This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service.
WASHINGTON — Sometimes history has a funny way of confounding its chroniclers.
In a recent Financial Times interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the liberal world order obsolete.
Sitting with reporters at the Kremlin hours before attending the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, where he roundly condemned open-door policies toward migrants, the Russia leader decried “the so-called liberal idea” as a moribund enterprise at odds with “traditional values” of ordinary people the world over.
“Our Western partners have admitted that some elements of the liberal idea, such as multiculturalism, are no longer tenable,” Putin said, criticizing immigration policies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and touting President Donald Trump’s continued push to build a wall as part of a broader crackdown on migrants.
It was 30 years ago this summer, just months before another wall came tumbling down, that a young economist named Francis Fukuyama published his landmark essay, The End of History?, in which he asked whether liberalism had triumphed over competing ideologies.
Because the highest aspiration of all humans is recognition and acceptance of their rights, he argued, liberalism would inevitably triumph.
But as even the Stanford scholar himself now acknowledges, there are competing elements in human nature, and the sometimes predominant human desire for freedom is eclipsed, especially in the face of tumultuous change and uncertainty, by an equally predominant desire for the security of strongman rule.
VOA’s Russian Service sat down with Fukuyama to get his take on Putin’s latest claim.
The following has been edited for brevity and concision.
Question: Does Putin’s claim that liberalism has “outlived its purpose” for the majority of the world’s population have any substance?
Francis Fukuyama: Putin is fundamentally wrong about that. In a liberal society, people agree that they’re going to put aside deeply held beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, in the interest of living together. The reason that liberal societies emerged in Europe was that after the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics ended up spending 150 years killing each other. In Germany, a third of the population was killed during the Thirty Years War because people at that time believed that the state had to support a single religious doctrine. I think people should remember that, because today we live in diverse societies with globalization; even if you try to build walls, it’s not really possible to keep people out in the long run. And if you don’t have a society that’s built on a certain degree of tolerance for diversity — religious diversity, ethnic diversity, racial diversity — then you’re going to have a formula for endless conflict.
Those kinds of systems are the ones that have evolved in Western Europe and in North America. In Eastern Europe you had a different situation where, under communism, there was a pretense that you’d achieve this kind of society where religion was not important, where you were open to diverse types of people. But the fact of the matter was that that simply suppressed people’s feelings. When those countries opened up to democracy after 1989 or 1991, there hadn’t been a kind of social acceptance, a kind of tolerance that’s needed to really sustain a liberal society. And so there’s been conflict over refugees, over immigration. These [conflicts over refugees, over immigration] in Eastern Europe tend to be more based on fear rather than any real experience with that kind of diversity. So I think Putin is fundamentally wrong. In fact, I actually think the Russian Federation is liberal in many respects. [Putin] is not imposing Orthodox Christianity as a religion that all members of the Russian Federation have to follow, because a lot of them are Muslim or follow other religious beliefs. So even in his country, liberalism is a key value. And if they don’t observe that kind of tolerance, there’s going to be a lot of conflict within the borders of the Russian Federation. That’s something that people need to keep in mind. That liberalism is really about allowing people to live peacefully while perhaps disagreeing about some of the more fundamental issues raised by religion.
Q: We see a rising tide of nationalism in both the United States and in Europe. Are liberal democracies imperiled? And might it be impossible to balance core values of postwar liberalism with national identities, as Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson recently argued?
Fukuyama: Nationalism oftentimes takes a dangerous form because it excludes certain people within the nation and oftentimes leads to conflicts with other nations. But I think that national identity is nonetheless important. In fact, it’s kind of necessary if you’re going to sustain a democracy, because people must have a common set of values to believe in the legitimacy of their own institutions. So what’s critical, I think, is avoiding the rise of exclusive forms of nationalism. And this is what’s been going on with many populist leaders. Viktor Orban, for example, says Hungarian national identity is based on Hungarian ethnicity. That is very problematic because not everybody in Hungary is an ethnic Hungarian, and, furthermore, there’s lots of ethnic Hungarians living in all of the surrounding countries and in Europe. So I think that what we want is a form of democratic and open, tolerant national identity, where it’s based on shared democratic values but not necessarily on things like race or religion or ethnicity.
Q: Why have liberal ideas seen such a backlash, and can the trend be reversed? Do you anticipate the rise of more illiberal leaders around the world, even in the Western countries?
Fukuyama: I think that part of [the backlash] is created by globalization and the nature of economic change. In our globalized world, people that live in cosmopolitan cities have a lot of opportunities — they’ve done well economically and a lot of people that don’t live in those places have not done as well. So, in almost every country, people who vote for populists tend to be older, less educated, and living not in the big capital city but in, you know, other places. That sets up a kind of social conflict, and I think it’s important for people that are better educated and do accept globalization to understand that not everybody has profited from the kind of world that’s been created. And so I think governments need to take that into account. On the other hand, populist voters tend to be in the declining parts of the society because people continue to move to cities. People continue to get educated. In the end, [populism] isn’t going to be the dominant force in any society.
Q: Many argue that countries built on liberal ideals are more economically successful. But what’s your take on, say, economically successful Communist China?
Fukuyama: I think that liberal values are important for a market economy because a market economy depends on the rule of law. It depends on rules that are established, that are clear and transparent and don’t get changed as a result of politics. And that’s not what happens in many of these new populist countries, because the populist takes power, having been voted into office by an election, but then immediately begins to attack the legal bases [or] attack judges. When the law goes against him or her, they try to undermine the law. This has certainly been true of Donald Trump; it’s been true of Orban and many other populist leaders in Europe. In the long run I think that’s a formula for corruption, you know, for a kind of crony capitalism where you don’t have a level playing field for all of the participants. And in the end, I think that is going to hurt economic growth.
And by the way, Hungary looks like it’s doing well economically, but it gets 5 percent of GDP as subsidies from the European Union. And so the performance of that country, if left to its own devices without Europe, would be substantially worse than it is today. And I think that’s what people need to consider when they make the choice of voting for a populist leader.
Q: The Council of Europe, which is based on Western liberal values, recently restored Russia’s voting rights. Some call this an example of Russian successfully undermining Western democratic institutions.
Fukuyama: Russia has been trying to use every means in its power to expand its influence. It’s been very clever at using social media and the internet in order to weaken the confidence of the Western public in itself. And it’s tried to create alliances with these new populists. I think that vote was a big mistake because I don’t think that Russia fundamentally shares the liberal values that are necessary to sustain the Council of Europe.
Q: Putin also told The Financial Times that it seems there are no rules in post-Cold War international order? Are there rules in today’s global order?
Fukuyama: There are plenty of rules, most of them regarding economic interactions. That’s the purpose of the World Trade Organization and the EU and many other trade deals that have been created. What there is not, I think, is a consensus on security issues, because there are fundamental differences between the U.S., Europe, Russia and China. So in that sense we’ve returned to a more multipolar kind of world that existed in the 19th century. That’s not a terrible thing. I think if countries observe certain moderate norms of behavior, that’s the world that can be stable. But I think Russia has been trying to undermine that stability because it feels that it’s one of the weakest of those players and wants to use every means at its disposal to expand its influence.
Q: Parting thoughts?
Fukuyama: The ultimate check on a populist leader is an election, and we’re going to have a very important election in the United States next year when Mr. Trump comes up for a second term. So I think people should pay attention to that, and I think they should also realize that in their own countries elections are important. And if people that support liberal values don’t go out and organize and mobilize and vote, then the populists are going to take over. That’s a lesson all of us need to keep in mind.