European Western Balkans

[EWB Interview] Fukuyama: Populism will not undermine global democracy

Francis Fukuyama; Photo: EWB

EWB Interview with Francis Fukuyama, world-famous political scientist and the author of the book “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992), widely known for claiming that the end of the Cold War left liberal democracy as the only remaining ideology and the final stage of evolution of human societies. The interview was conducted in Sarajevo, after the workshop “Western Balkans – The Future of Integration”, which European Western Balkans organized with support of the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and with the help of Networks and Why Not.

European Western Balkans: You wrote in 1989 and 1992 about the “End of History” and the victory of liberal democracy as the final form of humanity’s social evolution. What do you see as the main challenges to liberal democracy today? You previously mentioned authoritarianism, Islamism, populism…

Francis Fukuyama: There are several different categories. There is a category of an external threat from authoritarian countries like Russia and China, which are large non-democratic entities that are in different ways challenging the global order and also trying to interfere – particularly the Russians – in the internal politics of democracies. You have an internal challenge that expresses itself in terms of populist nationalism, where you have democratically elected leaders who want to undermine the liberal part of liberal democracy, challenge the rule of law, the independence of the courts and the independent media, and try to delegitimate opponents who get in the way of their agendas. You have to step back and look at what is standing behind this challenge, and I think part of that has to do with inequality and the fact that with globalisation there has been a vast increase in the wealth of  countries, and it has not been distributed particularly well. For example, in the United States half of Americans are actually less rich in real terms than they were 20 years ago, because of the deindustrialisation, wages that have not kept up with the cost of living, that sort of thing. That is the core of the support for populist leaders, because they tend to blame the system as a whole and blame the elites for having created this situation.

EWB: Do you believe that populism is a temporary challenge, or perhaps a grave threat to liberal democracy?

FF: It is hard to say. I think that after the elections in Europe earlier this year, in the Netherlands and then in France, the immediate threat seems to have passed, although the underlying sociology means that there is going to be a continued pressure from groups that have been losers from globalisation. But, I do think that democracy is stronger than many people fear, people have a self-interest in keeping this liberal order going. The integration of countries has passed the point where it could be easily reversed. So, I would say that in the long run, it is not going to undermine global democracy.

EWB: Would you perhaps agree that populism could be interpreted as liberal democracy devouring itself, or perhaps “democratic” turning against the “liberal”?

FF: I think that it is the latter. It is using democratic legitimacy to undermine the rule of law in the liberal part of liberal democracy.

EWB: Coming back to authoritarianism, do you believe that states such as Russia and China, and recently Turkey, can offer an alternative model to liberal democracy? This is often highlighted as a serious threat to the Western Balkans, where figures such as Putin and Erdogan have their admirers.

FF: I do think there is a connection between populism and problems in democracies. I think one of the biggest challenges of democracies is having a hard time making difficult decisions. We can see that in terms of infrastructure, budget discipline, a lot of things that create pain for some citizens. Democracies tend to put these decisions off, not be able to come to a consensus over them. This then creates this perception that democratic governments are weak and then you have a demand for strong leadership, for a strongman that will get past all of the squabbling of democratic parliaments. I think this is why you have people like Orban, Putin or Modi in India, and in a certain ways Donald Trump is also a product of that.

EWB: But, do you believe this can be some kind of an alternative long term model?

FF: The problem is that it is not a sustainable model because you really need institutions and long-term solutions that will sustain themselves. If everything depends on just one leader, when that leader dies or leaves office or something happens to him or her, the whole system collapses. That is really the big vulnerability of Russia right now. Putin has created this system that revolves around him. It is basically a government by Putin and his cronies and the moment Putin goes, there is a big power vacuum. All of the other power centres, all of the oligarchs and leadership are all going to be fighting one another for a piece of the Putin Empire, and I think that would mean that Russia could potentially become quite unstable at that point.

EWB: Western Balkan states have all formally become liberal democracies and are moving towards EU membership. However, there is a lack of democratic values, democratic political culture and legitimacy of liberal democracy, and this has led to a democratic backslide in the region. What do you think the reformers in these countries should do to advance liberal democracy?

FF: Culture is not just something that is necessarily given. It is shaped by people. It is also shaped by the apparent success of different models. One of the big problems is that both the United States and the EU suffered this big financial crisis that created slow growth, which led to large unemployment especially for young people, which is still persisting in Western Europe today. Until those problems are resolved, those societies are not going to look successful as models for other people to follow. If you are a local reformer in the Western Balkans, you cannot do very much about that. What you can do is make concrete agenda to solve some of the existing problems. Political reform has to begin with the concrete issues that people want to have resolved and if politically you can bring that about, then you will automatically gain legitimacy that comes from that kind of success.

EWB: What approach to do you think the EU should take? Should it insist on economic reforms and improvements in living standard or perhaps conditioning accession with democratic reforms?

