America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy

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America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy is a 2006 book by Francis Fukuyama. It evolved from the Castle Lectures he gave at Yale University in 2005.[1] It was retitled After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads for the European market.

Fukuyama is often called a neoconservative, but he has been an irregular one, and, in this book, examines a successor political philosophy to what he terms the neoconservative legacy. He also regards some neoconservative ideas as having been executed badly by the George W. Bush Administration, especially what it called a broad preemptive doctrine as well as the Iraq War.

It is worthwhile to review his taxonomy of doctrines in the international political system (IPS).

Neoconservatism and successor doctrines

He describes realistic Wilsonianism as the desired successor to four styles of American foreign policy, two of which being based on American nationalism and one in part on it.

Realistic Wilsonianism does, as opposed to classic realism, does consider what happens inside states; he give the example of the instability of weak and failed states as a major source of world instability as a justification for selective democracy promotion or nation-building. He comments that neither neoconservatives nor realists have considered development to be an issue, except when the instability of a state makes it a security threat.

Realistic Wilsonianism also differs from neoconservatism and Jacksonian nationalism by taking international organizations seriously, although not blithely replacing national sovereignty with unaccountable bodies; he write "the United Nations is not now nor will it ever become an effective, legitimate seat of global governance." With globalization being a reality, however, he believes there must be "a much higher degree of institutionalization across nations than exists currently.

Mackubin Thomas Owens argues that in this taxonomy, the Bush doctrine is closer to realism. The core expression of that doctrine is in the National Security Strategy of the United States of America (2002). He says this modified view view says the IPS "is more hierarchical than anarchic, and that peace and prosperity are preserved, not by a balance of power (i.e., Henry Kissinger's core argument]] but a "hegemonic power", or state willing to provide economic and military security. "The United States, as Great Britain before it, took up the role of hegemon not out of altruism but because it was in its national interest to do so."[2]

Bush Administration

Bush himself, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were not strongly connected to prior neoconservative discourse, although they had agreed with policies expressed by recognized neoconservatives. Fukuyama cites three major errors made by the Administration:[3]

  1. Threat assessment: they intermingled the threats of Jihadists, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and rogue states such as Iraq. Iraq was an early target, before 9/11, and given priority over the nonstate terrorist threat
  2. Failure to anticipate global reaction to the US unilaterally acting as hegemon, assuming American exceptionalism. Their strong bias against international organizations such as the United Nations and International Criminal Court blinded them to growing anti-Americanism caused by a "seemingly contemptuous brush-off of most forms of international cooperation"
  3. Overoptimism in assuming how much social engineering (i.e., democratic change) was feasible in the Middle East, and underestimating the requirements for a postwar Iraq. Neoconservatism, according to Fukuyama, does not explicitly assume easy democratic transformation; he sees this as more characteristic of the individual decisionmakers

The neoconservative aspect may have been overemphasized. Perhaps the highest-ranking official who was clearly associated with the intellectual concept was Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who had studied with Leo Strauss. Wolfowitz himself, however, regarded Albert Wohlstetter, not identified as a neoconservative, to be much more his mentor.

Strauss did write of the centrality of regimes, but it is unclear to Fukuyama that this directly led to the Administration's emphasis on regime change. "There is no Straussian belief in the universality of the American experience; neither Strauss nor any of the ancient political philosophers believed that democracy was the default regime to which societies would revert once dictatorship was removed." Few American administrators, "with the possible exception of Douglas MacArthur", have shown skill at creating a new political order.[4]

Fukuyama agrees with Alexis de Tocqueville that democracy is a historical trend, he also agrees that it requires a social structure to form; Tocqueville wrote that it was more likely, in his time, in the United States than in his native France.

