The World According to Francis Fukuyama

Fukuyama - Reuters.jpg

In a recent op-ed co-authored with Robert Muggah, End-of-History theorist Francis Fukuyama asserts that a "virulent" strain of populism has descended upon the West and is poisoning the "global liberal order." Populist leaders in Turkey, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Serbia are identified, but only en passant. Vladimir Putin is not mentioned, and neither is Xi Jinping. The true villain of the piece is Donald Trump. If Trump and the GOP maintain "their hold on government" after the 2018 mid-terms and the 2020 presidential election, all is lost. "It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the global liberal order hangs precariously in the balance."

Well, yes, it is an exaggeration. And more to the point, the Francis Fukuyama we thought we knew—the one with an almost occult ability to discern the sweep of history in its broadest contours—would have been the first person to point this out.

What's Muggah's and Fukuyama's problem with Trump? It's hard to tell. They acknowledge, as do a growing number of the president's academic critics, that his bark is far worse than his bite, and that "the U.S.'s constitutional checks and balances are weathering the storm." They concede that Trump's supporters are far less interested in his tweets than in his economic policies. They also acknowledge that "the steady move of the Democrats to the left of U.S. voters, and their continued focus on identity politics" has played to Trump's advantage. Theirs is not the critique of the Trump presidency we are used to hearing from never-Trumpers like David Frum, who fret about "the stealthy paralysis of governance," the "subversion of norms" and "the incitement of private violence to radicalize supporters." Muggah and Fukuyama understand that Trump has not burned down the Reichstag.

So the question emerges: what will happen if President Trump governs for eight years instead of four? Answer: "The withdrawal of the U.S. from the global order will continue and power will diffuse from the west to the east. The shift from a uni-polar to a multi-polar world will accelerate, with dangerous fallout." What dangerous fallout? And how was it ever in the power of the U.S. president to prevent the diffusion of power in world where China is ascendant, or to decelerate the reversion of a uni-polar world into a multi-polar one? Unfortunately, these questions are never answered. What we get instead is a parting platitude: "One thing is for certain: The road ahead is radically uncertain."

The Fukuyama of old would not have stood for such vague posturing. In October 2001, when the United States was still reeling from 9/11, Fukuyama defended with brash outspokenness his signature idea—that the global expansion of democracy and free markets was inexorable and could not be diverted even by the worst sort of jihadi terror. "We remain at the end of history because there is only one system that will continue to dominate world politics, that of the liberal-democratic west," he wrote. "This does not imply a world free from conflict, nor the disappearance of culture. But time is on the side of modernity." A decade later, in 2011, Fukuyama rather blithely suggested that even China would inevitably jettison its system of "tyrannical state power" and join the new world order. "I think the Chinese are going to work their own way toward that," he said. "I just don't think they can keep this kind of centralized authoritarian system going forever."

Professor Fukuyama's confidence in liberal-democratic triumphalism was not rattled, in short, by the events of 9/11, by the proliferation of jihadi terror, or even by the rise to world power of an undemocratic China. The great flow of history was too great, the established trajectory of the post-Cold War world order too durable. If Fukuyama genuinely believes that the road ahead is "radically uncertain"—after thirty years of defending precisely the opposite view—he should take the trouble to explain why.