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An Interview With Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama does not pay much attention to the field of international relations these days. In recent years, “the incentives have all been to do very empirical, but necessarily, very micro-level studies. This whole trend towards doing randomized experiments has accelerated that small-bore focus.” His current interests lie very far from “a lot of the cutting-edge research, that’s methodologically cutting-edge,” because such research “addresses pretty small issues.” The “micro-studies are very good, they are very important, but it’s hard to say these are the top three that you absolutely need to read.” In part, this is due to the significant increase in available sources of data that were almost unthinkable thirty years ago, when he joined the field.

Yet Fukuyama also identifies a deeper source: the emulation of economics. Political science has “regressed though in the sense that it’s been colonized by economics and by economic models. So the economists are all emulating physicists, and the political scientists are all emulating economists.” Political scientists end up missing many of the more interesting and fundamental questions of politics that cannot be explained by simple economic models. “You need much more contextual information, you need much deeper knowledge of history, you need languages, understating of culture really to understand political outcomes.” Not to say theory is not important, but “in politics, you just cannot come up with the kinds of elegant theoretical models that you can in economics.” Not that those models have proven effective, as the recent crisis has shown. “Those models don’t work very well. Economists themselves don’t really understand how the macroeconomy works.” In emulating economics’ methods and concerns, “we’ve really lost something in political science in that respect.”

Fukuyama has long been engaged with large issues, since his training in the Humanities as a Classics major at Cornell. “I wanted to learn Greek so I could read Plato and Aristotle in the original under the influence of Alan Bloom, who was a political theorist and a very charismatic teacher that I had met my freshman year.” He spent his undergraduate years studying philosophy, and not taking any political science, aside from political theory. As the post-modernist wave hit the United States in the mid-1970s, Fukuyama spent a year doing comparative literature. “I went to Paris and studied with Jacques Derrida and Roland Barte, and all these French luminaries. I ended up really hating it.” He switched into a political science graduate program, focusing on “very kind of nitty-gritty, policy-oriented political science,” in a sense “overcompensating in the other direction.” This circuitous route to the study of political science proved valuable. “I am really glad I had that kind of schizophrenic training, because I think the background in political theory introduced me to really big questions.”

Such training also embedded a healthy respect for qualitative methods. “A lot of times if you want to look for causality, the way to do it is not to try to run a regression between two big datasets, it’s actually going and talking to decision-makers and trying to trace the processes by which decisions are made.” Fukuyama is aware of the limitations of these methods, but thinks in for some of the bigger issues they are the only real option. “It won’t have a lot of external validity,” but that is ok, because “when you get to some of these big issues, there isn’t a single, elegant theory that’s going to have a lot of external validity, all you can do is try to understand specific cases.”

Inspiration from early mentors like Samuel Huntington reinforced this inclination toward big questions and projects. His current undertaking on political order is an attempt to rewrite and update Huntington’s own Political Order and Change in Societies. The End of History grew from the “European Hegelian tradition” that Fukuyama had been immersed in as an undergraduate and early graduate student. As he said:

"That’s probably where the Humanities background actually makes a difference, because I think in philosophy or in political theory you’re used to asking big questions. There’s no point in saying, “Does a co-payment increase the uptake in bed-nets?” That’s not a philosophical question. But the questions “What’s the best sort of government?” or “How do governments change or decay or grow?” That is the sort of thing that you ask if you’re a political theorist."

Though stemming from similar philosophical impulses, the process of tackling these massive projects has changed over the years. In the past, like the writing of The End of History, Fukuyama withdrew for a year, “did a lot of reading, wrote the book, then put it out there.” Now it is much more “kind of an iterative process.” He writes in sections, and then presents them for comment from colleagues. “It’s more of a social process, where I’m constantly getting feedback and it builds into something larger.”