Threat, risk and preventive war

While the US had long dealt with the separate issues of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and, to a lesser extent, jihadism, 9/11 combined them into a new perspective. The classic models of nuclear deterrence theory depended on the attacker "having a return address".[5] He sees a very large perception in European and American perceptions of the risks of terrorists obtaining and using WMD. While Europeans saw terrorism in terms of their own experiences with groups such as the Irish Republican Army or Italian Red Brigades, Vice President Dick Cheney expressed a guiding principle shortly after 9/11:

if there was even a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction — and there has been a small probability of such an occurrence for some time — the United States must now act as if it were a certainty.[6]

Fukuyama asks if jihadism, even with WMD, is indeed an existential threat; he cites Charles Krauthammer's argument that it is.[7] Simply because the domestic security forces of the US focused on the WMD threat after 9/11, he tends to think the risk is reduced.

Two of the justifications for the Iraq War were the combination of WMD and terrorism, while the third was the desire to create democracy.[8]After failing to find WMD or solid evidence of an operational tie between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush was forced to fall back on the democratizing argument. Fukuyama said that the US could have gone to war, but had a better political endstate, if it had focused on the infeasibility of continuing to maintain the no-fly zones, and not argued a direct WMD threat to the US, but had cast its actions in terms of global counterproliferation. By overemphasizing the 9/11 aspect, it supported suspicions of those who would believe the real reasons were oil or Israel.[9]

A preventive strategy depends on the effective use of intelligence, not merely the collection of intelligence. He cites Roberta Wohlstetter's classic analysis of the failure to foresee the Battle of Pearl Harbor as "not in inadequate information, but in the signal-to-noise ratio of such information."[10] The intelligence community, which had underestimated WMD in 1991, had reason to overestimate in 2003.

Douglas Feith observed that Bush changed his rationale in late 2003. Starting in September 2002, before the invasion, he focused on Saddam's record and threats. From September 2003 onwards, however, he changed the focus to emphasize the opportunity to create democracy in Iraq. In that prewar period, his statements averaged 14 paragraphs on the threat and 3 on democracy. In the second period, the emphasis switched, from one on the threat and 11 on democracy. Feith notes these were not discussed in the National Security Council or in the Deputies Committee, and apparently were a public relations decision. They allowed, however, the President's opponents to attack the prewar intelligence and decisions, without fear of response.[11]

American exceptionalism and international legitimacy

He examines the claim that the Bush Administration was "contemptuous of international of international public opinion and the legitimacy that multilateral organizations are said to confer." While some members, especially John Bolton, were unquestionably contemptuous of the United Nations, contempt for the UN specifically did mean contempt for all multilateralism. What was a consensus in the administration, based on the Cold War, Gulf War and operations in the Balkans is that the US would have to act first and gain approval later. Fukuyama cites Paul Wolfowitz on the Clinton Administration's going too far in the direction of seeking multilateral action, with failures in Haiti and Somalia.[12]

World reaction to the Iraq invasion was political, not legal. It was clear that that majorities in countries basically supporting the US were opposed to unilateral action. Fukuyama wrote that it "would not have mattered if the United States had been able to demonstrate ex post the logic and necessity of the intervention..." The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (2002), with its assumption of an American right to preemption, simply is not acceptable worldwide.

He notes Charles Krauthammer's view that American exceptionalism is, rather than coming from some moral high ground, a consequence of US dominance following the fall of the Soviet Union, and a new threat from rogue states with WMD.[13] Krauthammer, however, also agrees with Robert Kagan that multilateralism is the dominant view in Europe, and Europe opposes such a US position.[14]

Social engineering and the problem of development

Nowhere is there more inherent conflict for the neoconservative than in political development. Fukuyama respects the principle that there is a moral imperative to liberate population under tyranny, while the classic realist regards the internal character of a state as its own concern. This imperative goes well back in American tradition; the motto of United States Army Special Forces is de oppresso liber, which they translate as "to liberate the oppressed."[15]

A different aspect of neoconservatism cautions against social engineering, and changing societies in overly ambitious ways. He cites the "broken windows" urban policing model of James Q. Wilson: reducing crime starts with enforcement of minor social breakdown, rather than directly addressing societal issues such as poverty and racism. In the context of foreign policy, direct democratization of Arab societies might be overly ambitious. In the case of the Iraq War, Vice President Cheney told interviewer Tim Russert "I really believe we will be greeted as liberators."[16]

He agrees that the trend among industrialized nations, in the 1970s, was to welfare states and extensive regulation. The Reagan and Thatcher governments were a reaction to falling productivity growth, and, for a time, the U.S. drive to deregulation was a stimulus, aong other factors, to the information technology boom of the 1990s. New capital market liberalization appeared to help for a time, but the Asian crisis of 1997-8 is called, byKoreans, the "International Monetary Fund crisis" rather than a problem of their own institutions.

