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.