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.

In the tripartite structure of America at the Crossroads–capsule history of neoconservatism; critique of the way it went awry in Iraq; proposals for a rectified version–the crux of the argument lies in the middle section. Fukuyama’s account of the milieu to which he belonged, and its role in the run-up to the war, is level-headed and informative. But it is a view from within that contains a revealing optical illusion. Everything happens as if neoconservatives were the basic driving force behind the march to Baghdad, and it is their ideas that must be cured if America is to get back on track.

In reality, the front of opinion that pressed for an assault on Iraq was far broader than a particular Republican faction. It included many a liberal and Democrat. Not merely was the most detailed case for attacking Saddam Hussein made by Kenneth Pollack, a functionary of the Clinton Administration. What remains by a long way the most sweeping theorization of a program for American military intervention to destroy rogue regimes and uphold human rights round the world is the work of Philip Bobbitt, nephew of Lyndon Johnson and another and more senior ornament of the national security apparatus under Clinton. Beside the 900 pages of his magnum opus, The Shield of Achilles, a work of vast historical ambition that ends with a series of dramatic scenarios of the coming wars for which America must prepare, the writers of The Weekly Standard are thin fare. No neoconservative has produced anything remotely comparable. Nor was there any shortage of lesser trumpeters on the liberal end of the spectrum–the Ignatieffs and Bermans–for an expedition to the Middle East. There was no illogic in that. The Democrats’ war in the Balkans, dismissing national sovereignty as an anachronism, was the immediate condition and proving ground of the Republicans’ war in Mesopotamia–genocide in Kosovo only a little less overstated than weapons of mass of destruction in Iraq. The operations of what Fukuyama at one point allows himself, in a rare lapsus, to call the “American overseas empire” have historically been bipartisan, and continue to be so.

In the Republican camp, moreover, neoconservative intellectuals were only one, and not the most significant, element in the constellation that propelled the Bush Administration into Iraq. Of the six “Vulcans” in James Mann’s authoritative study on who paved the road to war, Paul Wolfowitz alone–originally a Democrat–belongs to Fukuyama’s retrospect. None of the three leading figures in the design and justification of the attack, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice, had any particular neoconservative attachments. Fukuyama is aware of this, but he offers no explanation, merely remarking that “we do not at this point know the origins of their views.” What, then, of his own location within the galaxy he describes? Here–it must be said that this is uncharacteristic–he smooths out the record. With a misleadingly casual air, he says that while he started out “fairly hawkish on Iraq” at a time when no invasion was envisaged, when one was later launched he was against it.

In this his memory has failed him. In June 1997 Fukuyama was a founder, alongside Rumsfeld, Cheney, Dan Quayle, Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Zalmay Khalilzad, Norman Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams and Jeb Bush, of the Project for the New American Century, whose statement of principles called for “a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity” to “promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad.” In January 1998 he was one of the eighteen signatories of an open letter from the project to Clinton insisting on the need for “willingness to undertake military action” to secure “the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power,” and declaring that “the US has the authority under existing UN resolutions to take the necessary steps” to do so. Four months later, he was among those denouncing the lack of such action as a “capitulation to Saddam” and an “incalculable blow to American leadership and credibility” and spelling out just what measures against the Baath regime were required: “We should help establish and support (with economic, political, and military means) a provisional, representative and free government” in “liberated areas in northern and southern Iraq” under the protection of “US and allied military power.” In other words: an invasion to set up a Chalabi regime in Basra or Najaf, and to topple Saddam from this base.

Under Bush, the project–its ranks now swollen by such stalwarts as Democratic veteran Stephen Solarz and Marshall Wittmann, now of the Democratic Leadership Council–returned to the attack, and Fukuyama was again to the fore in pressing for an onslaught on Iraq. On September 20, 2001, little more than a week after 9/11, he appended his signature to a blunt demand for war that waved aside any relevance of links to Al Qaeda and did not even bother to raise the specter of WMD:

It may be that the Iraqi government provided assistance in some form to the recent attack on the United States. But even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism. The United States must therefore provide full military and financial support to the Iraqi opposition. American military force should be used to provide a “safe zone” in Iraq from which the opposition can operate. And American forces must be prepared to back up our commitment to the Iraqi opposition by all necessary means.

