Why History Has No End

Islamic rage and Western disunity show that reports of history’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

by Victor Davis Hanson

City Journal

Writing as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously announced the “End of History.” The world, he argued, was fast approaching the final stage of its political evolution. Western democratic capitalism had proved itself superior to all its historical rivals and now would find acceptance across the globe. Here were the communist regimes dropping into the dustbin of history, Fukuyama noted, while dictatorships and statist economies in Asia and South America were toppling too. A new world consumer class was evolving, leaving behind such retrograde notions as nationhood and national honor. As a result, war would grow rare or even vanish: what was there left to fight about? Gone, or going fast, was the old stuff of history—the mercurial, often larger-than-life men who sorted out on the battlefield the conflicts of traditions and values that once divided nations. Fukuyama acknowledged that the End of History would have a downside. Ennui would set in, as we sophisticated consumers became modern-day lotus-eaters, hooked on channel surfing and material comforts. But after the wars of the twentieth century, the prospect of peaceful, humdrum boredom seemed a pretty good deal.

How naive all this sounds today. Islamist hijackers crashing planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the looming threat of worse terror outrages, have shown that a global embrace of the values of modern democracy is a distant hope, and anything but predetermined. Equally striking, it’s not just the West and the non-democratic world that are not converging; the West itself is pulling apart. Real differences between America and Europe about what kind of lives citizens can and should live not only persist but are growing wider.

A Fukuyaman might counter that September 11 was only a bump on the road to universal democracy, prosperity, and peace. Whether the Middle East’s mullahs and fascists know it or not, this argument would run, the budding spiritual and material desires of their masses for all things Western eventually will make them more like us—though how long this will take is unknown. It’s impossible ultimately to disprove such a long-range contention, of course. But look around. Fukuyama’s global village has seen a lot of old-fashioned ethnic, religious, and political violence since history’s purported end in 1989: Afghanistan, Algeria, Colombia, Iraq, Russia, Rwanda, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, to name just a handful of flash points. Plato may have been right when he remarked in his Laws that peace, not war, is the exception in human affairs.

In fact, rather than bringing us all together, as Fukuyama predicted, the spread of English as the global lingua franca, of accessible, inexpensive high technology, and of universal fashion and communication has led to chaos as often as calm. These developments have incited envy, resentment, and anger among traditional societies. The men and women of these societies sense—as how could they not when encountering the image of Britney Spears gyrating or the subversive idea of free speech?—an affront to the power of the patriarch, mullah, or other hierarchical figure who demands respect based solely on religious dogma, gender, or class.

The new technologies, despite what Fukuyama would say, do not make modern liberal democrats out of our enemies but simply allow them to do their destructive work more effectively. Even though Islamists and other of globalization’s malcontents profess hatred for capitalist democracy, they don’t hesitate to use some of the West’s technological marvels against the West itself. How much easier it has become to plot and shoot and bomb and disrupt and incite with all those fancy gadgets! Flight simulators made it simpler for medieval-minded men, decked out in Nikes and fanny packs, to ram a kiloton or two of explosive power into the New York skyline. Both Usama and Saddam have employed modern mass media to cheer and spur the killing of infidels.

Leaving aside the mullahs and Arab despots, where is there much proof that freedom must follow in the train of affluence, as Fukuyama holds? Left-wing capitalists in China, their right-wing counterparts in Singapore, or their ex-KGB counterparts in Russia certainly do not assume that their throngs of consumers are natural democrats, and so far there’s little to say that they’re wrong. And where is the evidence that these consumers will inevitably become comfort-loving pacifists? Democracy and market reforms seem only to have emboldened India to confront Pakistan’s terrorist-spawning madrassa culture. Rich and free Japan is considering rearming rather than writing more checks to stop North Korean missiles from zooming through its airspace.

