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Opinion

Societies don't have to be secular to be modern

An interview with Francis Fukuyama, author of 'The End of History and the Last Man.'

October 21, 2009



Author Francis Fukuyama spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Tuesday, Oct. 20.

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Nathan Gardels: 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 or '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 the 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.

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