For good measure, the signatories added that “any war against terrorism must target Hezbollah” and prepare for “appropriate measures of retaliation” against Syria and Iran as its sponsors.

To recall this campaign for blood and steel in the Middle East is not to single Fukuyama out for special incrimination. Congress, after all, would give the green light for war on Iraq with virtually complete bipartisan unanimity. But Fukuyama’s deeper implication in the drive to Baghdad than he would now have us believe raises an important question: Why, if he was originally so committed to the adventure in Iraq, did he later break so sharply over it with his erstwhile intellectual allies? The disasters of the occupation are, of course, the most obvious reason–all kinds of creatures, large and small, jumping off the ship as it tilts lower in the waters. But this cannot be the principal explanation of Fukuyama’s change of mind. He says he had lost belief in an invasion before the war started, and there is no reason to doubt him. Moreover, disillusion with the lack of practical success in an enterprise regarded as commendable in principle has been common enough among conservatives, without leading to the kind of historical critique and dissociation Fukuyama has embarked upon. It would have been quite possible to say Operation Iraqi Freedom has gone wrong, even that in retrospect it was a mistake from the beginning, without writing an obituary of neoconservatism. What suddenly put such distance between Fukuyama and his fellow spirits?

Two factors of division can be deduced from America at the Crossroads, and the essay on “The Neoconservative Moment” in The National Interest that preceded it. Fukuyama did not share the same degree of commitment to Israel as his Jewish colleagues. In The National Interest he complained not of actual subordination of American to Israeli objectives in the Middle East but rather of a mimesis of the Israeli outlook on the Arab world among too many of his companions. Applying a mailed fist to the region might well be rational for Tel Aviv, he remarked, but was not necessarily so for Washington. His criticism was tactful enough, but it met with a vehement response. Replying, Charles Krauthammer charged Fukuyama with inventing a “novel way of Judaizing neoconservatism,” less crude than the slanders of Pat Buchanan and Mahathir Mohamad but equally ridiculous–moving Fukuyama in turn to object to imputations of anti-Semitism. Evidently burned by this exchange, and aware of the general delicacy of the topic, Fukuyama does not revert to it in America at the Crossroads, explaining that the mindset he had criticized, “while true of certain individuals, cannot be attributed to neoconservatives more broadly” and offering the olive branch of general support for the Administration’s policies toward Palestine. Behind the politesse, it is doubtful if his reservations have disappeared.

Another consideration, however, has certainly been more important. It was a trip to Europe in summer 2003, Fukuyama has explained, that opened his eyes to the dismay felt by many of even America’s staunchest admirers at the unilateralism of the Bush presidency. The disappointment expressed by such a pillar of Atlanticism as the editor of the Financial Times was sobering. Could a foreign policy that so alienated our closest allies be really worth it? Unlike Israel, which after Fukuyama’s initial disclaimer scarcely figures in America at the Crossroads, Europe looms large. Fukuyama voices the utmost alarm about its reactions to the Bush Administration. The rift caused by the war in Iraq is no mere passing quarrel, he believes. It is a “tectonic shift” in the Western alliance. With millions on the streets, “Europe had never before appeared as spontaneously unified around a single issue as this one, which is why former French finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn labeled the demonstrations the ‘birth of the European nation.'” Anti-Americanism is rampaging across the Atlantic, and placing the unity of the West at risk.

