Political scientist and author Professor Francis Fukuyama, best known for his controversial 1989 essay “The End of History”, warns that America is stuck in a “democratic recession”.
Far from basking in the victory of liberal democracy as the natural conclusion of mankind’s political evolution, Fukuyama says the United States is suffering a crisis of national identity, causing it to retreat into self-interest, and to abandon the geopolitical playing field to its rivals.
Meanwhile its president, Donald Trump, is busy undermining democratic institutions, the judicial process, and media organisations designed to hold them to account.
The rise of Trumpism, Fukuyama argues, is the result of a loss of “dignity” – whereby Americans and Europeans feel neglected by their elites and as though the old certainties that underpinned their national identity have vanished. The result has been a worrying return to the populism of the 1930s.
Speaking to Rudaw after addressing an American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) conference alongside former KRG prime minister Barham Salih on August 30, Fukuyama lamented America’s record in the Middle East, particularly its handling of Iraq since the 2003 invasion – a war he initially called for.
He says it is easy to sympathise with the Kurds in Iraq and the wider region, who have developed a healthy sense of national identity without recourse to the kind of ethnic and religious repression seen elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Stanford University scholar, whose ideas have left their mark on successive US administrations, raises many of these themes and more in his forthcoming book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, published September 11.
I wanted to start with ‘the end’ – ‘the End of History’ – your thesis. Does this still apply in the Trump era?
Francis Fukuyama: Well the end of history – the word ‘end’ – didn’t mean termination. It meant what’s the direction of history. And I said in 1989 that it seemed to be pointing toward liberal democracy rather than communism. And that part of it is still true. And we were actually at that point about half way through what was called the third wave of democratisation where we had gone from 35 countries being democratic to 115 perhaps. But over the past ten years we have been going backwards in a democratic recession, and we will have to see whether it is just a recession like a stock market correction or whether this is going to develop into something like a full-scale depression. But certainly the overall direction has not been very positive for the past few years.
In this Trump-populist move, what kind of influence is that going to have on America’s place in the world?
Well, it’s as if America has checked out of world leadership for the time being. We’ve withdrawn from the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), we’ve threatened to withdraw from NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), the Paris climate agreement, quite a number of international, multilateral institutions have been affected by this. And unfortunately that leadership vacuum, other countries are trying to fill it. China is the one that’s got the best chance of doing so because it’s got the most resources, it’s the world’s largest country, and so forth. The question for me though is whether the United States is going to be back and whether Trump actually lasts. I think he will last his first four years but the crucial question will be whether he actually lasts for eight, and that still an open question.
The rise of Trump and his survival I think later on depends on this ability to exploit that populism and this sense of alienation I think a lot people in American society have felt – this loss of dignity and so on that you talk about. Do you think that is a problem that is going to maintain? Is that a problem that is prevalent in other countries?
I think that everybody has a sense of resentment at not being recognised, at being seen as invisible by elites, and that’s what’s driving populism – not just in the United States but in Britain and in continental Europe. A lot of it has a cultural element too because immigration has been a big issue for a lot of people, they feel like they used to define what the national identity was, they and people like them, but now they’re being displaced by people that are culturally different. All of these are factors. The economic part of globalisation is also part of the story – the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs and the dignity that came with that.
You talk about a healthy sense of national identity. You say that peoples need a national identity. In the context of the Kurds you say this is quite a healthy national identity.
Well, I think it is very hard not to be sympathetic to the Kurds, given they suffered under Saddam Hussein and the struggles that they undergo in other countries where there are Kurdish populations. I think it’s up to the Kurds to define that identity in a way that is neither aggressive or repressive of other peoples that live within areas that they control, and so far I think their record has been pretty good.
And they slot into the national context of Iraq, which is somewhere which has struggled with ethnic nationalism, religious nationalism, and so on. You were in favour of the war to remove Saddam initially, but you then turned against the unilateralism and the militarism that came with that. Was the strategy all wrong from the start from the US point of view?
Well, it was wrong in the sense that the United States did not remotely plan adequately to actually do something to create Iraq as a viable country – much less a democracy after its invasion. I think that was the inexcusable mistake that the Bush administration made, because if you break something, you’re responsible for it. We really didn’t take that responsibility seriously until we had already made some irreparable mistakes like disbanding the Iraqi army and letting an insurgency appear because of the chaos of the first few months after the invasion.
Is there a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Middle East works? And are we in danger of making these same mistakes again with sanctions on Iran and trade war on Turkey? Is the US still not learning from past mistakes?
I think the overall American record in the Middle East is very poor. I think that Americans really don’t understand – I don’t think there’s one way the Middle East works and that some genius can really understand it. I think what you need is an appreciation of the complexities of this region and the interplay of different actors. I think people even living in this region get very confused by what’s really happening. The Saudis for example have been quite confused about their own region for some time. But I think what it requires from a country as distant as the United States is just to be a lot more careful and to recognise that we really are strangers in this region and that we should tread carefully.
You’re quite a proponent of Wilsonian Liberalism, of benign intervention in the world, of working through international organisations. What would you like to see the United States do from here post-Trump or even Trump turning in the right direction?
Well, I think the United States needs to stay involved in international organisations – the World Bank, the IMF, the United Nations – all of these things are very important for world order. The Paris climate agreement, all of these things. I think that American soft power right now is critical, and it’s turned against itself. The United States used to be a model democracy for other aspiring democracies around the world. Now it’s a kind of negative example of a country that’s turned inward and has become very selfish and self-absorbed and careless and I think that’s something we need to fix. And the only way we’re going to fix that is domestically, in the United States itself.