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Democracy: The End of a Model ? - Interview with Francis Fukuyama

Democracy: The End of a Model ? - Interview with Francis Fukuyama
 Francis Fukuyama
Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

What prospects lie ahead for the democratic model in a multipolar world? Could democracy still flourish, or has it embarked on its inexorable decline? In this in-depth interview for Institut Montaigne, Francis Fukuyama responds to Dominique Moïsi on the future of democracy, the tenth anniversary of the war in Iraq and the gloomy chapter ushered in by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. This interview also provides an opportunity to reflect on a line of thought that has been challenged by contemporary issues - the intellectual journey of The End of History's influential author.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the war in Iraq, and you have given a lengthy interview to Carnegie Endowment for Peace, acknowledging errors of interpretation on the topic. Could you trace back the evolution of your stand on the war in Iraq?

Twenty years after the beginning of this war, our absolute belief in the democratic model and its ability to thrive worldwide has dwindled, if not collapsed. Several years before the war, I had signed a letter sent around by Bill Kristol, former chief of staff in the George H. W. Bush administration, saying that we needed to take action to stop Saddam Hussein. I thought that the moral case was very strong: Saddam Hussein was worse than his predecessor in almost every respect. People now tend to forget how scared Americans were after September 11. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center had killed 3000 people, but Al-Qaïda could have killed 30 000 people if they had wanted to. At the time, Americans were trying to picture the next attack to themselves, with a predisposition to overestimate the threats.

During that period, I produced several works on the development of critical institutions in poor and developing countries, with a particular attention to Latin America, where the United States had tried to structure El Savador, Nicaragua and other countries in its neighborhood - and had done it very poorly. It seemed to me that we were calling for a kind of commitment that implied transforming the Middle East - a region that we did not understand terribly well - into at least a democracy. US politicians used to recall their successes in Germany and Japan. It is true, we occupied both countries for two generations, and they evolved into democracies. But were we willing to do something like that in either Iraq or Afghanistan? To me, in the case of Iraq, the answer was certainly no: we should not start something that we would not be able to complete.

At the time of the war, I did not know how completely unprepared the US was. Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush Administration, was planning to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2003, after installing Ahmed Chalabi as the leader of the country. He thought that democracy would then take care of itself. The composition of the Bush administration played an important role in forging such views, as many of the decision-making people had witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 1989 Fall triggered a cascade of transitions to democracy among Eastern Europe countries that chose to leave the communist empire. Lots of political advisors were transferring that experience from Europe to the Middle East - a culturally radically different part of the world that had many reasons not to want to westernize or to adopt Western  institutions. This lack of understanding of the specificity of the situation was the reason why I fell out with my neo-conservationists friends. I was also very bothered by the complete self-confidence bordering on real arrogance that was common in the Bush administration. The thought that they knew what was best for the region, that Hussein’s dictatorship would fall like dominoes, and that this whole project would succeed, was terribly misguided.

If we move from past to present, the most interesting theme in light of the war in Ukraine is the tendency of ''Global South'' countries to adopt a neutral position between the United States and Russia. How do you react to this?

First of all, having a democratic form of government does not imply idealizing democracy as an ideology, and a wish from political leaders to express a national solidarity with other democracies. For some countries, it is simply a form of government, while France and the United States, particularly the United States, have built a national identity around the idea of democracy. In the French case, it is a Republican tradition coming out of the Revolution, and in the American case, it is embodied by the Constitution, which is almost worshiped as a sacred document by many Americans. So it is natural, in those circumstances, that democracy ought to be for them an organizing principle in international relations. Even though South America, Brazil and India, became democracies, democracy is not as essential to their understanding of themselves.

Foreign policy also plays a role. Latin America and many countries suffered under American hegemony, which was rather economic than military, but that legacy is very much resented. While the Soviet Union supported the African National Congress during the Cold War, the Reagan administration supplied arms and support to some anti-liberation forces - Angola and Mozambique were actually fighting on the opposite side of the ANC. Adding to that, countries of the Global South consider themselves as civilizations and are very protective of their sovereignty. So in all of these cases, other powerful motivations override any kind of national support for democracy.

