Francis Fukuyama: What liberalism gets right (and wrong)

The political scientist says the war in Ukraine shows that liberalism, even with its flaws, needs to be defended

March 28, 2022
Francis Fukuyama in 2017. Credit: © Djurdja Padejski
Francis Fukuyama in 2017. Credit: © Djurdja Padejski

Francis Fukuyama is one of the world’s best-known thinkers. He first came to public attention with his essay The End of History? (1989), which later became his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. It was a thorough defence of the liberal democratic order that many thought was the inevitable future for the world after the Cold War. Fukuyama’s new book Liberalism and Its Discontents (Profile) specifically argues that liberalism—though imperfect—is still the best way for a society to thrive. He spoke to Sameer Rahim on 22nd March at the Prospect offices in London about the Ukraine crisis, liberalism under threat and why it’s hard to go to the barricades with calls for moderation. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sameer Rahim: I’ve got to start with Ukraine and Russia. Did you see the invasion coming?

Francis Fukuyama: I didn’t see this large-scale invasion coming. I've been going to Ukraine for the last seven years, because right after the seizure of Crimea [in 2014], I and a number of colleagues felt that Ukraine was the frontline in a growing global war between authoritarianism and democracy. And we wanted to help Ukraine. We've been running a bunch of leadership programmes there. So we’ve got lots of Ukrainian graduates of these programmes trapped there now. Ukraine will determine the post-Cold War European order. Putin wants Ukraine, but he also wants to dismantle the democracies that have arisen out of the former Warsaw Pact. That’s the larger thing at stake right now. I knew that he was a big risk taker; that he’d take this big and evidently foolish risk, is something I really didn't anticipate.

SR: After the Cold War, there was a sense of triumphalism in the west, triumphalism that has been—fairly or unfairly—associated with your name. Was there a point at which Russia could have been brought into the community of western nations, could have joined Nato, could have become a liberal state? Could we have done anything better?

FF: Well, this gets into the whole discussion about whether what’s happened to Ukraine is in some sense the fault of the United States and other countries that pushed to expand Nato. I participated in that debate at the time and I didn’t believe that story because Russian unhappiness isn’t just about Ukraine; it’s really about the whole way that the Soviet Union fell apart. And Putin has been very explicit about that. He made this famous statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union is the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.

I personally thought that it was mistaken, at the Bucharest summit in 2008, to offer Nato membership to Georgia and Ukraine. The reason was not that it would piss off Russia, but that the essence of Nato is the Article Five guarantee, and you have to be realistic about who you can protect and I just didn’t think that was a commitment that we could fulfil. And quite frankly, if we had let them in, we’d be at war with Russia right now. But I don't think that that fundamentally knocked Russia off of the illiberal course that it’s been following.

SR: In the 1990s Russia got a form of economic liberalism but without the liberal institutions to check or control it.

FF: So that was a genuine policy mistake driven by a bunch of free-market economists. There was a belief that markets would be self-generating—that you didn’t actually have to have an institutional framework in which markets operated, and that they would just arise spontaneously if you dismantled the old central planning system. This completely ignored the role of the state in making a market economy possible. You have to have enforceable property rights, you have to have transparency, you have to have means of resolving disputes, a legal system, and none of that existed at the time. The path that the Chinese took, where they liberalised, but in a much more cautious way without dismantling the whole state apparatus, in the end proved to be a much wiser course. And so, in that respect, I do think we made a lot of mistakes, and we were giving Russia some pretty bad advice.

SR: Putin says that liberalism is obsolete and not for his kind of people. But you’ve got Ukraine, culturally very similar, moving in a more liberal direction.

FF: That’s just what the war is all about. Ukraine never ever posed a security threat to Russia. But it did pose a big political threat, because Putin’s argument was that a Slavic people culturally didn't fit democracy. And here you had Ukraine just next door that were a Slavic people that were actually making democracy work—not perfectly, but they were making it work. And I think that then raises the question, “Well, why not in Russia?”

SR: You hear people in the west say Ukraine is fighting our battle—fighting for liberalism and fighting for democracy. How true is that? Or is it really them defending their nation?

FF: Well, look, I think it’s a meaningless distinction. Everybody that fights for a set of values, fights for it as embodied in a specific country. You know, nobody fights for the abstract principles of liberalism. They care about being an independent country. But I think that many Ukrainians, certainly all the ones I know, also take pride in the fact that they are a free country.

SR: Is it worrying that some non-western nations, for example India, have been much less willing to condemn Russia?

FF: It’s true in many other places as well, I was just in the Balkans where there was a lot of sympathy for Putin. A friend of mine from Tunisia, was saying that many people in North Africa say, well, the United States invaded Iraq… The Iraq war was really a disaster because it did discredit democracy and people now associate democracy promotion with military invasion. And in many ways, it gave rise to Trump’s populism because it wasn't a popular war in the United States, either. It discredited the elites, the internationalist elites that promulgated it, so we’re paying a heavy price for that mistake.

SR: Turning to America, since 2008, there’s been a welter of books critiquing liberalism. A left critique talking about how liberalism—or neoliberalism—has ignored solidarity and inequality. And a right-wing critique, saying it’s too diverse and enforces a coercive ultra-liberalism. What do they get right in those critiques? And what do they get wrong?

FF: I spent two chapters in the book critiquing neoliberalism myself. By neoliberalism, I mean a very specific interpretation of economic liberalism, represented by people like Milton Friedman and the whole Chicago school that became a kind of ideology that denigrated the state and thought that markets would be the solution to virtually every social problem. That was a mistake because inequality was allowed to grow very rapidly in this period. Certain countries like China benefited greatly, but it also hurt the interests of a lot of working-class people, especially in the rich democratic world, and it laid the basis for the populist revolt. There’s a lot of other things you can critique about it—the underlying model of human behaviour based on self-interest, because that’s actually not accurate about the way people live their lives. They’re much more social creatures than that… market economies need to be regulated, and regulated pretty strictly.

