Intellectuals love to play with big ideas. The bigger the ideas, the more they impress people. Thus do intellectuals influence, if not control the way other people think … and act.
After the fall of Communism everyone’s favorite big idea was the end of history. Minds were ablaze with Francis Fukuyama’s belief that history had come to an end and that liberal democracy and free enterprise had emerged victorious. To establish his intellectual bona fides Fukuyama claimed that recent events had proven that this fulfilled Hegel's prophecy. Nothing quite like a little German idealism to make you look really, really right.
In what must count as a world-historical intellectual irony, the losers in the great civilizational war, the Communists, had been inspired by the same German philosopher. It was as though good Hegel had defeated bad Hegel.
It was enough to make any thoughtful person suspicious.
What happened when governments decided to conduct American policy under the aegis of Fukuyama? For one they defended the Iraq War by saying that they were going to bring democracy to the Middle East. Starry eyed conservative idealists—how’s that for a contradiction in terms—told us that democracy was going to overtake the Middle East. When the Arab spring broke out, they and many liberals cheered their own brilliance and prescience.
Remind us how that all worked out?
We know what republican government looks like in Iran. As for Iraq, the results are too well known. We know what happened in Gaza when we foolishly promoted democratic elections. And we know what happened in Egypt when they had their first free democratic elections after Mubarak.
The apotheosis of the Fukuyama world view was supposed to be the Arab Spring. If the Bush administration was wrong to say that it was bringing democracy to the Arab world through the force of arms, the Obama administration, pusillanimously, stepped aside to allow democracy to flourish. Think about it: if history is over and liberal democracy is the only viable political system, the World Spirit will bring it to pass without your having to do anything consequential.
We know how that worked out.
In the meantime, David Goldman has been promoting a newer big idea to frame the current historical epoch. It’s not about the way the Hegelian World Spirit will naturally be actualized in liberal democracies, but about how the defining event of our time is the decline and fall of Muslim civilization. It's not for nothing that he calls himself Spengler.
To his great credit, Goldman suggests that what matters is how well our diplomats and politicians manage the problem. The outcome, he suggests, is not inevitable. Thus, we might get it right and we might get it wrong. Up to now we have not even gotten it.
Note well , managing a situation is not the same as sitting back or intervening to allow the flowering of a grand historical idea. Goldman does not mention it in this article, but George Bush the elder managed the fall of the Soviet Union skillfully.
Goldman has presented this idea before, and, considering what has been happening across the Middle East and Europe, he is looking more and more correct.
In a recent article for the Asia Times Goldman wrote:
The great task of diplomacy in the 21st century is a sad and dreary one, namely managing the decline of Muslim civilization. There is a parallel to the great diplomatic problem of the late 19th and early 20th century, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, which the diplomats bungled horribly.
But, who will do it? Who will step up and take charge of the situation? Surely, not an Obama administration that doesn’t have a clue about what is going on and that has already mismanaged the situation into near-oblivion. And not the European community that has lost the will to fight for much of anything, except perhaps for special privileges provided by governments.
It is no job for the idealistic, namely the Americans, nor for the squeamish, namely the Europeans. The breakdown of civil order in a great arc from Beirut to Basra has already displaced 20 million people and raised the world refugee count from 40 million in 2011 to 60 million in 2014, with scores of millions at risk. After it failed to build democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States fell into a sullen torpor in which serious discussion of intervention in the regime is excluded. The hypocritical Europeans averted their eyes until millions of desperate people appeared on their doorstep, and remain clueless in the face of the worst humanitarian crisis since the last world war.
Enter Vladimir Putin. In the absence of American and European leadership someone had to step up and to step in. One understands that Putin has many reasons, most of them not very good, for wanting to be involved in the Middle East.
Being a contrarian, Goldman dares to suggest that Putin’s intervention might be a bulwark against further anarchy. Someone, he is saying, has to lead. And, since Europe and America don’t want the job, Putin decided to seize the opportunity.
In Goldman’s words:
That leaves Vladimir Putin as the last, best hope of a region already halfway over the brink into the abyss.
He believes that the best we can do right now is an armistice. Assuming that it is not too late, that is. What would it look like?
A lasting armistice is possible only if the great powers combine to twist the arms of Iran, Turkey, and the Gulf States. Iran has to ground the IRGC and disengage from Hezbollah (it might be a good time to do so, now that Hezbollah has had 1,000 of its 12,000 full-time fighters killed in Syria, with twice that probably wounded). Turkey has to end its covert support for ISIS as a counterweight to the Kurds. Saudi Arabia has to police its rogue princes and cut off covert funding for jihadi movements. Russia with some help from China can twist arms in Tehran while the Americans and the Saudis can give an ultimatum to Ankara.
History brought forth a great moment, Friedrich Schiller wrote of the French Revolution, but the moment encountered mediocre people. Putin has a chance to be great, contrary to his past record and to all expectation. He is not quite the Zeitgeist on horseback, but he is the key to a possible solution. We will learn soon what he is made of. I have long believed that the most likely outcome of Islam’s civilizational crisis is a body count that would beggar the last century’s world wars. One hopes to be proven wrong about such things.
Schiller notwithstanding, the French Revolution was not a great moment or a great opportunity. It was more a great mistake, one that was not going to end well, regardless. After all, it was fueled by the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not those of Edmund Burke. Once you live an historical moment as a great drama and fuel it with great passion, you will have a devilishly difficult time turning it into a negotiation. It is more likely to have to be allowed to exhaust itself. For all we know, there may have been great people around at the time. Yet, the events would certainly have devoured anyone who tried to find a compromise.
Still, we need to be optimistic. I agree with Goldman that we do better to hope and to try to find solutions than to be pessimistic and let it play itself out. Right now, since the theatre has moved into Europe, this seems like sage advice.And yet, so much blood has been spilled; so many people are wandering homeless across Europe, that one feels like one is hoping against hope.
In effect, Putin might be able to forge an armistice between the warring parties. And yet, he is a strong man playing a weak hand… not exactly inspiring confidence.
Keep in mind, diplomacy requires diplomats and America’s current leaders do not understand diplomacy any more than they understand anything else. You might even ask yourself which of the presidential candidates, from either party, seems to you to be up to the task of managing the decline of Muslim civilization or dealing with Putin.
Carly Fiorina does not want to talk with Putin at all. Marco Rubio wants us to get tough with Putin. And Donald Trump wants to sit down and negotiate with him.
If Goldman is right and Putin is a major player in the Middle East, then the Trump approach seems the best. The only problem is, can someone who has never played the game of multinational diplomacy negotiate effectively with a master of the game?
For now, the Obama-Kerry foreign policy team seems to want to deal with Putin, but, one suspects that, having produced a goodly part of the problem by having retreated from the region, they will like supplicants at the court of the new man in charge.