Francis Fukuyama on middle class, trust for the state and the end of history

20 September 2013, 13:30

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama is well known in the post-Soviet world. In the late 1980s, Dr. Fukuyama worked on Palestine autonomy and Eastern Europe as member of the US Department of State. His article The End of History published in 1989 brought him fame and evolved into the book The End of History and the Last Man, out in 1992. In his intellectual bestseller, Dr. Fukuyama said the USSR collapse was a starting point for the triumph of liberal democracy as a system applicable to all the countries on the globe with no exception. On September 10, he visited Kyiv for the second time to deliver a lecture on state building in the modern world at the Kyiv Institute of Journalism. The next day Dr. Fukuyama spoke to The Ukrainian Week.

UW: Dr. Fukuyama, I can’t help but start with a trivial question. Why had “the end of history” you predicted never happened?

(Laughing) I expected this question. Let me explain my term “the end of history”. There is a process development over time, and Marx said it was going to be communism. My only observation back in 1989 was that it didn’t look like we would ever get back to communism, and if there is an end point to that process it was going to be something like Western liberal democracy, plus a market economy. And I think that’s still true, I don’t see that there is any alternative point to which we are evolving. But actually getting liberal democracy is a pretty difficult process because it really requires the creation of institutions like state, rule of law, democratic institutions, which are hard to construct for a number of reasons.

UW: Can institutions alone transform a society? Post-Soviet states or, say, Africa have parliaments, courts and media that are formally independent. But all these institutions resemble the Western ones only in form. Political reality in which they operate is profoundly different.

There are a lot of cases where institutions get better. Even Africa has seen a lot of development. States have gotten stronger democratic institutions and there has been a lot of economic growth. Latin America has seen enormous strength in its basic institutions over the last thirty years.

Unfortunately, in Eastern Europe, the trend has been in the other direction: institutions have been weakening. Take Russia, for example. It’s a very strong and despotic state but it is very weak in terms of being able to deliver basic services to the Russian people. The Russian state has not performed well in terms of education, health, and infrastructure. I would say, in many ways it performs worse today, than it did in Soviet times.

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UW: Why is this happening? Many in post-Soviet states blame this on the local mentality…

I don’t think that it’s the mentality. There has been a big institutional and moral vacuum after the Soviet structure disintegrated. People filled it with just a lot of self-interests. Both in Ukraine and Russia, the elite have seen the state as an opportunity to enrich themselves and their families. Once the communist ideology was gone, there was no strong tradition of public service. That is something that needs to be reconstructed over time.

UW: What can serve as the foundation for such reconstruction?

There are a number of things. The United States of the 19th century was an extremely corrupt state. Basically, politicians just used their political offices to give favours to people who voted for them. There was no professionalism in public administration. As the country evolved over time, there was a larger middle class, there was a leadership to try to reform the state. The state began to get better.

UW: Some analysts believe, that democracy, or general election legislation, is the problem. They say that elections only reproduce corruption and lack of professionalism in governments in post-totalitarian states. They mention the 19th-century United States as an opposite model: at that point, voting rights were subject to property and other qualifications, and the voters who met them were voted more responsibly.

That’s not true. In the 19th-century United States, politicians pandered to people by giving them jobs and basically bribing them to vote. But democracy is not the source of the problem. That might be a problem in a country like Venezuela or Thailand, where elite are being undermined by populist politicians that are pushing destructive policies because they are pandering to voters. In Russia and Ukraine, the elite are the source of the problem, it’s not the people that are corrupting the elite, it’s the elite that are corrupting the people. I don’t think people are willing to keep voting for corrupt leaders.

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UW: Many say today that liberal democracy is going through a complete crisis even in the West. Do you think there is a crisis?

It’s not a final crisis, although we can see some signs of political decay in the United States and other democracies, because there are a lot of powerful interest groups, polarization and difficulty in making decisions. It was a lot worse in the 1970s. There were popular protests, riots, economic decline… I don’t think we’re in anything like a final crisis of democracy.

The United States has a special set of problems. The country is highly polarized right now and therefore not able to make basic decisions. For instance, the Congress hasn’t passed a budget in three years, and they haven’t been able to very seriously address the long-term fiscal deficit that they need to do.

UW: In your works, you focus on a strong state, the rule of law and institutions of accountability as the three pillars of the modern political system. Where does trust stand in this system?

Trust is critical. The state has to be strong enough but people have to trust that it will use its power only for agreed-upon public purposes, not in a predatory or corrupt fashion. If citizens don’t trust the state, they try to stop and block it. The United States is in that situation a little bit because of its strong tradition of distrust for the state. That’s why we can’t have a reasonable health care system: the citizens don’t trust the state to manage it properly.

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UW: Why do you think Snowden’s leaks did not trigger protests in the United States?

The explanation is that they are probably still scared by 9/11. A lot of Americans still think there are all these terrible terrorists out there and the government has to protect them from these terrorists by whatever means are necessary. However, public opinion is changing on this. I think the government has been exceeding its authority and not telling the truth about how much surveillance it’s been doing. So, people may start to get more upset and angry about this.

UW: Do you think that the United States may lose its world leadership if it refuses to act as “the global cop”?

What has happened in American foreign policy is that the Bush administration launched two costly wars in the Middle East, neither of which really worked out that successfully. And so it has generated a backlash, where popular opinion does not want to get involved in another war. In effect, that is weakness. Both David Cameron and Barack Obama tactically mishandled the Syrian crisis. They could have avoided getting into this big mess that they’re in right now. They should have been smarter in a lead-up to the crisis.

