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9 October 2014

Francis Fukuyama: “America shouldn’t have permanent enemies”

The American political scientist and author once predicted that liberal democracy had won the battle of ideas. Now he says political Islam is not a serious threat to the west and we should not intervene in Iraq.

By Sophie McBain

If Francis Fukuyama finds it annoying that his public profile is still so defined by a 10,000-word essay he wrote 25 years ago, he doesn’t let it show. He tells me that his latest work – a dense, two-volume history tracing the evolution of human society from tribalism to the modern state – is really an effort to “fill in all the things that I didn’t know when I got all that fame”, but his position is fundamentally unchanged. Wars in the Balkans, the Rwandan Genocide, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have not shaken Fukuyama’s original argument that we are at the “end of history”: humanity has reached its ideological endpoint with liberal democracy. Communism and fascism lost the great 20th-century battle for ideas, he argued, and now the challenge remaining for mankind is how to put liberalism into practice globally. What has changed is that he now accepts just how hard it is to make liberal democracy work.

Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History?” was published in the conservative journal the National Interest between the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was just 36 years old and a relatively unknown member of the US state department’s policy planning unit, yet his ideas tapped in to the triumphalist mood in the west and, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, his views seemed prescient. He soon left government and was offered a $600,000 deal to write his first book, The End of History and the Last Man (no question mark this time). When the inevitable backlash came, it was forceful.

Has he heard of the “Fukuyama scale”, I ask him when we meet for coffee in central London. This is a term coined by his former colleague James Thomson to measure the level of denunciation of an idea by those who haven’t read the book. Fukuyama, who is impeccably groomed and speaks with the deep and measured fluency of a newsreader, laughs but looks a little pained. “People are still misunderstanding in a fundamental way what I argued, but then I guess I a long time ago gave up thinking I could do much about that,” he says.

His latest book, Political Order and Political Decay (the follow-up to The Origins of Political Order), explores how democracy has developed since the French Revolution. Why have some countries succeeded in creating well-functioning, accountable governments while others have failed? It is remarkable in its ambition, scope – and weight, at 658 pages. (“You can use it as a doorstop if you want!” he joked at his book launch.) The three fundamental elements of a successful modern democracy are a legitimate and effective state, the rule of law and democratic accountability, he writes. It is quite easy to impose the mechanisms of democratic accountability in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan – which have national parliaments, political parties and elections – but much harder to create states that are seen as legitimate, or to establish the rule of law. Some countries such as the UK established the rule of law and an effective state before they became democracies. This is usually best, but the reverse is also possible. The order of development influences the types of states that are created: he devotes a chunk of the book to discussing how the various patterns of colonial rule shaped the nature of governments in east Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

Fukuyama says that, in writing this book, he has moved on in his thinking from The End of History in two ways. First, he now appreciates how important effective, accountable, impersonal institutions are for liberal democracies, and how hard they are to create. He no longer believes that countries will inevitably end up as liberal democracies. And second, he understands that even mature democracies, including the United States, are subject to political decay (more of which later).

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One area where he most certainly has not changed his mind, however, is his belief that political Islam does not pose a threat to democracy. It is a world-view that must have been hard to maintain in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks. Fukuyama was teaching in downtown Washington when the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 was crashed into the Pentagon, killing 184 people. He recalls seeing the smoke rising from the crash site. “It was very traumatic, and everyone realised things were going to be very different,” he says.

He spent two years thinking through the consequences. “There was a really serious question: is this the wave of something generally new and important in world history, or was this just a really lucky blow they got in?”

Fortunately for his academic consistency, he concluded it was the latter. “These are really marginal people who survive in countries where you don’t have strong states . . . Their ability to take over and run a serious country that can master technology and stay at the forefront of great-power politics is almost zero,” he says now.

