Learning from the big, bold 1990s debates over the post-Cold War world

In the digital age, intellectual debate is more polarising and vituperative than ever. To generate the new thinking needed to navigate our uncertain global landscape we should revisit the kind of serious ideas on geopolitics that scholars advanced in the 1990s.
Iraqi children in front of a mural of Saddam Hussein, Baghdad, 1999. Credit: KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images.
Iraqi children in front of a mural of Saddam Hussein, Baghdad, 1999. Credit: KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Profound changes in world politics can often be hard to understand when they are unfolding before our eyes. In 2021, we have a sense that the international system is shifting in important ways, driven by profound socio-economic forces, governance challenges, and technological disruptions, manifested in populist and authoritarian assaults on the legitimacy of democratic norms and institutions, deepening transnational threats such as Covid-19 and climate change, and a return to some form of great power political competition and the rise of an increasingly menacing China. The significance of these changes, however – and how it will all turn out – is far less clear. We are in desperate need for ideas and insight to better understand and adapt to our increasingly uncertain and fraught world.  

Is there a model for the kind of spirited discussion we require? The early 1990s witnessed a similar shift in world order, which generated equally profound questions. What caused the sudden end of the Cold War, what did it mean for world politics, and how should the powers that came out on top – namely the United States – respond? Unlike the start of the Cold War, where a rough consensus eventually emerged around George Kennan’s concept of containment, debates over the future of international relations in the 1990s created a sharp intellectual debate and no real unanimity. The diversity of views did not, however, lead to intellectual chaos, but instead a rich if at times controversial dialogue that aided our understanding of a rapidly changing world. Three arguments in particular generated the most attention and shaped the ensuing debate.

First came Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History?‘ which appeared during the summer of 1989 in a little-known policy journal The National Interest as well as a shorter version in a Washington Post opinion piece. Fukuyama, who had been trained in political theory and philosophy at the University of Chicago and was deputy head of policy planning in the U.S. Department of State, expanded the argument in a 1992 book entitled The End of History and the Last Man. Building upon the insights of Hegel and fascinating exchanges between political philosophers Alexandre Kojeve and Leo Strauss, Fukuyama suggested that world politics was largely a historical battle between different ideological systems, and this struggle had once and for all demonstrated the superiority of democratic capitalism over other systems of governance and economics.

The following summer, University of Chicago international relations theorist John Mearsheimer weighed in with ‘Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War‘, published in the journal International Security; a non-scholarly version published concurrently in The Atlantic, ‘Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War,’ reached a far larger audience. Mearsheimer, building upon the realist tradition, pushed back against the rosy view that the post-Cold War would be largely peaceful, predicting that a multipolar Europe would witness nuclear proliferation and a return of the kind of intense competition that plagued the first half of the 20th century. Three years later, renowned Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington published ‘The Clash of Civilizations?‘ in Foreign Affairs, expanding it into a 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Huntington predicted that international politics in the future would not be shaped by ideology or balance of power politics, as Fukuyama and Mearsheimer contended, but by sharp differences in cultural and religious orientations and fights between divergent civilizational groupings. 

The arguments were easily caricatured and have often been dismissed over the past thirty years. History obviously did not end, as Fukuyama’s title implied, and the liberal ideology he triumphed is increasingly challenged. A unified Germany did not acquire nuclear weapons nor did the United States leave the continent, as Mearsheimer predicted, and the threat of great power war in Europe has remained distant. Huntington’s classification of nations and peoples into civilisational categories appeared wrong-headed and even offensive to many.  

In other ways, however, the debate over world order in the 1990s was remarkable. In retrospect, each of the big three correctly identified important historical forces shaping the international system. Even at a time when capitalism and democracy are uncertain, neither China nor Russia has produced a compelling, appealing alternative ideology to buttress its brand of authoritarian capitalism. Great power politics and the salience of military power remain core parts of world politics. The increased popularity of nativism, religious extremism, and populist nationalism highlight the role culture, religion, and identity continue to play. Combining the best insights of Fukuyama, Mearsheimer, and Huntington provides a powerful lens to understand world politics since the end of the Cold War. 

