In conversation with Francis Fukuyama: “Russia would not have invaded Ukraine if it had been a democracy” 

There are few people whose image is so strongly associated with a single catchphrase. “The End of History,” the title of Francis Fukuyama’s essay published in the summer of 1989, brought him fame and was also his curse, as it was often deeply misunderstood. When he published his essay in the National Interest (a center-right intellectual magazine), he was a mandarin employed by Republican administrations. After the essay was published, he worked on a book developing his ideas on the same subject, which was published three years later.

“The End of History” was, of course, not about the end of history understood as a series of events, but about the fact that liberal democracy had become the highest form of modern politics as it rather successfully ensured peace and prosperity for a relatively large part of the world, while all alternatives – especially communism – failed spectacularly. Fukuyama was no liberal-democratic Candide. The subtitle of the book – “The Last Man” – is a Nietzschean term that Fukuyama used on the advice of Allan Bloom (who was also his professor at Cornell University). In this way he wanted to show the danger of the end of history: “the last man” is a term referring to the moment when the human race loses its drive, its purpose.

In 2020, he published a series of conversations with Mathilde Fasting, “After the End of History,” which was reviewed by our editor Ferenc Laczo.

His latest book, “Liberalism and Its Discontents” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), is a defense of classical liberalism, a reckoning with the neoliberal dream of the small state, populist conservatism and the identitarian left. He also advocates trust in government, federalism or subsidiarity (in the sense of decision-making at the lowest appropriate level).

Fukuyama studied at Cornell University. He earned his PhD at Harvard and then worked at the RAND Corporation and the Policy Planning Staff at the US State Department. He is currently a professor at Stanford University.

In this interview with Francis Fukuyama, hosted by Laetitia Strauch-Bonart (Editor of the Ideas section in the French weekly L’Express) and Michał Matlak (RevDem Managing Editor), they discuss his latest book, the status of liberal and illiberal democracies in the world today, how this relates to Russia, China, and the US, the threats to American democracy today, and more.

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart: We are going to start with your latest book where you write about various threats to liberal democracy, including neoliberalism and the identitarian left.  Would you say that they are extreme versions of the classical liberal idea?

Francis Fukuyama: They derive from classical liberal ideas, but they distort them. In a liberal society you have private property rights, and you have freedom of commerce, but under the kind of neoliberal, economic thinking there was a much more radical view that the state was really the enemy of economic growth and needed to be cut back. Deregulation was necessary across the board, including in the financial sector, where I think it led to a lot of destabilizations of global financial markets and in the end produced a lot of inequality. It was a distortion or deformation of liberal ideas, and similarly a lot of identity politics takes the basic liberal idea that each individual should have a sphere of autonomy, but expanded that to the autonomy of groups, to the idea that everybody had the right to make up the moral rules by which people lived, and that really makes a coherent society impossible. So, both of those start with liberal ideas, but they take them to extremes that really don‘t work.

Michał Matlak: How do you define liberalism? Is it above all the way to reconcile various lifestyles or is it also a vision of a good life? 

Francis Fukuyama: First of all, I‘m defining liberalism in a different way than either Americans or Europeans define it. In America, liberal signifies being left-of-center, being in favor of more equality and more redistribution – a bigger state. In Europe, it has the opposite meaning – people that like the German Free Democrats want a market economy and to cut back the state. Both understandings are not my definition, because it really has to do with the regime that believes in a kind of universal equality of dignity – of all human beings – that needs to be protected by a rule of law.

The economic side is not key to my understanding of liberalism. If you are in favor of a regime that protects basic individual rights, then I consider that you that you‘re a liberal. Also, liberalism excludes certain forms of nationalism. 

A liberal society does not have a common vision of the good life as defined by a religion or a deep cultural tradition because it‘s those kinds of assertions of a good life that exclude other people. 

And liberalism is a doctrine that was meant to reconcile different views of the ultimate ends of life, because people couldn’t agree on them, and to lower the expectations of politics to simply protecting life itself. Therefore, it doesn’t take a stand on which religion is the correct religion, or which ethnicity or race is the superior race. It’s neutral on those issues.

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart: Do you see neoliberalism as a threat to liberal democracy today?

Francis Fukuyama: The kinds of inequalities and instability that were created by neoliberal policies in the 1990s and early 2000s were responsible for the rise of populism, both on the right and on the left.