America, too, seems as subject to history as ever. Abandoning the belief that it’s always possible to keep thuggish regimes in check with words and bribes, it is returning to military activism, seeking to impose democracy—or at least some kind of decent government—on former terrorist-sponsoring nations, instead of waiting for the end of history somehow to make it spring up. Sure, postmodern, peroxide-topped Jasons and tongue-pierced Nicoles sulk at malls from coast to coast—bored, materialistic Fukuyamans all. But by contrast there are those American teens of the Third Mechanized Division, wearing their Ray-Bans and blaring rock, who rolled through Iraq like Patton’s Third Army reborn, pursuing George W. Bush’s vision of old-fashioned military victory, liberation, and nation building.

What about Europe? Surely there we can see Fukuyama’s post-historical future shaping up, in an increasingly hedonistic life-style that puts individual pleasure ahead of national pride or strong convictions, in a general embrace of pacifism, and in support for such multinational institutions as the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and the European Union, which promise affluence and peace based on negotiation and consensus. Europeans say that sober reflection on their own checkered past has taught them to reject wars of the nation-state, to mediate, not deter, and to trust in Enlightenment rationality instead of primitive emotions surrounding God and country.

Look closer, though, and you’ll discover the pulse of history still beating beneath Europe’s postmodern surface—and beating stronger daily. During the cold war, it is important to remember, the looming threat of the Soviet Union kept in check the political ambitions and rivalries of Europe’s old nations. The half-century of peace from 1945 to 1989 was not so much a dividend of new attitudes as the result of the presence of a quarter-million American troops, who really did keep the Russians out and Germany’s military down. Facing a mutual foe armed with the most advanced weaponry, fielding an enormous army, embodying a proselytizing revolutionary ideology, and willing to shed the blood of 30 million of its own citizens did wonders to paper over less pressing differences. If France and Germany don’t stand as squarely with us in the War on Terror as they did in the cold war, it’s in part because al-Qaida and its rogue-nation supporters, menacing as they are, don’t threaten Europe’s capital cities with thousands of nuclear missiles, as did the Soviets.

With the evil empire’s collapse and America’s gradual withdrawal (the U.S. has closed 32 bases in Europe and reduced its troop presence there by 65 percent since a cold-war high), the European nations’ age-old drive for status, influence, and power has slowly started to reassert itself, increasing tensions on the Continent. German chancellor Gerhard Schröder proclaims “decisions will be made in Berlin,” French president Jacques Chirac shakes a finger at Poles and Rumanians for not following France’s leadership, and Italian and German politicians hurl schoolyard insults at one another. The Eastern Europeans, bordered by a reunified Germany and a nationalist Russia, wonder whether American guns might not provide better insurance than the European Union should the aggressive urges of historical enemies prove merely dormant and not extinct. It will be interesting to see whether all of Europe or just some of its historically more bellicose states will boost defense expenditures above the parsimonious European average of 0.5 percent of GNP.

Europe’s resurgent political ambitions and passions are even more apparent in the Continent’s relations with the U.S.—relations that, in the controversy over military action in Iraq, worsened to the point where France and Germany openly opposed and undermined their ally of a half-century.

Such behavior hardly squares with the End-of-History model, even though the Europeans were making post-historical complaints that the United States was acting like the Lone Ranger in threatening to go to war in Iraq without the approval of the “world community,” and even though the European position was that the diplomacy of the international community, working through the United Nations, could eventually have handled the Iraq problem without the terrible cost of war. But in truth, the European opposition to the U.S. over Iraq and the fuss the European nations made about international organizations and diplomacy had more to do with realpolitik—the desire of those nations to answer American influence and champion their own power—than they did with any belief in the obsolescence of national identity or military force. How else could the once-great nations of Europe counter American influence, given the present comparative weakness of their arms and the rigidities of their economies, than by shackling the “hyper-power” with the mandates of the “world community”?

Indeed, for all the self-righteously idealistic rhetoric that French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin spouted at the U.N. last spring, the real reason that he strong-armed the Third World nations to vote against the American push for military action in Iraq was to recapture a little French puissance on the cheap. (Recall that he penned a hagiography of that ultimate French nationalist, Napoleon.) With just one wee aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, in its national arsenal, France finds it wiser and more financially feasible—for now—to exert its clout through the U.N. than to build lots of new carriers to try to match the U.S. in military might.

