April 10, 2011
Not long after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Francis Fukuyama was just a green 27-year-old researcher at the RAND Corporation, the military-focused think tank. His assignment? Gin up a strategy to counter Moscow’s aggression. Fresh from filing his dissertation on Soviet foreign policy at Harvard, he quickly faced the unsettling fact that Washington knew next to nothing about South Asia. So he picked up the phone.
“Next thing I know, the ISI was offering me a two-week tour of the North-West Frontier province,” Fukuyama recalls, referring to Pakistan’s intelligence service and the treacherous border the country shares with Afghanistan. The ambitious scholar jumped on a plane and was soon interviewing Afghan refugees and dining with soldiers at the Khyber Pass. As proof, there’s a grainy snapshot of Fukuyama, wearing a wide smile and a pair of hip sunglasses, eating a mango beside a Pakistani colonel. He drafted a report on his return, “just a little note,” he says, “arguing the U.S. should support the mujahedin.” Soon after, the Reagan administration was shipping F-16s to Pakistan. Fukuyama denies his analysis served as a catalyst. But New Delhi didn’t think so: “I became one of the most hated people in India,” he says.
Either way, the bold undertaking was the first clear evidence of the way Fukuyama’s intellectual instincts hard-wire him into the most geopolitically strategic—not to mention dangerous—corners of the world.
Fast-forward more than two decades and Fukuyama, now 58 and the Freeman Spogli senior fellow at Stanford University, has aged enviably little. It’s early on a rainy Monday morning in March, immediately following the weekend President Barack Obama and NATO allies opened a bombing campaign in Libya. He’s sitting at his cherry kitchen table in his new California home. Gone are the sunglasses and the South Asian spies, but the intellectual hunger remains.
A one-page letter sits on the kitchen table and Fukuyama’s leaning back in his chair, avoiding it. It is from the Foreign Policy Initiative, the latest avatar of America’s neoconservative movement, comprising people like William Kristol, John Podhoretz, and Max Boot—men who advocate the use of American military might to set the world order straight. The communiqué—Fukuyama didn’t even reach to read it—demanded that President Obama unleash airstrikes on Libya. Once upon a time, Fukuyama would have been part of the gang. After all, his name stood out at the bottom of the notorious letter from the Project for the New American Century (a previous neocon-policy arm) to President Bill Clinton in 1998, calling for the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
So why is Fukuyama’s name absent today? “That presumes I want to be a member of that club,” he says abruptly. In a pressed, blue button-down shirt and pleated dark slacks, he cracks open pistachios, contemplative but cagey. The brusqueness is unusual. For Fukuyama—a man with the ready confidence of, say, a principal on the National Security Council—is never lost for words. It is as if no question is a surprise, so no answer is ever offered entirely off the cuff, whether it be about the future of democracy in Cairo or the longevity of the Communist Party in Beijing. Which is not to say that he is bland. On present-day Republicans, in fact, he is downright caustic: “All of the Kissinger-era realists have gone away, like Robert Zoellick, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft. Today, the party is just a wasteland. They are total amateurs on foreign policy.”
Francis Fukuyama—“Frank,” to his friends—is arguably the world’s bestselling contemporary political scientist, thanks to “The End of History?”—first published as an essay in The National Interest in 1989, then fattened into a book (without the question mark) three years later. Its impact derived as much from its unforgettable title (which meant it stuck in the minds of many millions who did not read it) as from its content (with which many fewer people came to be truly familiar). Fukuyama’s thesis, in a nutshell, was that with the collapse of Soviet communism, the big question of how humans will organize themselves had been solved. Revolutions and war would undoubtedly continue, but liberal democracy would be the only game in town. So, History, with a capital H, was kaput.
If he started with the end, Fukuyama is now returning to the beginning: he wants to answer the existential question of politics—where does government come from?
But he’s pursuing this newest project all alone. He has publicly turned his back on the neocon movement. He has no interest in ingratiating himself in the foreign-policy establishment. Actually, after 22 years in Washington, Fukuyama has escaped to Stanford. He lives in Palo Alto, California, where dotcom money reigns. “Google is just up the street. My wife ran into Mark Zuckerberg at Trader Joe’s,” he says, “and watch out—you’ll probably see a few Ferraris around.” (In fact, by the end of the afternoon the sweet California sun had begun to shine, and we’d spotted two.) The End of History was the making of Fukuyama, not only as a public intellectual, but also financially. His beautiful new house (into which he and his wife have just moved) stands in one of the most expensive ZIP codes in America.
