When Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, he was speaking on behalf of a worldview he called ‘liberal democracy’. For brevity, I will simply call this liberalism. This worldview arose between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, displacing western Christianity before being exported through colonialism and the often-violent introduction of modernity to the non-European nations. One of its most important ideas is that time is not only linear but universal. This was an explicit repudiation of pre-modern conceptions of time that tended to be cyclical and based on mythological or theological narratives. This can be hard for us to process as we live in a time where the entire world is more or less interconnected and forms what is really the first global human civilisation in history. We share the same calendars and use the same 24-hour clocks and time zones. It can make little sense to suggest that time is anything but universal and shared.
However, until the 19th century, it was the norm that humanity was temporally fragmented. It was only through the process of colonialism that the dizzying array of calendars, timelines, and histories that defined thousands of peoples, hundreds of polities, and the dozens of major world civilisations to have existed over the past millennia was for the first time completely replaced by a liberalism in which time was linear and universal, and meant that all human tribes, races, and religions were destined for the same end. For Fukuyama, this end was liberal democracy. Some of you coming from different disciplinary backgrounds will immediately see their discipline's concepts of time and progress in this; historians and philosophers may see Hegel, economists may see Marx, biologists may see Darwin, etc. All of these philosophies, socio-economic analyses and theories of history formed a complex and interconnected web of thought that gave rise to the general idea of linear temporality that underpins liberalism.
The West's self-confidence was partly derived from the fact that Europe (and by extension, her American and Australasian colonies) succeeded where no other empire had before, unifying the entire world by mechanical clock, railway schedule, and the (secularised) Gregorian calendar. This success was in itself proof that the western worldview was right. It would probably have been hard to resist this belief in a time where you would have witnessed a Malthusian world defined by the flow and ebb of agricultural seasons and harvests and where travel was by horse and foot, swept away by the abundance of food in every season, railways and electricity. It could also be said that we now all inhabit a single mega-civilisation spanning the entirety of the Earth. I can eat lunch in London today and be shopping in the markets of Beijing tomorrow. The sameness that permeates everything in our new ‘global cities’ (New York, London, Singapore, etc) that form the bulk of humanity’s population and economy suggest the development of a shared culture.
However, this may only have been a temporary illusion. Even though we have seen accelerating cultural homogenization and the development of interdependent supply chains between economies, political integration has not made any significant gains. States are no less likely to sacrifice their sovereignty or monopoly of violence than they were since the walls of Jericho were first erected to keep outsiders out. The coronavirus will likely be looked upon as the historical event that finally shattered this illusion after decades of globalisation's proponents heralding the inevitability of a world government. Why was political integration unrealised - and, more importantly, why did so many people come to be convinced that it was inevitable in the face of overwhelming evidence that suggested otherwise? The answer to this may also be the answer to American statecraft’s repeated failures and how it relates to the current political upheaval we are witnessing, not just between China and America but also in the domestic politics of countries like India, Israel, and Turkey and their 'return to history'.
Their rejection of this western worldview and their pursuit of the quest of addressing past grievances are an implicit rejection of the universality of liberalism and the embrace of civilisational particularness. The concept of the ‘civilisation-state’ is making a return and Samuel Huntington may have the last laugh yet. However, I find the phrase civilisation-state off-putting as civilisations may lie outside the empires that lay claim to them. Russia does not have a monopoly on Orthodox Christianity, the modern borders of China are not the greatest extent of Sinic civilisation, and no one country can ever lay claim to being the core of Islamic civilisation. I also believe that too much of the analysis on the differences between polities and civilisations is focused on culture. There are deeper rifts that are causing political turmoil, and one of those rifts is time.
I will call this process chronopolitics. Chronopolitics was a term coined by George W. Wallis in his paper on ‘Chronopolitics: The Impact of Time Perspectives on the Dynamics of Change’. Avetis Muradyan has also explored how space and time will determine what occurs next in the liberal order. I want to apply chronopolitics to the political upheaval we are witnessing as a clash of different worldviews along the boundaries of time. Ultimately, the repeated failures of American statecraft in the post-war period may well rest on the inability of successive generations of statesmen to process the basic fact that not all nations share the same history or future trajectory, a belief that arose as a result of their embrace of liberal internationalism (what we today call the liberal order). The greatest strike against globalisation may yet be a chronoclasm - whereby this belief violently breaks out in what Huntington called the Clash of Civilisations, the final and complete rejection of liberalism and its universal history.
Categorising multitemporality in global politics
How can we trace the contours of the chronopolitical conflict between liberalism and non-liberalism on the global stage? I propose a rudimentary framework by separating modern polities into three distinct timelines:
- The historical state
- The suspended state
- The futurist state
Most polities fall into the first category: 'the historical state'. This includes China, India, Israel, Iran, Russia, and Turkey among others. Generally, we can group these polities into: Orthodox, Sinic, and Islamic civilisations. Each polity roots itself within a distinct timeline of events and narratives that not only define their historical origins but influences their contemporary political decision-making and therefore their future trajectory. In short, these nations have bucked liberal democracy as the endpoint of their development and envision alternate futures for their people. Of the three categories, the historical state is the one defined by its illiberalism. It should come as no surprise that they have done so, considering that they lie outside the context in which liberalism had developed. Europe’s unique cultural, political, and religious history cannot simply be applied anywhere else.