Fukuyama agrees that there is a broad societal trend toward liberal democracy, but insists that institutions must be in place before a democracy can emerge in a specific time and place. He also observes that good governance is even more important than abstract democracy.[17] He points out that the neoconservatives that pressed for the war ignored the mechanisms of building democratic institutions, such as the Agency for International Development or the World Bank. Instead, the Kristol and Kagan book Present Danger[18] emphasized military power projection and ballistic missile defense, while it was the editorial policy of the Weekly Standard, during the Clinton Administration, to encourage U.S. defense spending.

He argues that where democracy did emerge, it had external support that focused on building institutions. In Serbia, for example, opposition groups were aided by the National Endowment for Democracy, as had been the institutions in Ukraine. Successful democracy promotion requires, in his view:[19]

  • An initiative from within
  • Sufficient freedom to organize, which did not exist in Saddam's Iraq
  • A type of nationalism conducive to external engagement, such as the Eastern European countries eager to join Western Europe, rather than tribes forced together by a colonial power

Cautioning that effective democracy depends on both economic development and social institutions, he points out, agreeing with an argument from Fareed Zakaria that a rule of law is more important to economic development than pure democracy. It may, in some cases, be more important to modernize the institutions of authoritarian societies than immediately moving to "feckless democracy". Doing so, however, is not a generally useful strategy; liberal authoritarianism tends to be rare, mostly seen in East Asia.

Rethinking institutions for world order

Two sets of limitations were revealed by the Iraq War: those of benevolent hegemony by the US, but also by existing international organizations such as the UN. The UN neither supported nor stopped the 2003 invasion, hardly an indication of success. Fukuyama thinks there is a reasonable amount of "vertical accountability" in nation-states, but not "horizontal accountability" among states. He discusses the problems of non-national actors and of the "traditional" international organizations.

Globalization makes the horizontal accountability problem even worse, as multinational become yet another form of non-state actor. While Fukuyama does not discuss the comparison, see Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World as an example of two forms of non-state actor: terrorist and business.

Technology is also a major factor. When the US has the power projection capability to change regimes thousands of miles away, by military or economic means, it creates distrust. Even though other nations have projected power, such as the British in the Falklands or OPEC with the oil embargo, there is a special tension with the US.

Legitimacy of the UN

Within the US, the Right sees the flawed UN as the basis of global governance, and, by rejecting the UN, rejects other alternatives. The Left (and many Europeans) overrate the ability of the UN for functions other than some peace operations. There is also a challenge to the legitimacy of the UN, in that membership is based on national sovereignty rather than any commitment to democratic principles. Europeans have tended to regard the UN as more legitimate than does the US, as they are comfortable with multinational groups such a the European Union.

The US relationship to Israel, routinely condemned in the General Assembly, not necessarily by democratic states, also contributes to tension. Fukuyama did not speak to the justice of the issue, but simply to the tension created by U.S. vetoes.

UN peace enforcement ability is quite limited, especially when it involves the key interests of a Security Council member with veto power. The Charter is not completely clear on justifications for going to war; Article 51 does not cover all situations.

Multilateral security

For Kosovo, where the Russian veto blocked UN action, shifting to NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR) gave legitimacy. NATO, however, is multilateral; it faces a challenge by Euro-Gaullists who prefer the European Union as less US-dominated. Nevertheless, the EU security organization is not developing, while NATO is progressing. Still, NATO has an operationally cumbersome structure, with units having to have national as well as NATO command approval.

