Politics & Policy

The Difficulty of Political Order

In his new book, Francis Fukuyama traces the complex history of political institutions we take for granted.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Francis Fukuyama one of the most important thinkers in America. He’s a rare triple threat in public-intellectual life — maintaining high appointments in academe, producing popular books and magazine writing consumed by the chattering classes, and advising American presidents and foreign leaders directly. He combines expertise and influence with breadth: He’s worked on questions as imperial as American grand strategy and as delicate and abstract as bioethics. He’s most famous for The End of History and the Last Man, whose perennially misunderstood title is often jeered, but which defined a decade’s thinking about the post–Cold War world order and globalization.

His latest book is Origins of Political Order, which traces a single story through several millennia and dozens of different cultures, empires, and societies — the story of how man emerged from tribal structures into a modern state. Fukuyama talks with NRO’s Matthew Shaffer, about the book and how his thinking about world order and America’s place in it has changed over the last 20 years.

MATTHEW SHAFFER: Origins is a historical work, as opposed to previous works, such as The End of History, and Our Posthuman Future, which were more theoretical. What, for you, is the prescriptive value of history?

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: This really started with a practical concern I had after dealing with failed states and nation-building issues in the wake of September 11 and our nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It seemed to me that the United States in particular didn’t appreciate the difficulty of this kind of activity, because we didn’t adequately understand how hard it was to establish institutions. When I was at Johns Hopkins at SAIS [School of Advanced International Studies] I ran an international-development program, focusing on issues of anti-corruption and improving governance. And a lot of it seemed premised on an overly optimistic faith in the ability of outsiders to effect desired outcomes. So I decided to write a book about where institutions came from in countries that had them and could take them for granted. We’ve forgotten a lot of that history and how we’ve gotten to the present. Along the way it was also a means of revisiting a lot of The End of History 20 years later.


SHAFFER: Some theorists, like Hegel, think that history doesn’t just tell us what is stable, or what works, but actually points us toward moral progress. Do you believe that?

FUKUYAMA: Fundamentally, I believe in liberal democracy, that it’s the best form of government, and that the world has made moral progress. But that’s a separate question from whether the development of democratic institutions is inevitable and driven by an underlying historical force. I’ve become more skeptical of that latter belief over the years as I’ve become more attentive to the role of accident and contingency. And my current book is about a lot of that. For example: The reason we got to democracy in Europe is the almost accidental survival of a feudal institution — the English parliament — into the modern period. That’s something that didn’t happen in other European countries, and which we therefore can’t take for granted. So, as you see, the normative concern is separate from the empirical question of whether democracy is inevitable.


SHAFFER: Origins incorporates economics, anthropology, philosophy, and social psychology, for lessons about political order. Is that kind of study too rare today?

FUKUYAMA: This is partly the fault of the structure of academia. There’s such a premium placed on specialization and narrowness that it’s very hard to think more broadly and to cross disciplinary boundaries. I work at Stanford in an interdisciplinary institute, and I’ve been associated with these kinds of outfits for most of my years. And those are where the most interesting research gets done.


SHAFFER: What field outside of political science has the most important insights for understanding political order?

FUKUYAMA: That’s hard to say. I don’t know if there is one. Part of the problem is economics — it’s a very important discipline, but in a way it’s colonized the rest of the social sciences. A lot of political analysis in academia is driven by this model of everybody being a rational decision maker driven by more or less material interests. There’s obviously something to that, but it’s a very limited way of looking about politics, which is about dignity and values and ideas that can’t be explained in material terms. Other disciplines — sociology and anthropology — have gotten at those things better than economics has.


SHAFFER: Your chapter “How Christianity Undermines the Family” is provocatively titled and sort of microcosmic for your whole thesis. Can you tell us about it?

FUKUYAMA: You can’t have modern politics if society is based on the biological principles of supporting friends and family. That’s the natural mode of human sociability. We’re naturally inclined to take care of family and exchange favors with friends. Human beings will interact in that manner without anyone telling them to behave that way because it’s biologically grounded.

In all human societies, social order at one stage depended on extended kinship — people living in tribes where people traced ancestry to a common ancestor that may be three, four, or five generations dead. This was no less true of Europeans than it was of the Chinese, or Arabs, or Africans, or anyone else in the world. All the Germanic barbarians organized themselves tribally after overrunning the Roman Empire.

