "From a metaphysical point of view," writes Kristol,
    "this accession of self-consciousness by a German professor
    represented an achievement of the universe itself, of which humanity
    is the thinking self-conscious vehicle." In other words, before Hegel
    came upon the scene the various philosophers hammered away at their
    various bits of thinking, not knowing how they all fit together. But
    now they had the benefit of Hegel's dialectic showing how these
    fragments fit together and showing further how they would continue to
    develop into the future. Thus the history of philosophy now could be
    regarded as a kind of cultural evolution "whose inner dialectic,"
    writes Kristol, "aimed always at increments of enlightenment - an
    evolution which we, from the privileged heights of modernity, can
    comprehend as never before."

    This was breathtaking. And soon it wasn't just the history of
    philosophy that came under the spell of the Hegelian dialectic, but
    history itself. As Kristol points out, the idea that history is a
    human autobiography in which events gradually and inexorably mature
    into modernity serves as the underpinning for nearly all of today's
    historical inquiry, which assumes, he writes, "that we have the
    intellectual authority to understand the past as the past failed to
    understand itself." And this heady, self-congratulatory thinking
    inevitably captured Western politics as well. "After Hegel," writes
    Kristol, "all politics too becomes neo-Hegelian." Hegel saw the modern
    constitutional state and its liberal social order as the end point and
    the final purpose of history. But he realized that this end point
    resided largely in the realm of theory and that, in the practical
    world, the evolution was ongoing. "Now," writes Kristol, "Mr. Fukuyama
    arrives to tell us that, after almost two centuries, the job has been
    done and that the United States of America is the incarnation we have
    all been waiting for."

    Viewing the Fukuyama thesis through such a prism, it is easy to see
    why he stirred such interest and controversy. In his essay, Fukuyama
    identifies Hegel as "the first philosopher to speak the language of
    modern social science." That's because he pioneered the idea of man as
    the product of his concrete historical and social environment and not,
    as earlier natural right theorists had suggested, a collection of more
    or less fixed "natural" attributes. This is precisely where Hegel
    embraced the concept of the malleability of human nature. And this is
    where Fukuyama did likewise.

    As Fukuyama sees it, this perception of human nature is fundamental to
    the inescapable modern view of mankind. He writes: "The notion that
    mankind has progressed through a series of primitive states of
    consciousness on his path to the present, and that these stages
    corresponded to concrete forms of social organization ... [culminating
    in] democratic-egalitarian societies, has become inseparable from the
    modern understanding of man." In other words, we're all Hegelians now.

    Fukuyama moves from his Hegelian analysis to the question of whether
    the modern world harbors any fundamental "contradictions" that cannot
    be resolved in the context of what he calls the "universal homogenous
    state" of liberal democracy. The End of History, after all, represents
    a state of human development in which no such contradictions can
    emerge because we have reached "the common ideological heritage of
    mankind." But to make his point he runs through the possibilities.

    First, communism. Fukuyama wrote prior to the profound events of 1989
    that marked the end of the Cold War - the massive exodus of East bloc
    citizens through Hungary and into Austria in late summer; the Soviet
    loss of nerve in the face of this display of defiance; the consequent
    disintegration of the Soviets' Eastern European empire; and the
    dramatic demolition of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of
    Germany. Thus he was prescient in seeing that Soviet communism was
    disintegrating and that it posed no serious alternative to Western
    democracy. "The Soviet Union could in no way be described as a liberal
    or democratic country," writes Fukuyama. "But at the end of history it
    is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal
    societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of
    representing different and higher forms of human society."

    Next he looked at the "Asian alternatives," with similar results. The
    Fascism of Imperial Japan had been smashed, and postwar Japan had
    created a consumer culture "that has become both a symbol and an
    underpinning of the universal homogenous state." In other Asian
    societies economic liberalism was ushering in varying degrees of
    political liberalism. And even China had abandoned the strictures of
    Marxism-Leninism in an effort to foster growing prosperity. China was
    a long way from accepting the Hegelian formula, Fukuyama suggested.
    "Yet the pull of the liberal idea continues to be very strong as
    economic power devolves and the economy becomes more open to the
    outside world."

    Fukuyama notes the speculation of some that the Soviet disintegration
    could usher in a threatening wave of Russian nationalism. He dismisses
    this as "curious" on the ground that it assumes unrealistically that
    the evolution of the Russian consciousness had "stood still" during
    the Soviet interregnum. Similarly, he dismisses the idea that
    nationalism or ethnic zeal could emerge from any quarter to pose a
    serious threat to the universal homogenous state.

    As for Islamic fundamentalism, he concedes that Islam has indeed
    offered a theocratic state as a political alternative to Western
    liberalism. . . .

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