Though such fears are now widespread, they bear little relation to reality. European hostility to the war is broad but not deep. The invasion was widely opposed, but once consummated has not given rise to much further protest. Demonstrations against the occupation have been few and far between, in stark contrast with the global wave of protest sparked by the war in Vietnam. The British government that joined in the American attack has not been punished at the polls. The German government that opposed the invasion was soon helping out behind the scenes, providing information on targets in Baghdad and assistance with CIA renditions. The French government, taxed by Fukuyama with double-crossing the United States in the Security Council, in fact told the White House to go ahead without a new resolution, and has worked closely with Washington to install suitable regimes in Haiti and Lebanon. All stand united on Iran. European hostility to the current presidency is more pique than conniption. What has grated is indifference to diplomatic niceties, and insufficient homage of acceptable vice to ostensible virtue. Elites and masses alike are attached to the veils that have traditionally draped compliance with American will and resent a government that has discarded them. Grievances of this kind, a matter of style rather than substance, will pass with a return to decorum. A Clinton restoration would no doubt see a swift and rapt reunion of the Old World with the New.

Here Krauthammer was more clear-eyed than his critic. Dismissing Fukuyama’s anxiety that US foreign policy is in jeopardy because it has lost international legitimacy, he remarked with justice that what threatens it is not any lack of EU certificates or UN resolutions–it has plenty of such rubber stamps, as he notes–but the Iraqi insurgency. It is the will of the resistance that threatens the Bush Doctrine. The rest is weak ripple effect. Without the maquis, European opinion would be no more troubled by the seizure of Iraq than it was by that of Panama.

Fukuyama’s misreading of European sentiments is now conventional. His view of Islamic fundamentalism, on the other hand, is refreshingly unconventional, at variance with both his own milieu and mainstream wisdom. Compared with the great historic antagonists of capitalist democracy, Fascism and Communism, Al Qaeda and its affiliates are a minuscule force. Other than by somehow getting hold of weapons of mass destruction, they have no chance of inflicting serious damage on American society, let alone becoming a global threat to liberal civilization. Proclaiming a generalized “war against terrorism” is a pointless inflation of the punctual operations needed to stamp out the handful of fanatics who dream of a new Caliphate. Panicking over this relatively minor threat risks major miscalculations and is to be avoided, above all by Americans, who since 9/11 risk further attacks less than do Europeans, with their larger enclaves of Muslim immigrants.

This is a belated lucidity, after so much crying of havoc in the open letters, but it is one more typical of the note struck in Fukuyama’s writing, whose tone is generally cool and unruffled. Its judgment takes us back to the logic of his larger work as a whole. The celebrated argument of The End of History and the Last Man was that with the defeat of Communism, following that of Fascism, no improvement on liberal capitalism as a form of society was any longer imaginable. The world was still full of conflicts, which would continue to generate unexpected events, but they would not alter this verdict. There was no guarantee of a rapid voyage of humanity from every corner of the earth to the destination of a prosperous, peaceful democracy based on private property, free markets and regular elections, but these institutions were the terminus of historical development. The closure of social evolution now in view could not be regarded as altogether a blessing. For with it would inevitably come a lowering of ideal tension, perhaps even a certain tedium vitae. Nostalgia for more hazardous and heroic times could be foreseen.

The philosophical basis of this construction came, as Fukuyama explained, from the reworking of Hegel’s dialectic of recognition by a Russian exile in France, Alexandre Kojève, for whom centuries of struggles between masters and slaves–social classes–were on the brink of issuing into a definitive condition of equality, a “universal and homogeneous state” that would bring history to a halt: a conception he identified with socialism, and later with capitalism, if always with an inscrutable irony. Fukuyama adopted this narrative structure but grounded it in an ontology of human nature, quite alien to Kojève, that was derived from Plato and came–along with a much more conservative outlook–from his Straussian formation. Kojève and Strauss had valued each other as interlocutors and shared many intellectual reference points, but politically–as well as metaphysically–they were very distant. Strauss, an unyielding thinker of the right, had no time for Hegel, let alone Marx. In his eyes, Kojève’s deduction from their conceptions of liberty and equality could only presage a leveling, planetary tyranny. He believed in particular regimes and natural hierarchy.