The dustup between the old Europeans and the U.S. over Iraq, in which Europe’s historical national ambitions played an indisputable role, only widened an already existing transatlantic rift, the product of substantial historical, cultural, and political differences between Europe’s democracies and our own. Resentment of the U.S. runs deep on the Continent. In part, this is a psychological residue of World War II. With nations, as with people, no good deed goes unpunished. France would not exist today without Normandy Beach—a permanent blow to its self-esteem. American arms both destroyed Germany and helped make it the flourishing nation it is today. Should Germans hate us or thank us for saving them from themselves? Both France and Germany would have become a playground for Russian soldiers and tanks if not for the U.S.’s military presence in NATO, and for proud European nations to become so dependent must surely rankle. Since the end of the cold war, it has become harder for European nations to keep this wounded pride in check—though of course the resentments have been intertwined with genuine gratitude and friendship toward America.

European animosity toward the U.S. also has a snobbish component—an anti-bourgeois disdain that is the dual legacy of Europe’s socialist Left and ancien régime Right. Notice how the latest “nuanced” European criticisms of America often start out on the Left—we’re too hegemonic and don’t care about the aspirations of poor countries—and then, in a blink of an eye, they veer to the aristocratic Right: we’re a motley sort, promoting vulgar food and mass entertainment to corrupt the tastes of nations that have a much more refined tradition. That Europeans now eat at McDonald’s and love Hollywood trash—that’s simply the result of American corporate brainwashing.

Our old-fashioned belief in right and wrong along with our willingness to act on that belief also infuriates the Europeans. Americans have an ingrained distrust of moral laxity masquerading as “sophistication,” and our dissident religious heritage has made us comfortable with making clear-cut moral choices in politics—“simplistic” choices, Euros would say. It is precisely because we recognize the existence of evil, pure and simple, that we feel justified in using force to strip power from ogres like Mullah Omar and Saddam Hussein—or kill them, like Uday and Qusay Hussein. Europeans, cynical in politics and morals, think that this attitude makes us loose cannons.

But paradoxically, the most consequential reason Continental Europe and America are pulling apart is the European Union itself. European visionaries have had a long history of dreaming up and seeking to implement nationalist or socialist utopias—schemes, doomed to fail, that have trampled individuals under the heavy boot of the state as the price of creating a “new man” and a perfect world, bringing history to fulfillment. The murderous fraternity of the French Revolution, nineteenth-century Bonapartism, Marxism and modern communism, Francoism, Italian fascism, Nazism—all these coercive programs for remaking the world sprang from what seems an ineradicable Continental impulse.

The European Union, benign as it currently seems, is the latest manifestation of this utopian spirit. The E.U.’s greatest hubris is to imagine that it can completely overcome the historical allegiances and political cultures of Europe’s many nations by creating a “European” man, freed entirely from local attachments and resentments, conflicting interests, ethnicity, and differing visions of the good life, and wedded instead to rationality, egalitarianism, secularism, and the enlightened rule of wise bureaucrats. No less utopian is the E.U.’s assumption, contrary to all economic reason, that a 35-hour workweek, retirement at 55, ever-longer vacations, extensive welfare benefits, and massive economic regulation can go together with swelling prosperity. All that makes this squaring of the circle plausible even in the short term is Europe’s choice to spend little on defense, which allows more money to go to welfare programs—a choice itself resting on another utopian assumption: that the world has entered a new era in which disagreements between nations can be resolved peacefully, through the guidance and pressure of international organizations—above all, the United Nations. In reality, of course, Europe relies on the United States to take care of many of its defense needs.

