As they try to make sense of the Arab Spring, many in Washington have argued that the US must put itself on "the right side of history" in the Middle East and North Africa. It's a familiar but bizarre phrase. It is common sense to argue that foreign policy should be driven by national interests and deep-seated principles. But should politicians and diplomats base their choices on their instincts about where the arc of history is heading?
Most professional historians would say no. To acquire a doctorate in history today, at least in the US or UK, is to obsess about details. Topics such as folk perceptions of Joan of Arc in post-Napoleonic Normandy are hot in academic circles. Things like the rise and decline of civilisations don't seem rigorous enough to get historians interested.
Yet there is still a natural hunger for History with a capital H. We live in a moment of dramatic political and economic change, as the US turns inwards, Europe stagnates and China, India and Brazil assert themselves on the world stage. The recent events in the Middle East have only reinforced the sense that we have entered a historically pivotal moment.
So it's hardly surprising that there is currently high demand for explanations of world history that can be applied to immediate political circumstances. This is just what Francis Fukuyama offers in The Origins of Political Order, an expansive survey of global developments stretching from prehistory to the French and American revolutions.
It is not too much to say that Fukuyama had no choice but to write this book. Twenty years ago he seized the post-Cold War moment to raise the possibility of the "end of history" - the moment that liberal democracy trumped all other political systems. Versions of this idea informed the Clinton administration's efforts to draw ex-Communist states into a liberal world order and the Bush administration's democratisation agenda.
On some college campuses, it has been fashionable to suggest that Fukuyama's thesis led directly to America's misadventure in Iraq and the struggle to build a modern state in Afghanistan. This is piffle. Anyone who has read detailed accounts of the Bush team's debates over Afghanistan and Iraq will recognise that these campaigns were shaped by an initial post-9/11 panic, old-fashioned power politics and much Washingtonian infighting.
Yet, to his credit, Fukuyama has worried a good deal about why his country's efforts to transform the world have gone awry. He not only disowned the neoconservatives in a finely argued 2007 polemic, America at the Crossroads, but has written and edited a number of technical studies of development policy and nation-building. Even ardent admirers may have missed his article, "State-building in the Solomon Islands", in the 2008 Pacific Economic Review, cited dutifully in The Origins of Political Order.
Although Fukuyama notes that this new work is partially inspired by a preoccupation with "the real-world problems of weak and failed states", it is evidently his return to the big picture. The book is Fukuyama's attempt to address those "real-world problems" by grappling with the sociological and philosophical flaws of long-defunct societies.
This is a remarkably old-fashioned project. In tracing the highways and byways of human development, Fukuyama appears far more interested in probing the classics of political philosophy and sociology than current development theory. The majority of books in the bibliography date from before 2000, and the argument includes detailed discussions of Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, Max Weber and Friedrich von Hayek. With some authors, this might be dismissed as a tokenistic tour through "Great Books of Political Theory". But Fukuyama embraces such non-household names as "the great English jurist Sir Edward Coke". As has been said of another Coke, this is the real thing.
In some ways, Fukuyama's argument is as old-fashioned as his range of references. It is a new variation of a well-established grand narrative of humanity that goes roughly as follows. First there were monkeys. After rather a long time, there were hunter-gatherers. Then there were proper tribes, proper villages, towns, cities, religions and so forth. Complex civilisations emerged in the Fertile Crescent, China and India. Significant empires developed, and until about 600 years ago, Europe was a creative but geopolitically unimportant peninsula. Then the West got its act together and set about reshaping the world and laying the groundwork for today's liberal global order.
This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, and Fukuyama is good at dismissing his predecessor's simplifications. Marx apparently failed to grasp huge differences between ancient Indian and Chinese societies, lumping them together under the headline of "Oriental despotism". Weber failed to see just how far ancient Chinese society advanced.
Fukuyama's take on world history has two great strengths. The first is that - as his dismissals of Marx and Weber suggests - he does not treat the histories of the great Asian empires as an adjunct to "the rise of the West". He notes at the outset that he will downplay Greece and Rome. Socrates and Aristotle make only cameo appearances. By contrast, Fukuyama treats Confucianism and Hindu thought in considerable detail.
His second main strength is to marry this inclusive approach to the past with a dogged pursuit of themes that he believes affect all societies, above all the struggle to develop both the rule of law and standards of political accountability to keep legislators honest.
In spite of his emphasis on Asia, Fukuyama argues - in terms that would have been familiar to Marx and Weber - that medieval Europe played a unique role in the world's evolution due to the "functional" impact of Christianity. If, for example, the Hindu caste system impeded innovation, Christianity enforced "the notion of universal community based on common faith". This eventually opened the way for a secular sense of community based on the rule of law and "mutual recognition" of individuals' dignity.
Fukuyama is at pains to show that this argument does not add up to Christian or western triumphalism. He underlines that Christianity did not keep medieval Russia from absolutism, and that individual European countries followed very different political paths.
Fukuyama's narrative ends in roughly 1789, with the French Revolution about to launch a new wave of political ideas and European colonialism about to gather pace in Asia and Africa. The Origins of Political Order inevitably leaves many questions about its author's political vision to be answered. The present volume concludes with a rather unsatisfactory effort to apply the lessons of history to today's generation of weak states.
This attempt to marry past and present is tricky because, as Fukuyama emphasises, current conditions for political development vary immensely from those of ancient India or medieval Europe. Leaders of weak states such as Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai are influenced by a range of external actors that didn't bother the ancient Greeks or Chinese. Had the United Nations existed in classical Greece, for example, the Peloponnesian War might never have broken out. Equally, UN development advisers would probably have opposed the building of the Parthenon on the basis that it was a waste of public money.
Even Fukuyama seems only semi-convinced by his efforts to apply old lessons to modern development policy, and his incisive prose suddenly takes on the technocratic, torpid tone common in international development reports. This is all the more disappointing because Fukuyama has a far more controversial point to make. It doesn't relate to fragile states like Afghanistan at all. Instead, it is about how China's and India's distant histories affect their prospects as rising powers, and relations with the US, today.
India, Fukuyama posits fairly early on, has yet to escape from the norms of its pre-colonial politics. Caste groups and kin ties were so crucial to its development - and continue to play a significant role today - that the country remains difficult to unite.
If that's bad news for Delhi, what about Beijing? Fukuyama argues on the very last page of The Origins of Political Order that today's Chinese system bears the hallmarks of its imperial predecessors, with power concentrated in the centre and too little accountability.
"An authoritarian system can periodically run rings around a liberal democratic one under good leadership," he argues, clearly thinking of today's Sino-American competition, but at the same time it will always be in peril of slipping into political decay. In spite of Fukuyama's attention to the histories of today's Asian powers, his message is clear: if you want to get ahead in today's global competition, it's still best to refer to the ideas that shaped the West.
This is controversial even if it is couched in academic prose. As China has risen, a growing number of its scholars have started to claim that traditional Chinese thought offers a matrix for its evolution. Anglophone readers who want to sample this genre of thought could pick up Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power by Yan Xuetong, a collection of essays praising many of the long-ago Chinese philosophers that Fukuyama rapidly dismisses. Intellectual history is a new East-West battleground.
If Fukuyama's concern with how to build political order in weak states reflects the post-Cold War and post-9/11 priorities of US strategists, his parting shot to China underlines the main challenge to Washington today: to identify America's comparative advantage in a world of competing great powers. Fukuyama mentions the idea that the US may itself experience political decay. This major essay is not only about the origins of political order, but the ideas that will shape international order in the decades ahead.
Richard Gowan is an associate director at the NYU Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.