The suspended state is a rarer phenomenon. It is the core states of the European Union – Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Germany among others – that envision themselves as being post-historical entities. I have opted to call them ‘suspended states’ because this more accurately captures the reality of their situation in contrast to their desired state of being. Europe represents a stagnant liberalism that wishes to remove itself from the business of history but ignore the demands of genuine future-building for its people. Fortress Europa is an attempt to build a moat against the tides of history: migration, war, the supposed threat of Islam to Europe’s Christian heritage, and so on. They fear a return to history because they are traumatized by two successive wars costing millions of lives and featured some of the largest industrial-scale genocides in the history of humanity.
However, even as it disavows its past, Europe offers no compelling vision of the future. Its economies are noted for their sclerotic state, especially when it comes to technological innovation. Europe largely relies on American technological and military prowess for its economic and military security and is hesitant to make moves away from that. It seems that the Eurocrats imagine themselves on a long holiday away from reality, paid for by the American taxpayer. China has understood this, hence its desire to sublimate Europe into the Eurasian project as it does not see Europe as posing an obstacle to a live actor like China. In this case, being a suspended state is probably the worst of the three categories I have laid out above.
It is America that exemplifies the futurist state par excellence. Possibly the most powerful nation in the history of humanity, America is a relative infant in the ‘family of nations’, with the Merchant Republic-turned-Empire having been around for barely a quarter of a millennium. Forged in the fires of both political and industrial revolutions, America is among the other nations the least tethered to history. America’s geist is the will to construct a vision of the future and strive to achieve it, driven by an indefatigable belief in an optimism of their will to build. This is the true source of their dominance of technological innovation and why America remains the true workshop of the world, not China. Without America, modernity and technological innovation would have ended after 1945. Not only does Europe owe its post-war revival to America, but China too must acknowledge debts for the technology it has both learned and stolen in order to chart its own course of development.
This futuristic ethos also opens up the possibility for America to consider a fundamental transformation of itself. Even though America is liberal, it may yet decide to go beyond liberalism if that is what is required in order to survive. This is why, for all the furore, I am optimistic about America’s ability to maintain its strong lead in the emerging multipolar world. Its technological fundamentals are stronger than any other polity, including China. America does not suffer from the same historical anxieties as Europe, nor its unwillingness to action that may force it into a state of suspension. In short, America retains the ability to act as a live player and construct a future for itself.
Based on this rudimentary framework and current affairs, we can surmise that the coming conflict will primarily be between the liberal-futurist state America (although its liberalism will come into question as the century proceeds) and the illiberal-historical state China. Both states are live actors and form the core polities for their respective civilisational spheres (Anglo-western and Sinic-east Asian). As such, the chronoclasmic earthquakes between liberalism and non-liberalism will be felt hardest in the faultlines between these two states.
Liberal Internationalism, American Statecraft and Post-War Failures
What lies behind the failure of liberal internationalism? After America’s founding, liberalism at home and realism abroad existed in a comfortable duality throughout the 19th century, but began to break down around the turn of the 20th century as America increasingly came to have an allodial position in world politics by virtue of its titanic economic growth. In ‘Advice to War Presidents’, Angelo Codevilla explores the shift in language that occurs among American statesmen throughout the 20th century, writing that “America’s Founders wrote of statecraft in a language that was cold, precise, discriminating, and moralizing—a language that reflected basic choices between war and peace, life and death, freedom and slavery, honor and cowardice, fear and interest.” Interestingly, as opposed to neglecting the past in favour of a morally progressive future, Codevilla notes that “these statesmen thought about foreign affairs in continuing conversation with the ancients.”
This started to change after the turn of the century, with American statesmen beginning to use language that was more moralising and simultaneously meaningless, and increasingly barren of historical references. “It seemed inevitable that law would rule the world, and that they would write it.” Codevilla’s compelling description of the shift in language was not merely a rhetorical development, but perhaps a harbinger of liberal internationalism’s rise to dominance in statecraft, seen by statesmen as a prerequisite to America being able to dominate and shape the world in its image. This process would heat up through the early 20th century and catalyse as Pax Americana in the post-war period. This was the transition of American liberalism from its relativist state to its universalisation, and its imposition of the linear, universal worldview underpinning liberalism on a world that was just beginning to emerge shocked and bewildered from pre-modernity, the world we came to call "the developing economies".
And yet, America has failed in every single endeavour to remake the world in its image. Buoyed by the successful remaking of Germany and Japan (at least on the surface), America saw a world that could finally abandon the classical account of human nature – a proneness to competition, conflict, and chaos – in favour of uniting around a linear, universalist understanding of time. No man summed this worldview up better than Francis Fukuyama, writing in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. For Fukuyama, history was ending in the sense that liberal democracy was the pinnacle of humanity’s achievement in creating a political structure as closely approximating our ideals of human liberty as possible. This did not mean that wars would end or that people would not resist this; Fukuyama foresaw the threat of megalothymia to liberal democracy’s total conquest. But Fukuyama’s fatal flaw was his uncritical assumption of the linear temporality of liberalism, which blinded him to the chronopolitics at play.