Like Europe’s brave new worlds of the past, the E.U. is in fact a deeply anti-democratic mechanism that elites can use to grab power while mouthing platitudes about “brotherhood,” designed to appeal to the citizen’s desire to participate in some kind of higher vision. The E.U.’s transnational government has nothing in place to ensure an institutional opposition—no bicameral legislature, no independent review by high courts, no veto power for individual member states. This authoritarian arrangement allows the E.U. to rule by diktatrather than by consensus and review. Rural Montanans can complain to their congressmen that Washington is out of touch; to whom will Estonians complain that Brussels has no right to decide what goes on their restaurant menus?

The E.U.’s disdain for democracy on the Continent carries over to its relations with the rest of the world. Even as Jews duck Muslim mobs in French cities, E.U. apparatchiks can slur democratic Israel as fascist, and Berlin and Paris can triangulate with Iran’s mullocracy. Only contempt for the messy give-and-take of democracy, plus a nasty dose of anti-Semitism, can explain why the despotic Arafat is more popular than the democratic Sharon among E.U. elites.

As for the U.S.—the democratic nation par excellence (so to speak)—the E.U. is contemptuous, so much so that anti-Americanism often seems to be the union’s founding principle. The E.U. channels all the wounded pride, resentment, and snobbish scorn that Europeans feel toward Americans into its grand ambition to stand up to the U.S. on the world stage. Regardless of whether Bush or Clinton is in charge, we hear boos from Athens to Berlin. Was it Durban or Kyoto that angered Europeans? Or maybe it was the execution of Timothy McVeigh, John Ashcroft’s hunt for terrorists, the lack of good cuisine at Guantanamo, or the failure to find WMDs?

It’s understandable, really, that the E.U. has set itself against America. Nothing is more foreign to European statist utopianism than the American emphasis on individual liberty, local self-government, equality under the law, and slow, imperfect reform. America has always been immune to utopian fantasies—indeed, it has always opposed them. The skeptical Founding Fathers, influenced by the prudence and love of liberty of the British Enlightenment, built the American republic based on the anti-utopian belief that men are fallible and self-interested, love their property, and can best manage their affairs locally. The Founders saw the café theorizing of Continental elites and French philosophers as a danger to good government, which requires not some grand, all-encompassing blueprint but rather institutional checks and balances and a citizenry of perennially vigilant individual citizens.

From America’s very beginnings in the wilderness of the New World, that spirit of rugged individualism and self-reliance has found a home here, and it stands diametrically opposed to European collectivism in all its forms—from the organic, hierarchical community extolled by the old European Right to the socialist commune on the Left to the E.U.’s rationalist super-state. Of course, our self-reliant ethos sometimes can seem less than fraternal, as I can attest from personal experience. I farm, among other things, raisins. Recently, the price of raisins crashed below its level of some 40 years ago. My friends casually suggested that I pack it in, uproot an ancestral vineyard, move on to something else—not, as in Europe, circle the tractor around the capitol, block traffic, or seek government protection and subsidies as a representative of a hallowed way of life under threat from globalization. But who can plausibly deny that America’s astounding dynamism and productivity result from this deep-seated belief that individual men and women are responsible for their own destinies and have no birthright from the state to be affluent?

The growing split between the U.S. and Europe that has resulted from these trends is of seismic importance. Though the effort to create a “European Union” may offer superficial relief when one considers Europe’s bloody history, it in fact constitutes a potential long-term threat to the U.S. and to the world. To the extent that this project succeeds in forging a common European identity, anti-Americanism will likely be its lodestar. But of course, it ultimately will fail, because for most people being a European could never be as meaningful, have such rich cultural and historical resonance, as being a Frenchman or a German. And even in failure, the project could be catastrophic: by denigrating a healthy and natural sense of nationhood, the E.U. risks unleashing a militaristic chauvinism in some of its member states—threatening not only the U.S. but Europe as well. When a German chancellor wins reelection campaigning as an anti-American and trumpeting a new “German way,” it’s not hard to see behind his success an embittered populace, motivated by the belief that German cultural energy and economic prosperity (increasingly encumbered by the corporate welfare statism that is the real “German way”) don’t win sufficient status on the world stage, where military might counts the most.