Beyond the quality and correctness of their analysis, Fukuyama, Mearsheimer, and Huntington’s writings, and the debate they generated, reveal crucial qualities in short supply in today’s current intellectual environment.

First, all three developed big ideas about important questions. Each provided a powerful, parsimonious frame to understand the complex question of how world order worked and what caused war and peace. Even (especially?) when their arguments were wrong, they provided the foundation for a coherent, lively, and fruitful debate. 

Second, their arguments engaged and were made in relation to one another. Mearsheimer wrote in reaction to Fukuyama’s emphasis of ideology over geopolitics, while Huntington’s prizing of culture, religion, and civilisation was a rebuke to both. In other words, their arguments were not made in a vacuum, but in the best spirit of intellectual engagement, generating a rich if at times contentious dialogue that was taken up by many others in the years that followed. 

Third, they presented powerful arguments in clear, accessible prose. This is especially impressive given Fukuyama, Mearsheimer, and Huntington were accomplished scholars, whose essays were built on deep stores of evidence from a variety of disciplines and subfields, including political theory, international relations, diplomatic and military history, comparative politics, economics, and sociology. In other words, the big three were not writing only for each other and their disciplinary colleagues, but to reach a wider world.

Fourth, each presented their arguments in a way that was bound to attract the attention of decision-makers. Whether explicitly or implicitly, and for good and sometimes less so, there is little doubt that Fukuyama, Mearsheimer, and Huntington’s insights helped shape policies in capitals around the globe.

Unsettling changes in both our intellectual and policy landscape make it hard to imagine a similarly productive debate today. Some of this involves differences in the shifts in international relations we are currently experiencing. The change in world order in the late 1980s and early 1990s was sharp, sudden, and clear, creating an indisputable new reality for all to see, like when the film The Wizard of Oz shifts from black and white to colour. This is often the case when major wars end or empires suddenly collapse.

Today’s shift is cloudier, more uncertain, less shaped by a key geopolitical event than by powerful if often hidden tectonic forces. In that way, today’s transformation may be more like other periods driven more by socio-economic and technological rather than political forces, more similar to the 1820s and the upheaval wrought by industrialisation; to the 1890s, molded by demographic pressures, urbanisation, immigration and imperialism, and emerging mass politics; and the 1970s, with revolutions in finance and telecommunications married to a rights revolution. These changes were profound but unlike the collapse of the Soviet empire, hard to recognise and evaluate as they were taking place.

There are other reasons it is hard to imagine a similar dialogue today. The digital revolution has massively expanded the number, diversity, and reach of voices participating in important debates. This should be a positive development. Ironically, however, and for reasons we don’t fully understand, intellectual debate is more polarising and vituperative than ever. Spirited, cumulative, and constructive engagement across disciplines and worldviews is increasingly elusive. Big, bold ideas are often mocked. Academics increasingly write for each other, and the academy and the policy world are, in some ways, more distant than ever. While Huntington was a senior scholar when he wrote ‘Clash of Civilizations?’, both Fukuyama and Mearsheimer were relatively early in their academic careers when they presented their path-breaking ideas to the world. It is hard to imagine today’s young scholars taking similar risks.  

Reversing this situation is essential if we are to generate the innovation and new ideas needed to navigate our uncertain global landscape. Revisiting the ideas and debates about world order in the early 1990s might not only provide substantive content for such a discussion. It could also reveal how best to inspire and disseminate the kind of big, bold, serious ideas that Fukuyama, Mearsheimer, and Huntington advanced, and to create the conditions for an equally spirited and influential to better understand our own changing world.

Francis J. Gavin

Francis J. Gavin is an historian and Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., where he is also Director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.