An interview with Francis Fukuyama pt2: On the pandemic, US-China relations, and more

Francis Fukuyama was born into a Japanese American family and speaks several European languages. He writes for readers in the West and has no qualms about not identifying with the Japanese community.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By WANG Qing


Thirty years after “The End of History?” Fukuyama is still constantly asked, Does ‘such and such’ event disprove your theory?” Fukuyama says that by “history” he means the modernization process, including the evolution of political institutions. “The end” refers to where the process leads to. “Is there another model for a fully modern society that is not a liberal democracy? ...For the last 30 years I have argued that the only plausible alternative is China,” he said.

Fukuyama was born into a Japanese American family and speaks several European languages. But he rarely speaks Japanese and seems indifferent to his Japanese ethnicity. He writes for readers in the West and has no qualms about not identifying with the Japanese community.

His political standing is equally fluid. He was once the face of neoconservatism, which advocates interventionism in international affairs, but the war in Iraq and Afghanistan made him rethink many of his old beliefs.

The interview has been trimmed and edited.


Jiemian News: Many people died of Covid19 in Europe and the United State. Some argue that western governments could have done better in terms of dealing with the pandemic. What are the root causes behind those failures?

Fukuyama: I don't think you can generalize about western governments. Some of them have done very poorly, and others have done well. Most of Scandinavia, Germany, and Australia had it under pretty good control. Other countries, I think, were taken by surprise.

Why did Italy suffer so much in the early days? I think it was just a matter of bad luck that the virus got its start there before anybody really realized that you needed to act quickly to quarantine people and enforce social distancing. But they've not done badly in terms of vaccinating their population and controlling it in the later stages.

The countries, I think, that did worst were those with populist leaders: the United States under Donald Trump, Brazil under Bolsonaro, Mexico under Lopez Obrador. In each of those cases, you had a leader who didn't want to recognize the threat that the virus posed to their society and therefore didn't take the kinds of public health measures that were needed.

In the United States, this was not as bad as it could have been because a lot of the authority over public health is not exercised by the president, it's exercised at the state level. In California, they acted quickly and did a lot better. But in other states, they really messed things up.

They think that the government is controlled by elites that are out to get ordinary people, and that's led to very bad responses. That's really what's behind a lot of the opposition to vaccines in these countries.  No democracy could have done what China did in terms of state control over things like testing, vaccinations, and social distancing. Democracies have restrictions that seek to protect individual rights but even given that, the performance really differed from one democracy to another.

Jiemian News: So, what are the key factors that make one country successful in fighting the pandemic and another less so?

Fukuyama: Well, I think there are really three. One has to do with the degree of social trust that exists in the country. Do people trust the government to do the right thing most of the time? And that's an area where not just China, but all of the countries in East Asia do pretty well. There is a kind of respect for government and for the state that is less common in western countries. But there is also social trust because if people don't trust each other, they're not going to take the measures that are necessary to protect other people. Both horizontal and vertical trust is important.

The second factor is state capacity. Poor countries don't have enough doctors, clinics, and nurses. There is no infrastructure that can distribute vaccines. If you don't have that capacity, you're not going to be able to deal with a public health emergency.

I would say the final factor is the one we just talked about - leadership. If you have a leader who is incompetent, corrupt, or just believes in crazy things, you're not going to do so well.

And then there are things like geography. If you live on an island, it's much easier to control people coming in and out than if you live in a country with a long land border with other countries. But I would say that trust, state capacity, and leadership are the key qualities.

Jiemian News: Your book, The End of History, was quite famous but widely misinterpreted in the media. Could you tell our audience in China what you meant?

Fukuyama: Human societies have gone from hunter-gatherers to agrarian societies into industrial societies. Our political institutions have evolved as well. From about 300 years ago, we saw the rise of democratic, self-governing political systems.

If you understand history as this process of modernization, the question of where it seems to be leading is pertinent because it's not a random process. Many of the same things have happened in Asia that happened in Europe or in the United States. People are farmers until industrialization, then they all move to cities. They get higher levels of education. They communicate better. They're more mobile. They have a different kind of consciousness than they did when they were living on a little farm in an isolated village.