Behind the pretense that a dash of multinationalism and pacifist platitudes have suddenly transformed Europe into some new Fukuyama-type End-of-History society, it is still mostly the continent of old, torn by envy and pride, conjuring up utopian fantasies of pan-European rule at the same time as nationalist resentments fester. That’s what makes the question of European rearmament so crucial. Should Europe rearm—and I think it will, either collectively or nation by nation, as America reduces its military presence—it has the population, economic power, and (most important) the know-how to field forces as good as our own. If Germany invested 4 to 5 percent of its GNP in defense, its new Luftwaffe would not resemble Syria’s air force. Two or three French aircraft carriers—snickers about the petite Charles de Gaulle aside—could destroy the combined navies of the Middle East. We may laugh today at the unionized Belgian military of potbellied cooks and barbers, or scoff at German pacifism, but this is still Europe, which gave birth to the Western military tradition—the most lethal the world has ever known.

How a re-militarized Europe views the United States is therefore important. A powerful, well-adjusted Europe, made up of nations that would curb arms sales to rogue regimes, fight shoulder to shoulder with us against Islamic terror, warn North Korea, and stop funneling money to Arafat’s Palestinian Authority would make the world a better place. An armed Europe of renascent nationalisms, or one pursuing the creation of a transnational continental super-state, could prove our greatest bane since 1941. That Europe is now militarily weak and hostile does not mean that it will not soon be either powerful and friendly—or powerful and hostile.

These emerging trends require the United States to rethink its relations with Europe. NATO’s American architects rightly believed that the organization they created not only would protect Europeans from Russians and Europeans from one another, but shield us from them as well. We need comparable hardheadedness in thinking of what steps we should take to improve relations with Europe—and protect ourselves at the same time.

Completing the removal of most of our troops from Western Europe is a good first move. It would lessen the Europeans’ sense of impotence and thus diminish envy and encourage maturity. (Leaving a few bases in Britain, Italy, and Spain will allow us to retain some vital transportation and communication facilities—and have monitoring stations in place to gauge the tempo of the inevitable rearming.) We can redeploy the freed-up troops in strategically vital areas of the Middle East.

Second, there’s nothing wrong with bilateralism, so we should treat the E.U. the way we treat Yasser Arafat: smile, and deal with someone else. We should seek good relations and coalitions with willing European states, presuming that we can be friendly with many, even though we are not friendly with all. By offering an alternative to European nations that might worry about the E.U.’s anti-democratic tendencies, we can perhaps limit the union’s worst behavior.

Finally, if the Europeans insist on empowering unaccountable international organizations like the U.N., we should at least try to make them more accountable and reflective of political realities, making it harder for the Europeans to use the mask of internationalism to pursue their own power-political ends. The permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, for example, should include India and Japan, countries that by all measures of population, economic power, and military potential warrant parity with current permanent member France. If the General Assembly is always going on about democracy and human rights, moreover, why not put constant pressure on some of its more benighted members to extend human and democratic rights to their own peoples?

A tough-minded stance toward Europe will accept that a Germany or a France will not always be our ally; given our respective histories and differing views of the state, we should not be surprised to meet with hostility—and when it comes, we should recognize that it may have more to do with what we represent as a nation than any particular policies that we have pursued. The West has experienced similar intramural conflict throughout its history: between Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians; between Atlantic-port New Worlders and Mediterranean galley states; between the French and the British as they triangulated with the Ottomans—to say nothing of the mad continental utopians, warring on the free societies of Europe and the world.

Ultimately, America seeks neither a hostile nor a subservient Europe, but one of confident democratic allies like the U.K.: allies that provide us not only with military partnership but trustworthy guidance too. The U.N. has never really either prevented or ended a war; our democratic friends in World War I and II, along with NATO, sometimes have. We stand a better chance of bringing about such a future if we remember from history that man’s nature, for all the centuries’ talk about human perfectibility, is unchanging—and that therefore history never ends.

©2003 Victor Davis Hanson

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