March 24, 2022   10 mins

Francis Fukuyama helped define how we understand contemporary history in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. His new book, Liberalism and its Discontents, is a trenchant defence of an ideology under attack. Freddie Sayers spoke to Dr Fukuyama about the war in Ukraine, current trends in Western democracy, and how liberalism can better understand aspects of the human condition it has historically neglected.


Some people are seeing this war as further evidence of the demise of the liberal world order; you seem to see in it an opportunity?

Vladimir Putin is at the centre of a global anti-liberal campaign waged by authoritarian great powers like Russia and China, but also by a number of populists that have arisen in democratic countries, like Viktor OrbĂĄn in Hungary or our Donald Trump. Putin said very explicitly that he thought liberalism was an obsolete doctrine. And a lot of conservatives in the United States have actually (they’re backing away from it now) said they like Putin; they like the idea of a strongman that could cut through all the liberal nonsense they saw going on in their societies. With this invasion of another democratic country, Putin has created a certain amount of moral clarity. The biggest advantage of a liberal state is the fact that it’s not authoritarian. It’s not a dictatorship; it doesn’t kill people; it doesn’t invade neighbours. Putin’s demonstrated what the alternative to liberalism is.

So you see in this war the possibility of “a new birth of freedom”. What do you mean by that?

Well, I think that our liberal democracies have gotten very complacent over the last 30 years. After the fall of the former Soviet Union, we had this extended period of peace and prosperity. And I think that especially younger people who grew up in that world, where they didn’t experience either the violent conflict of the twentieth century, or the dictatorship of a communist regime, began to take liberal democracy for granted. They assumed that this was simply the way the world was, and nobody could threaten that. And as a result, they weren’t willing to actively defend democracy where it was under threat. And I think that’s one of the reasons that Putin thought that he could get away with this invasion: because he thought that the United States is internally very divided, that Europe really doesn’t believe in much of anything anymore. One of the nice things that has happened is the unity that’s been expressed within the Nato alliance, especially in Germany, where they basically revised 40 years of Ostpolitik.

But the reality is that it’s a nationalist battle, isn’t it? 

I don’t think you can be in favour of liberal democracy unless it’s embedded in a nation. I don’t think there’s an abstraction called “liberal democracy” that people fight on behalf of; they fight for liberal institutions in their country, and they fight as a result of national pride, and because they like the institutions. I remember distinctly — I’ve been to Ukraine many times since 2013 — walking around Maidan Square: you feel like you’re in a free society because people can come and go as they wish, they can criticise the government, they can vote for opposition parties. There was a freedom that you could experience in Ukraine prior to this invasion that you couldn’t experience in Russia. That’s really what made Ukrainian nationhood different from Russian nationhood: Russians had to live with this centralised dictatorship and Ukrainians could live with a very similar culture, but in a free society.

Is there an outcome where, while the West becomes more assertive, it continues on the road of becoming essentially less liberal — because it’s more effective to assert your competitive advantage in a more Chinese or East Asian-style society?

No, I think that the real alternative is to correct some of — what I would regard as — the excesses of liberalism that have driven some of the opposition to liberalism itself, and I think that exists both on the Right and the Left. It has nothing to do with accommodating a more Chinese type of regime. But really the important choices are within what we’ve understood to be the liberal tradition, and I think that’s true on both the Right and the Left. On the Right, you had a kind of economic liberalism that evolved into what’s now called neoliberalism, which was a kind of worship of the market and a denigration of the state, which led to a kind of globalisation that put economic efficiency above all other social goods and led to a big increase in inequality. Globally, it led to a deterioration of a lot of public services; everything was just seen to be an expression of private interest. That needs to be walked back. On the Right, you had a vast expansion of the idea of personal autonomy. One of the good things about a liberal society is that it protects personal autonomy, but our autonomy is not unlimited. We are creatures that want community: we want to share values with other people. When you have a liberalism that is like an acid that destroys any prior sense of community: that’s something people don’t really like. When it undermines a sense of nation, and the ability to feel patriotic: that’s a problem liberal societies have had.

