Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Huntington’s “Errors of Endism” at Thirty
Huntington’s “Errors of Endism” at Thirty

Huntington’s “Errors of Endism” at Thirty

  • Adam Garfinkle
  • August 22, 2019
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

People seem attracted to anniversaries, including literary ones. That’s because they’re “shiny”: artificial but sometimes usefully attention grabbing.[1] I’ve an anniversary celebration to note that comes with a contemporary gloss, to be polished up below.

We are approaching the 30th anniversary of Samuel Huntington’s lead essay in the Fall 1989 issue of The National Interest.  Entitled “No Exit: The Errors of Endism,” Huntington aimed his sharp analytical mind at several arguments and individuals, not least his student Francis Fukuyama, who in the preceding issue had unfurled his justly famous “End of History” essay, in which he had used Hegelian historical analysis to proclaim the ultimate triumph of the Western liberal political model over its challengers. The brilliance and prophetic power of Huntington’s reply to Fukuyama, John Mueller, Michael Doyle, and a few others will be manifest to anyone who goes back to read it. Full justice cannot be done in summary form here, but citing a few passages is irresistible.

Huntington contrasted the intellectual fad of 1989, endism, with that of the previous year, declinism—the product of that now almost-forgotten academic bestseller, Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In comparing the two for practical purposes, he wrote:

[D]eclinism . . . provides a warning and a goad to action in order to head off and reverse the decline that it says is taking place. . . . Endism, in contrast, provides not a warning of danger but an illusion of well-being. It invites not corrective action but relaxed complacency. The consequences of its thesis being in error, hence, are far more dangerous and subversive than those that would result if the declinist thesis should be wrong. . . . To hope for the benign end of history is human. To expect it to happen is unrealistic. To plan on it happening is disastrous.

In the Fall of 1989 the phrase “liberal triumphalism” had not yet been coined, because no compelling reason yet existed for anyone to coin it. But then the minor-key hubris of the Bush 41 Defense Department gave way to a two-term Clinton administration that produced more far reasons from illusion and complacency to coin that term than we needed. What serious person today denies the power of Huntington’s prophecy in the multiple ways it manifested itself in the long decade before September 11, 2001, and in a somewhat different way, for a while at least, after September 11, 2001?

It gets better. Huntington wrote:

The end of the Cold War does not mean the end of political, ideological, diplomatic, economic, technological, or even military rivalry among nations. It does not mean the end of the struggle for power and influence. It very probably does mean increased instability, unpredictability, and violence in international affairs. It could mean the end of the Long Peace. . . .

This prediction needs no comment, aside from scoring those who pronounced “the return of geopolitics” that never departed in the first place. Nor does this one, posed as a reply to George Kennan:

The past record of Russia as a ‘normal’ great power. . . is not reassuring for either the liberty of Eastern Europe or the security of Western Europe. . . . One cannot assume, Fukuyama argues, that ‘the evolution of human consciousness has stood still’ and that ‘the Soviets will return to foreign policy views a century out of date in the rest of Europe.’ Fukuyama is right: one cannot assume that the Soviets will revert to the bad old ways of the past. One also cannot assume that they will not.

Still better, perhaps:

Fukuyama argues that ‘Chinese competitiveness and expansionism on the world scene have virtually disappeared’ and, he implies strongly, will not reappear. A more persuasive argument, however, could be made for exactly the opposite proposition that Chinese expansionism has yet to appear on the world scene.

QED, at least if we’re willing to credit an expansionism that differs from the heretofore common, exclusively territorial kind.

No Winners, No Losers, No Endings?

These excerpts do not exhaust the capacities of “No Exit” to produce breathtaking encounters of the deep-literate kind. They don’t even include the best parts, toward the end. You must read the essay for yourself to fully appreciate it. But there is something you cannot appreciate, because it is nowhere in the four corners of what is, after all, a short piece of writing.

Seven or eight years after the essay was published, when I served as Executive Editor of The National Interest, I told Professor Huntington during a cocktail hour conversation before one of our yearly Hay-Adams hotel editorial board dinners how much I admired this particular essay. He thanked me, but told me that he found the essay a lingering frustration. I asked why. He answered that his first draft took up the more philosophical issues raised by “the end of history,” but that most of that copy ended up on the cutting room floor.

In the essay, Huntington questions whether “liberal democracy [has] really triumphed,” arguing in a foreshadowing of his 1993 Foreign Affairs essay on the “Clash of Civilizations” that, “if any one trend is operative in the world today it is for societies to turn back toward their traditional cultures, values, and patterns of behavior.” What he doesn’t do is raise the issue of whether, its victory granted for the sake of argument, liberal democracy could endure basically forever—as the “end of history” manner of speaking suggested it would.

Huntington does write that, “the triumph of one ideology does not preclude the emergence of new ideologies. Nations and societies presumably will continue to evolve. New challenges to human well-being will emerge, and people will develop new concepts, theories, and ideologies as to how those challenges should be met.” True and clear, but rather flat as political philosophy goes. Huntington’s first draft, he told me, took that observation deeper and further. I should have asked him to share his first draft with me (if he still had it), but I didn’t. It was a short conversation, as those that take place among those standing with glasses in hand often are.

