After WWII and the Cold War, democracy looked unstoppable. Lately, it seems more complicated. Francis Fukuyama, Stanford's Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and the world’s leading author on the subject, joins us to discuss — could it still be true?
Link to the video!
In 2003, a small coalition of countries led by the United States invaded Iraq, at the time ruled by the autocratic Saddam Hussein. While supporters and planners of the invasion hoped to establish a liberal democracy in Iraq, their mission rapidly became a quagmire that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, and gave birth to a corrupt and unstable regime that has failed to provide Iraqi citizens with security or prosperity. But to understand why America failed in its project of nation-building, it’s necessary to examine the decades leading up to the invasion, as well as the weeks and months following it. From military planning to international sanctions, political purges and serious administrative blunders, the answer emerges.
There are few ideas more frequently invoked and yet more frequently misunderstood, than “the end of history” — a phrase popularized by this guy—
FF: "My name is Francis Fukuyama"
—who wrote an article in 1989 and then a book in 1992 arguing that, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the failure of Communism, history had ended. Liberal democracy had won.
But even in this triumphal moment for liberal democracy, many derided Fukuyama’s argument as idealistic, narrow-minded, arrogant, but worst of all, simply wrong.
Then, from this peak of triumph, liberal democracy has slowly descended. Since then, America humiliated itself trying to build democracy in Iraq, China thoroughly dispelled the idea that democracy was necessary to improve living standards, and illiberal populism has exploded in, well, popularity across the west. To top it all off, Putin went and invaded Ukraine, upsetting any idea that history as we think of it could be over.
After all this,
FF: "It would be kind of foolish to try to maintain that democracy is prospering everywhere in the world."
But then, some remarkable things happened. Russia has stagnated and regressed in Ukraine. Protests have erupted across Iran demanding liberal rights and an end to the backward theocracy.
All of a sudden, history looks much more like it’s ended. So what does this mean, “the end of history?” And could Fukuyama be right all along?
CHAPTER I - The World Still Turns
First of all, the idea that history could be over, seems, well, crazy, because obviously the kinds of things that make it into history textbooks still happen: war, death, global pandemics, the usual. It’s even hard to say that liberal democracy has triumphed by any means.
Take this handful of European democracies, for example. While fears of a far-right wave engulfing Europe have thus far proven misplaced, right-populist parties and protest parties, which question or reject the value of liberal democracy, have carved out substantial niches for themselves.
What’s more, 2021 ended up the year with the most successful coups worldwide since the end of the Cold War, mostly in fragile African states. And in nations like Sudan, such coups reversed stumbling but meaningful steps towards democracy.
Of course, rates of war and violence around the world would be an important indicator that history is still happening, and while there hasn’t been an explosion in large or small conflicts between states, and major civil wars have fluctuated since the end of the Cold War, the number of people dying in armed conflicts has gone up recently. And these numbers don’t even include Ukraine.
So the proof is there — the world still turns, nothing is settled. Fukuyama was wrong all along. But Fukuyama never meant that events would stop happening, that war wouldn’t break out anymore, that democracy wouldn’t experience setbacks and opposition.
While pundits and politicians have, intentionally or unintentionally, turned this misinterpretation of the “end of history” into a lazy punching bag, what Fukuyama meant was quite different…and much more thoughtful.
What he argued was that no alternative political structure, past, present, or future, could satisfy human needs and desires as well as liberal democracy.
History was over, because humanity had arrived where we were always going.
His proof? Two arguments about human nature, that he’s going to help us explain.
CHAPTER II — Liberalism is Inevitable
When it comes to human needs and desires, the most obvious are the material — security, shelter, sustenance. Every human being needs these. Every human being wants these.
And so, as human beings acquire greater abundance in the things they need, they won’t give them up, because these things satisfy basic human desires.
FF: "So all of these things I think give a directionality to history."
Human societies increase their body of knowledge, developing new tools and methods to secure themselves against material deprivation. Even as setbacks to progress may arise, the ultimate direction of humanity and history remains the same...
And this is a familiar story to modern ears — that science brings this progress through the discovery of greater efficiencies and better technologies.
But as technologies advance and the economy needs more people to do different things, premodern forms of human organization — whether tribal associations or hereditary occupations — end up proving inefficient compared to markets with wages set and labor organized according to supply and demand.
THIS is the key point —
FF: "The evolving technological horizon then determines the nature of the economy, and that I think is incontrovertible."
Historical development is driven by material human needs and wants, which follows a set path because the laws of nature and efficiency never change. As a result, history culminates in the market-based economy, because it is the most efficient means of satisfying the material needs and wants of human beings.
But wait a minute, you’re probably thinking, even if this is true — that history inevitably ends up in liberalism or a market economy — that still doesn’t mean that history ends in liberal democracy.
After all, China’s rise is a compelling example of a non-democratic state using market reforms and mechanisms to achieve lots of progress in satisfying these material desires we all have.
FF: "Whether that increases the chances for liberal democracy occurring is a kind of complicated thing, because clearly China has gotten rich without being democratic."
But these material desires aren’t all that make us human, aren’t all that drive history forward. There is another side of human nature that propels history.
CHAPTER III — Democracy is Inevitable
Material desires can’t explain why someone would risk their life for a cause. And, given that history has so frequently been driven forward by some people risking their lives, there must be a second factor driving history, besides material concerns.
But what could that be?
FF: "This part really has to do with recognition and dignity."
