A prophet whose beliefs have been proved as completely false as Francis Fukuyama's faces something of a dilemma. Does he admit he was wrong and try to work out why? Does he redefine his position? Or does he simply change the subject? Fukuyama achieved fame with his proclamation of the end of history at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He has spent the intervening decade and a half struggling to come to terms with the utterly unsurprising fact that the collapse of communism, rather than representing the triumphant consummation of history, merely led to the resumption of ethnic, nationalist and religious conflicts on traditional lines.
In more recent writings, Fukuyama has sought to salvage his apocalyptic prediction by redefining it. In Our Post-Human Future (2002), he insisted that although history had indeed ended, science was generating new conflicts through the power it confers to alter human nature. In fact, there is nothing new in the political and military use of science. If biotechnology proves to be a major weapon in the wars of the 21st century, this will involve new scientific knowledge being deployed exactly as it often has been in the past, to wage the most familiar kinds of human conflict. In other words, it will be history as usual.
Fukuyama would have done well to heed the old Polish saying that warns against expecting too much from the end of the world. His attempts to reformulate the peculiar inverted Marxist eschatology that was so popular during his time as court philosopher of global capitalism have only left him looking silly. A better move might be to change the subject, and in State Building, he has chosen a reassuringly fashionable topic - weak and failing states. The corrosion and collapse of states has occurred throughout history - in ancient Rome, for example, and recurrently in China - and military strategists have been studying the more recent manifestations for at least a decade.
In turning his attention to the dangers posed by weak states, Fukuyama is addressing an issue that is well established in the conventional wisdom. Other than the neoconservative ideologues in the Bush administration, pretty well everyone recognises the need for state-building. The trouble is that, while something is known about why states fail, much less is known about how to build them; and where such knowledge exists it suggests policies that no western state has the ability to implement.
In State Building, Fukuyama approaches weak states as soluble problems in institutional engineering. In his view, past attempts to build states have commonly failed - as he admits they have - because those engaged in them did not grasp the importance of institutions. If the bureaucrats and economists who were parachuted into countries as different as Russia and Indonesia with the goal of re-engineering their economies and political systems have achieved little, it is because they failed to understand that some institutions are easier to remodel than others. As Fukuyama puts it, in the leaden academic prose that runs throughout the book: "There are some high-specificity activities with low transaction volume like central banking that do not permit a high degree of variance in institutional structure and approach . . . In contrast, the hardest areas to reform are the low-specificity activities with high transaction volume like education or law." Rendered into common English, what he seems to be saying is that whereas central banks are much the same everywhere, education and law work differently in societies with divergent cultures.
There is a meaningful distinction here, but it tends to undermine Fukuyama's belief that the problems of state-building can be solved by greater technical expertise. Legal and educational systems are not pieces of machinery that can be programmed to deliver results approved by international banks or development agencies. They are human practices shaped by diverse ethical and religious beliefs. One large reason why the attempt to re-engineer the world's economies on the model of the Anglo-Saxon free market is bound to fail is that economic life is not a system of rational exchange that can be installed anywhere. It is a tissue of meaning that grows locally. The same is true of law and education - and of the state. Effective and legitimate states embody local knowledge and values. If China has such a state today, that is not because it has followed the nostrums of pundits such as Fukuyama. Wisely contemptuous of such advice, it has developed on lines that owe little to any western model. Equally, if Russia under Vladimir Putin has at last begun to build up an efficient and popular state, this is because it can draw on Russian traditions of intelligent authoritarian rule.
The examples of post-Maoist China and post-Yeltsin Russia illuminate the fatal flaw in Fukuyama's technocratic remedies for state failure. He assumes that legitimate states everywhere are alike in being western-style democracies conforming to some version of liberal individualism. In effect, this is the end-of- history thesis restated: "democratic capitalism" is the final form of human government. However, today, as in the past, the legitimacy of states does not finally depend on whether they are democratic or whether they subscribe to liberal values. It turns on whether and how far they do the things that have always been demanded of them: provide security, ensure a decent subsistence and defend cultural values that are important to their citizens. Outside Fukuyama's weird, crypto-Marxian, neoconservative version of the Whig interpretation of history, there is no reason to think that states which do these things will always be of one type, let alone the variety currently favoured - in word, if not always in deed - by western governments.
To be sure, there is a way of replicating western-style government throughout the world. It is called imperialism, and it supplies practically the only examples of successful state-building cited by Fukuyama. As he notes: "If nation-building means the creation of self-sustaining state capacity that can survive once foreign advice and support are withdrawn, then the number of cases where this has happened successfully drops to a depressingly small handful. The most notable examples come from the history of European colonialism. The British above all succeeded in creating durable institutions in a number of their colonies."
However, if state-building as Fukuyama understands it requires a rerun of European/British imperialism, it is a lost cause. The empires of the past had many disabilities, some of them fatal; but at least old-fashioned imperialists were ready to live in the countries they conquered and exploited. The same cannot be said for today's liberal missionaries. The effect of the US invasion of Iraq has been to create a failed state, and no one has the faintest idea what to do about it - other than get the hell out as soon as they can. The future of liberal imperialism can be seen in the Green Zone, the secure quarter in which Iraq's administrators are sealed off from its people. They know they are in Iraq not for life, but until some time after the next US presidential election - and the Iraqi people know it, too. In the end, one cannot have imperialism without imperialists.
John Gray's latest book is Al-Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern (Faber & Faber, £7.99)