Realism, Indignation, and American Foreign Policy

A radical and a neoconservative change their political stripes.


America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, by Francis Fukuyama, New Haven: Yale University Press, 226 pages, $25

Power and the Idealists: Or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath, by Paul Berman, Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 311 pages, $23.95

The 20th century produced a glut of political converts, St. Pauls in search of ideological roads previously untaken. Even today, in an allegedly post-ideological age, converts are plentiful.

Two recent books, Francis Fukuyama's America at the Crossroads and Paul Berman's Power and the Idealists, describe parallel progressions. Fukuyama, once a prominent neoconservative, has moved from the right toward the political center, where he argues that the use of armed force must become less dominant in American foreign affairs. Berman's much more luminous essay describes how graduates of the 1968 left also moved toward the center, turning into liberal internationalists who came to accept that military power might be necessary in certain cases.

Conversion accounts are most interesting when they go through the full cycle of attraction and renunciation. That's absent in America at the Crossroads: Fukuyama explains why he broke with the neoconservatives but never compellingly shows why he joined them. Indeed, he dismantles their arguments so systematically, applies the "realist" critique of neoconservatism so pervasively, that some will wonder whether he was ever the neocon he claimed to be.

Fukuyama, who teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., is that rarity in American intellectual circles: someone who can quote Hegel yet be offered a government job. He began his policy career, sort of, when Paul Wolfowitz recruited him as an intern at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the late 1970s, before he joined, a decade later, the State Department's Policy Planning Staff during George H.W. Bush's presidency. In 1998, as a hawk on Iraq, Fukuyama signed a letter from the right-wing Project for the New American Century (PNAC), of which he is a founding member, recommending that the Clinton administration overthrow Saddam Hussein. Just after 9/11, he signed another PNAC missive, again recommending Saddam's ouster. It insisted that "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq."

Yet Fukuyama's main beef, the reason for his public divorce from the neocons, happens to be the war in Iraq, which he feels was unnecessary. Neoconservatism, he writes, was based on "a set of coherent principles that during the Cold War yielded by and large sensible policies both at home and abroad." Those principles included a belief that U.S. power could be used for moral purposes, a skepticism that international law and institutions would solve major security problems, and a mistrust of ambitious social engineering projects.

By the 1990s, however, the neocons had changed, adopting rationales that "were used to justify an American foreign policy that overemphasized the use of force and led logically to the Iraq war." Disconcertingly, Fukuyama mentions the first PNAC letter in his book, but not the second. By doing so, he would have undermined his bogus claim that "unlike many other conservatives, I was never persuaded of the rationale for the Iraq war." But what was the Bush administration's broad rationale for war other than the one Fukuyama endorsed in that unmentioned second letter?

Fukuyama blames the neocons for what he sees as their disturbing tendency to shape their abstract ideas opportunistically. The threat of terrorism, for example, was "wrongly conflated…with the threat presented by Iraq and with the rogue state [nuclear or WMD] proliferation problem more generally." Those in and around the administration have hypocritically wrapped their arguments in principles, Fukuyama believes, but their real ambition is to wield power without restraint. This has required neocons to mischaracterize many of the main policy issues they have addressed, playing up imaginary threats, particularly that of militant Islam. Yet Fukuyama argues, in an absurdly narrow way, that "the most dangerous people are not pious Muslims in the Middle East but alienated and uprooted young people in Hamburg, London, or Amsterdam who, like the fascists and Marxists before them, see ideology…as the answer to their personal search for identity." It's as if Al Qaeda began as a fraternity of bewildered immigrants.

Fukuyama proposes that the United States accept a paradoxical combination of aims: on the one hand, pragmatic realism, in which respecting state sovereignty retains a critical role in international relations; on the other, a greater readiness to bypass sovereignty in advancing democracy and human rights. He calls this cocktail "realistic Wilsonianism." He also asks for "a dramatic demilitarization of American foreign policy and reemphasis on other types of policy instruments," using "soft rather than hard power, and [devising] more subtle and indirect ways of shaping the world." In particular, he criticizes the September 2002 National Security Strategy, which argued the U.S. should launch preventive wars against perceived terrorist threats.

He doesn't mention it, but Fukuyama's "realistic Wilsonianism," with its blend of all-purpose idealism and cold reckoning of the national interest, was more or less America's foreign policy through much of the 20th century. It justified, for example, arming the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union-promoted as helping "freedom fighters" but also vital in bleeding the rival superpower. Even the National Security Strategy restated many tenets of Cold War realism, such as the essential role of alliances and multilateral institutions.

