History never sleeps
Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis always struck me as more clickbait than substance. The big idea in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man was that Western-led liberal capitalist democracy is the end point in humanity’s search for the perfect form of government.
Much-quoted by people seeking to justify the global dominance of the West, this core idea had little actual history to back it up. No doubt, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the demonstration of US firepower in the Gulf war of 1991 to evict Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait made this appear more credible to some, but that was mainly confirmation bias.
Democracy is an old word and a universal ideal, but in the sense of accountable rulers elected by universal suffrage, has barely been practiced anywhere for more than a matter of decades. It was way too premature to declare it complete in the early 90s when the US had only been guaranteeing full voting rights to all citizens for a quarter of a century.
As for capitalism, by the early 1990s, China and the UAE to take two disparate examples, had made clear they would use it to pursue globalization-led growth without feeling any need to seek liberal democracy.
Even on publication, with ethnic cleansing revisiting the heart of Europe as Yugoslavia broke up, the very phrase “end of history” was more offensive than plausible. Much more so as the decade continued, and genocide descended on Bosnia and Rwanda. In Congo, millions were to die in civil wars fuelled in part by the world’s demand for conflict minerals.
Hype popularized Fukuyama’s big idea, but hope also played a part. The end of the Cold War did see a reduction in nuclear weapons, Apartheid was ending in South Africa, and the rise of the internet and globalization was driving down prices for consumers. The zeitgeist had a feel-good factor, though some aspects like the formal creation of the European Union in 1994 harkening towards an ever bigger, closer Europe have encountered limitations.
In terms of Big History, the most important event of 1992 was the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which among other things saw the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). That showed just how widely and deeply the threats posed by climate change were appreciated at the time. Yet three decades on, greed, inertia, and vested interests have combined with greenwash to thwart many of the changes civilization needs to become more sustainable.
Hubris follows hype. In the 1990s, a proliferation of international conventions led some to imagine great powers might now shed old imperial tendencies and only project armed forces by consensus for the greater good.
Interventions in Bosnia and Sierra Leone are often cited as the Balkan Wars did eventually see leading war criminals brought to justice and Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo today are now at peace.
Unfortunately, the “more harm than good” side of the ledger is far fuller when it comes to Western interventions such as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Since World War II, by far the most successful humanitarian military interventions have not involved the West, but been conducted in and by nations of the Global South.
Vietnam invaded to overthrow the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia at the end of 1978, and a few months later, Tanzanian forces evicted the murderous dictator Idi Amin from Uganda.
As the world wrings its hands over the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, it’s worth remembering that long before lies over WMDs, colonial powers often cited many a modern-sounding humanitarian reason to disingenuously justify the interests of their empire.
In the 19th century, the British used the goal of ending slavery as an excuse for incorporating more colonies like Zanzibar and leaned towards the status quo during the US Civil War. Lord Cromer, consul-general of Egypt, liked to lecture his de facto subjects loudly on the need to emancipate women, even though property and voting rights were at the time far from present for women in Britain. To name but two subjugated African countries.
Mission creep prolonged the US war in Afghanistan aided by selective memory. Notably forgetting that the US indiscriminately armed Mujahedeen to fight the Russians for over a decade.
Afghan civilians paid the price, and defense contractors harvested most of the $2 trillion spent by US tax-payers.
To put this in context, that is over 100 times Afghanistan’s annual gross domestic product — five times its GDP was wasted for each year of this war.
Big powers are perhaps most prone to being doomed to fail to learn from history. 50 years after Suez, France and Britain abruptly decided to overthrow the Gaddafi regime in Libya with no heed for consequences.
Less than two decades after helping Ho Chi Minh liberate Vietnam from Japanese occupation in 1945, the US followed the French into trying to defeat the Vietnamese people and began wreaking havoc and napalm across all of Indochina. Who is to say China won’t one day tread the same path as Britain, Russia, and the US in Afghanistan?
As a schoolboy in the film version of Alan Bennett’s hit play The History Boys puts it: “History? It’s just one bloody thing after another.”