Americans under fifty years of age or so cannot muster strong memories of the end of the Cold War.
As Mikail Gorbochev brought about Paratroyka in the mid 1980s it was clear that the existential threat of the Soviet Union was abating, just a few years later the USSR was no more. In the span of a decade we went from a palpable fear of nuclear annihilation to being the globe’s only superpower.
Psychologically, the biggest impact on our society came from the fact that we no longer believed the Russians could beat us. In fact, we didn’t think any nation or nations on the face of the planet could.
This was the euphoric atmosphere in which Francis Fukuyama would pen his famous "End of History" essay. In a nutshell, the argument was that Fascism had been defeated in the mid 20th Century and Communism was defeated near its close, leaving no alternative to free market, liberal democratic governance across the globe.
The primary job for America and the West, in Fukuyama’s mind, and the many who agreed with him, was no longer to fight against our decimated ideological foes, but rather to foster and fertilize the inevitable growth of the free market as quickly as possible.
A central term emerged for this effort to make the entire planet more like America: we called it globalism, and for a quarter of century it was an approach unrivaled, one that dominated both major American political parties. By the 1992 presidential election incumbent Republican George HW Bush and his Democrat challenger Bill Clinton were both solidly on board with the globalist, neoliberal, end of history approach, both were ready to aid the whole world, even at the expense of some Americans, to hasten the total victory of Western style capitalism.
But not everyone was quite so convinced. As Bush and Clinton both forged headlong into globalism, both supported the NAFTA trade agreement with Mexico, for example, a quirky billionaire named H Ross Perot would run one of the most successful 3rd party efforts in history almost solely on the basis of opposing globalism. His mantra was the sucking sound of jobs fleeing not only south to Mexico, but east to China. Perot never had a chance to win, but his candidacy did show that millions of Americans were skeptical about the pie in the sky prognostication of the globalist end of history.
Throughout the happy go lucky 90s, things looked pretty good for Fukuyama’s theory. Americans for the most part had a few bucks in their pocket, there were no major military conflagrations, and the United States was settling in as the self effacing master nation of the universe. The first major crack in the end of history would appear in the September skies of a placid Tuesday morning as 4 commercial jetliners became deadly tools of terror and 9/11 became a hallmark date in American history.
The premise of "The End of History" relied heavily on the work of Hegel, an early 19th century philosopher who believed that human history would eventually plateau into a stable, rational form of world government. For Karl Marx that looked like communism, for Fukuyama it looked like the 1990s. And even the war on terror didn’t really prove him wrong.
There were some who viewed it as a civilizational battle between Islam and Chirstendom, or as we now call it the West. But they were few and far between mainly because of the power dynamics of the struggle. Nobody could envision a scenario in which Islam defeated or took over the West. It simply wasn’t a fair enough fight to consider it the kind of existential threat embodied by fascism or communism. And so, the end of history continued apace.
Shortly after Fukuyama filed his famous essay for the small magazine The National Interest, the massacre at Tiananmen Square occurred. But this Chinese communist crackdown on liberty did not dampen enthusiasm for the globalist approach, or in fact for economically supporting China itself.
Under the heady influence of solo superpower status the West looked at China and said, “We can change her.” The preferred method of changing China was to bring them into the fold of the global markets, and it wasn’t all that crazy sounding at the time.
The going wisdom in the 90s was that free market reform in China would, as if by osmosis, inevitably lead to the liberalization of Chinese society. After all, it had worked with post WWII Japan, seemed to be working in formerly Soviet Russia, and there was a general, logical sense that free societies perform better in free markets. But China had other ideas, and the tools to bring those ideas to fruition.
For example, China’s split currency with the Renminbi used for domestic transactions and the Yuan for foreign trade provided a buffer in which the ruling communist party could engage in global markets while also maintaining strict, and authoritarian control of domestic affairs. Meanwhile, its enormous population and growing wealth allowed it, over the past 25 years, to become not only a formidable military power, but the only one that can credibly challenge American military might. Today there can be little doubt that China is not only the primary threat to American global power, it's the only one.
So now we find ourselves in the West firmly at the starting line of the beginning of history. We are confronted with a new Cold War, and for the first time in decades, we must contemplate the possibility of losing. By 2018, with the Chinese threat made clear, Fukuyama found an interesting culprit for the failure of his thesis. That year he would publish “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.”
Here he would argue that 21st Century identity politics existed outside the normal realms of politics and economics that the End of History dealt with. Identity groups were not concerned with material conditions, but with “respect.” And this led to internal divisions that hampered the ability of the West to be the North Star of global economic and political freedom. It was an attractive and elegant idea, one echoed in our current concerns over our “woke military,” and our education system more focused on acceptance and rewriting history than on academic excellence. Put another way, the argument went, it had made us soft.
But this reading of the timeline of global history is a cop out that squarely places the cart before the horse. That is because it was the arrogant hubris of the end of history concept itself that created the conditions in which this softening occurred. Blinded to even the remote possibility of serious external threat a navel gazing America found family feuds and cultural fetishes to focus on. The fierce patriotism that had been central to the American identity for 2 centuries was simply no longer needed, or so we thought. Without an existential threat, the need for national unity, the need for a shared national identity withered on the vine, leaving us far weaker and far more divided.
Recently another object appeared over the open skies of America, not jetliners hellbent on death and destruction this time, but an almost comical Chinese spy balloon. The hapless Biden administration allowed the pillowy white invader to cross the continent before shooting it down. It left Americans feeling shaken. Why does China feel so emboldened, and why can’t we fight back?
And it's not just the spy balloon, for three years the CCP has refused to cooperate in investigating the deadly coronavirus it infected the world with, killing millions. On Taiwan, the CCP seems eager and ready to pounce, especially as the West keeps its focus on its old enemy Russia. Meanwhile, America has become so beholden to China, for everything from computer chips to medicine, that they could wreck economic havoc without firing a shot. Indeed, these are the wages of globalism.
Nothing brings people, even people who don’t like eachother very much, together quite like a serious external threat. And therein lies a glimmer of hope as we watch dawn break on the beginning of history. Joe Biden says he wants to be a competitor not a foe with Communist China, this is the failed rhetoric of the past. Not only is China decidedly our foe, for the first time in decades it's a foe who can beat us.
American leaders and indeed the American people need to wake up to this new Cold War which has already been joined. China has its hooks deep in our economy, our universities, our entertainment, and even our children’s social media apps. To paraphrase the Cold War era classic movie Rocky, China doesn’t know it's a damn show, China thinks it's a damn fight.
The end of history was fun while it lasted, some of it anyway, but it is over. Once again the United States is tasked with defending itself and the West from an evil ideology with its eyes set upon global domination. Yes, it is a fight that we might lose, but it is also a fight that we can win. History begins today, and only as a united, proud, and patriotic America can we once again emerge victorious. It is up to us.