The mechanics of one's assumptions are always hard to pin down. I and most Americans, I believe, are deeply convinced that freedom, individualism and some sort of representative democracy are simply the way things should be, and any sensible society would organize itself along those lines. However, holding up those assumptions for examination when we try to think about how we think it can become tricky, and uncomfortable. No one likes their base assumptions questioned.
But being aware of those axioms is important. Richard Betts has a really interesting article over at Foreign Affairs. In it, he lays out the three most influential sets of ideas on how the world works since the cold war, set out in three books: Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, and The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John Mearshimer. Betts talks about how they sought to cast the future of the world after the end of the Cold War.
None of the three visions won out as the new conventional wisdom, although Fukuyama's rang truest when the Berlin Wall fell, Huntington's did so after 9/11, and Mearsheimer's may do so once China's power is full grown. Yet all three ideas remain beacons, because even practical policymakers who shun ivory-tower theories still tend to think roughly in terms of one of them, and no other visions have yet been offered that match their scope and depth. Each outlines a course toward peace and stability if statesmen make the right choices — but none offers any confidence that the wrong choices will be avoided.
The article is really good. I found it startling to be reminded that what I thought about all three books, which I read years ago, was as much colored by the debates at the time as by the books themselves. And how today's debates make them as relevant as ever, as Betts writes when discussing their thoughts on China.
The West's future relations with China, the one country on the way to ending the era of unipolarity, is the issue that brings the implications of the three visions closest to one another. Each author offers an option for avoiding conflict. For Fukuyama, that option is for China to join the West and accept the end of history. For Mearsheimer, it is for the West to form a potent coalition to balance and contain China's power. For Huntington, it is the reverse — to respect China's difference and hold back from attempts to stifle its influence. (Huntington considers both confrontation and accommodation plausible but believes the former would require actions more decisive than what U.S. policy has yet contemplated.) None of the three, however, gives any reason to believe that these courses toward peace are as likely to be taken as ones that promise a clash.
Hmmm...It may be worth re-reading those books.