What it meant
In a 1989 essay State Department planner Francis Fukuyama made an ambitious claim; a sweeping and overarching declaration of not just the end of fifty years of ideological warfare, but millennia of human intellectual development; a claim simple in concept, but infinitely complicated in its implications. In an essay entitled "The End of History," Fukuyama postulated that the democratic revolutions of 1989 were "not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
"This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affair's yearly summaries of international relations," he continued, adding that the full victory of economic and political liberalism over communism and autocracy was more a gradual inevitability than an instantaneous reality. But the end was not only on its way, Fukuyama argued. The end had already arrived. As he writes later on in the essay, "I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed."
It was logical at the time to see the liberal revolution of the 1980's as a victory instead of a paradigm shift. There were no opposing ideological blocs in the 1990's — no superpower like the Soviet Union to galvanize the Western Democracies, no challenge or check to the spirit of '89.
Or so we thought. In truth, by mid-decade that same spirit of security, reform and cooperation that led Fukuyama to declare an end to history had already been offset by instability in the places the revolution missed — a Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia with their ethnic genocides; the former Zaire with its long and damaging Civil War; Iraq with its invasion of Kuwait; Afghanistan with the takeover of its government by the Taliban; Israel and Palestine with the gradual deterioration of their peace process; India and Pakistan with their nuclear tests and the latter nation through the military takeover of its government...the list goes on and on. What's important to note is that the early signs of trouble, these damaging, destabilizing and extremely costly conflicts that delayed any kind of reform and progress in the developing world, stood in direct opposition to the inevitability of liberal democratic reform.
History wasn't over, but we didn't know it at the time. After all, what did a radical Islamic takeover in a thinly populated central-Asian country mean to us in 1996? Unbeknownst to us, history was in fact going along as usual, changing and progressing past the old established norms. It was changing just as it had changed after World War I, a war whose conclusion saw it's own end to history: the end of the old order in Europe, the beginning of global cooperation through the League of Nations — a time when the rise of militarism and fascism, a rise whose significance must have been difficult to recognize through innocuous or geographically distant events such as the Munich Pact or the Japanese invasion of China, was so visibly manifested in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
On 9/11, the end of history ended. It had of course ended many years earlier, ended in the killing fields of Rwanda, and in the rubble of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But on 9/11 it ended spectacularly and horrifically, in the middle of our largest city, live on TV for the entire country and the entire world to see. Like at Pearl Harbor, the carnage was impossible to ignore. The ideological extremism, the evil that had outlived the Cold War had finally hit us, just as the fascism and militarism that had outlived World War I hit us 60 years earlier.
History has indeed resumed. The forces of regression, and their ability to destabilize and harm us, have again galvanized the forces of progress and change. The terrorists, rogue governments and failed states that have challenged the world's collective security and welfare are being met with the collective and cooperative effort that helped us get to that illusory "end of history" in 1989. You can rightly question the methods that the United States and the greater world community are using to counter these threats, but that such an effort exists is undeniable. The world is, for the most part, no longer complacent, a sign that, regardless of the consequences or results, history is beginning again.
Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »