Commentary Magazine


The Unfairly Maligned Francis Fukuyama

A common theme of the current crisis in Ukraine, as well as other major foreign-policy challenges to the American-led global order, is that it represents the “return of history.” It’s a not-so-subtle rebuke not only to apparently naïve Western statesmen but to Francis Fukuyama, the justly distinguished political scientist who, twenty-five years ago, wrote one of the most famous political science essays of the 20th century.

Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?” in 1989, as the revolutionary spirit in Europe gained the upper hand over Soviet tyranny. “In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history,” Fukuyama wrote. A couple of paragraphs later came the grand thesis: “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Thus did Fukuyama’s thesis get boiled down to a romantic flight from reality, the disintegration of which has supposedly struck a blow for realism and against what Samuel Huntington termed the trend of “endism.” The latest to take what has become an obligatory swipe at Fukuyama came from Paul Berman, in a piece on the Ukraine crisis being an extension of 1989, a thesis earlier espoused by George Will. Berman writes of the aftermath of the Orange Revolution:

It felt as if 1989’s revolutions had revealed the secret of world history, as per Hegel (whose most imaginative modern disciple proved to be Francis Fukuyama). And human nature had discovered its proper political expression, and the worldwide liberal future had become, for better and for worse, visible on the horizon. Which was delusionary.

When you use a phrase like the “end of history,” you create an index-card mnemonic for your theory, as Fukuyama should have known (and certainly knows now). But many of these criticisms miss the mark, and in important ways, Fukuyama has been vindicated, rather than discredited, by recent events. This is not to claim that Fukuyama was right on every count. But his argument was built around the realization of Western liberalism’s superiority as a political system, not around the acceptance of such by those opposed to Western liberalism. He writes:

Have we in fact reached the end of history? Are there, in other words, any fundamental “contradictions” in human life that cannot be resolved in the context of modern liberalism, that would be resolvable by an alternative political-economic structure?

He reviews the ideological challengers, and concludes (correctly) that they have been defeated in the battle of ideas, though he–like a great many observers in 1989–underestimates the expansionist appeal of Islamism. And he makes a point of saying that “This does not by any means imply the end of international conflict per se.” Indeed, Fukuyama expected states put at risk by this development to fight it tooth and nail, with an explicit desire “to get history started once again.”

The uprising in Ukraine followed by the Russian invasion; the Arab Spring followed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s authoritarianism in Egypt which was followed by a military coup to reestablish secular authoritarianism; and other such seesaw struggles are fully consistent with Fukuyama’s argument. The challenge comes in the fact that it’s far from clear that these “revolutionaries” desire Western liberalism. It’s debatable, however, whether they must want liberalism for the “end of history” to be asserting itself, or if it’s enough that the failure of the alternatives to liberalism which they are overthrowing provides the necessary consistency with the thesis.

The certainty with which the intelligentsia treat their understanding of Fukuyama’s thesis now is in stark contrast with the utter confusion and chaos that greeted the original essay. The New York Times published a piece in October 1989 hilariously headlined “What Is Fukuyama Saying? And To Whom Is He Saying It?” The Times continued:

”Controversial” didn’t begin to cover the case. Unlike that other recent philosophical cause celebre, Allan Bloom’s ”The Closing of the American Mind,” Fukuyama’s essay was the work of a representative from what is often referred to in academic circles as the real world. This was no professor, according to the contributor’s note that ran in the magazine, but the ”deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff.”

“This was no professor,” the Times exclaims, indicating that Fukuyama was an ostensibly serious person. One wonders how American academia felt about that sentence. So the Times went to Fukuyama’s office to find out just who this non-professor was. What followed was a bizarrely and condescendingly anthropological study of Fukuyama, as if the very idea of a person in government–or at least in a Republican government–having an original idea was impossible to compute. (Such skepticism toward government from the Times is sorely missed.)

Although it’s only fair to judge Fukuyama’s essay on its own terms, it’s worth noting that Fukuyama developed his work on political theory in the ensuing quarter-century, with impressive results. His most recent book is “The Origins of Political Order,” easily one of the most significant works of political science in years. In Origins, he comes to a conclusion that can offer a kind of addendum to his previous championing of liberal democracy.

He describes three categories of political institutions: the state, the rule of law, and accountable government. “A successful modern liberal democracy combines all three sets of institutions in a stable balance,” he writes. This is a crucial distinction: Fukuyama is not saying “one man, one vote” popular democracy is the primary yardstick of political development, but emphasizes accountability, which requires a degree of the consent of the governed. Fukuyama’s work has much of relevance to say about the current pattern of global political disorder, and those dismissing him as a false prophet of endism would do well to reconsider.

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