A new start to the end of history

Francis Fukuyama first gained instant international fame by announcing The End of History in 1989. So what was he to do when a group of Muslim terrorists so terrifyingly demonstrated their quarrel with his prediction by crashing into the symbolic heart of democracy and capitalism at the World Trade Center?

This seemed to challenge his argument that no evolutionary advance on liberal democracy and market capitalism as a way of organising the world was possible, and that the alternatives had exhausted themselves.

No wonder he has now written another paper, asking Has History Started Again?

The answer, says Dr Fukuyama, is it hasn't. He sees September 11 more as a backlash against the still inevitable force of modernisation.

Even so, the sense of global confidence that made Dr Fukuyama's thesis an international bestseller, and its catchy title a slogan of the 1990s, has been severely shaken. People no longer see the collapse of the Berlin Wall over and over in their minds; they see the collapse of the twin towers.

This leaves the American academic conceding that the question of whether this was just a lucky one-off for terrorists or the start of a much more terrifying future remains open. ‘If it is the case that you can get radical groups that can blow up nuclear weapons in New York City, then a lot of things are going to change’, he says with mild understatement.

But Dr Fukuyama, who is in Australia for a conference and seminars organised by The Centre for Independent Studies, still leaves himself room to manoeuvre.

He suspects, for example, that such attacks will be kept under control by a combination of defensive measures and going after terrorists meaning the trend towards liberal democracy will continue in the long term.

The catch is ‘you've got to survive the short term’, he says.

Which is where it gets tricky in a decade that promises to be very different in tone for the United States from the triumphs of the last, and why Dr Fukuyama's views still resonate well beyond academia.

Over the past decade, he has weighed in with books on subjects ranging from the erosion of trust and excess of individualism in the US to his latest offering on the need for greater regulation of biotechnology to protect human dignity and values called, of course, Our Posthuman Future.

But his views on the meaning of the inhuman present still create the most attention and are the topic of a debate he will lead in Sydney on Tuesday. He can expect plenty of argument.

Dr Fukuyama, born in Chicago, is professor of international political relations at Johns Hopkins University and has excellent connections in the Bush Administration. He worked at the State Department during the Republican administrations of the 1980s.

But he does not buy the White House line that the US is only waging a war against terrorism, rather than responding to anything operating in the Islamic culture.

‘I think the Islam challenge is a unique one in a certain sense because that is the one cultural area where there is a strong belief that religion and politics ought to be united.

‘That doesn't exist in Asia. It doesn't exist in Africa. You do have a Hindu fundamentalist party in the sub-continent that believes that way, also. But basically it is only in the Muslim world that you really have this strong, highly politicised form of religion and I think that is really the chief cultural issue.’

He also considers it the most dangerous and combustible mix. He says the Muslim world has not accepted that such separation is essential for civil peace and believes it may take them some generations to work this out. He also says the ideology of radical Islam is a more fundamental challenge than the one represented by communism, which did not reject the very idea of modernisation.

Yet Dr Fukuyama is not about to accept the most famous Big Idea competing with his ‘end of history’ thesis. That was from another US academic, Samuel Huntington, who wrote The Clash of Civilisations in 1993, predicting that the world's great conflicts would now be based on culture. This view gained renewed credibility after September 11.

‘I agree with Huntington in that these cultural issues are not just going to all melt away in a kind of homogenised world dominated by McDonald's and Coca-Cola’, Dr Fukuyama says. ‘That is a silly position. The question is how serious do these cultural differences become and do they become the basis for internal politics or the division of the world into various kinds of blocs based on cultural choices.’

‘I just think that is not going to happen because there are so many other important interests and ideological questions that countries face. So that democracy, for example, I think, has succeeded in transcending cultural borders as being a force that unites countries. You also have the entire globalisation and economic interdependence that moderate a lot of cultural conflicts.’

But clearly not all a vicious reality he has been assessing for the past 11 months. ‘The real question is how serious, overall, a movement this is going to be. And I just have my doubts that in the end it will amount to very much because, first of all, it is not anything which has any appeal for non-Muslims’,  he says.

‘The thing about socialism is that you had all these progressives in Madison, Wisconsin and Melbourne and London and Paris who believed that their societies would some day overcome what they called bourgeois liberal democracy and move on to another stage in historical evolution. ‘

‘Nobody, I think, has any expectation that London or Paris will become Muslim theocracies any time soon and, I think, even within the Muslim world, this is a movement which is a minority position … The power it can project on a world stage is necessarily limited and it is partly because of the inherent contradictions in it. This is not an ideology that can produce a modern social system. It can't deploy modern technology and economic power and all the other things that are required to produce a serious, or great, power in international politics.’

But he admits the flaw in his analysis is the potential for radical groups to get hold of weapons of mass destruction. This is part of the argument in the US over invading Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Dr Fukuyama believes the White House will find this course difficult to avoid now it has committed itself to regime change.

‘I have mixed feelings about this’, he says, arguing that Saddam Hussein has avoided using chemical and biological weapons for fear of the US reaction. ‘Which means the only situation in which he is almost guaranteed to use them is if the US goes after him.’

 An invasion of Iraq will also guarantee an even greater upsurge of anti-Americanism and not just in the Muslim world, Dr Fukuyama says. He admits the virulence of the opposition to the US surprised him during a recent visit to Europe and expects the tensions to only get worse.

‘I think that the Europeans believe they are moving into this world where international relations will basically be governed the way relations within the European Union are governed through supernational and international institutions and norms and rules and where power politics and that world is basically a thing of the past … ‘

‘But the US, to a much greater extent than Europe, has security responsibilities and concerns where the old rules of power politics still apply. And what it leads to is a very neuralgic set of disputes, where the Europeans accuse the US of unilateralism and lack of concern for the views of the international community and the US accuses the Europeans of irresponsibility and not understanding the requirements of living in this kind of safe haven they have in Europe.’

And that argument seems destined to be endless.

To Top

About the Author:
Jennifer Hewett is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Francis Fukuyama is Professor of International Political Relations at Johns Hopkins University, and author of The End of History.