The “End Of History” 20 Years Later
Francis Fukuyama is the author of the seminal book, The End of History and the Last Man. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels on Tuesday, Oct. 20.
NPQ | In 1989, you wrote an essay, later developed into a book, that stated your famous “end of history” thesis. You said then:
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
What mostly holds up in your thesis 20 years on? What doesn’t? What changed?
Francis Fukuyama | The basic point—that liberal democracy is the final form of government—is still basically right. Obviously there are alternatives out there, like the Islamic Republic of Iran or Chinese authoritarianism. But I don’t think that all that many people are persuaded these are higher forms of civilization than what exists in Europe, the United States, Japan or other developed democracies, societies that provide their citizens with a higher level of prosperity and personal freedom.
The issue is not whether liberal democracy is a perfect system, or whether capitalism doesn’t have problems. After all, we’ve been thrown into this huge global recession because of the failure of unregulated markets. The real question is whether any other system of governance has emerged in the last 20 years that challenges this. The answer remains no.
Now, that essay was written in the winter of 1988-89 just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wrote it then because I thought that the pessimism about civilization that we had developed as a result of the terrible 20th century, with its genocides, gulags and world wars, was actually not the whole picture at all. In fact, there were a lot of positive trends going on in the world, including the spread of democracy where there had been dictatorship. Sam Huntington called this “the third wave.”
It began in southern Europe in the 1970s with Spain and Portugal turning to democracy. Then and later you had an ending of virtually all the dictatorships in Latin America, except for Cuba. And then there was collapse of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe. Beyond that, democracy displaced authoritarian regimes in South Korea and Taiwan. We went from 80 democracies in the early 1970s to 130 or 140 20 years later.
Of course, this hasn’t all held up since then. We see today a kind of democratic recession. There have been reversals in important countries like Russia, where we see the return of a nasty authoritarian system without rule of law, or in Venezuela and some other Latin American countries with populist regimes.
Clearly, that big surge toward democracy went as far as it could. Now there is a backlash against it in some places. But that doesn’t mean the larger trend is not still toward democracy.
NPQ | The main contending argument against the “end of history” was offered by Sam Huntington. Far from ideological convergence, he argued, we were facing a “clash of civilizations” in which culture and religion would be the main points of conflict after the Cold War. For many, 9/11 and its aftermath confirmed his thesis of a clash between Islam and the West. To what extent was his argument valid?
Fukuyama | The differences between Huntington and me have been somewhat overstated. I wrote a book called Trust in which I argue that culture is one of the key factors that determines economic success and the possibilities of prosperity. So I don’t deny the critical role of culture. But, overall, the question is whether cultural characteristics are so rooted that there is no chance of universal values or a convergence of values. That is where I disagree.
Huntington’s argument was that democracy, individualism and human rights are not universal, but reflections of culture rooted in Western Christendom. While that is true historically, these values have grown beyond their origins. They’ve been adopted by societies that come out of very different cultural traditions. Look at Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia.
Societies rooted in different cultural origins come to accept these values not because the US does it, but because it works for them. It provides a mechanism for government accountability. It provides societies with a way to get rid of bad leaders when things go wrong. That is a huge advantage of democratic societies that someplace like China doesn’t have. China, at the moment, is blessed with competent leaders. But before that they had Mao. There is nothing to prevent another Mao in the future without some form of democratic accountability.
Problems of corruption or poor governance are much easier to solve if you have a democracy. For enduring prosperity and success, institutionalized, legal mechanisms of change and accountability are essential.
NPQ | In an earlier book, Political Order in Changing Societies, Huntington argued that Westernization and modernization were not identical. He thought modernization—an effective state, urbanization, breakdown of primary kinship groups, inclusive levels of education, market economies and a growing middle class—were quite possible without a society becoming Western in terms of a liberal secular culture or democratic norms.
We see this today from Singapore to China, from Turkey to Malaysia and even Iran. Any observant visitor to China these days can see that beneath the logos of Hyatt and Citigroup the soul of old Confucius is stirring, with its authoritarian bent. In Turkey, we see an Islamist-rooted party running a secular state, battling to allow women to wear headscarves in public universities.
In other words, isn’t “non-Western modernization” as likely a path ahead as Westernization through globalization?
Fukuyama | For me, there are three key components of political modernization. First, the modernization of the state as a stable, effective, impersonal institution that can enforce rules across complex societies. This was Huntington’s focus. But there are two other components of modernization in my view. Second, the rule of law so that the state itself is constrained in it actions by a pre-existing body of law that is sovereign. In other words, a ruler or ruling party cannot just do whatever he or it decides. Third is some form of accountability of the powers that be.
Huntington would have said that rule of law and accountability are Western values. I think they are values toward which non-Western societies are converging because of their own experience. You can’t have true modernization without them. They are in fact necessary complements to each other. If you have just political modernization defined as a competent state, you may only have a more effective form of tyranny.
What you can certainly have is effective state building and a certain amount of prosperity under authoritarian conditions for a time. That is what the Chinese are doing right now. But I am convinced that their prosperity cannot in the end endure, nor can Chinese citizens ever be secure in their personal progress, without the rule of law and accountability. They can’t go to the next stage without all three components of modernization. Corruption and questionable legitimacy will ultimately weigh them down, if not open unrest.
NPQ | Modernization has usually also meant the growing secularization of society and the primacy of science and reason. Yet, in a place like Turkey today, as I mentioned, we see modernization and growing religiosity side by side. That certainly departs from the Western-oriented trajectory charted by (Kemal) Ataturk.
Fukuyama | I agree. The old version of the idea of modernization was Euro-centric, reflecting Europe’s own development. That did contain attributes which sought to define modernization in a quite narrow way. Most importantly, as you point out, religion and modernization certainly can coexist. Secularism is not a condition of modernity. You don’t have to travel to Turkey to see that. It is true in the US, which is a very religious society but in which advanced science and technological innovation thrive.
The old assumption that religion would disappear and be replaced solely by secular, scientific rationalism is not going to happen.
At the same time, I don’t believe the existence or even prevalence of cultural attributes, including religion, is so overwhelming anywhere that you will not see a universal convergence toward rule of law and accountability.
NPQ | Still, must accountability entail the same democratic, electoral norms of Europe or the US?
Fukuyama | You can have non-electoral accountability through moral education which forges a sense of moral obligation by the ruler. Traditional Confucianism, after all, taught the emperor that he had a duty to his subjects as well as himself. It is not an accident that the most successful authoritarian modernization experiments have all been in East Asian societies touched by Confucianism.
In the end, though, that is not enough. You cannot solve the problem of the “bad emperor” through moral suasion. And China has had some pretty bad emperors over the centuries. Without procedural accountability, you can never establish real accountability.
NPQ | Some top Chinese intellectuals today argue that when China arises again as the superior civilization in a post-American world, the “tired” global debate over autocracy vs. democracy will yield to a more pragmatic debate over good governance vs. bad governance. I doubt you would agree.
Fukuyama | You are right, I don’t believe that. You simply can’t get good governance without democratic accountability. It is a risky illusion to believe otherwise.