Somebody please tell me: Whatever happened to “The End of History”?
As you may remember, in 1989, amidst the optimism spilling over from Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union – and even before the fall of the Berlin Wall – Francis Fukuyama’s essay announcing “The End of History” was published in the National Interest (Summer 1989).
Fukuyama wrote: “It is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history.”
In his essay, Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of Western liberal democracy, the end of ideological violence, the defeat of bolshevism and fascism, even the irrelevance of an updated version of Marxism.
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
The state that emerges at the end of history is liberal insofar as it recognizes and protects through a system of law man’s universal right to freedom, and democratic insofar as it exists only with the consent of the governed.
For a while, it seemed that Fukuyama might be right. Gorbachev’s Russia permitted the break-up of the Cold War’s Eastern Bloc/Soviet Union.
POLAND: June 4, 1989 – The pro democracy Solidarity movement overwhelmingly wins elections, taking all eligible seats in parliament. Solidarity-led government takes power in Poland in September.
Czechoslovakia: November 24, 1989 – Former leader Alexander Dubcek (ousted in 1968) tells more than 300,000 people in Prague his ideal of “socialism with a human face” is still alive in the minds of new generation. After a day-long crisis session, Communist Party leader Milos Jakes steps down.
Romania: December 22-25, 1989 – Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu is executed in a popular anti-communist revolt. The first government of the National Salvation Front (NSF) is formed.
Bulgaria: February 2, 1990 – Government resigns after opposition parties refuse to join a coalition until free elections are held.
East Germany: March 18, 1990 – Free elections, ruling Communists lose majority. In October, Germany is reunified and the communist German Democratic Republic ceases to exist.
Hungary: March 25, 1990 – First democratic elections bring democratic opposition to power.
Soviet Union: December 8, 1991 – Russia, Byelorussia (Belarus) and Ukraine create Commonwealth of Independent States and declare that the Soviet Union no longer exists as a legal or political entity.
- December 21, 1991 – Eight more republics join the commonwealth.
- December 25, 1991 – Gorbachev announces his resignation along with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin takes over.
Russia’s Transition to Democracy
A Russian constitution, adopted in 1993, declares the country to be a democratic, federative, law-based state with a republican form of government.
As the 1990s progress, however, the country faces rising poverty, homelessness and unemployment. These economic disruptions harm the prospects of a transition to full democracy.
Vladimir Putin assumes the presidency in 2000, promising stability and security. Although he is not thought to be ideological, he does pledge to strengthen the Russian state and renew its military and arms industry.
Back to Fukuyama
In case you’re wondering, Fukuyama did consider the emergence of alternatives to Western liberalism with religion and/or nationalism the most obvious challengers. But he quickly dismissed the possibility of their success.
Addressing nationalism, he downplayed the competitive behavior and expansionism of nineteenth century states, dismissing the importance of territorial expansion, and prioritizing economics over geography. Regarding Russia he says
the automatic assumption that Russia shorn of its expansionist communist ideology should pick up where the czars left off just prior to the Bolshevik Revolution is therefore a curious one.
He goes on to declare:
The Soviet Union, then, is at a fork in the road: it can start down the path that was staked out by Western Europe forty-five years ago, a path that most of Asia has followed, or it can realize its own uniqueness and remain stuck in history.
Unfortunately, Russia’s choice is no longer a guessing game. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has given us our answer.
For a while, it did seem that we were moving from an ‘ideology based’ to an ‘issue based’ world. Just think about the worldwide popularity of the Western consumer based culture, even in a former communist behemoth like China. There was an expectation among many that the ‘soft power’ of Netflix movies and the drive to acquire Apple watches would lead to an economic transformation that would inevitably lead to political liberalization. Regrettably, this scenario did not play out.
Instead of Fukuyama’s “prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history”, the world is now facing the increasing likelihood of large-scale conflict and disruption as Putin attempts to reconstruct the land mass of the Soviet Union or even the Czarist holdings of the Russian Empire.
President Joe Biden said recently that Vladimir Putin has “much larger ambitions” than Ukraine and is “out to reestablish the former Soviet Union.” I don’t think any of us knows for sure that this is the case. But it does appear that Cold War terminology is still relevant. Think containment, deterrence, and encirclement. Perhaps it’s time to take another look at grand strategy while we’re at it.**
Feature photograph by Vasenka Photography, Kiev, Ukraine (from Flickr)
(For those of you who wish to dig more deeply into The End of History, you can read Fukuyama’s full essay here.) Francis Fukuyama served as deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff and as an analyst at the RAND Corporation. This article is based on a lecture presented at the University of Chicago’s John M. Olin Center.
Some of you may want to help the people of the Ukraine. Here’s a recent New York Times piece on How You Can Help Ukraine.