Widgets Magazine


Francis Fukuyama: The “end of history,” continued

This is a transcript of an interview conducted with Dr. Francis Fukuyama. This interview is part of The Daily’s “Ideas of an International Order” series, running from April 27-30, 2014, which explores the potential for evolving and contrasting concepts of an international system in the 21st century, and what America can or should do in response.


Do you believe that there are existing alternatives to the world order, as is right now?

Well, it depends a little bit by what you mean by “world order.” Because it’s different at an international and national level. I think that the dominant form of national level organization is some combination of liberal democracy and a market-oriented economic system, and that this has largely been true since the 1970s and particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And on an international level, institutions largely reflected the dominance of this kind of state. The WTO and Bretton Woods institutions and the like have all supported a kind of liberal, globalized, trading order. The United States obviously, as the largest capitalist democracy, has been extremely important in supporting both the spread of that kind of national institution and also supporting the larger order.

Now, that’s challenged by some countries. The most important challenge is China, because China has an only partially marketized economy. It’s an authoritarian political system. It partakes of this liberal order but it doesn’t spend any effort to maintain it. So there’s an alternative model at the national level, but my view has been for a long time that the China model is not a sustainable one in the long run. They’ve done very well in the last generation but as they try to become a high-income country, both political and economic sides of this model are going to show a lot of strain.

And then on an international level, they don’t really have an alternative other than just pursuing their own commercial and national self-interest. When they go into Africa or Latin America, they don’t behave the way the European, North American firms and governments behave. But I don’t think that that’s based, really, on a systematic view of how the world ought to be different. There are principles – you should respect national sovereignty – but that’s not really a principle on which you can build very much of an international structure.

And the other problem is that their interests are different from Russia’s, which are different from Venezuela’s, which are different from Iran’s. So there are a lot of people [who] are unhappy with the current world order, but they don’t really constitute a cohesive bloc. The long-winded answer to your question is, I don’t really see a systematic alternative to the current order.


Do you think China’s a kind of heir to the Soviet Union in terms of “of the order, but not terribly content with it?”

No, I think that’s probably not a good analogy for a couple of reasons. First of all, the Soviet Union had a universalistic ideology, so they were trying to spread their system in Central America and sub-Saharan Africa. The Chinese don’t care about spreading their system. They’re primarily interested in earning money, and that’s why they’re in all of these different places. They just don’t have the kind of imperial, messianic agenda that the former Soviet Union did. They’ve also got a much more coherent and better economic system than the Soviet Union did that makes them a tougher rival.

I think, actually, the best analogy is between the unified Germany that merged after 1871 and China. A lot of people made this comparison – Bismarck’s Germany was not a messianic, universalistic, revisionist state, but it was very big and powerful, and it had a lot of national interests. And I think China’s very much like that.


You talked at the Milken [Institute Global] Conference recently, and you discussed how the United States could respond in a more forceful manner to Russia.

In response to Russia, you can easily think of stronger sanctions that we could have imposed after Crimea. But you’ve got this big problem – the Europeans don’t really want to go along with a lot of them.

We still could have done more. In my view, there are two big things that we really ought to do. The first is to start taking NATO seriously as a military alliance that will defend the existing states that are members of NATO, meaning the Baltics in particular, Poland, other countries in Eastern Europe. We have not taken them seriously for a good twenty years, because we assumed the Russian threat was gone. So that’s one thing. The other thing is, we ought to accelerate the export of national gas. That’s going to cut into the Russians’ ability to use gas as a political weapon.


In light of that, what sort of ways could the United States encourage the adoption of our institutions on a national scale as well as international?

It’s basically two things. One is just presenting a good model to the world, and I think that that form of soft power has been the dominant way that American influence has spread over the last two centuries. And right now we’ve got some serious problems: We just went through a big financial crisis, adjustments that need to be made to the economic model, and I think we’ve got an ongoing political crisis, because the government is largely polarized and paralyzed and unable to pass budgets and things of that sort. We need to fix these domestic things.

The other things that we’ve done have to do with helping to level the playing field so that democratic forces can express themselves. I’ve been a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy for twelve, thirteen years or so and this has been one of the premier organizations that gives support to [the] civil society organizations, women’s groups, labor movements [and] environmental groups that constitute civil society, that in many countries are suppressed or really don’t have access to any kind of political power. And so I think we should continue doing that sort of thing. But we shouldn’t have a lot of illusions that we have all that much control over this process.


Do you believe that the measures you’ve proposed in the response to the previous questions are things that the U.S. will be politically able to do?

It’s hard to answer that in general. I don’t believe that there’s any economic constraint. The budget deficit is a big problem but we’re either going to fix it by fixing entitlements or not, and we’re not going to fix it by failing to open an embassy somewhere.

The question more is of the domestic mood, and I think clearly Obama’s relative passivity reflects the national mood. So we’ve just gone through these big Middle Eastern wars, we’re tired of that, and tired of getting involved in other people’s affairs, and so it’s just like after Vietnam, a period of retreat. But I have always believed that in foreign policy leadership matters a lot, and so you can convince Americans to do more but you have to make the arguments in favor of that. Obama hasn’t been willing to do that.

There are a lot of things that we could have done in Libya and Syria and Egypt that wouldn’t have been necessarily decisive but could have made an important difference. It wouldn’t have been costly. I think you easily could have gotten the American people to go along with a number of them. So I do think that we have more choice in this matter than some people think.


One last question. Do you believe that the “End of History” thesis has been fundamentally misunderstood by a lot of people?

This is the 25th anniversary of the original article. I’ve actually written a retrospective piece that will be published by The Wall Street Journal at some point over the summer. So I’ve been thinking about this a lot. But it’s certainly been misunderstood. People don’t understand that “history” was meant in this Marxist-Hegelian sense of modernization, basically – of evolutionary process and human societies. And the “end of history” is of where is that modernization process leading? Does it lead to communism, as the Marxists thought, or does it lead to liberal democracy and some form of market economy, and that was my argument. And I still think that that’s basically right, if you understand the argument in that sense. I think that’s right.

I actually think that although 2014 has so far not been a great year, with China and Russia both pushing a territorial agenda, overall, we have made a lot of progress towards democracy, because we’ve gone from about 35 to about 120 countries around the world having some form of electoral democracy between 1970 and the present. I do think it is still the dominant form of political organization.


Dr. Francis Fukuyama is the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) at Stanford University.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 “at” stanford.edu.

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't. Contact him at wshi94@alumni.stanford.edu.