Basically, it looks like it is weakness. I’m not so sure, whether it is a long-term decline. I think these things come and go over time. After Vietnam, the United States didn’t want to fight another war and seemed to be retreating. But then there was Ronald Reagan comeback.

UW: Speaking of Syria – don’t you think the victory of Syrian rebels, many of them Islamic fundamentalists, is not the best motif for the United States to intervene?

You’re right.

UW: So what could be done in this situation?

I don’t know. I mean, this is a really difficult situation. I sort of think that if we had provided more weapons to the rebels two years ago, Assad might have been pushed out of power before the opposition got as radical as it is right now. But since we didn’t act, things have changed. And now there are really no “good guys” on either side, and it is not clear what the right thing to do is.


UW: The expansion of religious radicalism is just part of perturbations developing in the Islamic world. What future do you see for Muslim countries?

This is a question that is very difficult to answer. I see certain parallels between what is happening in the Middle East right now and European nationalism in the 19th century. In both cases you had that underlying social change, a lot of modernization; urbanization of the formerly poor rural communities. This creates a big problem of identity. People don’t know who they are and what they are supposed to believe. In Europe, it was fascism and communism to some extent that filled that gap. These ideologies served as ways of mobilizing people and were obstacles to democracy in Europe at that time.

In the Middle East, it’s religion, I think. In many respects, religion plays the same social role that nationalism did in the 19th-century Europe. The real worry right now is the spreading Sunni-Shia conflict that’s going to divide a lot of countries in that region. This could lead to a prolonged religious strife in that area. Just like it was with religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in the 17th-century Europe.

UW: Do you believe that a global political system is possible? Would it be liberal democracy inevitably?

It’s certainly possible. If you ask me whether all countries on the planet will become liberal democracies, the answer is probably no. But the question is whether there is a superior social model. What’s important, in my opinion, is the ideal we’re seeking to emulate. And I still think of liberal democracy as the only serious alternative.

Communism pretended to be an alternative model. Some point at the China model and its authoritarian capitalism. I think that’s nonsense. First of all, nobody can imitate China other than a country that is culturally very similar. And it’s not that attractive in the end. China is good in one dimension which is economic growth. But it’s terrible in terms of the impact on the environment, food safety, property rights and basic dignity of citizens.

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UW: Some observers claim that China today resembles Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution. It violates human rights but its quick economic growth may lead to democratic changes in the longer run…

No, they are very different. Britain was never totalitarian. It has an ancient tradition of the rule of law. Even before democracy it was governed by law. It had an independent judiciary and property rights. That tradition never existed in China. Its authoritarian government is much more tyrannical than it ever was in England. That’s why I don’t think they will be successful in the long run. For real prosperity, people need more freedom and law.

UW: Can’t people still be happy in a totalitarian system that constrains their civil liberties but pays well?

That presumes that China’s GDP has to always grow at 10% a year but it’s not.  This economic growth rate has no chance to continue in the next 20 years. Also, as people get richer, they want other things, not just growth. They want clean environment, food safety and human rights.

UW: The financial crisis in 2008 seemed to have finally given the leftist movements and parties their chance to revive their influence in the West. But they didn’t. How would you explain that?

The answer depends on the country. In the US, for instance, a lot of working class people who are hurt by these kinds of economic crises created on Wall Street continue to vote Republican because they don’t like the Democrats’ position on gay marriage, abortion, guns or some cultural issues. It’s about the difference between their economic interests and their cultural beliefs.

In Europe, part of the problem is that the left did not have a realistic agenda. The only thing that the left want to do is hold on to the welfare state they gained in the 20th century. Look at Francois Holland in France. Elected as a socialist president, he faced the budget crisis and can’t implement his socialist agenda because there is no money to do it. Nobody believes that socialism is an answer today, that you can just expropriate money from the rich and give it to the poor. Everybody understands that economic growth needs markets, incentives, capital and competition.

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UW: Do you think political parties are still a necessary element of modern politics?

Political parties are now in trouble in many countries. That’s a real crisis for democracy. Political parties have one function which is to win elections in a democratic system. No other groups can do that. Civil society groups, transnational corporations or labour unions can’t do that. So, when political parties are weak and regarded as illegitimate, one of the fundamental institutions of democracy is missing.

UW: How could the relatively weak Ukraine respond to the pressure from Russia in an effort to stop Ukraine’s association with the EU?

Ukraine has no choice but to get to the EU as close as possible, I think. That’s good for Ukraine both in terms of foreign policy and in terms of domestic institutions. Association with Europe will help Ukraine reform its internal institutions. Now, Ukraine needs as much help as it can get from the EU and the U.S.

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Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama was born in Chicago in 1952. He is American in the third generation. His grandfather fled to the United States from the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. His father received a doctorate in sociology and his mother was the daughter of the first president of Osaka City University.

Francis Fukuyama initially studied literature at Yale and in Paris but switched to political science later. He earned his PhD in 1981 for a thesis on Soviet threats in the Middle East. Over the 1980-1990s, he worked at federal think tanks and the US Department of State. In the 2000s, Fukuyama distanced himself from the neoconservative movement which he had previously supported throughout his entire career and admitted that he voted for Democratic candidates in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.

His major publications include The End of History and the Last Man out in 1992; Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, 1995; The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, 1999; State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century, 2004; America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, 2006, and more.

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