Fukuyama Takes on Critics

On Tuesday, September 16, a packed Love Auditorium played host to Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and world-renowned author Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama’s lecture addressed the critiques laid against his highly controversial 1989 thesis, which suggested that history, defined in Hegelian terms as the clash of ideologies, was basically at an end with the imminent fall of communism. Fukuyama instead predicted that liberal democracy would triumph as the final form of social organization.

In his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, in which Fukuyama expounded upon this argument.

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war 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,” Fukuyama wrote.

A bestseller on every continent and published in over twenty countries, The End of History and the Last Man, has provoked much debate in the past 20 years. His lecture on Tuesday, the 2009 Lampert Lecture organized by The Institute for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PP&E), provided a forum for Fukuyama to defend the relevance of his twenty-year old thesis, in the context of criticisms lodged against it, to students, faculty and Hamiltonians alike. The five biggest criticisms of his argument included Huntington’s argument of a “clash of civilizations,” the increasing presence of Islam, the growth of China on the international scene, the repercussions of technological advances and the lack of a central international institution to provide collective action.

Associate Professor of Political Science Douglas Macdonald discussed some of the merits of the lecture.

“[The talk] brought some of the major intellectual currents in American intellectual circles to campus,” Macdonald said. “I thought that Fukuyama’s talk was very well-crafted, as he dealt with five major critiques of his hypothesis as part of the talk. This was very much in tune with the ’20 years later’ theme he was asked to talk about. Also, in the Q&A, he was very good at answering the questions put to him.”

Students such as first-year Amy McBeth were equally impressed with Fukuyama.

“I thought it was really impressive that he talked not only about his own thesis but the criticisms that have been brought up against it in the last 20 years,” McBeth said. “I also thought he was really honest about potential failings in his thesis.”

One instance of this type of “honesty” was Fukuyama’s admission that if China, which posed a challenge to Fukuyama’s thesis, managed to sustain itself, his theory would become defunct.

Fukuyama’s talk was followed by a lively question-and-answer session, which began with students’ questions and then was opened up to faculty. However, the time constraint left some with unasked questions and concerns regarding Fukuyama’s thesis.

“One thing I wanted to ask him, but refrained from doing so because I thought that student questioning – which I was very impressed by – should prevail, was: Does he think that history is teleological? That is, is history a process heading towards a particular end-game? Or is it simply a process that has not any particular end result?” Professor Macdonald said. “It seems to me he agrees with the former conclusion, that somehow history is ‘aimed’ at producing a particular result. Yet, as a student in class today asked, might there be some future set of ideas that replace, or at least come into conflict with, liberal democracy that we do not yet see?”

McBeth also admitted that she wasn’t wholly convinced by Fukuyama’s argument.

“I think that he presented his claim well and that it was plausible, but it still left me with a few questions,” McBeth said.

In general, however, most seemed to appreciate Fukuyama’s approachability and openness to others’ critiques.

“I was impressed by our class’s appreciation of how open-minded he was,” Macdonald said. “So the effect on students was overwhelmingly positive, whether they agreed with him or not. That is a good speaker.”

“Overall, a very good lecture and one which opened discussion on this complicated subject,” Macdonald said. “This is what we should have more on campus, rather than the one-sided presentation usually given, or the ‘Hardball’ model of either-or answers shooting it out. I was very impressed, and think it was a perfect pitch to an intelligent undergrad audience. PP&E should be congratulated for the choice.”