Lunch With Francis Fukuyama

The author of The End of History arrives late.

Francis Fukuyama 

Francis Fukuyama is late. We have agreed to meet at Roast, a quintessentially English restaurant in Borough Market, just five minutes from the Financial Times’ London office. I arrive on time at 12:30 p.m. and am shown to a relatively quiet table. After 10 minutes I become anxious. Maybe professor Fukuyama expected to meet me at the office. I call the FT reception and am relieved to learn he is not waiting for me. I sip the water and wait.

Fukuyama, slight, short, and dressed in a respectable gray suit and tie, arrives 20 minutes late, apologizing profusely, saying his publicist had not realized how long it would take to reach the restaurant. The American writer and academic is in London to publicize his new book, The Origins of Political Order, about the development of political institutions throughout history. (This is such a large subject that Fukuyama is tackling it in two volumes with the first covering From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.)

I have known Fukuyama, who is 58, for some time. In 2006, I delivered a series of lectures for him at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., where he was professor of international policy economy before his move last year to Stanford University.

We agree to forgo wine and starters and he chooses chicken and bacon pie while I have already picked the day’s special, meat carved from a whole roasted lamb.

We start with the news of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, which has just broken. “Isn’t that an amazing story?” Fukuyama says. “Even if it was an entrapment of some sort, the way he responded, if it’s even remotely true, it’s just unbelievable.”

The food arrives quickly and I tuck into my excellent lamb while Fukuyama eats slowly as he thinks about his answers. (Later on he still has food in front of him long after I have finished but waves away the waiters who want to remove it.)

Fukuyama is best-known for his book The End of History and the Last Man(1992), in which he stated that liberal democracy was the only way to run a modern state. I get the impression that his support for democracy is now much more conditional than he thought then.

He says: “The way I feel right now is that it’s an open question which system is going to do better in the next while—a high-quality authoritarian one or a deadlocked, paralyzed, democratic one, with lots of checks and balances? Over the long run, it will be easier to sustain a system with checks and balances, precisely because the checks and balances permit adaptation. You can get rid of a bad leader.

“And, then I think that the normative dimension comes into play because an authoritarian state doesn’t recognize the dignity of its citizens. That makes me dislike the system but, more importantly, it’s the weakness of the system because, at a certain point, the anger of people at being treated in this fashion will spill over.”

Nevertheless, he goes on, “in many ways, Asian government, not just China, but Singapore and in an earlier day, Japan and South Korea, had governments that looked more like a corporate board of governance because there’s no downward accountability whatever. You don’t have to deal with constituents. … You run the whole country like a corporation, and I think that’s one of their advantages at the moment.”

Turning to China, Fukuyama says: “One of the advantages of their form of authoritarianism is that they concluded after Mao that they would never again allow a single individual to exert that kind of domination over their system, and that’s why they have term limits. That’s why all of the decisions have to be taken collectively. But, in the end, that system is also going to have its inefficiencies.”

Yet it soon becomes clear that he does not think much of the U.S. political system either. “Just look at the way that interest groups in the United States have a veto on the simplest kinds of reforms,” he says. “We allow mortgage interest deduction regardless of how expensive the house is. Why is that the case? Because we have a real estate industry that says, ‘Don’t even think about changing this.’ “

The question he asks in the new book is how the modern state emerged. Fukuyama defines such states by three characteristics: formal bureaucratic institutions; the rule of law; and accountability. He ignores the West’s classical antiquity and starts, instead, with the emergence of the Chinese bureaucratic state. Why did he do that?

“The problem with the classic eurocentric approach is that the archetype that we had been using, the history of England, is a weird experience. I don’t think that it should be regarded as a model.”

So what makes China’s history unique? “It’s not unique,” he replies. “Everybody eventually gets to this form of modern bureaucratic state. But the Chinese invented a civil service exam already in the third century B.C.” They got to the modern state first.

Fast forward. What explains the West’s primacy over the last two centuries? Was that an accident of relatively recent history, as revisionist historians argue, or did it reflect longer-term advantages? He is in the latter, more traditional school. “The invention of the scientific method, its institutionalization in universities, the creation of an ongoing system for exploring nature and then commercializing the results of those things. It’s an intersection of ideas and social institutions that gels in Europe, sometime in the 17th and 18th centuries.”

So, I ask, now that China is catching up so fast, is it also going to contribute proportionately to the global stock of innovation?

“This gets into the realm of ideas much more than is in my book. But one thing that’s always struck me is that there is no high level of abstraction in the Chinese religion or Chinese thought. The idea that there are hidden forces, which are universal, like gravity, which apply throughout the universe, is very Western. Chinese religion is particularistic. And I think to this day, if you think about high-level theory, it’s still not coming from Asia.”