When some neoconservatives claimed they weren't unilateralists, they cited NATO as a multilateral organization of which they approved. Fukuyama wrote they weren't serious, because when NATO rejected the Bush administration over Iraq, they rejected NATO. NATO had supported, and continues to support, operations in Afghanistan. If the neoconservatives had been serious about NATO, the Iraq War would not have been launched.

He proposes that if the US had accepted the constraint of not unilaterally acting in Iraq, it could make a counterproposal to develop a less cumbersome military command system for NATO. 26 members are too many to form a military operational consensus; some type of weighted votes or an executive committee could work far better.

East Asian security organizations such as ASEAN+3 and the East Asian Summit excluded the US. The US, and indeed other Asian countries such as Japan, have to decide on the role of China. The Six Party Talks on North Korea could become a new regional security forum. Japan is less willing to accept China, so a different organization might exclude China, but include the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and possibly India. It might be quite reasonable to have both, one encouraging China and one hedging against Chinese aggression.

The growth of alternative organizations

He started describing international organizations on a continuum from "formal, traditional, treaty-based" to informal. The first group, of which the UN and World Bank are good examples, are negotiated, with transparent rules, among states. At the other extreme are informal organizations, created at least in part by nonstate actors such as corporate, labor, or technology groups. The latter often have much less accountability but are fast and flexible: he contrasts clothing manufacturers and workers either negotiating their own agreement, or going to the more legitimate World Trade Organization for an agreement hard to change.

There are a host of intermediate types on this continuum, as well as types outside it. Fukuyama mentions the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which coordinates the work of national technical standards bodies, and produces voluntary international standards. Countries may adopt these standards and give them the force of national law, but ISO has no enforcement. Participating national standards bodies may be government-mandated or private.

Yet another type, for which he credits Anne-Marie Slaughter for defining as "intergovermentalism".[20] Such agreements are negotiated well below the treaty-making level, and produce what are commonly called Memorandums of Understanding (MOU). A MOU may be between two or more governments, or governments and private organizations. ICANN, for example, was established by a MOU with the U.S. Department of Commerce and an initial ICANN board. ICANN's legitimacy has been challenged in several ways, ironically more than the far more informal Internet Engineering Task Force from which some of its functions derived.

"Efficient decision making invariably requires delegation, yet it is precisely delegation that causes problems of legitimacy. People on the left ... demand accountability of the United States when it decides to intervene militarily, but ... accept informal negotiation of a corporate core of conduct when it is the only way to constrain the behavior of a multinational corporation. Conservatives...are distrustful of the unaccountable nature of NGOs...but they are supportive of loosely structured and largely nonaccountable institutions that facilitate the workings of the global economy."[21]

A different kind of American foreign policy

Where Metternich was Kissinger's exemplar of foreign policy, Fukuyama believes it should be Otto von Bismarck. After Bismarkck unified Germany, he recognized that reassuring neighbors was a prerequisite to avoiding the formation of hostile coalitions. The Reinsurance Treaty and the Berlin Conference were exercises of "soft power", as opposed to his successors' threatening acts such as building up the German Navy.

While the US need not worry about France and Germany forming a hostile military coalition, they have used "soft balancing" to block US initiatives. Asian countries build multilateral organization, in part, because they see no serious US interest. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a clear challenge in Central Asia.

Checks and balances are a fundamental part of the U.S. system. He asks that if unchecked power "is corrupting in a domestic context, why would it not also be bad for the power-holder internationally?" A well-intentioned soft power approach such as the Millennium Challenge Act is a unilateral U.S. operation within a multilateral framework, and suffers from some issues of distrust of the US. Nevertheless, it was a valid attempt to work around some of the situations where the World Bank was prevented from providing aid.[22] The George W. Bush Administration could have brought other countries into the Millennium Challenge Corporation implementing organization, but chose not to do so. It chose not to do so both to keep the political credit, but "also because it was contemptuous of multilateral institutions like the World Bank and thought the United States could do better on its own."[23]

Elsewhere, Fukuyama wrote

The term “war on terrorism” is a misnomer, resulting in distorted ideas of the main threat facing Americans today. Terrorism is only a means to an end; in this respect, a “war on terror” makes no more sense than a war on submarines.[24]

In this book, he says "the rhetoric about World War IV and the global war on terrorism must suggests we are taking on a large part of the Arab and Muslim worlds."