One of the broad questions I’ve addressed in the book is how did these different societies make an exit out of kinship-based social organization into a modern-based state, with impersonal, centralized administration? Europe in that respect was quite exceptional, because that happened early, and it happened through the agency of the Catholic Church, which changed the rules of inheritance for kin-groups. It forbade divorce, it forbade concubinage, and it forbade cousin marriages within three or four degrees of relatedness. All of these were practices in tribal societies that kept property within an extended kin-group. In the Arab world in many places they still encourage cross-cousin marriage, where you marry your first cousin and the two families get to keep property within this narrow circle.

When the Catholic Church [forbade cousin marriage] in the eighth century, it wasn’t thinking about the effect on kinship. It was acting in a self-interested way, because by cutting off these ways of kin-groups’ keeping property, the Church ended up being the beneficiary. So if a woman didn’t marry and didn’t have children but had a big estate, she tended to donate it to the Church. So the Church helped effect in Europe the breakdown of extended kinship very, very early. Even in the beginning of the Middle Ages, people owned property as individuals. Women could hold property — they could sell it, alienate it, in ways that they still can’t in parts of the Arab world. And this meant that individualism became very deeply rooted in European society. So some individualism was already established by the time Europe got to feudalism. And feudalism is basically a contract — it’s one that is very hierarchical, between a stronger and weaker person, but it is a contract between two people.

So the idea of exchange and private property dates way, way back, hundreds of years before the Enlightenment, Reformation, etc. So I think that the basis for European modernization traces all the way back to developments like that. In China, in India, the exit out of kinship was accomplished through political power, via a state that tried to create impersonal government layered on top of a kin-based society. And those kin-groups really never went away. Even in contemporary China and India, in certain parts there are still kin-groups that influence politics.


SHAFFER: But China had an impersonal government — a meritocratic bureaucracy — without Christianity, and long before the West did, yes?

FUKUYAMA: So you have to understand what that means. China didn’t create the first state, it created the first modern state, meaning a state which recruited people into a centralized bureaucracy based on talent and merit, essentially, and not based on family relations, or connections to the household of the emperor, or something of that sort. So it had a modern form of public administration. And this was all consolidated by the third century B.C. But what the country never got to was the rule of law. Up to the modern day, the concept of a sovereign being limited by the rule of law never existed. So what that meant is that at a very early period in their history, the Chinese perfected strong, absolutist government. And that’s been a consistent pattern — high-quality, authoritarian government. And I think that continues up to the present.


SHAFFER: Could we trace Western ascendance to that one factor, the rule of law?

FUKUYAMA: That’s what’s interesting about the present period. A lot of economic theory says you can’t have modern economic growth without Western-style rule of law. Economists who believe this are thinking about two critical things — property rights and contract enforcement. And there’s a lot of theory and a lot of empirical evidence that show that these are in fact important. The problem with that theory is that it doesn’t really square with the facts in contemporary China. As everybody knows, for the past three decades, China has been growing at double-digit rates and they don’t have Western rule of law.

I think you can rescue the theory in the long run, because without rule of law they can’t keep this up. In a way the challenge that contemporary China poses it that they are doing well, and in the short run they’re doing better than the United States without having these Western institutions. The real challenge is the long-run sustainability of that system, or of the two systems. And looking at that in the long-run, I would still bet on the West, with its rule of law and systems of checks and balances on authority.

SHAFFER: You’ve probably heard a lot of phony rebuttals based on misreading of The End of History. So, I won’t attempt one — but you’ve made oblique references to your own revisions and criticisms. How does the rise of China and the current Arab unrest, for example, fit into the end of history?

FUKUYAMA: If you understand the original thesis correctly, what I was saying is that there was a theory of history among progressive intellectuals for most of the 20th century. That theory of history was Marxism. And according to the Marxists, the end of history was a communist utopia. My observation in the late 1980s is that we weren’t going to get there. Liberal democracies seemed to be the highest stage of political development, and I didn’t see any real alternatives. If you understand the thesis that way, I still believe that. Nothing that’s happened in the last 20 years has convinced me that there’s a higher form of government. Certainly not 9/11 — I don’t think anybody wants to live in a place like Iran and Afghanistan, so I don’t think that’s a serious competitor. China is a more plausible alternative. But I don’t think that anybody who’s not culturally Chinese would duplicate their system, and the Chinese are not really proselytizing their system. So I still think liberal democracy is the default form of government.

