Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ Was Misunderstood by Critics

Francis Fukuyama in 2008 (Larry Downing/Reuters)
He recognized the enduring role of religion and fretted over the persistence of nationalism, but he underestimated both.

‘What we may be witnessing,” wrote Francis Fukuyama in The National Interest 30 years ago this summer, “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

This sentence made Fukuyama famous. It also made him famously misunderstood. He qualified his thesis immediately: “This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affairs‘s yearly summaries of international relations, for the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world.”

That turned out to be an understatement. Nevertheless, Fukuyama’s caveat was not enough to dispel the widespread impression that the thirtysomething official in George H. W. Bush’s State Department was declaring history to have culminated in global liberal democracy.

The truth is that Fukuyama’s argument in “The End of History?” was subtler than his critics appreciated. He recognized the enduring power of faith: “The rise of religious fundamentalism in recent years within the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions has been widely noted.” And he fretted over the persistence of nationalism: “Nationalism has been a threat to liberalism historically in Germany, and continues to be one in isolated parts of ‘post-historical’ Europe like Northern Ireland.” He conceded that both religion and nationalism would impede the actualization of liberal democratic principles. But neither alternative was powerful enough to defeat liberal democracy conceptually or intellectually.

Indeed, with the exception of political Islam, “which has little appeal for non-Muslims,” Fukuyama said, “other less organized religious impulses have been successfully satisfied within the sphere of personal life that is permitted in liberal societies.” Nor was it “clear that nationalism represents an irreconcilable contradiction in the heart of liberalism.” Nationalism is complicated. “The vast majority of the world’s nationalism movements do not have a political program beyond the negative desire of independence from some other group or people, and do not offer anything like a comprehensive agenda for socio-economic organization.” Religion and nationalism could be incorporated into liberal democracy. They may have to be. Recent events suggest that forms of liberal democracy that neglect or suppress religious or national impulses invite popular resistance and backlash.

The end of history would see geopolitics replaced by geo-economics. The “free world” would become the “global economy.” In his rueful concluding paragraph, Fukuyama wrote, “The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called for daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” Postmodern culture would be duplicative and decadent. Nostalgia for things greater than the material abundance of liberal democracy (a.k.a. democratic capitalism) would pull on every human heart. “Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.”

Liberal democracy had been vindicated not concretely but theoretically. Efforts to realize liberal democratic principles would continue indefinitely. The timing of Fukuyama’s essay — it was published a few months before the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Empire began to disintegrate — may have been why critics misread it. Suddenly, it seemed as if the struggle for the world was coming to an end.

That was not what Fukuyama was saying. But it quickly became the conventional interpretation of what he had said. And this false understanding justified a great deal of complacency and self-righteousness among Western elites who thought they were on “the right side of history.”

Fukuyama tried to correct the record, with mixed success. An ambiguity in his thought, over just how “real” the end of history would be, contributed to the confusion. While he emphasized in subsequent writings the human thirst for recognition and renown, in retrospect he may not have appreciated the galvanizing power of religion and nationalism. His elite audience certainly did not. “The new China far more resembles Gaullist France than pre–World War I Germany,” he wrote in 1989. If only.

“The magnitude of the threats that have arisen over the last 30 years does suggest that Fukuyama overlooked the resilience of authoritarian political alternatives,” Peter Berkowitz wrote Sunday at RealClearPolitics. “And that he underestimated the internal tensions and destabilizing passions inhering in liberal democracy — among them, on the one hand, the impatience with formal equality under that law that issues in a desire for an all-encompassing equality and, on the other, the quest for community and the longing for the sacred.”

This is something Fukuyama concedes. Reflecting last year on Samuel Huntington, whose Clash of Civilizations was the antithesis to “The End of History,” Fukuyama wrote, “At the moment, it looks like Huntington is winning.” Liberal democracy might have triumphed dialectically, but religion and nation seem not to have noticed, or cared. More important, as another of Fukuyama’s great interlocutors, Charles Krauthammer, noted in The Point of It All, it is not just foreign competitors who argue against liberal democracy. The “end of history” framework also seems to be coming undone at home.

Responding to Fukuyama 30 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan quoted his line, “I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed,” and he quipped, “I fear he will survive to live once again ‘in interesting times’!” In this, and in so much else, Moynihan was right.

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