The new form of policy requires, according to Fukuyama, two often-inconsistent things: power and legitimacy. Power is most important to deal with non-state actors, especially WMD-armed, and may have to be used quickly to deal with immediate threats. Legitimacy, however, is consensual and slow.

The hegemon has to be not just well-intentioned but prudent and smart in its exercise of power...Madeleine Albright once asserted that Americans deserve to lead because they can "see further" than other people. If this were consistently true and widely acknowledged, the world would still only grudgingly concede primacy to American judgment and wishes. If American judgment turns out to be more hortsighted than that of others, then our unipolar world is in for a rough ride.


David Smith, Guardian (U.K.):

...democracy needs certain structures to be in place - and Fukuyama ably demonstrates America's failure to nurture them through 'soft power'...The neocons imploded, he argues, not because they were neocons but because they forgot one of their own principles: to distrust ambitious social engineering projects, such as trying to act as midwife to Iraqi democracy. On how to get there he is somewhat vague. Fukuyama is readable, but some of his arguments smack of translating common sense into academese. ... It is Fukuyama's defection from the neocons itself that is most damning.[25]

Prisco Herndandez, Military Review:

His critique of the current administration is threefold. First, he believes the administration mischaracterized the threat to the United States from radical Islamism by wrongly conflating it with the threat from failed and rogue states (for example in the alleged Al Qaeda-Iraq connection). This belief led to the policy of "preventive war" and the Iraq War. Second, he claims that the administration grossly miscalculated, and then dismissed, the negative effect unilateral action would have on world opinion; most significantly, on the reaction of some of our closest traditional allies. The third, and perhaps the most serious criticism, is directed at the administration's failure to plan for and consider the difficulties of the occupation and the transition of Iraq from a totalitarian dictatorship to a multiparty, multiethnic, secular democratic state.[26]


  1. Francis Fukuyama (2006), America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, Yale University Press, ISBN 0300113994,p. xiii
  2. Mackubin Thomas Owens (20 December 2006), Realism, Iraq, and the Bush Doctrine: Some clarification is desperately needed.
  3. pp. 5-7
  4. pp. 28-31
  5. pp. 66-69
  6. Ron Suskind (2006), The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 9780743271097, p. 62
  7. Charles Krauthammer (Fall 2004), "In Defense of Democratic Realism", The National Interest: 15
  8. Corinne Graff and Susan Rice (Fall 2005), "Can "Freedom Only" Secure Our Future?", McGill International Review
  9. pp. 77-81
  10. Roberta Wohlstetter (1965), Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, Stanford University Press
  11. Douglas Feith (2008), War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism, Harper, ISBN 9780060899738, pp. 475-477
  12. Paul Wolfowitz (January/February 1994), "Clinton’s First Year", Foreign Affairs
  13. Charles Krauthammer (Winter 2002), "The Unipolar Moment Revisited.", The National Interest: 5-17
  14. Robert Kagan (June 2002), "Power and Weakness", Policy Review
  15. pp. 114-119
  16. Dick Cheney (16 March 2003), Meet the Press, NBC News
  17. Francis Fukuyama (1992), The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, ISBN 0029109752
  18. William Kristol and Robert Kagan (2000), Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy, Encounter, pp. 14-17
  19. pp. 137-138
  20. Anne-Marie Slaughter (2004), A New World Order, Princeton University Press
  21. pp. 171-172
  22. Steven Radelet (May 1, 2003), Challenging Foreign Aid: A Policymaker's Guide to the Millennium Challenge Account, Center for Global Development
  23. pp. 147-153
  24. Phase III in the War on Terrorism? Challenges and opportunities, Brookings Institution, 2003-05-14. Retrieved on 2008-06-26.
  25. David Smith (4 February 2007), "After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads", The Observer, Guardian (U.K.)
  26. Prisco R. Hernandez (May-June, 2006), "America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy", Military Review