If there is one statement that proves this, it is a simple maxim crafted by Deng Xiaoping, the great Chinese reformer and the one who set into motion the inexorable march towards the rejection of liberalism. ‘Hide Your Strength, Bide Your Time’. One can find this quote associated with nearly every article or report on China’s path to economic development or political sovereignty. Few have delved into what that final word – time – meant. It could merely have been a rhetorical flourish, a recognition of the need for pragmatism on the Chinese Communist leadership’s part - opposing America’s will while the nation was weak was a futile endeavour, or an affirmation of the chronopolitics already under way. China would not submit to America’s conception of time, its place in history, and its attempt to drag the other nations of humanity along with it towards its appointed destination - liberal democracy.
China has decided that they must no longer hide their strength or bide their time, and under Xinping have embarked on a mission to “go out into the world” and secure what advantages it can while the chaos of the coronavirus has thrown the American empire into disarray. It has formally annexed Hong Kong, invaded and annexed Indian territory and killed Indian troops, and threatened Australia with reprisals for its resistance to Chinese bullying. This is excluding Chinese activities in the South China Sea, something China analyst Tanner Greer has called “the largest landgrab in the past century”. China has been waiting a long time to re-imagine the political order in East Asia, and it has clearly identified that the time to do this is now. Whether or not it will be successful in doing so, or face failure after its previous failures at aggression against Pax Americana, only time can tell.
But this goes beyond China. Other historical states are also making seismic shifts that threaten to collapse liberal internationalism. Russia continues its long ascent to recovery after the near societal collapse it experienced after the fall of the USSR, humiliating American interests in Ukraine, Syria, and now Libya. It has succeeded in restoring some semblance of anti-NATO security around its core interests, has gone a long way in restoring its economy, and is actively waging information warfare against Europe with some degree of success. Israel is moving forward to complete the final part of its historic state mission of fully restoring what it deems to be (or should be) the true borders of Eretz Yisrael by announcing the annexation of much of the West Bank. This is driven both by the opportunity found in the chaos of the coronavirus as well as deep-seated fears that Palestinian demographic growth is running away and that if Trump were to fail being re-elected, they may miss their chance to do this for at least another decade.
Turkey’s post-Ottoman policy of ‘Peace at Home, Peace Abroad’ has been fundamentally broken in the past decade as Turkish drones, ships, and auxiliary troops conduct strategic operations in Syria, Libya, and as far as the Red Sea. The Mavi Vatan doctrine guiding this is both an expression of the fundamental strategic requirements of any polity centred in Anatolia, but also an expression of Turkey’s return to history at long last, having been severed from its imperial roots since 1923. This comes on the back of the repeated failures of America's ventures in the wider Muslim world, such as in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. America's technological superiority was on display as they won the wars, but their diplomatic ability was shown wanting in repeatedly losing the peace. America has simply failed to understand why Islamic civilisation (or what remains of it) has remained unwilling to join America in embracing liberalism.
Beyond Liberal Internationalism
The geopolitics we are witnessing are the chronopolitical upheavals of historical states that have identified that now is the time to make the decisive move against liberal internationalism and to re-assert their own non-liberal conceptions of time, history, and alternate futures for their people. Liberal internationalism failed in guiding American diplomacy and foreign policy since it established the postwar order, naively assuming that the historical memory of other polities could quite simply be erased in favour of economic incentives and “nation-building”, which was really just a process of shoehorning a nation’s entire history, laws, and norms into an ersatz liberal state that only ever existed on paper. Alas, this is not the fundamental impulse that drives politics; age-old conflicts are part-and-parcel of who we are and they find their way into political decision-making at the highest levels, no matter how well we guard against them.
For many, the world is getting too complex. When it was a place where every nation was moving in the same direction, just at different speeds and levels of resistance, we felt far more comfortable. However, things are changing. We are starting to enter a world in which the lines of division are going to return and one of these lines will run across time. Once the Ottoman Empire printed calendars in Ottoman-Turkish, Arabic, Greek, French, Armenian, and Hebrew. What once was may become again and we would find it irritating but not impossible to understand the various worldviews of different nations as existing in different timelines and going in different directions.
What is likely is that the liberal internationalism that has guided American statecraft since the post-war period will make a retreat and we will see a transition back to a statecraft in which classical concepts of power, human nature, and political relations once against predominate, something closer to how the founders thought and spoke. Statesmen across the world, not least in America, may come to study chronopolitics as essential to the delicate balancing of various nation’s conceptions of time and place in a world with no clear centre of power. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is a blip in the course of history and once again we will find ourselves back on the linear path of moral and technological progress and liberal democracy. But I wouldn’t count on it.