Francis Fukuyama – “Frank”, to his friends – was born in Chicago in 1952. His father, Yoshio, was a second-generation immigrant from Japan and a Protestant minister. He was not “personally pious in any traditional sense” and Fukuyama is much the same. For Yoshio Fukuyama, “religion was really social activism”: he was heavily involved in the civil rights movement and a broad range of social causes. Francis was also involved in this work while growing up, and it was only at university, under the influence of mentors such as the philosopher Allan Bloom, that he became a conservative.

Fukuyama was once an influential member of America’s neoconservative movement. He had, for instance, worked as a researcher on Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan for the US think tank the Rand Corporation under the strategist Albert Wohlstetter. He supported the 2001 war in Afghanistan, but by the time of America’s “liberation” of Iraq he was beginning to have doubts about his country’s meddling in the Middle East. He broke decisively with his former colleagues in 2004, publishing another essay in the National Interest attacking their views, entitled “The Neoconservative Moment”. Ten years on, he says that some of his former friends still aren’t speaking to him, “they were so mad at me” – though he would “rather not give names”. I wonder what that was like for him then. “It wasn’t that painful at all; it was a bit of a liberation because I didn’t have to agree with all these positions that I didn’t believe in,” he replies coolly.

Today, he opposes Barack Obama’s vow to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant Islamist organisation Isis (or “Islamic State”) in Syria and Iraq. He’d prefer the US president to “adopt a more modest position of being an offshore balancer that would simply prevent any of these bad actors from dominating the region, but leave it at that”. This doesn’t mean he is against the use of air power to keep Isis “at bay”, but he believes the US “shouldn’t have permanent friends or enemies”. He excludes Israel from this rule because, “given domestic American politics, that’s a political reality”.

His reluctance to support decisive intervention against Isis is partly a practical reflection of the US’s strategic limitations. When I suggest that half-hearted interference is likely to prolong conflict in the region, he comes close to agreeing with me. The wars engulfing the Middle East are essentially a Sunni-Shia war, he says, that “could go on as long as the Thirty Years War in Europe”, which raged between 1618 and 1648. “Under those circumstances, I think it’s a little hard to figure out how American power is going to settle that conflict. I don’t think we’ve got the wisdom to actually see our way towards a political settlement.”

Does he believe that the rise of Isis might have been avoided if the US had intervened militarily earlier on in the Syrian conflict? It is possible, but unlikely, he concludes. “The one thing that both the Iraq and Afghan wars should have taught us is that, even with a very heavy input in boots on the ground, and nation-building, and the trillions of resources poured into these countries, our ability to bring about a specific political result like democracy, or even basic stability, is very limited.”

Fukuyama’s criticism of Obama’s policy is also guided by a belief that the president is responding to the wrong threats. China’s rising global influence and Russia’s renewed territorial ambition are far greater dangers to western security, he believes. “The whole west, and especially the United States, has overestimated the impact of
terrorism,” he says. “It’s a big problem, it’s not going to go away any time in the future – but it’s not an existential threat.” If the brutality of Isis makes the group seem a danger to the US and Europe, it is also a weakness: “The attraction of this kind of radicalism to most people is zero.”

On 24 September Prime Minister David Cameron told the UN Security Council that as many as 500 recruits had left Britain to join Isis; experts estimate that 12,000 foreign fighters have entered the Syrian conflict alone. “If you look at a lot of the European and American citizens that have gone to fight they are not mainstream anything,” Fukuyama says. “They’re mostly unemployed young men that don’t really have a place in their societies.” Yet not all UK jihadists have fitted this neat stereotype and some have been from comfortable backgrounds: we’ve had reports of a failed rapper brought up in a £1m home in Maida Vale, north-west London, joining anti-Assad rebels in Syria, and a privately educated Glasgow schoolgirl moving to Syria to become a jihadi’s bride. Yet even if the appeal of violent jihad is narrow, I wonder if Fukuyama is too dismissive of Islamism, in its more moderate forms, as a popular political alternative to liberalism? Millions of Egyptians voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, I point out – but he responds that this is only because the Islamist party was better organised than its secular alternatives.

