History’s sting in the tail

Abe Greenwald has written a thoughtful essay for Commentary called “The failure at the end of history.” The “end of history” refers to Francis Fukuyama’s optimistic notion from 30 years ago that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Greenwald summarizes his thesis as follows:

In the wake of the Berlin Wall’s destruction, Americans sought to ramp up economic and political engagement with post-Soviet countries and China. Our reasons were both noble and self-interested—we could gain access to new markets and, by doing so, help to make these countries freer. The noble goal of expanding freedom made our self-interest all the more palatable.

But while this engagement has yielded some good, that’s not all it did. We barely noticed that the process meant the United States was growing more intertwined with kleptocracies. And in time, almost without realizing it, we ourselves would fall prey to some of the kleptocratic temptations and moral compromises that characterize such regimes.

We did make some countries better places. But, in the process, our own politics became a little more like theirs.

Greenwald presents two main exhibits in support of this thesis, China and Ukraine. Hunter Biden’s presence on the boards of both a Ukrainian energy company and a Chinese banking firm during his father’s term as vice president ties the two together, at least symbolically.

Greenwald contends:

A common thread connects our president’s dangling aid before an Eastern European leader in return for political favors, a vice president’s son who gets paid by Ukrainian and Chinese firms, and the NBA’s moral collapse before Beijing. That thread is part of a great unraveling—the loosening and fraying of our national purpose and resolve following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia is probably a better exhibit than Ukraine for Greenwald’s thesis, and he doesn’t neglect it:

Has Putin aimed his kleptocracy gun at the United States? Yes. And how has the U.S. responded? In certain key instances, very poorly. This is most evident in the tangle of suspicious or downright dirty deals closely associated with figures connected to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. . .This includes, most notably, the case of Paul Manafort.

Is Greenwald romanticizing the ethics that prevailed in Washington before the end of the Cold War? Perhaps. This sort of thing is always a danger in a piece like his.

However, I think Greenwald is probably correct when he says:

[S]omeone in Joe Biden’s position, in an earlier age, would have known that his son’s getting $50,000 a month to serve on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm was, at least, unseemly. The same goes for Hunter Biden’s time on the board of BHR Equity Investment Fund Management Co., whose largest shareholder is the state-controlled Bank of China.

Greenwald concludes his article by observing:

It is often said that democracy and good governance can’t be exported just anywhere, that they’re too fragile and require special conditions to survive. But there’s a corollary to this: Corruption and the abuse of power are not easily contained. They’ll find purchase where they can. The result is this strange epilogue to the “end of history.” There’s still no worthy ideological rival to Western liberalism, but we’ve managed to make the victory feel far less glorious than it once did.

This is history’s latest sting in the tail.