Lastly, American democracy has unfortunately been very troubled in the past few years, and is not the kind of inspirational beacon it used to be in the 1980s. Back then, Ronald Reagan was self-confident, the United States did not suffer from big divisions nor ongoing crises over gun violence, race, or identity. Many Americans have told themselves that they, as a society, had overcome the whole terrible history of racism, and had been able to move on to another post-racial order. A lot of that doesn’t seem right, as we witness this populist nationalist backlash that was extremely vivid during Donald Trump’s presidency. And it is still there: Donald Trump is running again, and could be reelected. The United States doesn't stand as a model for democracy anymore.

We no longer live in a bipolar world, even though the American-Chinese competition is probably bound to dominate the world. As a scholar who has been reflecting throughout your life on the meaning and the future of democracy, what are your views on this world configuration?

First of all, geopolitics overpowering ideology is not new, and also proved to be true during the Cold War. The United States has demonstrated with many countries - Saudi Arabia, the Shah of Iran, Marcos when he was a dictator in the Philippines - that it could make deals with very unsavory, undemocratic, corrupt leaders because of this overriding American need to counter the Soviet Union. There is no country for which democracy - or democratic ideology - can be a dominant, single guiding principle of foreign policy, because we do live in a world ruled by power, and where geopolitics are really not gone away.

In fact, we experienced an interlude following the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the former Soviet Union, when the United States was such a dominant power that it did not really have to think about geopolitics. At that time, the American defense budget was about as large as all the other defense budgets of the world combined. This extraordinary period of hegemony was true just not in the military, but also in the economy, in politics and in cultural productions. This period was an exception: it is common in global history to have a much more even distribution of power. We have just reverted to the mean, with a more multipolar world composed of multiple ideological divides.

Furthermore, people’s judgment about whether a political system is good or bad is unfortunately not really reliant on moral or ethical grounds alone. It is really a question of who is the most powerful. As such, there tends to be support for the political system that seems to be very powerful at a particular moment. That was true for the United States between approximately 1989 and 2008. Since then, China has grown very mighty. As a result, many countries think they ought to imitate them, and the United States is losing political clients.

Since Trump and the march on the Capitol on January 6, the United States no longer embodies the dream of democracy but its nightmare. How deeply concerned are you by the future of America?

I hope that Donald Trump is a dead force, but he certainly does not seem like it: in the recent months, he has managed to dominate the headlines as he previously did, and has pulled ahead of DeSantis, who is the only serious republican challenger. However, the hard-core of Trump supporters represent no more than one-third of the core electorate. Another third is on the left, and would never back him, while the middle-third, seems to have really gotten tired of him. Even though they support conservative republican positions on major issues such as immigration, they are not core Trump supporters. At this point, the likelihood of Trump’s comeback is, I think, still fairly low. But Democrats need to offer something as an alternative. Our President is very old, and our Vice President is not terribly popular. One can imagine all sorts of scenarios where Biden has a health problem and further deteriorates, which could lead to Trump or another Trump-like Republican to come to power. I do not think Europeans can stop worrying, as unfortunately, we still are stuck in a dangerous position. But I do take comfort in the November election, where the Republican Party tried to push election deniers in a lot of swing states, in an attempt to overturn the 2024 election, but were almost all defeated - voters got tired of that narrative.

In terms of French diplomacy, Emmanuel Macron pushes for equidistance between China and the United States, to the detriment of his relations with the rest of the Western world. Three elements seem to play a part in this decision : the persistence of a misguided Gaullist tradition, deeply diverging views on how to define relations with China, and the conviction that there are too many uncertainties to count on the United States. There is somehow in France a wish - in the negative way - for America to go wrong. What are your views on the political future of France?

The desire for strategic autonomy from the United States is a good goal. In fact, American foreign policy has been pushing Europe to take a greater responsibility for its own security and its own defense, by spending much more money on defense. But not being reliant on the US is not very realistic, as shown by the war in Ukraine. The US still is critical when facing a real war that requires military capability, defense production and funding. France and Germany together could not support Ukrainians in the way the United States has supported them. The idea of a European strategic autonomy is tempting, but is not yet taking place.

