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Political convergence

The apparent differences between the people of the West and the Muslim World are exceeded by the beliefs they have in common about humanity, respect, opportunity, peace, and cooperation. Yet, in the execution of policy and politics, much seems to get lost in translation.1 —Dr. Doug Stone, retired major general in the U.S. Marine Corps, who commanded a task force in Iraq from 2007 to 2008.

From the end of World War II until 1990, the most pronounced global divide was not between the West and the rest. It was between the dem-ocratic/capitalist bloc and its totalitarian/communist rival. Though the capitalist bloc was known as the West and the communist bloc the East, the “Cold War” between them was essentially another case of the West divided. Yet, it spurred or compounded shooting wars in much of the rest of the world.

The Cold War ended in 1991 following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. For a “war” that lasted for about 46 years, its ending couldn’t have been more sudden. It all began with the successive deaths of three Soviet premiers in a span of about 30 months. They were all in their 70s. First, there was Premier Leonid Brezhnev who died in November 1982, after 18 years in office. He was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, who died about 16 months later. Andropov was succeeded by 73-year-old Konstantin Chernenko, whose tenure was even shorter. He died just 11 months in office.

Concerned and embarrassed, the Soviet Communist Party decided to get away from the hard-core communist old guards. They reached further down and picked a charismatic 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev. It was a momentous decision for the Soviet Union and the rest of the world. Though a committed communist, the relatively young Gorbachev was open to policy innovations. And it was his foray in this regard that pried open what Winston Churchill—the World War II-era British Prime Minister—had called the iron curtain.

Gorbachev’s innovations were two-pronged. First, he introduced glasnost or openness, a policy that encouraged more freedom of speech than had ever been tolerated in the Soviet Union. For a complementary policy, he introduced perestroika or the opening of the economy to free enterprise. In so doing, he melted the glue that had kept the patchwork country together. Nationalists in the various republics suddenly found their voices, and invariably it was a call to bolt from the union.

In the past, the Soviet government would have wielded the big stick and squelched any such ambition. It had invaded communist Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, respectively, to stop anti-communist reforms. But by 1991, the genie was out of the box and Gorbachev couldn’t put it back in there, even if he had wanted to. The Soviet Union disintegrated. And that freed up Eastern European countries, which had hitherto been welded to it by the Warsaw Pact. It was an epochal moment of triumph of democracy over communist rule in Europe. And with that, the ascendance of free enterprise over controlled economy.

These developments reverberated elsewhere in the developing world. It inspired reformists in various countries in Africa, Asia, South and Central America, and the Caribbean. And almost overnight, there was a wave of democratization and economic reform. Socialist governments suddenly found themselves without their ideological bulwark. And many other despotic regimes quickly realized that they could not hold back the tide. This was the third wave of global democratization in the 20th century. The first resulted from the defeat of Nazism and Fascism in Europe and Japan, and the second came with decolonization in the late 1950s through early 1960s.

It was this third wave of democratization that inspired the political scientist Francis Fukuyama to declare that we were at “the end of history.” That is, history as epochal transformation of societies. “At the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy,”2 Fukuyama postulated. “[That means] that there would be no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions, because all of the really big questions had been settled.”3

Fukuyama, whom one critic describes as “Endowed with a bright, widely informed, well-read, spirited mind,”4 engendered considerable scholarly ferment with his thesis. Some critics faulted him for an ethnocentric take on world history and political ideology and some for undue optimism about world affairs. Some critics go further in

Political convergence 101 abstraction to make the epistemological argument that humans are incapable of determining “the end of history,” even as Fukuyama conceptualizes it.5

These criticisms and Fukuyama’s response to them will be further discussed later. Suffice to state here that hardly any of Fukuyama’s critics deny the remarkable convergence in the direction of liberal democracy, notwithstanding Islamist insurgencies and other ideological frictions.

 
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