Books

In the World of International Theory, the Marginal Majority Remains Unheard

The End of History and The Clash of Civilizations were maps, meant to explain the world. They emphasised the inevitable progress of liberal democracy and the irreducible nature of hostilities based on “civilisations”, aspects that events have shown are less important than political movements, nation-building projects and institutional alliances.

Inverted world. Credit: kimmo tirkkonen/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Inverted world. Credit: kimmo tirkkonen/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Every year, over two million new titles are published worldwide, but only a few rare ones become popular enough to enter common usage. In the last two-and-a-half decades, two titles – both nonfiction, both on international politics – achieved that status. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992, and Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, published in 1996.

These have been amongst the popular political science books in contemporary history. They have, arguably, helped shaped politics rather than merely commenting on them. However, subsequent events have proven them to be staggeringly incorrect. Fukuyama’s thesis was strongly influenced by the work of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), who argued that there was an underlying “soul” to humanity and that it was slowly developing and progressing into better forms of existence.

Earlier, Karl Marx, using Hegelian logic, had earlier predicted that communism would be the end state of human political and social development. Fukuyama now predicted that liberal democracy would be the end state.

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Francis Fukuyama. Credit: Twitter

Today, all the major liberal democracies around the world – whether it be the oldest one (the UK), the oldest formal one with a constitution (the US), the largest one (India) or possibly the most self-regarding one (France) – are in crisis. Across the world, voters are showing that when they are presented with no choice except one model, they will reject this farce of a “choice”. Despite being American, Fukuyama went out of his way to assert that the European Union was the “fullest realisation of his theory”. With Brexit and with Turkey’s dramatic shift against liberal democratic values, this is not a dream that is expanding.

Why is this important? The unquestioning belief in the progress towards liberal democracy means that the liberal democratic projects have just not been questioned on whether or not they are delivering the best governance possible. The corruption that comes from a lack of self-reflection, a lack of investigation into their own failures (one only has to see the terrible injustices still being perpetuated in the name of race in the US) and lack of accountability has allowed these liberal democratic projects to become all about form, and little about content. It is little wonder, then, that Thomas Piketty’s book on inequality Capital in the Twenty-First Century created such a storm – because it dared to puncture this dream of having found utopia.

The second problem with this deluded self-belief that humanity will – by itself – move towards liberal democracy, is that events such as the Egyptian revolution, the Tunisian democratic transition and the Syrian civil war are all lumped into a glorious “wave” – an Arab Spring.

Liberal democracy is a project that requires effort and organisation and to suggest that it is inevitable takes human responsibility out of the equation and has allowed the murderers with tanks – who believe nothing is inevitable – to march to power over the corpses of protestors.

This is also where Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations comes in. In his book, Huntington suggested that “civilisation” was the irreducible political identity, and those from different civilisations were bound to clash. He defined various groups: the Western world (primarily the US-led NATO countries plus Israel), the Orthodox world (Russia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and former Yugoslavian countries – although not Croatia and Slovenia) the Eastern world (China and South East Asia – except Malaysia and Indonesia, Japan, Nepal, Bhutan and India), the Muslim world (the Middle East and North Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia) and various “cleft” countries.

More than two decades later we can see quite clearly that the faultlines lie elsewhere. Huntington’s theory fails to explain the Iran-Arab rivalry that is playing out in Syria and Iraq. It does not explain why the Kurds, who are Sunni Muslims, are at the frontline of the war against ISIS, who they think they are the only true Sunni Muslims. None of this explains why the Taliban, al-Qaida and ISIS end up fighting each other in Afghanistan. In our own neighbourhood, the idea that India, Japan and China are in one group, while Pakistan and Afghanistan are in another, is laughable. And yet, as we keep beating the war drums along the beat of Huntington’s thesis, we are simplifying the world in a way that makes it impossible to understand.

In the opening chapters of The Clash of Civilizations – which I would recommend every international relations theorist read – Huntington explains the purpose of theory not to be exact but as a map, emphasising the important parts and deemphasising the bits that have less explanatory power.

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Samuel Huntington. Credit: Twitter

Both The End of History and The Clash of Civilizations were maps, but we can see that they were not good maps. They emphasised aspects – the inevitability of the progress of liberal democracy and the irreducible nature of hostilities based on “civilisations” – that are, as events have shown us, less important than the contingencies of political movements, projects of nation-building and large institutions of alliances (NATO, SCO, ASEAN and even the GCC, SAARC and BIMSTEC), which have done more to shape events. The US-Saudi-Egyptian-Israel alliance structure explains actions in the Middle East far, far better than anything to do with a civilisational identity.

Despite the now clearly illustrated flaws in these theories, they still dominate much of international relations theory, and part of the problem is that there are few competing, compelling theories that explain global decision-making. When I joined my graduate programme in international studies in the late 1990s, Fukuyama and Huntington dominated the conversation. The tragedy is that they still do. In that time not one book of international relations theory explaining global governance from the Indian perspective has emerged. Shashi Tharoor’s Pax Indica is a review of why foreign policy matters to India and how it works. There are few other books of this type, but none are books of theory that explain why things work the way they do or have predictive powers.

So, here is the last part of the problem with these theories that dominate thinking on global governance – they represent the views of a small part of the world. The rest of the world is not even presenting its own views. So how are they to be heard? At a talk at the National Endowment of Democracy – where I was an intern – in Washington, D.C., Fukuyama spoke about the success of integration in the US, “Look at me,” he exclaimed, “I don’t even speak Japanese.”

This type of disconnect with the wider world – which is silent – explains to some degree why theories produced in this bubble might not be very good at explaining global politics. Unfortunately, since the US academic community continues to dominate the production of such theories, and countries like India fail at producing alternative theories that convince, we will be left in a world in a world of inaccurate maps, leading us to conflict and confusion.

  • lumpenthinking

    Highly recommend the works of Justin Rosenberg & Co. and their rethinking of a theory of the “international”.