Naturally, I have since wondered from time to time how Huntington went about that deepening. I would never dare compare myself to him, in my estimation the most insightful and agile-minded political scientist of his generation. I only know how I would go about expressing it given a chance. So let me take that chance, for what it may be worth, concluding with two non-Huntingtonian quotations that form a couplet of kindred thoughts united by the general, perhaps ironic, theme of “too much of a good thing.” It may retrieve a tiny shard of what was omitted from “The Errors of Endism,” and perhaps tease up an observation appropriate to 2019.  

Freedom, Equality, and Frustration

In Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, Socrates (reportedly, of course) describes how a democracy progresses in stages toward its own destruction by allowing its animating principle to exceed prudent limits. In I.A. Richards’s classic translation, the famous passage goes like this (eliding Adeimantus’s interjections and details):

Plutocracy thought the good was wealth, didn’t it? And the fact that it had no respect for anything else was its destruction. Democracy, too, comes to its end through its idea of the good . . . Freedom. . . . In such a state doesn’t freedom go beyond limits?. . . [T]he souls of the citizens become so soft and delicate that they grow hot and angry at the least sign that they are not completely free. In the end they make light of the very laws themselves, in order, as they say, not to have the shadow of anyone over them.[2]

Let’s now jump ahead about 2,300 years to hear Alexis de Tocqueville on equality:

When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention. When everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed. Hence the more equal men are, the more insatiable will be their longing for equality.[3]

The key point of setting these two statements side by side, one about freedom and one about equality, all but jumps out; and of all people Huntington understood it. He is the one, after all, who wrote: “A value which is normally good in itself is not necessarily optimized when it is maximized.”[4]

Thus, individual freedom unbalanced by other social virtues tends to generate ever more extreme longings, and in so doing destroy itself as it seeks to jump from an asymptotic trend arcing toward perfection to perfection itself; the yearning for individual equality, unbalanced by other social virtues, does the same. It is in the perverse nature of human appetites that, unless bridled by a discipline of humility, the more one has the more one wants, and the more one agonizes over what one appears to lack. When such untethered longings morph all the way into utopian fantasies, if empowered they devour those mesmerized by them in their striving to achieve the impossible.

The core Huntingtonian point here concerning endism is that there is no such thing as a perfect, static social reality. Socrates and Tocqueville agree that no stable equipoise is possible when it comes to such longings; they are ever in flux, and are often to be found lunging toward overreach and exhaustion. It follows that no political order, national, regional or global, and no set of political ideals, can last forever.

History with No Brakes—and No Reverse

There is, put into a different vernacular, no eschatological endpoint to earthly history. Insisting on or acting as if it were otherwise—essentially importing the syntax of theology into politics in a way that produces endism as a secular manqué for messianism—is bound to come to grief. Political ideas and institutions, like human individuals, are mortal. It is, very likely, through our myriad shrewd ways of distracting ourselves from the latter truth, not least historically by dint of religion-based promises of everlasting life, that the failure to reckon with the former one occurs as collateral evasion.

Not only can history not end so long as human civilization endures, neither can it move in reverse. In human affairs as opposed to Newtonian physics, T and -T are neither symmetrical nor interchangeable. Once established political templates show signs of passing from the scene they can no longer be restored to any appreciable extent. That is not to err by crudely likening them to the organic, but even symbolic systems, as Socrates implies, seem to have something like life cycles. That is why Andrew Sullivan may yet be proven correct to have written, in May 2016, that Donald Trump may represent, as symptom as much as cause, an “extinction-level event” for American liberal democracy. Thus thirty years on do declinism and endism strain to merge.

We Americans now have the privilege of pondering the meta-methodological similarities of Socrates and Tocqueville at a time when impulses toward unhinged individualism and mindless undifferentiated egalitarianism have both soared beyond their guardrails. We may wish to go back to before the derailments occurred. We can’t; the world doesn’t work that way. So to the errors of endism pointed out in 1989, let us add the errors of reversism now become obvious in 2019. If America is to be great in the future, it will have to be great in a way different from that of the past. I think Professor Huntington would concur.

[1] See my “shiny” definition explained and applied in “The Six Day and Fifty Years War,” The American Interest Online, June 5, 2017, and “Shine On: The Balfour Declaration at 100,” The American Interest Online, November 2, 2017.

[2] Andrew Sullivan borrowed this same passage, using it at greater length than I do here, in “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny,” New York Magazine, May 2, 2016. David Brooks has made a similar point about diversity, in general a good thing, when he wrote that, “Diversity for its own sake, without a common telos, is infinitely centrifugal, and leads to social fragmentation.” “The Strange Failure of the Educated Elite,” New York Times, May 28, 2018.

[3] Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part II, Ch. 13, p. 538 (J.P. Mayer edition). Not by accident does this remark appear on the last page in a chapter entitled “Restlessness in the Midst of Prosperity.” An older, more literal translation reads: “When inequality is the common law of a society, the strongest inequalities do not strike the eye, but when everything is nearly on a level, the least of them wound it. The desire for equality always becomes more insatiable as equality is greater.”

[4] From The Crisis of Democracy (Trilateral Commission), p. 115.