Francis Fukuyama and the Return to the Past
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Francis Fukuyama and the Return to the Past

The author of the classic work "The End of History" was compelled to revise his opinion: Francis Fukuyama sees gloomy times ahead. Populism is threatening political institutions and the global economy will suffer. In a new era for democracy and macroeconomics, is there any hope for the future?

Mr. Fukuyama, you are considered one of the foremost political commentators on current events. What do you think of the world today?

I'm afraid we find ourselves in a precarious situation. We are coming out of a decades-long period in which a liberal, international world order took shape. It was very successful, based on free and open economic regions and on liberal democracy as the form of government. These achievements have been under attack for around a decade, and the pace has picked up in the last few years.

Where is that discernible?

On the one hand, in authoritarian regimes that vigorously assert themselves and promote undemocratic ideas. On the other hand, populism is raising its head in many Western democracies. I include the Brexit referendum here and the parties now governing Hungary, Poland and other Eastern European countries. But populism is also reaching Germany and France, and I would place our president here in the United States in this category too.

Most of these politicians were democratically elected. Why do they nevertheless pose a danger to the rights of the people?

They are skeptical of institutions and want to take power away from them. Furthermore, they categorize people according to ethnicity or religion or race. In India, the ruling BJP defines the country as Hindu – despite the fact that far more than 150 million Muslims live there. There are these currents in the Middle East as well, where Islamic parties regard religion as a means to define the political agenda in their favor.

What effect does this have on the global economy?

These people are economic nationalists. If the protectionism that they often threaten becomes a reality, it will have bad economic consequences. This is where we are now.

In one essay, you compare the current situation with the time after 1930, the period leading up to World War II. Isn't that somewhat exaggerated?

I'm not saying it will end up as it did then. Fascism and war were possible because democracy in Germany was still quite young – it had only existed since 1919. Our institutions today are on a solid footing. But I do think there will be an erosion of democratic norms. And the risk for the global economy is real.

But the economy is booming at an almost unprecedented level.

The current changes are still relatively fresh; just wait a while longer. But you are right insofar as the United States is now in its ninth year of growth since the financial crisis. According to all indicators, we are doing very well. Nevertheless, Donald Trump was elected with the claim that the American economy was in ruins.

Francis Fukuyama

But there is a common thread. It is the rejection of what the populists mean by globalism: the open, connected world and international institutions.

Francis Fukuyama

There's a difference between macroeconomic considerations and the fate of the individual.

That's true. Not everyone benefited from the upturn. In the more prosperous countries, many people, and specifically older people, lost their jobs when production was outsourced to poorer countries. But the cultural dimension is also important: Almost every Western country has experienced an unprecedented wave of immigration in the past ten to fifteen years. This comes as a shock to many citizens, and they fear that their national identity is being lost. This is especially the case for people from what was the middle class, who increasingly bear the brunt of it.

Populist parties are currently attracting support from young voters as well. Why?

Many of the countries in eastern Europe have relatively young population structures; most people were born after the Wall fell, and they haven't experienced communism or dictators. These young people have no appreciation for the European Union and democracy. In the United States as well, studies show that the younger generation generally have less faith in democracy than their parents do. This worries me.

There is also the theory that here in the west, "democracy fatigue" prevails because the systems are sluggish and inefficient. Do you agree?

Yes. The rise of the populists can certainly be linked to the fact that our democracies have not always produced such good results – I'm thinking here of the US, of Italy, Japan or India. In all of these countries, the result is a longing for the "strong man." Somebody who takes charge and cleans house.

Would somewhat less popular participation and a bit more technocracy, à la Singapore, be a possibility for western countries?

Somewhat more technocracy would certainly be good. Unfortunately, the populists mostly tend in a different direction: They corrupt the quality of their governments and appoint their friends and loyalists to positions of power.

Is there a concept that will replace globalization?

If you listen to certain politicians, their answer is clear: nationalism. It is a return to the past. Granted, it's not an international movement, like communism in its day, because each country has its own past and uses that to orient itself. But there is a common thread. It is the rejection of what the populists mean by globalism: the open, connected world and international institutions.

You became world-famous in 1992 with your book "The End of History." There, you put forward the thesis that the principles of liberalism, namely democracy and the market economy, will ultimately prevail everywhere. How has your view of the world changed since then?

I later wrote a two-volume book about the political world, in an effort to revise "The End of History and the Last Man." There are a few fundamentally new things, for example the concept of political disintegration. I am now much more aware that democracies can also regress. And I have a greater understanding of how fragile modern states are. History shows how unbelievably difficult it was to create our nation states. But it is much easier to destroy them. This was not as clear to me 25 years ago as it is today.