SR: And the right’s argument about ultra-liberalism?

FF: There’s several different things in that critique, some of which are much more plausible than others. In the United States pollsters continue to show a very large support for immigration. You wouldn’t think that from all the rhetoric coming from people like Trump, but people are basically happy with it. What they don't like is the uncontrolled nature of it and I think this is true in Europe as well, where there’s more resistance to immigration on cultural grounds. But what really scared people was a million Syrians showing up in the middle of Europe, in 2014/15. And similarly, I think a lot of the opposition in the United States has to do with the fact that we don't control the border. And, you know, we don't know how many undocumented immigrants there are, and so forth. The other one is something I wrote about in my last book, Identity, which is the cultural resentment of people who feel that they are being disrespected and looked down upon by well-educated, cosmopolitan elites. That’s virtually everywhere. Look at the rhetoric of Viktor Orbán or the Law and Justice party in Poland, it's a very similar social phenomenon.

SR: Tim Garton Ash wrote a piece for us in Prospect, which is referenced in your book. He came up with this formulation that we need to be conservative-socialist-liberals—we need to take account of both these critiques.

FF: I've actually discussed this with him. Because he talks about the need for equally distributed respect. And I’m not sure that any society can actually equally distribute respect, because, you know, there just are certain virtues that it’s going to have to recognise. Not everybody has them. Your former editor David Goodhart has made a very similar kind of case that there is this sort of lack of respect for ordinary people that many liberals express and is something that's bitterly resented.

SR: Related to that there have been a few critiques of meritocracy recently, from Michael Sandel and Daniel Markovits. They're saying that the pressures that a meritocratic society places on people causes huge amounts of stress. Do you think there’s any merit in those arguments?

FF: A lot of those critiques can be overdrawn. What Adrian Wooldridge was arguing [in The Aristocracy of Talent], which I agree with, is that meritocracy was the way that you broke down class barriers. It allowed a kind of striving, smart middle-class person to break into the elite. It’s really at the basis of Chinese culture—these tiger mothers. I live in Palo Alto, California in the heart of Silicon Valley. In Cupertino, I believe that something like 60 per cent of the families are either East Asian or South Asian. And you look at the schools, and they're completely dominated by people who have a cultural preference for putting a lot of effort into education and, as a result, they do tremendously well.

We have this problem in Palo Alto, there have been a lot of high school suicides because—almost all Chinese kids, you know, whose mothers are pushing them so hard. So you can you can overdo it. And even in China, Xi Jinping has told everybody to relax a little bit and not work so hard.

SR: Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, argues that liberalism doesn't offer answers to the big questions.

FF: That’s a feature, not a bug. Liberalism arose because people couldn't agree on the purpose of life as defined by religion. Adrian Vermeule, a Harvard law professor, just published a book called Common Good Constitutionalism. He thinks that you can somehow define the common good in a way that will achieve general consensus within a society as diverse as the United States. As a conservative Catholic, his idea of the common good aligns with those values. It’s just ridiculous—you’re not going to get consensus over something like that in today’s America. That kind of conservatism is nostalgic for a period when they imagine that there was all this religious consensus. But even back then I don't think it really existed.

SR: But at what point do people become too separate in the sense that they can no longer have conversations? Alasdair MacIntyre predicted that we would no longer be able to debate because we all started from different premises.

FF: The point at which identity politics goes wrong is when it becomes a kind of essential characteristic where the first and most important thing you know about somebody is their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and not what they believe, or who they are as individual. And I think that that’s a very dangerous road to go down. Because one of the fundamental assumptions of liberalism is that we judge people as individuals so this kind of group essentialism, I think, you know, really violates that basic principle.

SR: The other argument is that a group like African Americans have had structural disadvantages because of their race so they need extra group rights to counterbalance that.

FF: I don’t think that it’s possible to be categorically opposed to affirmative action because what you’ve just said is correct. Every African American person does have disadvantages relative to other racial groups. Every spring [at Stanford] we go through this process of admitting people to various programmes we run, and we’ve been trying to promote diversity. And I don’t apologise for that. If you take a black person from an underprivileged background, they’re simply not going to have the same kinds of recommendations and grades and qualifications that somebody in a more privileged social position is going to have. If you simply base who you admit to Stanford on grades and test scores, the entire freshman class would come from China. And you don’t want a class that looks like that. You do want diversity and you want some balance in terms of backgrounds and so forth. But it can’t just be rigid adherence to quotas and so forth.

SR: The chapter you talk about self-actualisation traces the idea back to Rousseau. The idea that you need to throw off the shackles of society and allow that person to be whoever they want to be.

FF: Well, I really think that this quest for unending autonomy needs to be moderated a bit. It’s based on this assumption that, you know, everybody is basically a Van Gogh or a Beethoven but it’s all just being suppressed. And if you just allow this to come out, you’ll have this huge flourishing of creativity. And the truth of the matter is actually not everybody’s like that. People want to be part of communities. And the way that you enter a community is you follow the community’s rules. I’m not sure that actually people are made happier by being told that they are endlessly free to self-create and be whoever they want to be.

SR: Do you think that sometimes we ask too much of liberalism?

FF: That’s right. It’s a weakness of liberalism. It doesn’t generate a kind of strong, bonded community—that’s what a theocracy or an ethno-nationalist culture can provide people. But, you know, there are downsides to those kinds of communities as well. But I do think it’s something where you can fight back. And I think that’s kind of an important lesson the Ukrainians are teaching us right now: that you don’t have to accept the inevitability of this dictatorship.