Interests invariably clash with ideals, but nowhere does Fukuyama present a fresh perspective on how Washington should balance the two. Nor does he recognize that in practice, under his preferred approach, interests will almost certainly trump democracy and human rights. That's what happened during the Cold War, as any Hungarian or Czechoslovakian could tell you. For decades, despite its stated support for open societies, the U.S. acquiesced in a Soviet zone of influence while propping up despots who opposed the Soviet Union, all to maintain a global balance of power.

Fukuyama points out that democracy is not the "default regime" to which societies naturally revert once dictatorships are removed. In the Middle East in particular, he contends, societies are culturally and institutionally unprepared for it. But this argument, both elitist and deterministic, doesn't square with the idea that originally put Fukuyama on the map nearly two decades ago: that the end of the Cold War ushered in an "end of history" characterized by the ideological triumph of liberal democracy. If history ended and democracy won, doesn't this suggest that societies have a deep-rooted desire to find their finality in liberal democracy, making it a default ideology after all? Fukuyama evades the question by arguing that his views were wrongly interpreted: It is not an impulse toward liberal democracy that drives societies but an impulse toward modernization, which only later might bring liberal democracy with it.

There is much aloofness in Fukuyama's new views. The Middle East is at the center of his attentions, but it might as well be a goldfish in a bowl. Missing from America at the Crossroads is that essential ingredient of the neocon mind-set: outrage. Decades of American support for tyrants seem to provoke few ripples in Fukuyama's passionless log. I can follow him along most of the way, accepting the validity of this or that opinion, but he loses me in his frigid assessment of cruelty, particularly that of Iraq's late regime, and of the dangers of radical Islam. He never seriously assesses the human factor, never seems alarmed that militant Islam is about deeply held ideas-ideas that can be terribly destructive when unleashed. How strange that a man who posited an end of history through the triumph of liberalism can be so blind to the barbarism of regimes, and to the eschatological motivations behind those killing in the name of God.

And there's another problem. If Middle Eastern democracy is only a long-term project, then isn't Fukuyama really just saying the U.S. should do what it vainly did for decades in the region: urge regimes to open up, with little hope they will comply? His argument is both contradictory and circular-contradictory in that his approach leads to the counterintuitive notion that accepting, therefore legitimizing, dictatorships will eventually bring about more democracy (unless democracy is a default system in the end); circular because asserting that Middle Eastern societies are institutionally unprepared for democracy only encourages regimes to make sure their societies remain institutionally unprepared for democracy.

Fukuyama seems to think the neocons' arrogance is the best argument against them. He may be right. Who can deny there was overconfidence in how they approached Iraq, or brashness in their faith in the boundlessness of U.S. power? But there is otherwise little to agree with in Fukuyama's book, amid all the provisos, caveats, and convenient memory lapses. We are left with a spiritless hybrid to guide American foreign policy, one not conceptually more persuasive than what the neocons have offered and not particularly original either.

As Fukuyama turns into a castaway of the right, Paul Berman pursues his own journey toward the center from the radical left. In a 2003 book, Terror and Liberalism, written as a postscript to 9/11, this professor of journalism and writer in residence at New York University argued that totalitarianism, whether fascist, communist, Arab nationalist, or Islamist, was still totalitarianism. Berman saw a parallel between totalitarian ideologies: They all put forward an "ideal of submission. It was submission to the kind of authority that liberal civilization had slowly undermined…it was the ideal of the one, instead of the many. The ideal of something godlike. The total state, the total doctrine, the total movement."

Paul Berman resembles Woody Allen, not Captain America. His speech is diffident and stuttering. If he tried to stand up to the globe's hooligans, you could imagine them stepping on his glasses. But under the temperate demeanor is a biting essayist who has deftly zeroed in on the subtleties and incongruities of ideologues. His deeper purpose-at least in Power and the Idealists-is to show how prominent figures of the left have, over time, come to embrace liberal interventionism, but also how the left has often abandoned its humanism when coping with dictatorships. This is why Berman is loathed by many of his former political brethren, who have accused him of being a neocon in mufti when he discusses Islam or the Iraq war, which he supports.

Berman focuses on three figures: Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister from 1998 to 2005; Bernard Kouchner, the former United Nations representative in Kosovo who founded the organization Doctors Without Borders in 1971; and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a student leader in the French uprising of May 1968 and now a European parliamentarian. But he also brings in the French philosopher André Glucksmann, who jettisoned Leninist pretensions before most of his companions did, as well as the Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya and the Iranian writer Azar Nafisi, all refugees from '60s and '70s radicalism.