There‘s been a political backlash against that. A lot of those policies have been rolled back. Maybe we are coming out of the neoliberal phase, but what I‘m trying to do is to explain why that backlash exists and why you have this kind of populism, both left-wing and right-wing.

The discussion of neoliberalism in my book is a historical explanation of how we got to the present. But I’m not saying that that‘s the major threat to the political liberalism right now. It’s the reaction to neoliberalism. That’s the threat.

Michał Matlak: Can a conservative be a classic liberal in your definition?

Francis Fukuyama: The definition of a conservative also depends on what country you’re in. In America to be a conservative often means to be a classical liberal; these are people interested in the constitutional order, private property, and the protection of individual rights. In Europe not that many classical liberals were actually conservatives. Initially they were in favor of the alliance between the throne and the altar. They were religious conservatives or they were in favor of traditional authority – some of them were monarchists or overt authoritarians. I think what has happened is that in both places that kind of conservatism has been replaced by a populist conservatism that is no longer classically liberal. National conservatives want to associate national identity with a particular way of life with a particular ethnicity. For example, Victor Orbán has stated that Hungarian national identity is based on Hungarian ethnicity and that’s not a liberal view, that’s an anti-liberal view. But I think it’s representative of the new kind of populist conservatism that we’re seeing in India. Prime Minister Modi wants to change India national identity from a classically liberal one to one that’s based on Hinduism.

That’s a direct attack on a basic liberal principle. You can define both of them as conservative, but there are different forms of conservatism based on a kind of restrictive nationalism or on a particular religion.

Michał Matlak: Is illiberal democracy in the Hungarian sense still a democracy? Some, like Jan-Werner Müller, argue that you need the rule of law and a level playing field to have a democracy.

Francis Fukuyama: This is just a semantic confusion. I think that when people use the term democracy, they really mean liberal democracy, which is a combination of liberal institutions – which have to do with the rule of law – and checks on state power and democracy – which has to do with elections and democratic accountability.

These two institutions are usually mutually supportive, but they can exist separately from one another. Sometimes people speak of Singapore as a liberal state. It’s not democratic because it does have a relatively strong rule of law and a very flawed election process. And then Hungary: Orbán has explicitly said that he’s trying to build an illiberal democracy in which you have popular elections, but no respect for the rule of law.

So, it’s possible to separate the two.

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart: How do you assess the durability of nationalism today? Isn’t its muscular version the most important threat to liberal democracy? 

Francis Fukuyama: I think that you just have to take a long view of history. We’ve had many setbacks – history is not linear. Things don’t get better every single year. 

In the 1930s, we had very big setbacks to the progress of liberal democracy. In the 1970s we also had some big setbacks with inflation and instability, military coups in many places. So, I don’t think that you can simply take the events of the last decade as a permanent shift in the way that societies organized themselves. And as I argued in my book, I think that liberalism has certain enduring virtues, among them the ability to create peace in diverse societies. 

And since societies are actually getting more diverse over time, rather than less, in a way liberalism becomes more important. 

Right now, you have Russia and China, which have both been arguing that they are the future because liberal democracies can’t make decisions, that they’re ineffective. And I think both of those countries are proving that authoritarian countries can also end up in a very bad place. 

Russia would not have invaded Ukraine if it had been a democracy. If Putin had to get the ascent of people in his society to do this, I don’t think they would have ever gone along with it. Even if he had a decision-making system that forced him to consult more people I don’t think this would have happened. 

He’s ended up making one of the biggest historical blunders of recent years because Russia’s an authoritarian country. And I think you see something like that in China going on now with the zero COVID policy, which is a really crazy policy that could only be made in a country in which one man is the prime leader and can make all the decisions.

Michał Matlak: Is a European superstate thinkable?

Francis Fukuyama: The essence of the state is its ability to exercise legitimate force to enforce laws. And right now, the EU doesn’t have that. It doesn’t have its own army. It doesn’t have its own police force. It relies on member states to enforce laws, including basic rights of citizens of EU countries.

Michał Matlak: It might have an army. 

Francis Fukuyama: It’s the moment I see this army show up and hold an exercise that I’ll believe that this is a real process. It hasn’t happened yet. And in any event, even if there is this defense force, it’s not going to be an army with a single commander. It’s still going to be an alliance of Germany and France basically.

If you think about why there is no European army or a single police force, you see the difficulties that there’s still too much diversity in the views and attitudes of the members of the EU that prevent that from happening. I think it’s important that the EU move in the direction of greater collective action.