Most of recorded history is not a story of the steady advancement of material satisfaction through scientific innovation — that really only applies to the past 400-or-so years.
Instead, most of history is a story driven by the desire of some to dominate over others, fighting among themselves for prestige.
FF: "Struggle for recognition was one of the big drivers of history. People don't simply want material goods. They also want to be recognized. They want other human beings to respect them, to, you know, award them a certain level of dignity."
This begins with warlords who conquer areas, settle down, and eventually become normal lords, ruling over an essentially slave population whose humanity is not recognized at all. This master/slave relationship defines history and politics until Christianity emerges with the explicit idea that all men, not merely the masters, have inherent human dignity in the eyes of God—a dignity that is worthy of recognition.
Thus the vast population of people whose humanity was entirely un-recognized now recognized their own humanity and began demanding that their masters recognize them too.
For the first time ever, a belief emerges that government shouldn’t just be for a special portion of the population but for everyone, on the basis of universal human dignity.
And THIS is the key point of Fukuyama’s second argument — Historical development is driven by yes, material desires, but also the immaterial desire for recognition. For most of human history it was only satisfied for a few, by political orders that allowed those few to rule over everyone else.
Over time, this universal human desire had to expand and eventually reach its culmination in democracy — the one political order that provides universal recognition.
Thus, these two essential forces driving historical development — the material desires which lead to liberal markets — and the immaterial desires which lead to democratic politics — combine to form liberal democracy, the one regime that can satisfy both core human longings and finally bring historical development to an end.
CHAPTER IV — Liberal Democracy Today
So is Fukuyama right that only liberal democracy can satisfy the human longing for recognition, and our desires for material prosperity?
Well, it probably helps to ask the same question he asked thirty years ago—what are the alternatives?
FF: "If there is any terminal point to our development, it would seem to be something like liberal democracy."
In the twentieth century, those alternatives were fascism and communism, but what are they today?
If you ask Fukuyama,
FF: "I think the biggest challenge to liberal democracy right now is coming from right-wing nationalist populist movements, like, you know, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or Narendra Modi in India, or Donald Trump in the United States...You know, what I would call partial recognition."
Let’s talk about Viktor Orbán in Hungary who asserts that democracy is a goal, but not liberalism. And yet, Hungary remains one of the European Union’s economic laggards, reliant in large part on the generosity of other European states with dynamic economies, free of the governmental meddling and general corruption so beloved by Orbán.
But what about India?
FF: "What Modi has done in his Hindu Nationalist party is to try to change Indian national identity to one based on religion, that celebrates, you know, one particular one of the many religions that exist in India. And, you know, that's something that's desired by a lot of Hindu activists, but it's also something that already has, you know, led to communal violence and the stripping of rights from people who are not Hindu."
And Russia isn’t much different under the rule of Vladimir Putin who,
FF: "does not want to accept, you know, a kind of peaceful coexistence with his neighbors but believes in a form of Russian national identity that requires Russia to dominate all of its neighbors, and to absorb other countries, not respect their sovereignty, because they think they're the ones that get to decide what, you know, what constitutes Russia."
Another imposing opponent is embodied by the People’s Republic of China, a regime which has found tremendous economic success through its selective application of liberal markets, and a wholesale rejection of democratic recognition of its people.
FF: "And it's made use of a lot of the same technologies that other Western Democratic societies have."
But “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is no longer on the rise, as Xi Jinping has lately consolidated control, surrounded himself with yes-men, and cracked down on the economic freedoms which brought China to such heights.
FF: "It seems to me that there's some very big problems...with its growth model and with the fact that it's run by a single individual who I think has been making big mistakes."
As a result, without offering recognition or, increasingly, material satisfaction, what little appeal the regime retained for serious people outside its borders is quickly vanishing.
In other words, while it’s impossible to predict the future, it’s hard to argue with Fukuyama’s thesis. There just isn’t anything out there today that looks better than liberal democracy. And, while we’re lacking in clairvoyance, Fukuyama has a pretty good track record for predicting the future—he didn’t just foresee the collapse of the Kerch Bridge in Crimea with a tweet, he even predicted that the real estate business wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the dangerous ambition of a certain New York mogul.
Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, liberal democracy may be in more trouble than it was then.
FF: "What I said in The End of History in the last few chapters is that there were reasons why democracy would be threatened in the future...that there still could be ambitious people that would not be satisfied by equal recognition. We've seen, you know, lots of cases of that in recent years."
Without a firm defense of competitive markets, free elections, and free people, it might even slip away, for a time. But, as Fukuyama so compellingly argues, it seems we’re more likely than not to find our way back to it in the end.
"The End of History?" by Francis Fukuyama
The End of History and The Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama
"Still The End of History," by Francis Fukuyama
00:45 — "Cleopatra's Nose," by John Gray in National Review
02:35 — Global Instances of Coups project, by Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne
02:55 — Uppsala Conflict Data Program
03:10 — Uppsala Conflict Data Program
12:45 — Francis Fukuyama's Tweet, Oct. 8
12:50 — The End of History and The Last Man, Chapter 31, by Francis Fukuyama
INSANE UNSEEN COMBAT FOOTAGE ON MARIUPOL UKRAINE RUSSIA WAR FOOTAGE COMBAT, by War FootageHunter (CC BY 3.0)
Official Photograph of Prime Minister of India Shri Narendra Modi, November 2020, via Indian Prime Minister’s Office