What these people have in common is outrage. It isn't so very different from the outrage fueling the neocon human rights agenda. It is also aimed against a relativism that renders tenuous the defense of liberal values. Totalitarianism, Berman writes, is "the system of oppression that reaches into the coziest and most private corners of life, into questions of sexuality, conscience, and personal behavior, and sets out to squeeze each of these intimate and individual matters into the exact and peculiar shape that is required by the governing fantasy." Anger is as palpable here as it is lacking in Fukuyama's tome.

But Berman is not the kind to grab a pitchfork and hiss about America "going soft." He very much remains a mild man of the left, a lover of Europe, a man with limited patience for neocon bombast or the excessive use of force.

An underlying theme in his book is that the '68 generation tried to advance its revolutionary objectives in myriad ways short of violence. Kouchner became the guru of international humanitarian action. Cohn-Bendit ran a kindergarten for two years, a project of the New Left "to perform radical surgery on the German national character." Fischer became an environmentalist, joining the Green Party. Berman has no contempt for the '60s generation; he isn't out to liquidate his ideological inheritance the way Fukuyama is. But he believes that, in some cases, force cannot be avoided in defeating autocrats. This was most evident, he argues, in Iraq, over which the left split in the run-up to the conflict.

Fischer's metamorphosis was charged with revealing inconsistency, which perhaps is why the former foreign minister emerges as the leading character in Berman's book. But Berman is confused. How is it, he wonders, that someone who put his career on the line by approving of military intervention in Bosnia after the Srebrenica massacre could oppose a war to terminate Saddam Hussein's murderous terror state in Iraq? "[Iraq] was studded with Srebrenicas," Berman writes. How is it that Fischer, who took on the pacifists in his Green Party with the declaration "No more Auschwitz," never seemed to conjure up a true picture of Iraq's dictatorship, with its genocidal Anfal campaigns against the Kurds in the 1980s and its colossal massacres of Shiites after the 1991 Gulf War?

Berman concludes that Fischer was more than a little confused himself. At a conference in Munich in 2004, Fischer admitted that the status quo in the Middle East was no longer acceptable. He "advocated a subtle and complicated fight against the new totalitarianism-a program to bring about some fairly big changes in the Middle Eastern political atmosphere, to transform what had now become intolerable." That sounded strangely like what George W. Bush was saying at the time. It sounded no less strangely like what the neocons said Iraq was about. But Fischer wanted to work lightly, "to tiptoe carefully" and avoid awakening memories of imperialism past. Here he echoed the nervous tropes of a European approach to the region that wants to have it both ways-speaking softly and carrying a big carrot while imagining glorious change. Fischer's stance risked being as contradictory and circular as what Fukuyama now advocates, a case of "non-action through action," to quote Berman in another context.

The anti-imperialist in Fischer couldn't endure marching in lockstep with Bush's neocons while they re-engineered the Arab world. As an American and an internationalist, Berman had fewer qualms. But if there is a question Berman leaves unanswered, it is where he now stands with respect to his objective neocon allies. Like Fischer, he looks in their direction with a faint expression of distaste. But the dividing line often seems one of style more than substance, at least on the subject of Iraq. Berman, like the neocons, presumes that history must progress toward the liberal ideal-a progression that occasionally needs to be defended by force of arms.

That's not how resuscitated realists see things today. Many have excluded liberalism from their proposals for ways out of the Iraqi debacle. My view is that if they prevail, the U.S. would make the same error it did previously by assuming that Middle Eastern stability, and therefore American security, can come at the expense of greater freedom. Washington's Arab allies, authoritarian regimes all, are in terminal decline, utterly illegitimate to their peoples. Force alone won't change them for the better, but unless the U.S. pushes them to open up in fundamental ways, all its chips will be placed on failing states that bigoted Islamists are most likely to inherit. That said, those of us who have argued this also realize that America is in no mood to listen. The botched war in Iraq has poisoned the waters.

Fukuyama and Berman have both moved toward the center, but it isn't easy to synthesize their stances. Berman can agree with details of Fukuyama's plea for a more diverse foreign policy, and Fukuyama can surely see the merits of using force when necessary. But indignation will keep the two apart. Berman has written a book that shows it makes a difference to him what happens to human beings in the pulverizing commerce of international politics. We're never sure that's the case with Fukuyama.

Contributing Editor Michael Young ( is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.