Right now, in foreign policy the EU is completely hobbled by the fact that you need consensus. Every single one of the member states can veto a particular foreign policy. So, you can’t criticize China because Hungary and Greece have infrastructure projects and they don’t want to annoy the Chinese. You can’t get certain kinds of sanction policies because Hungary is going to veto it. So, until Europe moves to a qualified majority voting on foreign policy, I think it’s going to be very weak as an international player. 

You don’t have to move to being superstate, but at least if you had qualified majority voting on some of these issues, you would be able to exercise more influence in the world.

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart: Where do you put the boundaries between a negative nationalism and a positive one? And is there something as liberal nationalism? 

Francis Fukuyama: Of course, there’s liberal nationalism. That’s what exists in Canada, Australia, the United States… even France, I think, has this concept coming out of the revolution of French citizenship. That’s based on a common language, on a common political tradition. The main distinction between a good nationalism and a bad one is that a good nationalism must be based on liberal principles. They have to be equally accessible by all of the people that actually live in the society that the state rules over. If it’s based on a fixed characteristic, like ethnicity, race, or religion, then it’s going to exclude certain parts of the population and therefore will be an illiberal form of nationalism.

Michał Matlak: Could I ask you about the journal you founded, “the American purpose”?  Do you think that these kinds of projects can still influence the world of ideas? Journals seem to have lost their influence.

Francis Fukuyama: Ideas continue to be really important. If you look at the neoliberal revolution that happened with Reagan and Thatcher back in the 1980s, it was very important that it was also supported by some very powerful economists like Milton Friedman in the realm of ideas. 

One of the weaknesses of the current populist right is that they don’t have any coherent ideas underlying their view of the world. Unlike other conservative movements, they really haven’t produced any important thinkers that could help define what they’re about.

I think that for the long-term survival of a particular political idea, if you don’t have a coherent set of ideas underlying, it’s not going to work. And I think one of the problems with liberalism is that it’s been so much a part of our intellectual landscape for the last three generations that young people today, if you asked them what liberalism is, they wouldn’t be able to tell you what it was.

And if you ask why is your society preferable to living in Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China? I’m not sure they could give you a coherent answer, because they don’t really understand the foundational principles of their own society. For that reason, I think it’s important to keep working at the ideas.

The other thing is that in the United States right now there’s a fight going on over internationalism. A lot of younger Americans, because of Iraq and Afghanistan, are tired of foreign policy in general, tired of the American role in organizing global democracy. I think it’s important to argue in favor. A continued sense of responsibility towards world politics is necessary.

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart: What does the war in Ukraine tell us about the Western alliance?

Francis Fukuyama: Everybody was surprised by the strength of the Western support for Ukraine after February 24. There was an encouraging development in Germany where they have really set out to reverse the 40 years of Ostpolitik, so that was quite hopeful. The real question right now is, given the cutoff of Russian gas, whether that solidarity is going hold up through the winter and continue.

I think that the Ukrainian success on the battlefield in the near term is very important. Because if Europeans think that this war’s going to go on for the next eight years, I don’t think that they will continue to support it, but if it looks like Russia could actually be defeated, then I think enduring one year or one winter of energy privation is something that can be politically sustained.

And by the way, I really do think that the Ukrainians are going to win this war.

Michał Matlak: And did you think that they were going to win when the invasion started? 

Francis Fukuyama: I wrote a blog post in March, I think March 10th, suggesting that the Russians could actually be defeated. Yes, I’ve been fairly optimistic right from the beginning. I spend a lot of time in Ukraine and I think I know the country pretty well. I’ve been there a lot over the last eight years, and I think there are a lot of reasons to think that there’s a degree of morale and patriotism in Ukraine that’s completely missing in Russia, and that’s had a big effect on their battlefield success. 

Michał Matlak: Maybe it’s the right moment to ask you about your views on Mikhail Gorbachev. He was the key person in the revolutionary change of 1989 (and the following ones).

Francis Fukuyama: He didn’t want the former Soviet Union to break up, but he unleashed forces that he then couldn’t control. He wasn’t interested in democracy, but I do think he wanted a more liberal Russia, in which people could express their views freely, in which there could be debate and greater openness to the world.

And unfortunately, that’s exactly what Putin has rolled back over the last decade. 

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart: Let us go back to the USA. You have been criticizing the American institutions and its “vetocracy” for a long time. Do you think a civil war in the USA is likely?

