Getting to Denmark: On Francis Fukuyama
Francis Fukuyama became a headline in the summer of 1989 when he informed the world that he had discovered the end of history. The essay in which he made his brazen claim, published in The National Interest, excited journalists and transformed him overnight into a favorite soothsayer of the foreign policy establishment. In the past two decades, Fukuyama has consolidated his position with a variety of professional gambits. As a political analyst, he continues to broaden his portfolio, whether he is filing a World Bank report on state-building in the Solomon Islands, duly noting the need for a national university and an intertribal police force, or co-chairing a panel on “competitive Eurasia” with strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev. As a public intellectual, Fukuyama oversees his own magazine, The American Interest, which he co-founded in 2005 after leading a revolt against the publication where he had first gained notoriety. And as the author of bestsellers on big subjects—social trust, biotechnology, state-building—Fukuyama so far exceeds his peers in his uncanny sense of timeliness that his critics dismiss him as a happy hostage to the present. Fukuyama does not help his case by trading in one label—neoconservative, Wilsonian realist, liberal statist—just in time for the debut of a new one. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to call him an ideological opportunist.
“The End of History?” remains the albatross around Fukuyama’s neck. In one way or another, everything he writes circles back to it. The thesis of that essay is stark and simple. To American readers in the twilight of the cold war, Fukuyama explained that the triumph of the West owed less to the collapse of the Soviet Union, or to the genius of the free market, than to a revolution in world consciousness. Humanity had finally recognized the form of its ideological destiny: liberal capitalism. For those who thought they’d heard something like this before, Fukuyama made no excuse about cribbing his argument from untimely sources. A Kremlinologist for the RAND Corporation by day, he burned the midnight oil reading Hegel and Alexandre Kojève, and he gleaned from their writings what he believed to be the operating principle of History—that the human desire to live in a modern society generated the demand among people worldwide to be recognized as individual personalities. This universal need for recognition in turn demanded a new political reality. By Fukuyama’s reckoning, the train of History had reached this territory one station early, not at socialism or communism, as so many had once anticipated, but at American-style liberal democracy. His point was not that liberal democracy was the best possible regime, or that the world would henceforth be free of conflicts, but that there were no longer any other viable political alternatives. In 1992, when he elaborated his essay into a book, Fukuyama dropped the question mark from its title and awaited the alignment of the provinces.
As it turns out, the provinces proved to be remarkably stubborn. The “third wave” of democratization that began in the 1970s with the collapse of the Portuguese and Greek dictatorships appeared to be receding by the early twenty-first century. Democracy started experiencing severe reversals, sometimes in the places, such as Ukraine, where it had savored its sweetest victories. New democracies failed to coalesce in Belarus, Cambodia, Haiti and the Central Asian states, while Russia slinked toward soft authoritarianism. The praise showered on nominally successful democratic transitions in Turkey, Indonesia and the Philippines only obscured how much those countries resisted creditable levels of cultural pluralism. Meanwhile, China not only balked at liberal reforms but, in its increasingly bold outreach to countries in Africa and Latin America, proffered authoritarian capitalism as an example, if not yet a model, of alternative development. Most worrying of all, the vanguard nation of liberal democracy stumbled badly while trying to whip two Middle Eastern countries into democratic shape in a bid to speed up history in the region.
Fukuyama’s response to this democratic downturn has been two steps backward, one step forward. In America at the Crossroads (2006) he retreated from the view of the United States as the handmaiden of history and glossed over his initial encouragement of the Bush administration’s foreign adventures. In Crossroads Fukuyama signaled his defection from neoconservatism, and attributed the movement’s hubris to its exaggeration of American military and economic might at the end of the cold war and to its commitment, on an international scale, to the sort of social engineering projects it once criticized so effectively on the domestic front. In a sharp reversal, he shifted his allegiance to the soft power camp of liberal internationalists Joseph Nye and John Ikenberry, putting his faith in America’s ability to shape international institutions to its own advantage. More recently, in a second, less well-publicized recalibration, Fukuyama has dialed down his free-market enthusiasm—never strong to begin with—and found some kind words for the regulatory state. In articles in The American Interest and Foreign Affairs earlier this year, he expressed regret about the grip of laissez-faire ideology on America’s middle class, and in the wake of the financial crisis he looked as far afield as Brazil for lessons in sound monetary policy.
