It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Francis Fukuyama one of the most important thinkers in America. He’s a rare triple threat in public-intellectual life — maintaining high appointments in academe, producing popular books and magazine writing consumed by the chattering classes, and advising American presidents and foreign leaders directly. He combines expertise and influence with breadth: He’s worked on questions as imperial as American grand strategy and as delicate and abstract as bioethics. He’s most famous for The End of History and the Last Man, whose perennially misunderstood title is often jeered, but which defined a decade’s thinking about the post–Cold War world order and globalization.
His latest book is Origins of Political Order, which traces a single story through several millennia and dozens of different cultures, empires, and societies — the story of how man emerged from tribal structures into a modern state. Fukuyama talks with NRO’s Matthew Shaffer, about the book and how his thinking about world order and America’s place in it has changed over the last 20 years.
FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: This really started with a practical concern I had after dealing with failed states and nation-building issues in the wake of September 11 and our nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It seemed to me that the United States in particular didn’t appreciate the difficulty of this kind of activity, because we didn’t adequately understand how hard it was to establish institutions. When I was at Johns Hopkins at SAIS [School of Advanced International Studies] I ran an international-development program, focusing on issues of anti-corruption and improving governance. And a lot of it seemed premised on an overly optimistic faith in the ability of outsiders to effect desired outcomes. So I decided to write a book about where institutions came from in countries that had them and could take them for granted. We’ve forgotten a lot of that history and how we’ve gotten to the present. Along the way it was also a means of revisiting a lot of The End of History 20 years later.
SHAFFER: Some theorists, like Hegel, think that history doesn’t just tell us what is stable, or what works, but actually points us toward moral progress. Do you believe that?
FUKUYAMA: Fundamentally, I believe in liberal democracy, that it’s the best form of government, and that the world has made moral progress. But that’s a separate question from whether the development of democratic institutions is inevitable and driven by an underlying historical force. I’ve become more skeptical of that latter belief over the years as I’ve become more attentive to the role of accident and contingency. And my current book is about a lot of that. For example: The reason we got to democracy in Europe is the almost accidental survival of a feudal institution — the English parliament — into the modern period. That’s something that didn’t happen in other European countries, and which we therefore can’t take for granted. So, as you see, the normative concern is separate from the empirical question of whether democracy is inevitable.
SHAFFER: Origins incorporates economics, anthropology, philosophy, and social psychology, for lessons about political order. Is that kind of study too rare today?
FUKUYAMA: This is partly the fault of the structure of academia. There’s such a premium placed on specialization and narrowness that it’s very hard to think more broadly and to cross disciplinary boundaries. I work at Stanford in an interdisciplinary institute, and I’ve been associated with these kinds of outfits for most of my years. And those are where the most interesting research gets done.
SHAFFER: What field outside of political science has the most important insights for understanding political order?
FUKUYAMA: That’s hard to say. I don’t know if there is one. Part of the problem is economics — it’s a very important discipline, but in a way it’s colonized the rest of the social sciences. A lot of political analysis in academia is driven by this model of everybody being a rational decision maker driven by more or less material interests. There’s obviously something to that, but it’s a very limited way of looking about politics, which is about dignity and values and ideas that can’t be explained in material terms. Other disciplines — sociology and anthropology — have gotten at those things better than economics has.