Francis Fukuyama: Democracy still rules. But will US catch up in a changing world?
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama discusses the crumbling European Union, what the West should learn from China, and the power of – and problems with – democracy.
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Fukuyama: I don’t think that Al Qaeda was actually that important of a political force even before Osama bin Laden’s killing. The main current in the Arab world had been rather different for some time. As we’ve seen lately, they’re really interested now in democracy and the struggle against authoritarian government. In a sense, the killing of Osama is probably more satisfying for Americans than it is for anyone in the Middle East.Skip to next paragraph
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The erosion of the European Union
Skafidas: You claim in your new book that “once a society fails to confront a major fiscal crisis through serious institutional reform ... it is tempted to resort to a host of short-term fixes that erode and eventually corrupt its own institutions.”
Using as an example France and the inability of the French monarchy to restore balance after the failure of the Grand Parti in 1557, you conclude that the failure to balance the country’s budget led to bankruptcy and the de-legitimization of the state itself, a course that finally resulted in the French Revolution.
Fukuyama: Yes, the sovereign debt crisis has already been destabilizing the European Union. Further, fiscal crisis is not just a basic problem for Europe, but for the US and Japan as well.
The only way to ultimately resolve this crisis is to renegotiate the social contract on which the modern democratic world is based, because it’s not sustainable. It was negotiated at a time when people did not live as long and birthrates were higher. But now you’ve got this real demographic shift that has been going on for the last generation where there are not enough in the young working population to support their elders at the level which they expect and have been promised. That makes a renegotiation necessary.
The other thing is that a lot of countries, like Greece, never really engaged in the liberalization of the labor market or other reforms that were necessary to improve their productivity. So their lack of competitiveness is simultaneously on the table for them along with restoring fiscal prudence.
What makes Europe’s crisis so severe is that there isn’t a strong sense of a Europe-wide solidarity. The Germans are hardly playing a visionary role in providing leadership.
Why Europeans don't like outsiders
Skafidas: That brings to mind an observation you made in one of your previous books, “Trust,” about “the higher degree of mutual trust between labor and management in Germany in comparison to less communally oriented societies.” That seems to be one of the most challenging problems behind Europe’s current state of financial troubles – the unbridgeable mentality of its diverse national constituents. Would you agree?
Fukuyama: A lot of times the high degree of trust within a society entails a lower degree of trust for people outside of that society. That may be the case with Germans. They dealt with their need for economic reform quite successfully. They freed up their labor markets and became much more competitive over the past 10-15 years. Now they expect other people to behave like them, and when they don’t, they are not very sympathetic. It’s an illustration of the fact that you do have solidarity in national terms, but not in broader European terms.
History is the result of unforeseen circumstances
Skafidas: In “The Origins of Political Order,” you clarify that “countries are not trapped by their pasts even though in many cases things that happened a long time ago continue to exert influence on the nature of politics.” You note that institutions of governance emerge more often than not from contingent, unforeseen circumstances rather than some advance theory.
Fukuyama: In taking the long view of political development, one thing that comes through fairly clearly is the fact that the evolution of institutions is often the result of contingent, accidental circumstances. In a way, the rule of law is the result of the Catholic Church’s quest for independence in the 11th century. The rise of democracy is due to the survival of feudal institutions in England. Parliamentary government emerged from the need to balance the power of new and old forces.
History should give people a better appreciation of the fact that their institutions are the product of a certain amount of luck. Now, I do think that it is also the case that once a certain institutional form proves itself to be stable and powerful and regarded as legitimate, it also tends to spread. That is what has been happening with democracy over the last few years. The recent Arab uprising that has seen democracy spread “organically” should give us Americans a more humble sense of the limits of nation-building, of trying to implant institutions in other societies.
Money's corruption of politics
Skafidas: In the third millennium, it seems that politics, like showbiz, like art and sports and education, has fallen under the spell of money. Doesn’t that ultimately undermine the ideals of liberal democracy?