In my view, the Gaullist tradition and the illusions about China are both wrong. To me, the deterioration of US-China relations since 2013 is 90 to 95% China’s fault. The major ways in which the relationship has deteriorated have to do with exclusionary economic policies for Western businesses in China, the South China sea, threats to Taiwan… all initiated by China. The idea of equidistance between the United States, a democratic America - which really tried through several presidents to maintain a real engagement with China - and an increasingly totalitarian China, is a big illusion.

When we consider the evolution of French politics, one is struck by the display of rage - if not hate - against Emmanuel Macron by a significant portion of the French public opinion. It is representative of a more global phenomenon linked to the evolution of democracy in a digital age, with both a personality cult, and the willingness to destroy the person that you dislike intensely. How do you perceive, from California, the situation that prevails in France?

First of all, there is that global division between, on one hand, people that have good educations, that live in big urban areas that are exposed to the global economy and pluralist environment, and on the other hand people with lower levels of education, who live away from  big cities. It is as true in France as in the United States. In addition to that cultural element, the support to the Gilets Jaunes is related to population density - it is proportional to how far away from a big city the person lives. This phenomenon also reflects the economic disparities that have been created by globalization, where educated people earn much larger salaries because their returns on education are higher. And so, in that perspective, France is not that different from other countries that have seen this kind of populist upsurge.

The only difference that I would see is that the Left in France remains much more present and popular than in the United States. In the US, Bernie Sanders made a bid for power in 2016 and got further than many people thought, but the extreme or populist Left in the United States is not a terribly big force. Protests against the pension reform in France are really driven by the labor unions, a very traditional kind of social base for Left wing parties. In that respect, France maintains some of the older political traditions.

What approaches should democracies adopt to fight populism? What keywords come to your mind upon this matter?

Debates arose about whether populism is more driven by economics or by culture. In my view, both of those are drivers that interact with one another. On the cultural front, there is a lot of resentment driven by the success of elites in a lot of societies, who have protected their positions, and in many cases, are contemptuous of people that are different from themselves. It is easy to fall into the trap of saying that Right wing populists are just a bunch of racists, and xenophobes, and too stupid or not educated enough to understand the world the way we understand it - and this discourse breeds more resentment.

On the economic front, policies are being adjusted to tackle a lot of inequalities resulting from the globalization promoted, especially by the US during the 1990s and early 2000s. It is hard to say whether these adjustments will be sufficient, as technology plays a large part in fueling resentment. The way social media functions is detrimental to the common empirical and factual basis on which we thought we could deliberate in democracy. People present alternative facts, contest the credibility of certain narratives, and it is hard to see how to fully overcome these kinds of divisions.

Two theories confront each other regarding democracies. One states that democracies are in decline, behind the United States, and another foresees China as sole winner of the war in Ukraine. America will not come bolder out of it, nor Russia weaker. Another interpretation states that authoritarian regimes are not good at making war - despite Putin’s allegations - and democratically motivated countries like Ukraine are much more dynamic. On which camp do you consider yourself?

I have a more optimistic view about the future. Authoritarian countries can make much bigger mistakes, as Putin did in Ukraine, or Xi Jinping with the zero-Covid policy. What matters  most is the impressive solidarity that has been displayed by NATO and other Western-oriented countries, including Japan. For that reason, I am not sure that China necessarily is to be the winner. The threat to Taiwan existed way before the Russian invasion in Ukraine, but the idea that a great power would use force is now seriously taken into account. People in the West are preparing themselves for it: NATO is getting bigger, with Finland and hopefully Sweden joining the alliance. That degree of solidarity and mental readiness to really contest aggressive geopolitical stances is much stronger than 14-15 months ago. It might not be enough to tackle the challenges that we face, sufficient to distance oneself from a gloomy scenario.


Copyright Image: Stefani Reynolds / AFP

A silhouette is seen behind an American and Ukrainian flag as people gather for a Day of Solidarity with Ukraine at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on February 20, 2022. The eighth annual commemoration and vigil was held to honor those who died in the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity.

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