Impossible as it seems, Francis Fukuyama was once associated with the neoconservative faction. Indeed, he was not just associated with the movement – he would have been among its card-carrying members, if contemporary political movements actually distributed membership cards.
Fukuyama studied under and with neocon luminaries Allan Bloom and Harvey Mansfield, worked in the Reagan Administration, and signed an open letter in 1998 urging President Clinton to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
So when Fukuyama renounced neoconservatism in 2006, it was shocking, even though it was presaged by some criticism of the Iraq War. Fukuyama's new book Political Order and Political Decay is so mindful of empiricism and so dismissive of American exceptionalism that it seems absurd to recall that its author once rubbed shoulders (and shared pages) with Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer.
Fukuyama’s latest book is the sequel to 2011’s "The Origins of Political Order". That work sought to answer the question: How and where did good governance evolve?
It began with the first humans and ended at the French Revolution, fingering China as the first strong state and modern Europe as the region where contemporary forms of government took shape.
The sequel brings us from the French Revolution to the present day. As its subtitle indicates, the book is less concerned with how some countries build effective states than with why others don’t, and how some that do weaken over time.
Fukuyama intends with these books to update the late political scientist Samuel Huntington’s classic 1968 book, "Political Order in Changing Societies". Huntington argued that there was no linear path leading to stable democracies, in contrast to the popular view at the time that economic progress would lead directly to strong, responsive governments.
Fukuyama agrees with Huntington, arguing that there is in fact often tension between consensual governments and strong states. “Those countries in which democracy preceded modern state building have had much greater problems achieving high-quality governance than those that inherited modern states from absolutist times,” he writes. This conflict explains the problems that plague the United States, according to him. Because Americans have such a strong distrust of government but such a robust democratic system, they lack a state that will carry out its duties effectively and independently.
That position leads him to the most interesting parts of the book, which focus on the decay of American institutions. “With sharp polarization, this decentralized system is less and less able to represent majority interests but gives excessive representation to the views of interests groups and activists organization that collectively do not add up to a sovereign American people,” he writes.
The answer lies in the impossible: switching to a unified, British-style parliamentary system. Fukuyama admits that such a solution is “inconceivable,” because “Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document.”
Fukuyama’s prescription has become commonplace among center-left intellectuals in the United States, who rightly see their country as existing in a permanent state of political dysfunction.
But Fukuyama and others fail to note that there is an area in which government functions smoothly, operating virtually without Congressional interference: foreign policy and national security. Presidents routinely fight wars without even so much as a Congressional hearing, let alone a vote. And it cannot be fairly said that the independent function of the executive branch in international affairs has been an unvarnished virtue. Ironically then, the one area in which more oversight and checks and balances would be most welcome is where they are most absent. Switching to a parliamentary system would probably worsen this problem, which permits intelligence agencies and successive presidential administrations to run virtually lawless programs in the name of protecting the American people.
But "Political Order and Political Decay" is far more about history and analysis than it is about policy remedies. And it is impressively learned and robust, if sometimes meandering and not always convincing.
After he made his name with a 1989 journal article (expanded into a book) called "The End of History?", Fukuyama was said by the late German theorist Ralf Dahrendorf in 1990 to be experiencing a mere “fifteen minutes of fame.” Well, it’s been 25 years since Fukuyama published that article, and this book further cements his reputation as among America’s most substantial political thinkers. So it seems that Fukuyama’s 15 minutes have lasted far longer than Dahrendorf imagined.
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and The Christian Science Monitor.