What’s changed for me are a couple of things: One is the idea of political decay. It wasn’t an important part of the End of History. But I do think that all political systems, including liberal democracies, can decay over time. They can get too rigid, they can fail to adapt, and if they do, then they’re going to get into trouble, just like authoritarian systems. The other issue, which we’ve already touched on, is contingency in history. So the route to getting into modernity is, I now think, full of a lot of accident, and so it’s not as if there’s this inevitable historical process that driving us toward the present. I think it should make us both more appreciative of the fact that we’ve gotten to the present and also more aware of the fragility of modern institutions.


SHAFFER: A lot of people have related that — your focus on the contingency of political order, and our ability to construct democracies — to your “falling-out” with neoconservatism. Was that “falling out” just local to some of the failures and disappointments of the Bush years or was it a break with the intellectual project as a whole?

FUKUYAMA: It was more a practical dispute over methods. I didn’t think U.S. hard power was an effective method [for advancing liberal democracy], and the Bush administration hadn’t really thought through the implications of invading Iraq. I still think there are ways that the United States can help promote democracy, but it’s a slow and long-term process. For example, I’m on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, which had an important role in supporting solidarity in Poland in the 1980s, and in Serbia, and the Orange Coalition in Ukraine. So there are ways in which we’ve encouraged democratic forces around the world. I still believe in that mission and project. But I don’t think the Bush administration actually invaded Iraq to promote democracy. They had security objectives in mind, and they added the democracy argument as an afterthought, and that’s what stuck in people’s minds. That was a mistake, because it kind of undermined the notion of democracy promotion, simply because it was connected to a very unpopular intervention.

SHAFFER: Taking lessons from that, what can we do to promote democracy in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring”?

FUKUYAMA: We already are doing a lot. We’ve got organizations like the National Democratic Institute, or the International Republican Institute, that are all over Tunisia and Egypt and Libya, and other places, trying to help them organize political parties, trade unions, civil-society organizations, that hopefully will allow the more Western-oriented democrats in those Arab countries to actually contest in the elections. As we move toward votes in Tunisia and Egypt we want to have some alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. So we’re giving them that kind of assistance right now. That’s difficult, because they haven’t had experience with democracy previously.

It’s a long-term struggle, and I think we’ll be disappointed in the short run. I don’t think the more pro-Western forces are the ones that will end up on top in the short-run. But we’ve got to start somewhere.

SHAFFER: Is the spread of liberal democracy dependent upon persisting American hegemony?

FUKUYAMA: It’s been helpful. The U.S. obviously plays a big role in maintaining a liberal, open world order, through its alliances and the influence it projects. And American ideas have been very dominant in the world especially in the last two decades. A lot of that is shifting now because of the rise of other powers and other ideas. But the idea of liberal democracy — the U.S. is not the only exemplar of liberal democracy — [remains]. It’s a powerful idea that would exist independently of whether the U.S. is hegemonic or not.

I’m not as scared of a world without American hegemony as some people are. We went through the whole Cold War period in which the U.S. was one of two superpowers. A return to a more multi-polar world in certain ways induces a fair amount of moderation among big players in the system, because people know they can’t get their way unilaterally. And in the more multi-polar world we’d probably think twice about doing things like Iraq. The more important question is: In the global marketplace of ideas, how dominant will American ideas about freedom and rule of law and democracy and our economic model be? Our ideas will obviously be challenged; and it’s important for the U.S. to put its own house in order, both politically and economically, because that’s the most important way we exercise influence around the world: The model we set.


SHAFFER: To revisit Our Posthuman Future, are there any developments in bio-technologies in the past nine years that you find particularly disturbing?

FUKUYAMA: Yes. The whole rise of synthetic biology, where we’ve had new forms of life, and the ability to do new forms of life is proceeding extremely rapidly. The creation of an artificial bacteria itself is not immediately threatening, but it’s part of a long-term process by which we’ll uncover the technologies for manufacturing life, in ways that could have very serious security and moral implications.


SHAFFER: Don’t bioethics pose a challenge to the idea that the best society is the most successful society? You argue in Our Posthuman Future that a society that genetically engineered its children to be more intelligent might be more productive and successful but wouldn’t be moral.

FUKUYAMA: I’ve got a simpler concern in my current book. It’s just that liberal democracy is not something you can take for granted, or that democracies will find a way to solve their problems. I think we’ve got a number of long-term problems in the United States that don’t seem to be getting addressed with the current political system.

— Matthew Shaffer is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


The Latest