Fukuyama: The End of the End of History

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama, a second-generation Japanese-American historian and philosopher, published the precocious, controversial treatise "The End of History," which held that the age-old struggle over political ideologies had ended and that liberal democracy was the victor. But the past 16 years—the rise of Russian authoritarianism, China's huge economic growth and the failure of neoconservative ideals in Iraq, where Fukuyama argued early to dislodge Saddam Hussein—have cast doubt on his premise. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Matthew Philips. Excerpts:

PHILIPS: Does the thesis behind " The End of History " still hold up?
FUKUYAMA: The basic premise still holds true. The problem with the popular understanding of the thesis was that history was just meant as things happening, when in fact the hypothesis dealt more with the evolution of human societies, the direction they were moving in and the likely final destination in terms of forms of government. So in spite of authoritarian revivals in Russia and China, liberal democracy is still the only legitimate form of government broadly accepted. Of course, several groups have opted out, like the Islamic fundamentalists, but in the long run I am still fairly confident that democratic systems are the only viable ones.

Doesn ' t it counter your thesis that America may be on the wane and liberal democracy was dealt a blow in Iraq?
It was never specifically connected to American hegemony. The European Union represents those ideals better, actually. American power relative to the world is declining because of the growth of other centers of power, which was certainly foreseen. But the one thing that has changed is that the very idea that democracy is a good thing—that we should care that countries are democratic—has been tainted by the way the Bush administration used it to justify this War on Terror. Now people around the world associate the very idea of democracy with the Bush administration, and Vladimir Putin can say, "We're not interested in democracy."

In 1992, you were upbeat about Russia. Do you still feel that way?
What's happening in Russia is more of a generational thing. Younger Russians who came of age in the 1990s have a negative association with the period that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. They like the growth of consumerism. They see the 1990s as a time of national humiliation, of weakness, chaos and retreat abroad. They have nostalgia for the strength of the Soviet Union. They didn't directly experience it, which is why they feel that way. This is the basis of Putin's support. The real question is: does that generation want to give up the possibility of traveling to Europe for the sake of dominating Ukraine and Georgia?

Should those two be admitted into NATO?
Yes, and I believe they deserve the guarantee that we'll send forces to defend NATO members. But it's unrealistic to think the U.S. is going to do that in either of those two cases. We have our hands full protecting Poland and the Baltic states, and now with an aggressive Russia, people feel that NATO is this magic talisman that conveys protection without having to back it up. Under the current circumstances, it's not realistic that we push the boundaries there with Russia pushing back so hard. We have to realize we should not make promises for military commitments we're not going to be able to fulfill.

You ' re a long way from your early neoconservative leanings.
I disavowed those years ago. I've always had a Marxist understanding of history: democracy is a result of a broad modernization process that happens in every country. Neocons think the use of political power can force the pace of change, but ultimately it depends on societies doing it themselves.

Is that the way you felt in 1992?
The process is harder and longer than I felt back then. I appreciate to a greater degree that democracy is built around institutions that are quite difficult to put into place, especially the rule of law. The other big thing I did not imagine back in 1992 was that the U.S. could become so controversial and damaging to the prospects of democracy.

How long does it to take to fix that?
Probably a decade of rebuilding work. But it's something that can be revived because the underlying thesis—that democratic societies are necessary—remains strong.

Should the United States refocus on domestic issues?
I would not dial back foreign involvement. There are lots of problems out there, and we've made lots of commitments and we need to keep them. Most of them are better kept with nonmilitary power, so I think there needs to be a re-emphasis on the use of American soft power.

You ' ve said China poses a bigger challenge than Russia.
There are two choices. You can either construct a containment barrier against China, which is something my neocon friends have suggested, or you can try to suck the Chinese into as many global institutions as possible, like the WTO. I think the more preferable scenario is the latter, particularly as you imagine a world in 20 years where China is the same size as the U.S.