One example of this is the debate around free speech, which you observe has become more problematic in the past few years. Do you now see that being able to be reversed?

Some of the biggest threats to free speech are not actually those that are being done by governments, particularly governments in the democratic world. The real problem is a private one. Big internet platforms like Google and Facebook have been amplifying material that is toxic — often conspiracy theories — because what they’re primarily interested in is not the broader democratic community. They care about their bottom lines. A big concentration of private power has contributed to the toxicity of a lot of the discourse in modern democracies. And it leads to these real conundra, because there’s then a call for the government to regulate their activity. So in Germany, they have the NetzdG law that criminalises publishing false or fake news. And that’s where you get into real danger, because it’s not clear that the government is the right regulator of that kind of activity. But it’s not clear either that these large platforms should simply be allowed to make these determinations on their own. Right now, for people on the Left, the leaders of Google and Facebook are sympathetic to their agenda. But imagine if a Rupert Murdoch takes over Facebook, or some equivalent character on the Right, and has that kind of power to amplify certain messages and suppress others.

One of the deeper themes in your work that stretches right back to the End of History — you talk about the Greek word thymos in that book — is that there’s something about polite, liberal democracy in its perfected sense that doesn’t answer some deep questions in the human soul. Do you now think we are predisposed to prefer war to peace in some way?

Not under all circumstances. But there is something that drives us in that direction. Thymos is usually translated into English as spiritedness. You could call it pride, or the demand for respect or recognition. And I think that a great deal of politics is really not about contest over material goods, it’s really a contest over respect. So you think about something like gay marriage or the Me Too movement, these are fundamentally dignity issues where gays and lesbians want to have their unions celebrated as having equal status to heterosexual unions, or women want to be treated with the same respect as men. And this is not really governed by economic calculations. It’s governed by a different kind of desire that oftentimes works at cross-purposes. If you think about what’s going on in populist politics: this kind of demand for respect was very much driving the whole upwelling of voters that voted for Brexit and voted for Donald Trump. It’s really the more educated, more cosmopolitan people living in big cities like London, or New York, or San Francisco, that tended to vote for progressive parties, and then people living in smaller communities in the countryside with more traditional values that voted for populists. There’s an economic division there. But there’s also a respect division, because those more educated people tended to look down on the others that didn’t share their particular kind of cosmopolitan worldview. And a politician like Donald Trump was quite brilliant in understanding how much resentment there was, and could play on those resentments. That’s defined a lot of our politics in recent years.

You don’t actually differ that dramatically from some of the more populist thinkers — only while they felt these impulses were virtues or important things that needed to be accommodated, you seem to think they are dangers. Is that fair?

No, I don’t think that’s right. I think that any human striving depends on this sense of pride. This is true at an individual level. If you didn’t want to be recognised as a great pianist, or a great writer, or baseball player, or football player, or whatever, you probably wouldn’t strive for excellence. All of us want the attention and the respect that comes with great human achievement. But the greatest criminals in the world are driven by that desire to stand out. Donald Trump realised that he could be noticed by everybody for saying completely outrageous things that didn’t make any sense in a more narrowly rational way, but they excited people and it got him attention. This desire for respect and recognition is the basis of good behaviour and it’s the basis of bad behaviour. But it doesn’t fall within the economic calculus associated with classical liberalism.

What about the instinct to want to belong to a culture that you recognise as your own, and that you feel at home in. Is that something that the liberal world needs to accommodate better?

It really depends on what that community is based on. In today’s world, if you simply base it on race, or ethnicity, or on a single religion, it isn’t going to work — because our societies today are too diverse, really, to have a single point of reference. But people have a very deep social instinct: they want to have something in common, they want to conform to social norms, they believe in their national identity. And I think the key trick is to make that national identity compatible with liberal values. So it should be based on things that can be accepted by people regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity. That kind of community is going to be thinner than one that’s based on a single, let’s say, religious belief. But I think that it can still be built. The classic one was the Republican community coming out of the French Revolution: it was based on the French language, literary tradition, even a culinary tradition. Someone like LĂ©opold Senghor, the great Senegalese poet, could be taken into the AcadĂ©mie Française because, despite the fact that he’s a black man, he writes beautiful French. That’s my understanding of what a liberal national identity is. You need that identity, but it also needs to be an open and accessible one that accommodates the actual diversity that exists in your society.

