In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a widely read and influential article was published called “The End of History” (Fukuyama, 1989). It asserted that the Soviet collapse affirmed the “victory” of 400 years of liberalism in the face of ideological challengers. It was not that history – the cause of events – was over, but rather the permanent entrenchment of liberalism as the end point in the history of political ideology was proven. The ideals of the Enlightenment had triumphed. American and allied foreign policy could focus on what would be the inevitable “democratization” and “normalization” of former and current authoritarian states, notably those of Eastern Europe and Russia. Those that were not yet democratic ultimately would be. The era of ideological challenges was de facto over.
Fast-forward to 2021 and things look very different. America faces a new challenge to its dominant world position: China. Russia remains an authoritarian, disruptive and powerful military state. At home, consensus on the nature and meaning of American democracy seems polarized, perhaps paralyzed, by the politics of Donald Trump. The European Union, a bastion of liberal democratic cooperation and economic integration, has lost Britain to nationalist-xenophobic political sentiment and faces similar challenges in Poland and Hungary.
So, what happened? By looking at the trajectory of international affairs from 1945 to the present, we can identify some systemic elements that provide some answers and may give clues to future developments.