Whatever his methods, the products have made him one of the preeminent political science intellectuals of the modern era. Dr. Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Internationl Studies (FSI), has produced landmark scholarship for over thirty years, from The End of History to his recent two-volume project on political development, The Origins of Political Order and the forthcoming Political Order and Political Decay. He remains a well-known, respected, and sometimes controversial academic, particularly in countries that have, correctly or incorrectly, tied his ideas to their own experiences with “neoliberal” institutions and reforms. This was evident during a recent trip he led to Argentina with Stanford University International Policy Studies graduate students, where officials from the Mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, to the Minister of Social Development, Alicia Kirchner, solicited his opinion on the country’s policies.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the impact of his scholarship, Fukuyama has been frequently misunderstood. “With regard to The End of History, the most common misunderstanding was just my use of the term ‘history,’ obviously,” he said. “It’s interesting, because the one group of people who had no problem with the concept were actually people of a Marxist tradition, because the Marxists have the same concept of History with a capital H, and then the end of History, which would be communism.” When Fukuyama suggested that the end of History would not be communism, but some form of liberal democracy, the Marxists understood perfectly; “they might not agree, but it was within their conceptual framework.” Most Americans, on the other hand, “don’t have that conceptual framework, didn’t grow up in that particular philosophical tradition” and so did not grasp his meaning when he referred to History. Many also misinterpreted The End of History to be referring to a particularly American variety of democracy and market economics. “Actually,” Fukuyama said, “I’ve always thought the European Union represents the true end of history, because in the European Union they’re basically trying to substitute law and a kind of universal norms for power politics in a way that the United States is not really willing to.”

In fact, Dr. Fukuyama is vocal about what he views as the decline in American institutions. “It’s not a good situation where you have a highly politicized political class and public, combined with a check-and-balance system that has evolved into something that I call a ‘vetocracy.’” The system was originally designed with significant impediments to quick government decision-making. “That’s fine if your main objective is to avoid tyranny, or if you don’t need very much government, which was the case in nineteenth century America.” Yet these same mechanisms are contributing to the current gridlock. Though not unprecedented in American history, the U.S. is now failing to accomplish “one of the most fundamental functions of a government, to pass sustainable, fiscally-responsible budgets, not just on a year-by-year basis, but actually to do it with some predictability.” The “capture of American government by well organized interest groups” has meant that “legislation is poorly written” and “we can’t reform our tax code.” The recent Supreme Court decision on campaign finance, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536, has “removed all the obstacles that stood in the way of the rich and powerful being able to use the system for their own purposes.”

The increasing trend toward greater income inequality in the U.S. is partly to blame for the polarization in Washington. Yet many of those who suffer the effects of the “growing skew in income distribution” have been driven by a burgeoning populism to vote for a Republican party that advocates the very policies that accelerate the trend. “It’s just one of these contradictory, not understanding your self-interest kinds of outcomes that periodically happen in democracies.” Populism itself can be a positive force, if harnessed for useful purposes, like the popular movement that drove the New Deal in the 1930s. “The capture of government institutions by elites in a democracy will only [not] happen if the people being harmed by that use their power at the ballot box to correct the situation.”

Fukuyama is not a doomsayer on the U.S., but a realist: “it’s not a crisis in the sense that the system is going to break down and come to a grinding halt, but it does mean that the quality of government in the United States is not good.” The ramifications of the stultification of institutions play out internationally, as well. Along with colleagues Larry Diamond, Gerhardt Casper, and Stephen Krasner at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), Fukuyama has seen a decline in the appeal of the U.S. model around the world, a far cry from the case even twenty years ago. “When you have a Washington that is so partisanly divided that we can’t pass a budget and the whole government shuts down, nobody says, ‘Yeah, we want to be like that. We want to shut down the government because we can’t agree on the budget.’”

Even with sufficient agreement to pursue a policy, there is no guarantee that it is implemented effectively. “People agree on many policies, but they can’t make them work.” Fukuyama cites the failures in nation-building after the Iraq War and the botched Obamacare rollout as recent examples. He supported the initial invasion of Iraq and thinks “that universal health insurance is a good thing, and we ought to have it.” Yet, in both cases, “they managed to screw this up in a way that it threatens the actual survival of the underlying policy. These are pure implementation issues.”

The decline of the bureaucracy in the United States is partly to blame. “Right now, our civil service is extremely demoralized, and I would say its quality has been declining steadily over the last thirty-forty years.” To help tackle this decline, Fukuyama joined the board of directors of the Volker Alliance, an organization started in 2013 by former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker to address effective implementation of public policies and rebuild public trust in government. He laments the fact that few of the most qualified people pursue work in the government bureaucracy. “It’s not surprising, because the government makes it really hard to work for them.” The most public service-oriented have been gravitating toward NGOs and international organizations rather than the civil service. “That’s really bad, because you need strong, smart, young, motivated people running the government. A lot of what I think I want to focus on at this stage of my life is to try to figure out how to make this stuff work better.”