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.

Francis Fukuyama has just published a new book, “The Origins of Political Order,” which looks at the development of political institutions from ancient China to the French Revolution. He spoke with Global Viewpoint Network contributing editor Michael Skafidas in New York.

Michael Skafidas: It is surprising that your book is not Eurocentric. You bring China to the foreground as the first society to develop state institutions. As you claim, “Many of the elements of what we now understand to be a modern state appeared far earlier in history than did the Industrial Revolution and the modern capitalist economy; these elements were already in place in China in the Third Century BC.” At the end, as you suggest, “China’s pioneering experience is seldom referred to in Western accounts of political development.” Why do you think that is the case?

Francis Fukuyama: Part of the problem is that China’s history is long and so complex that is very hard for people to grasp the totality of it. Most people in the West are unfamiliar with pre-20th century Chinese history. They only know the Qing Dynasty, which was the last dynasty that decayed and was finally displaced by the nationalist revolution in the early 20th century. When Westerners think of historical China, their knowledge doesn’t go back more than two or three hundred years

This is a big problem because that dynasty at that point in China’s history was actually quite decayed and ossified. It was really not representative of what China was like in earlier periods. Of course, China also experienced political decay not just in the Qing Dynasty but also periodically in its 2,500-year history. So, it depends on what period of China you examine before you can make assertions about how strong its institutions were.

What the West can learn from China

Skafidas: Your mentor, the late Samuel Huntington, once told me that “the West has a lot of things to learn from other civilizations, and it’s a fact that the leaders of nations such as China and Japan always try to transfuse some of their own elements to the West. The West can only benefit from such an exchange.”

Yet the West has always resisted this exchange until now, when China and India are becoming economic giants. Now there is no other alternative but to accept this exchange.

Fukuyama: In general, Huntington was right that even if these countries were not economically successful, there would still be important things to learn from them. For example, the Chinese were always very good at high-quality bureaucratic government in a way that Western societies haven’t been.

Learning from that experience is a much more urgent matter when these countries have become quite powerful and there is a strong need to understand their particular strengths and weaknesses. One of the problems with the United States over the last generation is that Americans haven’t felt there was much to learn from the rest of the world because America was so dominant and English a more or less universal language. The world has changed, but Americans haven’t yet caught up.

The failures of neoconservatism

Skafidas: Once you were a fervent supporter of the neoconservative movement. Then you became disillusioned and you abandoned it. What disillusioned you the most of the ills of neoconservatism? Its overly hegemonic aspirations; the war in Iraq, which you initially supported and later condemned; the distrust of the welfare system; or the rejection of the government regulation of the economy, which led to the disastrous downfall of 2008?

Fukuyama: Well, first of all, there isn’t a neoconservative movement as such in the way that there was a communist movement, for example. It was not that organized. It was just a group of intellectuals with a worldview. But there was no neoconservative view on the economy. In fact, Irving Kristol, who was the father of neoconservatism, once wrote a book called “Two Cheers for Capitalism” in which he argued that capitalism had some good points but that it was also morally questionable.

So we shouldn’t confuse neoconservatism with libertarianism or Reaganism because they were not necessarily the same thing. The movement really emerged in the 1930s, when there was a split between communists and their sympathizers and those in the existence of universal democratic values.

That’s something I continue to believe. My main argument with the way neoconservatism evolved in the 2000s was that it was too much dependent and associated with American military power, which I thought was a limited instrument and was not being applied properly in Iraq or in the war on terror. But the belief that democracy is a universal value, that American power can be used positively if done prudently – that I still believe.

Osama bin Laden's death means most to US

Skafidas: Aside from its emotional impact, do you see any further value in the killing of Osama bin Laden for America?

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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.

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.

Today, many countries of the EU, from Greece to Portugal, are facing just such a crisis. Is the whole European project losing its legitimacy and becoming destabilized?

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?

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Fukuyama: Well, I am not sure that this is a particular change. Politics and money have always been related. In a lot of less developed societies you have this phenomenon of patronage, which is a universal phenomenon in politics. In certain ways, politics is less corrupt in a lot of European and North American societies than it was a hundred years ago. On the other hand, interest-group politics has replaced the earliest forms of patronage in ways that can be quite damaging to the legitimacy of the democratic system. I do think that in that respect there is a big problem with democracy today.

Why I met with Libya's Qaddafi

Skafidas: Is it true that you actually spent some time advising the leader of Libya, Muammar Qaddafi on behalf of the consulting firm Monitor Group in 2007-2008?

Fukuyama: No, I didn’t advise him. He wanted to see me because he read my books, and we had some conversations. This was the period when everyone, I think, was hoping there would be some liberalization of the society, so I thought some form of engagement with him might be able to teach him some things, but I figured out fairly quickly that he was pretty unteachable. He is not open to any new ideas.

Skafidas: Is it feasible to hope that an autocrat can be reversed into a democrat?

Fukuyama: That has happened in cases where authoritarian rulers have given up power voluntarily, or they presided over openings that have surprised people. You have South Africa, Turkey, and in the earlier period you have a number of places – Eastern Europe itself and the former Soviet Union – where nobody expected liberalization.

You are not going to know when this is going to happen ahead of time unless you try to engage people and gauge whether there is some interest in changing course. In the mid-2000s, Qaddafi had given up his nuclear weapons program. He was taken off the terrorism list by the US because he really hadn’t engaged in that sort of activity for quite a while. So I think it was worth it to just see what the limits of reform in those kinds of cases are.

Are we headed for a Frankenstein scenario?

Skafidas: In “Our Posthuman Future,” you speculated that “there can be no end of history without an end of modern natural science and technology.” Do you fear some kind of Frankenstein scenario?

Fukuyama: The Frankenstein story is little bit sensational. What is going to happen is the slow accumulation of knowledge about biomedicine is going to enable us to manipulate human behavior in all sorts of new ways. That is really the challenge. A lot of biomedicine, of course, is going to be used for therapeutic purposes, and everybody approves that.

What needs to be injected into public policy are certain considerations about the use of this technology for inappropriate purposes through engineering, the abuse of cloning or the like. I’m not necessarily an optimist when it comes to technology. I think that it needs to be regulated, and right now in the US, in particular, we don’t regulate this form of medicine, and I think we need to.

Democracy is still the endgame of historical progress

Skafidas: The impact of “The End of History” – whose optimistic premise after the fall of the Berlin Wall was that all the world’s conflicts will resolve into the model of liberal democracy – elevated you to a rock-star status. Some of your ideas from that book have been used and abused, but they still resonate. Did you ever predict this powerful impact when you were writing it? And do you remain optimistic more than 20 years later?

Fukuyama: No, definitely not! I really didn’t think very many people would read the book. As for the question on optimism, it depends on the timeframe. The basic question was, “Is there a process of modernization that leads to democracy, which makes people better off as a result? Are people better off as a result of that?”

For me, the answer to that question still remains yes. In the short run, meaning the next five to ten years, things can look bad. Obviously after 9/11 we had a lot of problems with religious extremism and setbacks to democracy. But now the Arab Spring may be partially reversing that – but that itself may get reversed. The question is, “In the long run is there such a thing as historical progress?” On that score I still remain optimistic.

© 2011 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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