There was, as a consequence, always a tension in Fukuyama’s synthesis of his two sources. In the final years of the cold war, when his joining of them took shape, this could remain hidden, because the universal interests of democratic capitalism were consensually guarded, without significant strain, by a Pax Americana. Americana: There was no significant contradiction between the free world and US hegemony. But once Communism had been eradicated in Russia and neutered in China, a new situation arose. On the one hand, there was no longer a common enemy to compel other capitalist states to disciplined acceptance of US command. But at the same time, the disappearance of the USSR increased the global reach of the American state enormously. Thus, just when the hegemon was objectively less essential for the system as a whole, subjectively it was bound to become more ambitious than ever before, as now the world’s single superpower. In these conditions, it was inevitable that the general requirements of the system would at some point diverge from the operations of the singular nation-state at its head. This is the context in which America at the Crossroads should be understood. For Fukuyama’s break with neoconservatism has occurred at the fault line between the two. At the center of the book is an extended attack on American “exceptionalism,” by which he means the doctrine that “the United States is different from other countries and can be trusted to use its military power justly and wisely in ways that other powers could not.” This is the delusion broadcast by Kristol and Kagan, he argues, that has antagonized allies and led to the overweening errors of the war in Iraq.

Politically, Fukuyama’s loyalties were formed in a Straussian matrix. But intellectually, the imprint of Kojève went deeper, supplying his master narrative. Forced by alterations of the strategic landscape to choose between the logic of the two, Fukuyama has allowed his head to prevail over his heart. If he has taken leave of the company of neoconservatives, it is because the war in Iraq has exposed a genealogical difference between them. In origin, his leading ideas were European, as theirs never were. Kojève indeed regarded the creation of a supranational Europe as the decisive reason a globalizing capitalism, rather than a still nationally cramped socialism, had turned out, contrary to his original expectations, to be the common destination of humanity. For Strauss, on the other hand, whose earliest allegiance was to Zionism, regimes were by nature particular: He was impervious to universal schemes. Though he was no great admirer of American society, he respected the Founders and seeded an ardently nationalist school of constitutional thinkers. The options of the different neoconservative heirs reflect their respective ancestries.

Not that either side repudiates the preoccupations of the other, which remain common to both. Rather, it is the way these are combined–the balance struck between them–that sets the two apart. Kristol and Krauthammer may be American patriots, but they are second to none in their commitment to the spread of capitalist democracy around the world: In that respect, few universalisms are as aggressive as theirs. Vice versa, Fukuyama may criticize US exceptionalism, but he has certainly not relinquished the national portion of his inheritance. His new journal is not called The American Interest for nothing. Krauthammer calls his outlook “Democratic Realism,” while Fukuyama terms his own vision “Realistic Wilsonianism.” A distinction without a difference? Not exactly–rather an inversion in which the nouns indicate the primary, and the adjectives the secondary, allegiances. For the neoconservative core, American power is the engine of the world’s liberty: There neither is, nor can be, any discrepancy between them. For Fukuyama, the coincidence is not automatic. The two may drift away from each other–and nothing is more likely to force them apart than to declare that they cannot do so, in the name of a unique American virtue unlikely to persuade anyone else. As he puts it: “The idea that the United States behaves disinterestedly on the world stage is not widely believed because it is for the most part not true and, indeed, could not be true if American leaders fulfill their responsibilities to the American people. The United States is capable of acting generously in its provision of global public goods, and has been most generous when its ideals and self-interests have coincided. But the United States is also a great power with interests not related to global public goods.” Denial of this obvious truth leads to policies that damage American interests and do not deliver global goods: See Baghdad.