FF: I think that the European Union has a pretty good set of criteria for membership, the accession criteria has been a good benchmark for how countries are to shape their institutions. The problem has been a little bit different. The EU never made provisions for countries that were accepted into the EU but then slid backwards into bad practices – corruption or outright authoritarian government – and that has been going on. There are still high levels of corruption in Romania and Bulgaria, and you have very undemocratic decisions being made in Hungary and Poland, and the EU does not really have a way of disciplining members that stray from that path.

EWB: Do you think that Western Balkan leaders like Vučić in Serbia and until recently Gruevski in Macedonia are following the same trends you can see in other parts of Europe such as Hungary and Poland? Do you think there are similarities between these regimes?

FF: Yes, I do think there are similarities. They are all democratically elected and they used their mandates to accumulate key power. That it basically the story. I am watching Donald Trump, it seems to me that there is not a handbook of how to become an authoritarian leader that all authoritarians read and learn. It comes naturally that they do not care that much about the rule of law and about checks and balances. They simply want to stay in power, so they are thinking to themselves “How am I going to stay in power – well, I have to attack the media if they are critical of me. If transparency is hurting my interests, than we clamp down on transparency. If the court systems are standing in my way or in the way of things that I want to do, if the courts are going after me and my friends, then I have to get rid of the courts.” The authoritarianism is simply a natural outgrowth of the desire to consolidate power and to keep power.

EWB: Western, and especially American state-building efforts in the Western Balkans have frequently been criticized as unsuccessful, with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo frequently being labelled as “failed states”. How do you see the results of American state-building in the region?

FF: I do not think that the American state-building has been terribly successful anywhere. That is not necessarily the fault of the United States. Foreign powers, in general, have limited capacity to build states. We can give money and advice on creating a national police force or an army or finance ministry, we can provide technical support, but what is important for a state is legitimacy. If people do not believe in the legitimacy of the state authority then it is not going to be successful. That is something that an outside power has trouble doing.

EWB: It is especially the lack of cohesion between the ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo that seems to be the problem and this is precisely what has been criticized when it comes to US policy. Do you believe that this unity between ethnic groups and nation-building can come from above?

FF: I think that most previous nation-building exercises were a combination of top-down and bottom-up. Part of the bottom-up process is kind of spontaneous generation of national culture – it comes from poets, musicians and writers that create a national language that people understand. But, part of it requires political power, because you have to have a narrative about what your nation is and what it represents. You have to teach that to your children and it has to be absorbed in a kind of uniform way as a sort of national culture, and that is something that requires a more top-down approach. If you look at a successful nation-building in the past, it is the combination of both of these that makes it successful.

EWB: Talking about nationalism, how do you see the role of nationalism in the 21st century? It still seems to be a basis of legitimacy of legitimacy of modern nation-states, but it also a threat to liberal democracy, as we can see on a daily basis in the Western Balkans.

FF: There is good nationalism and there is bad nationalism. All countries need a national identity. They have to have a way of communicating and cooperating. People have to believe that they live in the same basic political community if it is going to be stable. On the other hand, if nationalism is based on ethnicity or religion or some other characteristic that is not voluntary, then it can become narrow and exclusionary, and it can also become aggressive, where you are not just protecting your own identity, but you are actually forcing it on other people. That has been the big contest between these positive and negative forms of national identity, and unfortunately, in the Balkans it is the negative form that has been dominant for much of this region’s history.

EWB: Creating national unity seems to be on the biggest problems the EU faces. You mentioned that you basically see the EU as a model of the democracy in the 21st century. How do you see the European project? Can it survive, can it succeed and can it really represent a role model for the 21st century?

FF: I think that it is certainly going to survive, and in fact, it is still out there as an important role model, but it really does need to reform itself in certain ways. It needs to create stronger centralised institutions, because in foreign and economic policies if it does not have that mobility to control budgets and to speak with a single voice, it is simply not going to be an effective institution.

EWB: Coming back to the Western Balkans, we have recently seen an escalation of a crisis in relations between Russia and the West. Do you believe the Western Balkans can become some kind of a playground or a location of a proxy war? Many scholars warn about this danger. Do you consider this region to be under threat from this scenario?

FF: It is certainly possible. The Russians have already moved in a certain way to a wartime footing. They think that they are in a long-term conflict with both the EU and the United States. If we are not careful, it can escalate into an actual conflict. Certainly, what they are doing in the cyber realm is virtually a declaration of war and they are interfering in basic democratic institutions in other countries.

EWB: Let this be the final question. After 25 years from your most famous book “The End of History and the Last Man”, do you still believe in the “End of History” and the victory of liberal democracy?

FF: I do not see an alternative to liberal democracy for advanced countries. I do not see how an alternative political system is actually going to make people happier or in the long-run be more sustainable or successful. However, I do think it is hard to maintain a modern liberal democracy. One of the issues I have not really taken into account 25 years ago is the possibility of political decay and the erosion of democratic institutions. I think you are now seeing that, including in the United States.

This article has been produced with the support of the Balkan Trust for Democracy. The content of this article and the opinions expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the portal European Western Balkans and in no way reflect the views and opinions of the Balkan Trust for Democracy nor the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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