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30 March 2022

Francis Fukuyama: We could be facing the end of “the end of history”

The American political theorist discusses what the Ukraine war means for the future of liberal democracy.

By Megan Gibson

Spare a thought for Francis Fukuyama’s Twitter mentions. In the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, the American political theorist has been routinely told by gleeful critics that his career-defining thesis about liberal democracy being “the final form of human government” is obsolete.

“It usually comes up two or three times a day on my Twitter account,” Fukuyama said over Earl Grey tea at a central London hotel in late March. But the frequency has increased recently. While he described the jibes as “annoying” he didn’t seem overly bothered by them. “I actually have a policy of not reading the comments and not responding to it.”

Fukuyama admits that he’s used to the accusation. It has been a constant since his landmark book, The End of History and the Last Man, was published three decades ago. In the text, adapted and expanded from a 1989 journal article titled “The End of History?”, he outlined his theory that liberal democracy is greatly preferable to any other form of government and, crucially, that no liberal democracy could progress to a better alternative. 

[See also: The Zelensky myth]

He’s quick to point out how most people claiming his theory is incorrect have misinterpreted the original premise. Fukuyama didn’t envision the end of history to be a utopian state or predict that “the whole world is going to be democratic” with a “straightforward, linear movement in that direction”. He also didn’t suggest that “nothing would happen from now on”. Indeed, Fukuyama has long maintained that events – another way of saying more history – would continue to take place.

Yet at 69, Fukuyama is willing to admit mistakes. He said that when he wrote his thesis he perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the concept of “political decay: the idea that once you became a modern democracy, you could also go backwards”. It’s a subject he wrestles with in his latest book, Liberalism and Its Discontents. Fukuyama explores the ways in which both the left and the right have worked to undermine liberalism (the right by embracing free-market principles, which have widened economic inequality; the left by prioritising identity politics over individual autonomy). While the book was written prior to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the war doesn’t invalidate his arguments. Instead, it explains how the fight to preserve liberalism is about more than a battle between autocracies and democracies.

This is something that Fukuyama, as an American, has observed closely in recent years. He watched with alarm the divisions deepen between the right and the left throughout Donald Trump’s presidency and during its aftermath. “I’ve never seen the situation as serious, really, since the American Civil War,” he said of the US’s current political polarisation. “There’s a significant chance we’re going to be in a major constitutional crisis at the time of the next presidential election.” Though he emphasised that much is likely to change before the 2024 contest, Fukuyama struggles to imagine how Trump could win the White House again following Putin’s invasion. “Trump is really out of line with the major part of his party” in his public admiration of Russia’s leader, Fukuyama argued. “I just don’t see how that’s not going to hurt him.”

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Fukuyama has also been willing to, as he put it in a recent essay, “stick [his] neck out” over the likely geopolitical consequences of the war in Ukraine. Chief among his predictions: Russia will lose the war, perhaps spectacularly, and this defeat will help the West get out of “our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.” For those interested in the stability of the international order, it’s an optimistic, even reassuring, vision of the war’s potential outcome.

Fukuyama knows Ukraine well, having visited the country many times as part of the Leadership Academy for Development, a programme he runs through Stanford University, where he’s a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. The programme develops leadership training in various emerging democracies.

[See also: Would Vladimir Putin use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine?]

His impression of Ukraine has evolved over subsequent visits. “Beginning in 2014, it really did seem to me that this was the front line of a broader struggle for democracy,” he said, pointing to the rife corruption and the significant power oligarchs continued to hold. But after working with a younger generation of Ukrainians who were pro-European, he found “it was actually quite inspiring, because a lot of these people were very dedicated to trying to stop corruption and make the country’s institutions work better”.

In recent weeks, being inspired by Ukrainians has almost become a sport in the West, as speeches made by President Volodymyr Zelensky go viral and photos of ordinary Ukrainians preparing to join the fight are widely shared online. Fukuyama sympathises with and even shares this urge to support the Ukrainian plight, but warns that it’s hardly a universal phenomenon, even among ostensibly democratic countries. He cites India and South Africa as two countries that have so far refused to condemn Russia’s invasion.

“I think there are many places where the memory of injustices committed by Western countries is very vivid,” he said. In contrast, the Soviet Union’s support of the ANC’s fight against apartheid still looms in many South Africans’ recollections of that era. “There’s no inevitable solidarity among countries that would qualify in some ways [as] being a liberal democracy. You know, that’s OK; a country’s historical experience is different. So they’re going to have different preferences, particularly [regarding] foreign policy.”

Yet while different opinions might be tolerable, they have also once again highlighted the dysfunction of certain multilateral bodies. Namely, the United Nations Security Council, which rejected a draft resolution on 25 February on ending Russia’s war on Ukraine; the Russian Federation, a permanent member, vetoed the draft, while China, India and the UAE abstained.

“It doesn’t work now,” Fukuyama said bluntly of the Security Council. “I think that you can’t put all your eggs in the basket of one global organisation, because there just isn’t enough consensus among countries the world over, especially when you get to political issues.” Did the body ever work? “The only period where it looked like it might be useful was in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, when it appeared that you actually could get all five permanent members to actually agree on something.” But now, he warned: “Don’t have any expectations about what it can do.”

He may be tired of being incorrectly accused of being wrong, but does Fukuyama ever worry about being proved wrong? Of course, he said, but not out of interest for his work. Instead, because of what the implications would be for the world. His “ultimate nightmare”, he said, is a world in which China and Russia work in harness with one another, perhaps with China bolstering Russia’s war and Beijing launching its own invasion – of Taiwan. If that were to happen, and be successful, Fukuyama said, “then you would really be living in a world that was being dominated by these non-democratic powers. If the United States and the rest of the West couldn’t stop that from happening, then that really is the end of the end of history.”

[See also: Andrey Kurkov: “It’s impossible to say that all the world is behind Ukraine”]

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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain