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 for the Winter, 2010 issue.
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 I 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 that comprise 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 Ataturk.
FUKUYAMA | I agree. The old version of the idea 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 United States, 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, are 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 United States?
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.
The Challenge of Positive Freedom
NPQ | The late Isaiah Berlin famously made the distinction between “negative” and “positive” freedom—the first being “freedom from” tyranny and interference and the second being “freedom to” do what one will in his or her zone of non-interference; the freedom of self-realization.
As you pointed out in your argument about “the end of history,” negative freedom has pretty much been accepted universally, in principle if not in practice, since the end of the Cold War. Even in China the zone of personal space has grown immensely.
But, almost by definition in a diverse world, positive freedom, the “freedom to,” is not universal. Some people want to wear headscarves, others want to marry the same sex.
After the “end of history” aren’t most conflicts now over positive freedoms?
FUKUYAMA | It’s true. Most liberal democracies have been able to avoid this question of what positive freedoms they want to encourage because they haven’t been challenged. Now they are challenged by minorities—Muslim immigrants in Europe, for example—or in some way by rising cultures in Asia that have a very strong sense of their own moral community, their own nonliberal values. It has become a very live issue.
In Europe especially, the issue of immigration and identity converges with the larger problem of the valuelessness of postmodernity. The rise of relativism has made it harder to assert positive values and therefore the shared beliefs Europeans demand of immigrants as conditions for citizenship. Postmodern elites have evolved beyond identities defined by religion and nation to what they regard as a superior place. But aside from their celebration of endless diversity and tolerance, they find it difficult to agree on the substance of the good life to which they aspire in common.
Also, to be clear, what I argued in “The End of History” was that Hegel had a more positive sense of what freedom is in terms of the recognition of basic human dignity, of the capacity to make moral choices. So, in a sense the “end of history” means the beginning of the reconstruction of a more positive, substantive, idea of what it means to live in a liberal democracy.
NPQ | Just as immigrants asserting their identity bring new conflicts to liberal societies, doesn’t the projection of the West’s “postmodern valuelessness” —relativism, secularism, permissiveness, materialism—into other cultures through the mass media and entertainment generate clashes of a global scope? Migrants come here; our media go there. After all, Osama bin Laden never came to America. He knows it through the “Hollywood image.”
The globalizing media simultaneously tie together, differentiate and define; they are the space where recognition is granted, where dignity is assigned. If they are the new agora, aren’t they also, then, the new ground of conflict?
FUKUYAMA | Definitely. There has been a culture war going on within the United States for a long time over this issue. Cultural conservatives and the religious right have long criticized Hollywood for undermining the values of family and faith. In a sense, their position is not all that different from Osama bin Laden’s. The valuelessness projected by American mass culture is a problem.
Obviously, Muslim extremists don’t accept the basic framework of liberal tolerance within which America’s culture wars are waged. But there is a relationship. What we see today on the global stage is in some sense an extension of America’s own culture wars.
NPQ | After 9/11, the Bush administration launched a “public diplomacy” campaign that said, “if the Muslim world only understood America” they wouldn’t hate us. But this postmodern propaganda of the mass culture has been out there a long time. Muslims do understand America. That is the problem! Perhaps Americans need to be a little more humble and self-critical. Not all the fruits of freedom are appealing.
FUKUYAMA | I do think that America’s seamier side is well known in the world. The image of America held by many critical Muslims, radical or otherwise, is not inaccurate.
One of the delusions of American policy after 9/11 was to presume that if anti-Americanism was out there, it wasn’t because of our policies or the Hollywood image but because we were misunderstood. That was a seductive impulse because it meant we wouldn’t have to look inward and change ourselves or our policies.
On the other hand, I also think that America’s image in the world depends on which part of the world you are talking about. In those places which are modernizing successfully, the projection of our mass culture is a net benefit because they see the freedoms shown in our films or music as something they can aspire to. That doesn’t create resentment.
Where you get a big problem is where countries are failing at modernization. They can see the promised land, but there is no way of getting there. That creates resentment and anti-Americanism.
NPQ | You could take this further. Those who are successful due to globalization, particularly in Asia, are taking on more of the attributes of the American way—more freedom, more mobility, more prosperity. As they do so, they want to see their own stories on the screen, not America’s. In a relative sense, doesn’t that diminish America’s soft power?
FUKUYAMA | Yes, but is that the worse thing in the world, though? Because we have been powerful we are blind to other forms of soft power. Korean pop singers and movie stars are incredibly popular in Japan and other parts of East Asia. China has a huge film industry. Overseas Chinese are re-learning Mandarin.
We should not think of this realm of soft power in the same way in which we think about military power. The cultural balance of power is not a zero-sum game. It’s not necessarily a threat to the US national interest if China sees more of its own movies instead of American movies.
NPQ | Isn’t it important, then, as America considers its role in the world, to take into account this fact that the content of our mass culture affects international relations?
FUKUYAMA | Without question it is important. But I don’t know if it is that easy for liberal culture to do anything about it. Even if you decided that Hollywood is hurting America’s foreign policy interests you cannot stop that stuff from going out. Besides preventing Janet Jackson from ever again baring her breast at the Super Bowl through FCC regulations, there isn’t a whole lot you can do. It is a problem, but not one that can necessarily be solved by public policy.
The hope, of course, is that in the marketplace of ideas the good will drive out the bad. But there’s not a lot of evidence of that happening so far.
NPQ | One reason this is such a conundrum is that secular liberal societies have real difficulty in coming up, as you suggested, with positive virtues that set boundaries on cultural behavior, be it misogynist rap lyrics, Madonna’s crucifix act or cloning.
The clash with Islam underlines this moral paralysis because we live, as the late Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz used to say, in “non-parallel historical times.”
As a result we witness this paradox: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, citing Spinoza, has fled from faith to reason in the name of freedom, defecting from the womb of Islam and becoming an “Enlightenment fundamentalist” and atheist. Yet, Europe’s most famous secular liberal philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, now argues that since postmodern society is unable to generate its own values, it can only “nourish” itself from religious sources. For him, Western values—liberty, conscience, human rights—are grounded in our Judeo-Christian heritage.
According to Habermas, “unbridled subjectivity”—the relativism which reigns today—clashes with “what is really absolute—the right of every creature to be respected as an ‘image of God.’”
What do you make of this double movement in history?
FUKUYAMA | This problem of how our post-religious societies come up with values was the critical issue for two celebrated thinkers from the University of Chicago—Allan Bloom, author of “The Closing of the American Mind,” and Leo Strauss.
Strauss called this “the crisis of modernity.” The question is whether there is a way of establishing values through reason and philosophical discourse without reverting to religion. His central argument was that classical political philosophy—the Greeks with their emphasis on “natural right,” or nature deciphered by reason as a source of values—had been prematurely rejected by modern philosophy.
The way to think about this is that we have both a deep philosophical problem and a practical political problem. The two may be related, but not necessarily.
The deep philosophical problem is whether you can walk Western philosophy back from Heidegger and Nietzche and say that reason does permit the establishment of positive values—in other words that you can demonstrate the truth of certain ideas.
The practical problem is whether you can generate a set of values that will politically serve the integrating liberal purposes you want. This is complicated because you want those values to be positive and mean something, but you also can’t use them as the basis for exclusion of certain groups in society.
It is possible that we could succeed at doing one without the other. For example, the grounds of success of the American political experiment is that it has created a set of “positive” values that served as the basis for national identity but were also accessible to people who were not white and Christian or in some way “blood and soil” related to Anglo-Saxon Protestant founders of the country.
These values are the content of the American Creed—belief in individualism, belief in work as a value, belief in the freedom of mobility and popular sovereignty.
Samuel Huntington calls these “Anglo-Protestant values,” but at this point they have become de-racinated from these roots. You can believe them no matter who you are or where you came from.
As kind of a practical solution to the positive value problem, it works pretty well.
What I find fascinating is that, apart from drinking beer and playing soccer (football), Europeans find it hard to define the virtues with which they identify. In the end this is really about positive virtues—what kind of people you find admirable in your common story that builds your community. To what kinds of behavior do you assign dignity in your culture?
This kind of definition of the good life, I think, you can resolve without resolving the deeper philosophical issue.
What Strauss worried about in the back of his mind was the stability of such a practical solution in the absence of a philosophical resolution about how to arrive at truths.
NPQ | If positive definitions of freedom—choices about the good life—are divisive in a plural world, why not revert to a system like that in the Middle Ages where different values applied in different jurisdictions, each with its own “volksgeist”?
FUKUYAMA | That’s not a solution. We live in big national communities going global where you have to have civility, deliberation and democratic discourse. You can’t federalize into a zillion self-regarding communities. It is particularly not a solution in a world such as ours with such penetrating flows of people and information. This is what the Dutch tried, in effect, with their “pillars” for each group in society. It manifestly does not work.
NPQ | Muslim immigrants to Europe have a strong sense of identity. Americans have their creed. Why is Europe’s sense of identity and cultural confidence so weak?
FUKUYAMA | Europe did have deep national traditions. In the 20th century those national traditions were discredited through bloody nationalistic wars. Now they are trying to put together a “European identity,” but it doesn’t have much content.
One of the most fascinating debates came up when some tried to re-insert the idea of Christian heritage into the proposed European Constitution. That was tremendously controversial. The Christian reference never made it in, and then, of course, the French and Dutch publics in any case rejected the draft because they thought it intruded too much on their already waning national way of life.
NPQ | Is the idea of a volksgeist—the unique way of life of a commonly rooted people—now over in the postmodern world with all its hybrid cultures? The American Creed is really a "geist" without a "volk."
FUKUYAMA | “Volksgeist” was always a kind of fantasy. Johann Gottfried Herder, who employed the idea, argued that a “volksgeist” was some ancient, subconscious feeling of community. German identity itself didn’t really exist until the 19th century. What he didn’t appreciate was that all these attributes had been socially constructed at some point and mixed into a German brew.
Volksgeist is an unwritten set of social norms and values that a society aspires to. As you say, the American creed does not have a “volk” in the sense that its way of life is shared by many races and cultures.