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Thousands of young East Berliners crowd atop the Berlin Wall on November 11, 1989. (GERARD MALIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Liberalism’s Beleaguered Victory: “The End of History?” at 25

Abram N. Shulsky

About 25 years ago, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe revived a line of speculation that had lain dormant for eighty years: that human history was fundamentally progressive in nature, and that reasonable and humane liberal democratic governance, capable of promoting peace and prosperity, was destined to be globally triumphant. Frank Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and Max Singer and Aaron Wildavsky’s The Real World Order: Zones of Peace, Zones of Turmoil revived this optimistic outlook, characteristic of many 19th-century thinkers, which had seemingly vanished for good in the trenches of World War I.

The last hurrah of 19th-century optimism appeared in a work published not long before the outbreak of the Great War: Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion. The “illusion” in question was the idea that a state could use military power to advance its economic and other interests. Angell maintained that, given the modern “globalized” economy, war was an anachronism and hence military power was irrelevant to a society’s well-being.1 He believed that he had decisively disposed of the remnants of earlier ways of understanding economics, international relations, and the world, which were already on the way out of intellectual circulation.
(As we shall see, he was mistaken in his belief that the threat to peace came only from the remnants of the old ideas; it came as much from new ideas and political trends.)

The next eighty years of hot and cold war on a global scale seemingly relegated Angell’s book to the dustbin of history. But the unexpectedly rapid and peaceful collapse of communism seemed to indicate that liberal democracy had triumphed over all its ideological competitors and could be expected to spread worldwide.

This conclusion depended upon a set of assertions that can be summarized as follows:

  • As Fukuyama argued, Hegel’s notion of an “end of History” eventuating in a fully satisfying (and hence, presumably, durable) human situation had been vindicated;
  • Liberal democracies, given their objective of improving the lives of their citizens and their understanding of how to do that through technological development, would find no sufficient cause to make war on each other;
  • Non-liberal democracies would either not become technologically advanced or, if they did, their citizens would demand the right to participate in governance, pushing them toward liberal democracy;
  • As a result, the possibility of war between advanced states had all but disappeared.

Click here to read the full article on The American Interest.

1 The term “globalized” is anachronistic in that Angell did not use it, but a contemporary reader is struck by how central to his thesis are precisely those phenomena for which we use the term “globalization” today.

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