Conflict or Cooperation?

Three Visions Revisited

"Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slave of some defunct economist," John Maynard Keynes once wrote. Politicians and pundits view the world through instincts and assumptions rooted in some philosopher's Big Idea. Some ideas are old and taken for granted throughout society. For most Americans, it is the ideas of the liberal tradition, from John Locke to Woodrow Wilson, that shape their thinking about foreign policy. The sacred concepts of freedom, individualism, and cooperation are so ingrained in U.S. political culture that most people assume them to be the natural order of things, universal values that people everywhere would embrace if given the chance.

In times of change, people wonder more consciously about how the world works. The hiatus between the Cold War and 9/11 was such a time; conventional wisdom begged to be reinvented. Nearly a century of titanic struggle over which ideology would be the model for organizing societies around the globe -- fascism, communism, or Western liberal democracy -- had left only the last one standing. After a worldwide contest of superpowers, the only conflicts left were local, numerous but minor. What would the driving forces of world politics be after the twentieth century, the century of total war?

Among the theorists who jumped into the market for models of the future, three stood out: Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and John Mearsheimer. Each made a splash with a controversial article, then refined the argument in a book -- Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man, Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, and Mearsheimer in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Each presented a bold and sweeping vision that struck a chord with certain readers, and each was dismissed by others whose beliefs were offended or who jumped to conclusions about what they thought the arguments implied. (Reactions were extreme because most debate swirled around the bare-bones arguments in the initial articles rather than the full, refined versions in the later books. This essay aims to give the full versions of all three arguments their due.)

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