Francis Fukuyama: I don’t think civil war is likely. You could get more political violence, assassinations, and riots, but you’re not going to have a civil war. But I do think you could have a progressive breakdown of the democratic order in the United States because the Republican Party has almost completely bought into Trump’s lie about having won the last election and having it stolen from him. As a result, they’re trying to put their officials in positions to be able to manipulate the results of the 2024 election. If it’s a close one, and if that happens, then it’s going be very bad for American democracy. I’m very worried about it.

Michał Matlak: Could I ask you about political leaders who are close to your vision of classical liberalism?

Francis Fukuyama: Almost every leader in Europe is committed to some version of classical liberalism. The question is not whether they believe in it but how are they promoting those values and defending them. Obviously Zelensky stands out right now as a very inspiring leader in a way that many are not, but in Europe the people that aren’t classical liberals like Orbán are the exception.

Michał Matlak: And in the US?

Francis Fukuyama: I think that Americans traditionally have been classical liberals, and what’s so unusual about the current situation is that now you’re having people on the extreme right and the extreme left that are departing from that consensus. It’s particularly strong in the Republican Party, but in certain sectors of the left, you also have some pretty illiberal people that don’t want to tolerate views that disagree with them.

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart: Aren’t you annoyed that people didn’t read your book and that they keep saying, for example, that the end of history didn’t happen without understanding that you were writing mostly about ideas

Francis Fukuyama:  This has been going on for 30 years, so it’s nothing new. I have been gratified that over the years there are people that actually read the book and have taken the argument seriously. I’m grateful for that. 

Michał Matlak: Is Biden successful as president? He seems not to be very far from moderate Republicans.

Francis Fukuyama: In the first year of his presidency, he was too close to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He should have broken with a lot of their policies, particularly on cultural issues, earlier – I mean his positions on police and the border immigration. He should have made it clear that he didn’t support those positions. Part of the reason that I think his approval ratings were so low was that he didn’t do that. He’s been trying to fix that recently, and he’s been much more successful. They’ve managed to pass several important pieces of legislation on gun control and on support for the semiconductor industry. There’s a big clean energy package that was just produced. He’s doing better in terms of concrete achievements. Whether that’s enough to help the Democrats as a whole do better, we’ll have to see. 

Michał Matlak: And do you think the Republicans can come back to the acceptance of liberal democracy?

Francis Fukuyama: I think what would have to happen is they would have to lose several elections in a row and realize that Trump has led them into a dead end, where they’re never going to gain power again. I think that’s the only way that the party is going to change. And for that, the Democrats have to adjust their strategy as well. 

Michał Matlak: Is the Chinese model still attractive for other parts of the world? It seems that the pandemic has shown it’s not as productive as it was perceived.

Francis Fukuyama: I don’t think that anybody is particularly attracted to Chinese society. You don’t see millions of poor people struggling to get into China because they want to live as Chinese citizens the way people want to get into Europe or into North America. And I think the admiration for China simply has to do with its economic success and its relative stability.

But as a cultural model, China not terribly attractive. In fact, as the authoritarian character of the society deepens, that attraction is going to be less and less visible. The other thing is that it’s impossible for other countries to duplicate the Chinese model. They have a more than 2000-year history of meritocratic bureaucracy and a kind of state tradition that almost no other developing country can hope to replicate, except for countries in East Asia, like Japan, Korea, Taiwan and so forth. I don’t think that this is going to be a real model for other countries.

Certainly, the idea that you have a mixture of authoritarian government plus some openness to markets is something that’s been copied, but that’s really not the essence of the Chinese model. 

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart: Do you believe in the possibility of a war between China and the US? 

Francis Fukuyama: I think people have got to start thinking about that very seriously. It’s going to be a total disaster if it happens, but it’s of course possible.

Michał Matlak: How could it start?

Francis Fukuyama: If it happens, it’s going to start over Taiwan, because China has said pretty clearly that they want to reincorporate Taiwan and they’ll do it by force if necessary.

Michał Matlak: You worked for the Republican administration in the 1980s. How do you see this experience of an intellectual working for the government?

Francis Fukuyama: I think this is an American phenomenon. It’s much easier to go in and out of the government here than it is in Europe or in Japan or Korea. There’s much more flexibility here. 

Let’s remember that Henry Kissinger started out as an academic. He wasn’t a career civil servant. I think other countries are beginning to realize that they need to be a little bit more flexible in terms of their willingness to take in people with expertise.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos and Ferenc Laczo

This conversation will also be published in L’Express (in French) and Kultura Liberalna (in Polish)

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