Three years into the war in Iraq, with no end in sight, soul-searching has broken out in the foreign policy establishment. Second thoughts about the invasion are now a library. Among these, few have received wider coverage than Francis Fukuyama’s. The fame of the author of The End of History and the Last Man is, of course, one reason. The frisson of an illustrious defection from the ranks of neoconservatism is another, no doubt more immediate one. But to take America at the Crossroads simply as a political straw in the wind–although, of course, it is also that–is to diminish its intellectual interest. This lies essentially in its relation to the work that made Fukuyama’s name.
The argument of America at the Crossroads falls into three parts. In the first, Fukuyama retraces the origins of contemporary neoconservatism. His story begins with a cohort of New York intellectuals, mostly Jewish, who were socialists in their youth but rallied to the flag during the cold war and then stood firm against the New Left when the United States was fighting Communism in Vietnam. In due course, out of their milieu came a social agenda too: the critique of welfare liberalism developed in The Public Interest, edited by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell. Meanwhile, moral reaction against the laxity of the 1960s was being lent philosophical depth by Leo Strauss in Chicago and cultural zip by his pupil Allan Bloom. Military understanding and technical expertise were provided by nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter, theorist of counterforce missile capacity and prophet of electronic warfare. Fukuyama explains that in one way or another he was personally involved in all of these enterprises. But his account of them is calm and balanced, and if anything understates the potency of the political cocktail they represented. His emphasis falls rather on their ultimate confluence with broader and more popular currents of conservatism–belief in small government, religious piety, nationalism–in the base of the Republican Party. Together, this was the political torrent that powered the rise of the Reagan presidency.
But the greatest triumph of the conservative ascendancy–victory in the cold war–contained, he suggests, the seeds of what would become the undoing of neoconservatism. For the fall of the Soviet Union bred overconfidence in the ability of America to reshape the world at large. Exaggerating the role of US economic and military pressure in the sudden collapse of the USSR, which in reality was decaying within, a younger levy of thinkers–William Kristol and Robert Kagan are singled out–came to believe that tyranny could be felled and liberty planted with comparable speed elsewhere. It was this illusion, according to Fukuyama, that led to the attack on Iraq. Ignoring not only the quite different political landscape of the Middle East but also the warnings of the original neoconservatives against overly voluntarist schemes of social engineering, the projectors of the invasion have saddled the United States with a disaster from which it will take years to recover. Needless resort to a unilateral force has isolated America from world opinion, above all its European allies, weakening rather than strengthening the US position in the world.
Fukuyama devotes the rest of his book to the outline of an alternative foreign policy that would restore America to its rightful place in the world. A “realistic Wilsonianism,” tempering the best of neoconservative convictions with a more informed sense of the intractability of other cultures and the limits of American power, would retain the need for pre-emptive war as a last resort and the promotion of democracy across the globe as a permanent goal. But it would confer with allies, rely more often on soft than hard power, undertake state-building in the light of social science and encourage the spread of new, overlapping forms of multilateralism, bypassing the deadlocks of the United Nations. “The most important way that American power can be exercised,” Fukuyama concludes, “is not through the exercise of military power but through the ability of the United States to shape international institutions.” For what they can do is “reduce the transaction costs of achieving consent” to US actions.