The End of History

Francis Fukuyama is best known for his book The End of History and the Last Man, one of the seminal texts of political theory written in the 1990s. Prior to 9/11, it was common to pit this book against Samuel Huntingdon's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order when trying to understand the world from the western perspective. These two books do not lend themselves to easy comparison, but their organizing principles did. Huntingdon was pessimistic about the future, believing that a "clash of civilizations" would envelop the world as its various cultures came into conflict. "Every civilization," he wrote, "sees itself as the center of the world and writes its history as the central drama of human history". From the perspective of his critics, Fukuyama's enthusiastic depiction of the triumph of western values seemed to fall into exactly this trap.

Fukuyama first wrote an article entitled 'The End of History?' in 1989 in The National Interest, a journal founded by the prominent neoconservative Irving Kristol. It took him three years to reiterate his ideas at book-length, now shorn of the trailing question mark. As with many profound books, its critics and proponents often focus only on certain parts of it. Much of The End of History is an exercise in the history of ideas. Fukuyama's guiding light is Alexandre Kojeve, an interpreter of Hegel who believed that history had come to an end in 1806 with the Battle of Jena. The defeat of Prussian militarism by Napoleonic France seemed, to this thinker, to herald the end of History understood as a struggle about how best to organize human society. This end came about because the ideal form of society, liberal democracy, had become extant; it was now only a matter of time until it buried its contenders.

Here we approach one of the common misconceptions about Fukuyama's book, namely the meaning of 'History'. Fukuyama understood History in the highest sense, as world-history, primarily great ideological struggle. To him, the Cold War was a battle between two competing conceptions of how to organize human society - the Communist on the one side, and the liberal democratic on the other. He traced the ideological bankruptcy of Communism which had been apparent since at least the Chinese decision to allow the peasantry to grow and sell their own food in the 1980s, culmunating in perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union. With what was effectively the self-abrogation of the right to rule by Communist parties across the world, he proclaimed the ideological bankruptcy of the Communist ideal of how to organize a society.

This didn't necessarily mean the end to wars or massacres or elections – the bread and butter of history with a small 'h' – but it did mean, Fukuyama said, that the most satisfying way of organizing a human society had been found. At this point in his argument Fukuyama enters into a long philosophical discourse based upon the Hegelian dialectic, and attempts to demonstrate why liberal democracy is the form of society which best satisfies all human needs, specifically the desire for recognition of one’s human dignity, which the Greeks called thymos. Only as equal citizens of a free republic, suggests Fukuyama, can this deepest of all human needs be met.

Problems with the End of History

Near the end of his book, Fukuyama considers several problems with his own thesis. The first is the pertinence of social and economic conditions which might undermine this wonderland of liberal equality. Political equality is not necessarily sufficient to give a sense of thymos to the poor and those who can feel they are discriminated against, such as immigrants to western societies. While I should think we can safely assume that a proletarian revolution is not just around the corner, such divisions within western societies are a potential threat to their continued stability.

More dangerous from Fukuyama's point of view was the danger that the End of History would be considered, as Huntingdon put it, 'rather boring'. With no more injustice left to fight against in the world, and nothing left to strive for, man would become less than man; he would become merely an animal, fulfilling his animalistic needs. Fukuyama has in mind here the Occidentalist view shared by the fascist, Communist and Islamist of the decadent burgher, 'blinking stupidly and thinking about dinner'. This is the caricature of liberal democracy painted by its worst enemies – soulless materialism and ‘machine civilization’ – but what if the End of History made it a reality?

The End of History and U.S. Foreign Policy

During the 1990s, the End of History became an implicit element of U.S. foreign policy. The Clinton administration and George W. Bush’s administration shared its assumptions. Clinton declared that the spread of liberal democracy and market institutions around the world was the central goal of U.S. foreign policy, but often acted as if he expected the process to happen automatically. It was assumed that after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world accepted the American way.

Yet as the decade wore on it became increasingly clear that even Russia was far from accepting the American way, and that the rest of the world was not necessarily keen to jump on board either. The increasing strength of political Islam and the determination of the Chinese to develop their own institutions and norms with, as they always put it, 'Chinese characteristics', spoke further ill for the predictive power of his thesis. As Huntingdon had predicted, each civilization continued to view its own development as the central drama of human history; they were not about to become mere spectators in the theatre of the west.

The Clinton administration's most egregious mistake, which also became Bush's, was the failure to understand that in many parts of the world the important variable wasn't what sort of government a country had, but how much governance it had. There was no point dictating the finer points of market liberalization to African states that could barely control their own hinterland. Similarly, Russia suffered a massive crisis of governance that had led to endemic and catastrophic corruption and rent-seeking at the heart of a nuclear superpower.

Fukuyama's thesis hence proved to have a massive problem of emphasis when it came to ascertaining the problems faced by the U.S. after the Cold War – problems which nowadays are more likely to stem from the weakness of states like Afghanistan and Somalia than from strong states. This much was recognized by Fukuyama in his 2004 book State-Building, where he declared that this task was one of the most fundamental facing the international community and lamented the assumption held during the 1990s, especially by economists, that weakening states was the most important task.

Which leads us, inevitably (and rightly!) nowadays, to Iraq. Fukuyama signed a famous letter in 1998 sent by prominent neoconservative intellectuals to President Clinton calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a step which contributed to the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. It was with this Act that regime change in Iraq became the official policy of the U.S. government, but of course Clinton had little intention of implementing it. He passed it to protect his right flank, and then did little about it afterwards.

Fukuyama was long seen as a neoconservative because of his steadfast belief in the universality of U.S. values, and his support for the war in Iraq. Yet he was quick to withdraw this support when the occupation began. Bush’s team in their own way were influenced by Fukuyama’s ideas in their plan for the invasion. Believing steadfastly in the universality of western values, the Bush administration believed that by simply removing Saddam’s regime, they would create the conditions for a pluralistic polity to emerge.

The binary opposition they posited between the Iraqi regime (bad) and Iraqi society (oppressed but good) before the war is clear from any speech you care to examine. Like Fukuyama, they believed that liberal democracy was the only game in town when a people were offered the chance to decide how their society might be organized. They hence did not approach the political transformation in Iraq as a technical problem, requiring the painstaking building of trust, institutions, and norms, but instead merely believed it would all happen automatically. The transformation of Iraq was recast as an entirely military problem – convenient, for the world’s largest military superpower.

Fukuyama decisively broke with the neoconservatives in his 2006 book After the Neocons. Here he suggested that the correct reaction to the fall of the Iron Curtain should have been to happily pocket the gains, thank fate, and move on. The correct reaction was not to go charging around the world trying to bring western values to where they would be decisively rejected. The developments of the last few decades were specific historical events rooted in the conditions of various parts of the world, but the assumption that they were the end of History has sadly, I think, led to a sharp increase in our experience of history with a little 'h' that is likely to last for many decades to come.