History Strikes Back

MADRID – When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, the victors were beyond complacent, for they were certain that their triumph had been inevitable all along. Many in the West assumed that liberal capitalism’s victory over totalitarian socialism would necessarily bring an end to wars and sanguinary revolutions. Today, two powerful leaders – Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping – are demonstrating just how farfetched this view was.

The predominant Western view was exemplified in Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, which presumed that Western liberal democracy was the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution. In other words, Christian eschatology was transformed into a secular historical postulate.

That transformation was not new. Hegel and Marx embraced it. In 1842, the historian Thomas Arnold stated, with typical Victorian complacency, that Queen Victoria’s reign contained “clear indications of the fullness of time.” All of these historical prophets – whether heralding the realization of the Absolute Idea or the dictatorship of the proletariat – proved to be miserably wrong.

Not long after the West’s Cold War victory, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the return of national tribalism, even in the heart of “post-historical” Europe, challenged the concept of “the end of history.” The Balkan wars of the 1990’s, America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the bloody Arab revolts, and the exposure of Western capitalism’s ethical and systemic flaws in the global economic crisis undercut the idea further.