So you’re arguing for a pushing back of some of the excesses of liberalism: less ultra-individualism, more of a sense of community, a sense of virtue. In a European context, you’re sounding like a conservative.

If to be a European conservative means that you still believe in the importance of nations, then I would probably categorise myself that way. You need nations, for very pragmatic reasons. The nation is the repository of legitimate violence, basically. This is the old Max Weber understanding of what a state is: a legitimate monopoly of force. And right now, there isn’t an alternative to the nation as a locus of power that is, at the same time, controlled by institutions like the rule of law, and democratic accountability. Therefore, you’re going to have to deal with a world of nations. The European Union sought to get beyond that. In theory, you could have created a federated Europe that behaved more like an actual nation, but what you ended up with was something that wasn’t really that. And when push came to shove, like during the Euro crisis, it fell apart it. There wasn’t that sense of European solidarity between, let’s say, Greeks and Germans.

In this latest book you discuss the preconditions for a confident liberal democracy — its institutions, its rule of law. Are you worried that confidence has now gone in Western countries?

I worry about that more in the United States than in most parts of Europe, because our polarisation has become really intense, to the point where a lot of people on the Republican Right are willing to actually abandon some really important aspects of institutionalised democracy: a pretty strong majority of Republican voters believe that the 2020 election was fraudulent, based simply on a manufactured lie by one person. That’s a really big threat. Liberalism does not accommodate all forms of diversity. If you have a particular party or force or political movement within your society that rejects some of the foundational principles of liberalism, you can’t deal with that. And I think we do face that kind of threat in the United States. It’s ironic, because the United States was always seen as the ur-liberal country. But actually, it’s safer in most parts of Europe, where there’s a greater degree of political consensus.

So does that mean you’re less optimistic about the future for the US?

There are scenarios for the 2024 election that could be very, very nasty, and involve actual violence. I hope it doesn’t come to that. But I think it’s a real danger that, as an American citizen, I’m quite worried about.

Your phrase, “the end of history” is constantly quoted back at you, but it quite accurately describes a period of history. What are we to call the next period that’s coming?

I don’t know what it’s going to look like. A lot of it will depend on the outcome of this war in Ukraine. Because if Putin, who has been so central to the anti-liberal world order, succeeds, then that period is going to look much more authoritarian. On the other hand, if he’s humiliated, forced to back down, then it’s going to look much better for liberal societies around the world. But even if the latter materialises, and he is forced to back down, there are plenty of other illiberal forces out there in the world. There’s China, which is a bigger challenge in a sense, because they’re a more powerful country, and more successful in many ways than Russia has been. There’s all the Venezuelas and Irans and Syrias — these would-be authoritarian or actually authoritarian countries that have ambitions. There’s going to be plenty of struggle left, even if we win this one in Ukraine in the short run.

And your bet, for the record, is that we are going to win that one in some form?

The only reason I think liberalism is going to survive all of this the history of the last 300 years. Liberalism arose after the European Wars of Religion because people realised that fighting over which sect of Christianity you followed was not worth it, and therefore we should have religious toleration. It then got challenged by the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And after those two bloody world wars, people again said, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t be fighting over which nation is dominant, maybe we should come up with a more tolerant system.” And we’ve now gone through another cycle where we have taken liberal principles for granted. And now people are striving for more. So maybe we have to go through another cycle of witnessing the alternatives to liberalism, before we come back to saying, “Oh, well, maybe, tolerating diversity is not such a bad thing after all.” It’s not as bad a cycle as the previous ones. Maybe we might get a little bit inoculated by what Putin has done in Europe.

It’s like a necessary war of some kind?

I hate to say that any war is necessary. But that’s the way it’s worked out in prior centuries of human history.

Francis Fukuyama is a political scientist and the author of The End of History and the Last Man (1992). His new book, Liberalism and its Discontents, is available now.