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Last week, having discharged my duties ahead of another edition of The Star, I wandered into the Dunedin City Library in hopes of finding Trust: The Social Virtues and the creation of prosperity by Francis Fukuyama. I’ve been reading a book persistently for the last few weeks but it hasn’t gripped me so, naturally, I have had the wandering eye for something more intellectually stimulating.

The Dunedin City Library, as it turns out, does not have a copy of Trust: The Social Virtues (of course a cursory glance through the library’s online catalogue would have affirmed this) but they did have a copy of another book by America’s political scientist par excellence.

America at the crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy, written in 2006 three quarters of the way through the George W. Bush presidency, is Fukuyama’s attempt to provide a history of the Neoconservative ideology thought by many to underpin the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in the hopes of establishing a new stable democracy. Fukuyama writes that he long considered himself a neoconservative. He also worked for Bush’s Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz regarded as, perhaps, the leading “neocon” within the administration.

Having dispensed with the other book which did not stimulate my mind, I have delved deep into America at the crossroads and am now just over two-thirds of the way through. I may have more to write about in the future but here are some bullet pointed ideas of interest:

  • Neoconservatism is the belief that the United States of America, as an especially moral hegemon, has a duty, not solely to act to uphold international law (with force if necessary as George H. W Bush did in the first Iraq war) but to change the character of regimes considered immoral;
  • Although an ideology on the American Right first associated with the Reagan presidency and then, as discussed, with the presidency of Bush junior, Fukuyama writes that the founders of Neoconservatism were, in fact, marxists;
  • Early Neoconservatives, such as Irving Kristol, became disillusioned with Marxism because they had developed a scepticism about large scale social engineering to achieve its intended aims;
  • Fukuyama argues that neocons were different from run of the mill Conservatives or Libertarians because they were concerned, not about the state’s breach of individual freedom, but the corrosive effect of the welfare state upon the character of the individual. He makes this observation to point out that Neoconservatives were not opposed to government intervention as a point of principle. I find this an odd distinction to draw, in so far as, this makes neocons appear more like ordinary conservatives without the neo. Conservatives who, at least in an American context, often appeal to the importance of character (consider for instance this meditative 2014 piece by Yuval Levin).  Where neoconservatives appear to fundamentally differ is in the realm of foreign policy. The idea of regime change and the introduction of the institutional framework to support liberal democracy does not sit easily with a supposed neoconservative scepticism for large scale social engineering which is something Fukuyama points out. He also notes, later in the book, that while we know institutions are important for economic development and political stability, we know very little about how to either create them where they don’t exist or strengthen them where they are weak. This analysis is updated in a much more comprehensive fashion in more recent complementary volumes The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay;
  • The George W. Bush administration, through its National Security Strategy, advocated for preemptive war. Here’s the relevant line from that document: “And, as a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.” This is, to say the least, problematic given the difficulty of correctly assessing threats before they become manifest.

There’s a lot more besides but suffice to say this is an interesting read.



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