But there is one point on which the author of The End of History and the Last Man refuses to cede ground. In opposition to critics who have taken liberal democracy’s recent stumbles as evidence of its limited appeal, Fukuyama has launched a new offensive. His latest book, The Origins of Political Order, is an exhaustive attempt to show how different civilizations discovered the building blocks of liberal democracy independently of one another over the course of 4,000 years. If England and Denmark were the nations in which the pieces first clicked together, Fukuyama argues, it was not because of any special foresight on their part but because of a series of lucky breaks. Now that the West has mastered the recipe for liberal democracy—start with a strong state, add a dash of the rule of law, wait for political accountability to rise—other countries can rummage through their own past to find the ingredients for reproducing it. If they don’t know where to look, Fukuyama is on hand to help conduct the search.
There is plenty of drama in The Origins of Political Order, but not where you would expect to find it, in the book’s narrative of political development. The drama comes instead from the way the book pits the old Fukuyama against the new. On the one hand, we get Fukuyama the brushed-up scholar of state formation, brilliantly alive to the contingencies of political development in the Han Dynasty, the Ottoman Empire and feudal Denmark; on the other hand, the old Fukuyama stubbornly hammers these twists and turns into a familiar pattern. Despite the new Fukuyama’s willingness to entertain a variety of explanations for historical change—he deftly interchanges religious, economic and political variables—the old Fukuyama persists in seeing human nature, in the form of the Hegelian quest for recognition, driving all the while toward the liberal democratic state. Never in the course of an argument that spans ages and oceans does Fukuyama consider that the vagaries of world history may tell another, less glamorous story: the achievements of liberal democracy are by their nature unstable, having come about through centuries of backdoor compromises that barely survived the twentieth century, and that it is the false comforts provided by his providential history that impair our ability to confront liberal democracy’s unresolved problems in good faith. In Crossroads Fukuyama inflated the significance of neoconservatism by suggesting that it alone was responsible for the Iraq debacle, when in reality the invasion of Iraq had enablers across the political spectrum; now, in The Origins, a similar tunnel vision leads Fukuyama to attribute the rise of the liberal state to a few original chess moves deep in the fog of history. But to tell the civilizations of the world that they have, unbeknownst to themselves, stumbled up against some of the features of the liberal state is a strange form of flattery. The most valuable political lesson they may hold for us is that they did not.
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What has possessed Fukuyama to try his hand at the moribund genre of total world history? The first reason is that he has supplemented his old thinking about human nature with the latest scientific research. In The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama’s major achievement was to meld Plato’s idea of thymotic man, always thirsting for supremacy, with Hegel’s view of humans as driven by the struggle for mutual recognition. The result was a theory of history that has humans unconsciously creating the material conditions for a state of “absolute self-consciousness” in which we recognize once and for all the free nature of our fellows and enshrine it in a liberal state. This historical picture, Fukuyama argued, was a more convincing model than the predominant Lockean understanding of humankind as driven by rational self-interest, which signally failed to account for “the desire that lay behind the desire of Economic Man.”
Now Fukuyama aims to ground his original philosophical speculation in a strong appeal to scientism. The Origins opens with a chapter on the social life of chimpanzees, which Fukuyama uses as a guide to the state of nature of humans. Having pored over the recent literature on primates, he tells us that alpha-male chimps experience higher serotonin levels in the brain when they succeed in the struggle for status. To encounter this newfound reverence for sociobiology at the onset of the book is disappointing. When Fukuyama relies on neuroscience or evolutionary biology to explain how political institutions develop, he confuses the answer to a second-order natural question (why do people build political institutions?) with the answer to a first-order normative question (what sort of institutions should people build?). One gets the sense that he is willing to enlist just about any explanation of human behavior to combat the economic-centric historical theories of Locke’s laissez-faire descendants such as Friedrich Hayek and Mancur Olson. In particular, Fukuyama blames these social scientists for their “fantasies of statelessness” and for taking for granted the role of strong states in institutionalizing the very features of modernity that made markets possible. Already at this early point in the book, we know that the burden of any civilization’s progress will be how well it accommodates and balances Fukuyama’s updated view of human nature.