His discussion of Islamism reminds me of one of the most startling passages from that career-defining essay: “The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands,” he wrote. We may not have reached that point, but perhaps political Islam is at least a reaction to the apparent emptiness of western liberal ideals? “There’s always been a hidden contradiction just under the surface of modern democracy because it doesn’t really set goals for a good life: it just sets the conditions for people to seek the good life,” he says. “A lot of people are very aimless and discontented for that reason.” This could be why some Americans volunteer to live in remote African villages, sign up to the army, or even fight jihad, he suggests.

Fukuyama’s ideological struggles have often cost him personally. His conservatism was a source of disappointment and regret to his father. “He kept telling me I’d been brainwashed,” he recalls. “It’s funny, because a lot of people, if their children fundamentally don’t agree with things that they think are important, think there must have been something wrong in their upbringing. So I think he thought that of me,” he adds, though his tone seems cheerful. It must be some relief to Fukuyama that his own three children – who are in their twenties – “haven’t made politics their main thing”. He is anticipating a very angry response to his criticism of US politics in Political Order and Political Decay. He tells me that he believes his upcoming book tour of the States will be “unpleasant” at times. He has long given up reading the comments on his online articles, having come to expect vitriol.

Fukuyama’s damning analysis of the state of America is based in part on his time working for the Reagan and Bush administrations – “You have to work in the American government to understand how dysfunctional it is” – but it also draws heavily on the work of Samuel Huntington. The two theorists, who met at Harvard, once had a very public falling-out. After Fukuyama wrote a scathing review of Huntington’s landmark 1993 essay, “The Clash of Civilisations?”, they didn’t speak for a year. The essay argued that the postwar era would be marked by frequent conflict based on politics and culture; you can see why Fukuyama might have felt compelled to issue a rebuttal. But by Huntington’s death in 2008, the two had become friends. I remark to Fukuyama that quite a few people have stopped talking to him. He replies: “With a lot of intellectuals, what they are, are their ideas and if you attack their ideas you’re attacking them so they get angry about it.” It feels like a revealing admission: Fukuyama’s bold and challenging assertions may have won him renown, but at what price?

That said, this doesn’t seem to have made him hold back in his criticism of America’s political system. The problem, even in mature democracies, is that institutions often fail to adapt to social change and the elite are always looking for ways to recapture the state. A constitutional emphasis on checks and balances, combined with the excessive influence of “well-heeled and well-organised interest groups”, has turned the US into a “vetocracy” that is incapable of effective decision-making. At the same time, because government is so ineffective, Americans’ long-standing cultural mistrust of it is increasing, creating a vicious circle. US politics “is not dysfunctional in the sense that it’s going to collapse any time soon, but Congress hasn’t passed a budget since 2008. We had the shut-down of the whole federal government . . . the biggest democracy in the world should not behave like this. It sends a very bad message to would-be democracies if we do,” he says.

Although Fukuyama did not want Political Order and Political Decay to be prescriptive, when I push him for solutions to the decline of the United States he says that the country could move closer to a parliamentary system, with fewer checks and balances, but achieving this will be a “political struggle”. It will require good leadership and coalition-building to break the influence of entrenched interest groups. Sometimes, he adds, it takes a crisis – a war, for instance – to precipitate this kind of change.

So how optimistic is Fukuyama feeling? He responds with a cynical, dry laugh. “That kind of depends on the timescale. I can’t see leaders or occasions in the immediate future that are going to break us out of this cycle. I would observe that over the course of American history, usually that kind of breakthrough has come at a certain point, but I don’t think you can predict that it’s going to happen necessarily. So I’m not sure where that leaves me in terms of pessimism or optimism.”

Francis Fukuyama’s “Political Order and Political Decay” is newly published by Profile Books (£25)

Sophie McBain is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

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