How are these then best reconciled? Fukuyama remains fully committed to the American mission of spreading democracy round the world, and the use of all effective means at the disposal of Washington to do so. His criticism of the Bush Administration is that its policies in the Middle East have been not only ineffective but counterproductive. The promotion of internal regime change by the right mixture of economic and political pressures is one thing. Military action to enforce it externally is another, conducive to misfortune. In reality, there is no sharp dividing line between the two in the imperial repertory. Fukuyama forgets the successful overthrow of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, of which Robert Kagan is the major historian–a triumph of political will that we can be sure Fukuyama applauded at the time. Today, in the wake of Iraq, he is concerned to distance himself from such forms of activism. He now explains there is no universal craving for freedom that insures democracy will emerge wherever a society is liberated from tyranny. Modern liberty typically requires certain levels of economic and social development for the habits needed to sustain it. These cannot be created overnight, but must be carefully nurtured over many years. Nor will neoliberal recipes relying on market incentives alone bring the necessary order and prosperity. For these a strong state capable of “good governance” is the essential condition, and a sensible American policy will often give precedence to fostering such state-ness over building democracy in the more dangerous parts of the world.

In the service of this revision, Fukuyama disfigures his original construction. The End of History and the Last Man, he assures us, was actually an exercise in modernization theory. All he said was that a desire for higher living standards–not liberty–was universal, and that these created a middle class that tended to seek political participation, with democracy eventually emerging as a byproduct of this process. This banalization of a complex argument in the philosophy of history is not just an effort to simplify its message for a wider audience; it has a bowdlerizing impulse. In the work that made Fukuyama’s name, the quest for recognition and the promptings of desire–driving respectively the struggle for equality and the advance of science–were the two motors of history. The concatenation between them was never quite pulled off in the theory, generating significant disjunctures toward the end of the story. But in the structure of the narrative as a whole, Fukuyama’s assignment of their respective significance was unequivocal; the “desire that lay behind the desire” of economic man was “a totally non-economic drive, the struggle for recognition.” It was the political dialectic so unleashed that was “the primary motor of human history.” The mental universe of Alexandre Kojève was a long way from that of modernization theorists like Daniel Lerner and Gabriel Almond.

If this vision now appears to be something of an encumbrance for Fukuyama, perhaps that is because it was a theory of mortal conflict. Hegel and Kojève were, each in his own time (Jena, Stalingrad), philosophers of war. Their legacy is too agonistic for the purposes of drawing a line between the newfound caution of the statecraft Fukuyama now recommends and the democratic hypomania of former friends at the Standard. The platitudes of modernization theory are safer. But there is a price to be paid for the drop in intellectual level to “Nation-Building 101″–the title, without excessive irony, of one of Fukuyama’s recent essays. As a run-of-the-mill social scientist, he is never less than competent. There is even, in his criticism of free-market recipes for development in poor countries, and in his call for strong public authorities, what could be read as a memory trace of his Hegelian formation: the idea of the state as the carrier of rational freedom. But the miscellaneous proposals with which America at the Crossroads ends–greater reliance on soft power, more consultation with allies, respect for international institutions–are of a desolating predictability, the truisms of every bien-pensant editorial or periodical in the land. The most that can be said of them is that in offering a bipartisan prospectus for the foreign policy establishment, they seal a well-advertised vote for Kerry and understanding with Brzezinski, who co-edits The American Interest with Fukuyama. There is not the faintest suggestion in these pages of any basic change in the staggering accumulation of military bases around the world, or the grip of the United States on the Middle East, let alone symbiosis with Israel. Everything that brought the country to 9/11 remains in place.

It is enough to look at the devastating essay on the Israel lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in the London Review of Books–significantly, in no domestic publication–to see the enormous gulf between strategic Muzak of this kind and genuinely critical reflection on American foreign policy, from thinkers who have earned the title “realist.” After starting his book under the aegis of Wilson, who brought the gospel of democracy to the peoples of the earth, Fukuyama ends it by enlisting Bismarck, who knew how to practice self-restraint in the hour of victory, as inspiration for his “alternative way for the United States to relate to the rest of the world.” What the Iron Chancellor, who had a grim sense of humor, would have made of his pairing with the Fourteen Points is not difficult to imagine. In such prescriptions, of Fukuyama and so many others today, America is not at any crossroads. It is just where it has always been, squaring the circle of philanthropy and empire to its own satisfaction.