So, where does this process ultimately lead to? Does it lead to liberal democracy tied to a market economy, which was my argument, or is there another model for a fully modern society that is not a liberal democracy?

China has been rising since 1978, so it's been in my thoughts for quite a while. For the last 30 years, I have argued that the only plausible alternative is China. Economically, it is stable and is going to be an alternative to the liberal democracy that has prevailed in the west. The US and the west must find a way to coexist peacefully with China. We'll have to wait and see which turns out to be the more sustainable.

Jiemian News: Do you think the China model and the American model can coexist peacefully in the future?

Fukuyama: Sure. I mean we have to coexist peacefully, because these days, given the nature of technology, military conflict is going to be disastrous. And so we have to find a way to coexist peacefully.

Jiemian News: You argue that America doesn’t have to be the number 1 country in the world, as long as it’s a dignified country with good governance and democracy. Is there any consensus in the US that supports your view?

Fukuyama: Up until the early 20th century, the US was relatively isolated and uninvolved in global politics, but beginning with the First World War, it became a major player in, first, European, and then global, politics. And right now, it does have a very substantial international role because it has a lot of allies.

Since Iraq and Afghanistan, a number of Americans are questioning whether we really want to support this large international alliance structure. Donald Trump was very explicit about this. He thought that we shouldn't, but I think he was an outlier.

I think there still is a strong bipartisan consensus about having the United States fulfill these kinds of international obligations to support its allies. This is not necessarily an identity question - it's a policy question. The United States has seen fit to define its interests in a way that requires international engagement but I don't think it's fundamental to the way Americans think about themselves.

Jiemian News: And what is your take on the current America-China relationship?

Fukuyama: Rising powers have always created instability because the other powers in the system don't want to give up their position. They're worried. This so-called Thucydides trap becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy if the older, status-quo powers don't accept the rising power. The adjustment is one that's difficult to make.

The international system and the United States are both trying to adjust to the fact that China is now, certainly, number two but possibly number one soon. There is also a values conflict. There are some serious differences over political institutions and political values between the United States and China.

Jiemian News: In terms of US domestic politics, what do you see as the challenges facing the Biden administration?

Fukuyama: The single biggest problem in America right now is the polarization between the left and right, or red and blue, Republicans and Democrats. It has made governing very difficult. There is a lot of irrational disagreement over simple things like passing a budget. That internal disagreement spills over into foreign policy and other countries see that the United States doesn't have a strong bipartisan consensus for its role in the world. That's a problem that needs to be solved. It's an ongoing weakness.

Jiemian News: Looking back to 1989 when you came up with “the end of history”, what has changed in your thoughts?

Fukuyama: Well, most of them were concluded in my book The Origins of Political Order. The two most important new insights were, first of all, how difficult it is to get to a modern state and how important it was to have a modern state that was impersonal, uncorrupt, and so forth.

And the second had to do with the deterioration of democracies. Once consolidated, they could also go backwards and turn into less high-quality democracies. And that's not an idea that was in the original end of history but I think that in many respects, that's what's been going on in the United States over the last 15- 20 years.

Jiemian News: How would you identify yourself right now in terms of political stance?

Fukuyama: I think of myself as a classical liberal. I believe in liberalism as it was originally defined by Hobbes, Locke, and John Stuart Mill, and people of that sort, which is compatible with different kinds of economic policies. I have a new book that will be called Liberalism and Its Discontents, a defense of this kind of classical liberalism in which I still think is the best form of government.

Jiemian News: And as a writer and as a scholar, where do you locate yourself? Who do you write for?

Fukuyama: Well, it's a hard question to answer because I’ve got a very large audience. The main audience, of course, is an American one but Identity was much more widely read in Europe than in the United States because I think it spoke to some of the issues in the migrant crisis and the rise of populism.

No writer can write without thinking about who their audience is. Most of my books are translated into many languages. I’m trying to address a lot of different international audiences at the same time.