He has finally finished the pie. We decline pudding but order a double espresso for me and green tea for him as the table is swiftly cleared.

I note that the West increasingly has the inverse of the traditional Chinese view of intellectual authority. On many subjects—climate change, for example—we think the views of the vast mass of the people count for more than the weight of scientific opinion. Authority counts for almost nothing.

He agrees. “That’s actually a big problem in Western public administration because I think good governance is a kind of aristocratic phenomenon. And, we don’t like deference to experts and we don’t like delegating authority to experts. Therefore, we ring them around with all of these rules, which limit their discretion, because we don’t trust them. The disease has gone furthest in the United States.” His view seems to be that the world is caught between too little democracy in the East and too much in the West.

We turn to Fukuyama’s forthcoming second volume, which will bring the story up to the present day. “There are several issues that I want to deal with. One of them is the one we’re talking about, the history of corruption in government. If you looked at public administration in the United States or in Britain, in the early 1800s, it was as bad as very many developing countries today, and [the former] have somehow evolved into much more impersonal forms of government. So, one thing I want to talk about is the whole history of how that happened.”

Another big development, I suggest, is the reaction against elites we had just been discussing, which is so strong in the United States. “That’s right, and it has a lot of different roots but it’s certainly most profound in the United States. The Tea Party comes out of this tradition, started by Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson gets elected in 1828. He says, ‘We won the election, why should we let these elites run the country?’ You get the modern echoes of this with Sarah Palin, who is popular precisely because she didn’t go to Harvard, and she’s up against a president who did go to Harvard. Every single European country, including all of these squeaky clean Scandinavian ones, now have rightwing populist parties.

“The other important part of this is not just about the development of Western societies but about the rest, because in the 200 years from the end of Volume One [of The Origins of Political Order], all of these well-developed institutions in the West run smack into the traditional institutions in every other part of the world. Understanding why some parts of that non-Western world emerge from this collusion intact, and actually do well, like east Asia, and other parts [of the world] were completely undermined is very important.

“The Japanese, for example, who were early on the most successful in adapting to this collusion with the West, didn’t do it simply by taking Western institutions. They actually kept their own traditions.

“If you look at a country like Pakistan, which is the most dangerous place in the world right now, and you cut one level below the surface of these supposedly democratic institutions, what you see is this hierarchy of kinships, led by feudal lords that have serfs working on their territory. They run this country by patronage networks. That’s why democracy has never worked well there, and so it’s an extremely traditional country in that sense—one in which patronage and kinship are the story of politics.”

I suggest that in sub-Saharan Africa it is also about states that don’t have any historical roots. “It’s worse than that,” he responds, “because the European colonialists, unlike in places like Hong Kong or India, did not give them strong institutions. They decided to do colonialism on the cheap. They set up the system of indirect rule, which empowers a lot of local strong men, and then they left after a relatively short period, and they also saddled the new countries with irrational borders.”

I turn to the big political event of the day: the Arab uprising. How optimistic is he about that? Not very, I assume.

“Well, first of all, I’m really delighted that it happened because you’ll never get democracy unless you have popular mobilization. Everybody thought that somehow Arabs could not do this and now they’ve shown that they can do this. But I think it just takes time to create institutions and, right now, the most outward-looking, democratic, tolerant, liberal people are poorly organized. They have no experience. Civil society was suppressed, so all of these things that support strong democratic institutions aren’t there.”

China, however, is moving rapidly toward a modern economy and I ask Fukuyama how prosperity will affect its political order.

“I think that this is one of the big drivers of democracy that are missed by people that just look at the economic conditions,” he says. “If you are a poor peasant, all you’re worried about is getting food on the table for your family. But as you get more educated, you can worry about things like, ‘Does my government allow me to participate?’ Your world outlook then changes. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t happen in China.”

I am concerned we are running out of time but he reassures me that his publicist will come to collect him when our time is up. He ploughs on: “I think you’re right that when you got a whole country of 800 million college-educated middle-class people, you can’t run this thing in a very paternalistic, top-down fashion. The big problem is these same people could be motivated by nationalism—there’s a lot of other ways of mobilizing people.”

He adds a darker note: “What’s scary is that the military have got this completely different narrative of the 20th century, that puts them at the center of Chinese nationalism and Chinese identity, and they seem to be increasingly driving Chinese foreign policy.”

I respond by discussing the situation in the United States, where you get populist politicians. Barack Obama is a reasonable, rational, low-key sort of human being, I suggest, about as good as you could hope for. But, I say, it’s not difficult to imagine somebody coming to power—particularly if the economy doesn’t recover very well, which is quite likely—with a very different agenda.

“That’s right”, he says. “But I do think Obama’s going to get re-elected.” But, with that, it is time to wrap up. I leave and he heads off to meet his publicist.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.