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Commentary (May 26, 2004)

Iraq and the end of history

Gregory Clark (Vice President, Akita International University)

U.S. President George W. Bush says often that the American aim in Iraq is to promote something called "democracy." But what is this democracy?

The American philosopher Francis Fukuyama has gotten much publicity with his thesis that democracy, particularly the Anglo-Saxon version, is "The End of History" -- namely the last and final stage in humanity's efforts to establish the ideal political system.

Ideal? With the news of prisoner torture and abuse by U.S. forces in Iraq?

Few may realize this, but the origins of the Fukuyama thesis can be traced back to a 1980s visit to Japan by a Lawrence Harrison, a dedicated U.S. expert on aid to Latin America. His visit was part of a quest to discover why Latin American societies found it so hard to match the economic and social progress of North America. His hypothesis was that the "radius of trust" -- the extent to which individuals in a society cooperate with each other -- was much wider in North American and northern European than in Latin societies.

Where the northern peoples had networks of professional and trade groups, traditions of voluntarism, etc., Harrison saw the Latin radius of trust as confined largely to close relatives and the Church.

Why the difference? Harrison saw it as embedded in religion -- the Protestant ethic of the north as opposed to the Catholicism of the south. But this left him with the problem of explaining non-Protestant Japan, whose progress at the time seemed to exceed even that of North America and Europe.

Visiting Japan, Harrison found similarly wide networks of trusting relationships, and assumed that the Confucian ethic was the reason. He saw that ethic as matching the Protestant ethic. At the time, some of us tried in vain to convince him that Japan was not a very Confucian society and that traditional Confucianism was usually seen more as a brake than as an aid to progress. This flaw, plus the lack of hype, probably caused his otherwise valuable radius-of-trust concept to be overlooked.

Enter Fukuyama. With only slight attribution, he picked up Harrison's concept of trusting relationships as the key to social and economic progress. But Fukuyama saw the radius of trust in North America, North Europe and Japan as having little to do with any religious ethic. Rather he saw it as proof that these societies had moved much further than others down the path of history -- all the way to advanced industrialization and liberal democracy.

The Fukuyama thesis has had enormous influence. It coincided with the collapse of communism in East Europe. Today it provides much of the rationale for the fruitless U.S. push into Iraq. But with a U.S. president as blinded by messianic fundamentalism as any al-Qaeda suicide bomber, who owes his job partly to electoral manipulation and who plans to continue it with massive spending aimed at slandering his opponent, can anyone really talk of democracy being the final stage in humankind's political development?

Far from being the end of history, democracy is the middle of history, and a very temporary one at that.

Isolation allowed the Japanese and northern European societies to evolve on the basis of personalist feudal relations rather than rely on one of the rigid ideologies found in the older civilizations -- Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism or Catholicism. This in turn allowed Japan and the northern European societies to develop the social contract as the basis of consensual democratic government, and the cooperative workplace as the basis of industrialization -- Japan especially, thanks to its more recent history of intense feudalism.

But it is only a matter of time before this sense of personalist togetherness begins to disintegrate. Societies inevitably begin to turn to rigid principles, ideologies and authoritarianism to hold themselves together, as we already see in the United States with the onset of legalism and Christian fundamentalism. Leaders increasingly rely on force, manipulation and slander to get to the top.

This "middle of history" thesis could explain the sharp contrast between the relative honesty and cooperation found at home in Japan and the Anglo-Saxon societies compared with the clumsy deviousness of their foreign policies and the brutality of their soldiers abroad.

As Fukuyama implies, these societies become convinced that their relative progress proves their natural superiority, and that this gives them a natural right to invade other nations and brutalize their populations.

The hypocrisy over the Iraqi torture and abuse charges is but one example. The evidence of these and other atrocities in Iraq had been lying around for almost a year, ignored. From Latin America to Vietnam, U.S. operatives have long condoned or cooperated in the torture and killing of prisoners and opponents. Representatives from those other two great Anglo-Saxon democracies -- Britain and Australia -- share some of the guilt.

As with the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, it is only when the undeniable photos emerge that consciences are pricked, with the authorities trying hard to make sure those photos do not emerge. But even photos do little to arouse consciences when it comes to the dreadful injuries and deaths caused by the even more immoral reliance on indiscriminate aerial bombings.

Ironically, it is the older civilizations, including the Middle East, which can claim to be the end of history. Initially, they too made spectacular progress. But for the most part, their rigid ideologies eventually came to work against that progress.

True, the more authoritarian societies can be just as brutal as our democracies. But their brutality is not masked by the hypocrisy and self-delusions we see over Iraq. It is usually kept at home, and directed against those who oppose the regime or its ideologies.

(This article appeared in the May 25, 2004 issue of The Japan Times)

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