Self-exile from his former milieu and from his old associates, however, seems to have offered Fukuyama a kind of mental liberation, freeing him from ideological trappings and allowing him to serve up his magnum opus. His new book, The Origins of Political Order , which hits bookstores this week, seeks to understand how human beings transcended tribal affiliations and organized themselves into political societies. “In the developed world, we take the existence of government so much for granted that we sometimes forget how difficult it was to create,” he writes.
Political order begins, he says, in ancient China. By the time of the Chin dynasty in 221 B.C., some 10,000 individual separate chiefdoms across Asia had been corralled into a single state. How did that happen? To boil things down quickly: the state evolved to allow for a more effective making of war. Walking forward through the millennia, he investigates the political evolution of India: the strict social class structure defined its politics. Then the Islamic caliphate: “There is no clearer illustration of the importance of ideas to politics than the emergence of an Arab state under the Prophet Muhammad,” but the spread of Islam “depended also very much on political power” and military slavery. Lastly, he outlines the rise of the Catholic Church in Europe: “The Western separation of church and state has not been a constant since the advent of Christianity but rather something much more episodic—in fact, it established what we know today as the rule of law.” (The book ends at the French Revolution, leaving subsequent history to the next volume.)
What does Fukuyama make of the confounding world of today, with revolutions rocking the Middle East and the rest torn between Washington’s free-market democratic model or Beijing’s authoritarian state capitalism? “There’s something very gratifying about the Middle East demonstrating that Islam is not at odds with the democratic currents that have swept up other parts of the world,” he says. “But what’s most important, actually, is what happens next.” That is, of course, the messy, often contentious process of engineering democracy. These are complicated places—despotic rule has stunted political parties (or, as in Libya, erased them entirely) and gutted civil society. That’s where the real trouble begins. On the “Arab Spring,” he’s bearish. “I guarantee you in a year or two it will not look as hopeful. It’s the whole point of my book. You need institutions, leaders—and corruption has to be under control. These are really the failings of many democracy movements. And it’s happening again—if you look at Egypt, the liberal parties are floundering.”
While the world can’t take its eyes off the Middle East, Fukuyama is, instead, looking ahead to China. Beijing has gone to great lengths—stymieing communications, hitting protests with an iron fist—to keep any democratic wave from rolling too far east. The Chinese government, he argues, will be successful in stifling protest, at least in the near term. “Authoritarianism in China is of a far higher quality than in the Middle East,” he wrote recently. Revolutions, he argues, don’t come from the disenchanted poor, but from an upwardly mobile middle class fed up with anachronistic government that does little but keep them from achieving their potential. So Beijing may be able to keep its people happy for now, but in the coming years its biggest risk is putting off democratic reforms and ending up with a regime that’s fallen behind its people. When the Chinese middle class is no longer willing to forgo political freedom for bigger paychecks, or when the Communist Party grows stagnant, unable to keep up with the masses, then change is going to come, one way or another.
Strange as it may sound for a man who secured fame and fortune with an essay titled “The End of History?” his prescience as a political philosopher flows from his “revulsion at triumphalist views” (in the view of Paul Berman, author of Flight of the Intellectuals ). When Fukuyama first joined up with the neocons back in the 1970s under the tutelage of Allan Bloom (who wrote The Closing of the American Mind ), it was largely a reaction against the left-wing triumphalism of the Great Society and of the cultural rebellions of the New Left spawned in 1968. More recently, Berman says, “the same kind of triumphalism overtook the neoconservatives on the right, and he turned away from them.”
That break with the neoconservative clan had a very specific genesis. At an annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute in February 2004, Fukuyama sat listening first to a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney and then the columnist Charles Krauthammer, who declared a “unipolar era” had begun, which, of course, the U.S. would lead. “All of these people around me were cheering wildly,” Fukuyama remembers. But in his view, Iraq was fast becoming a blunder. “All of my friends had taken leave of reality.”
But rather than keep it in the family, Fukuyama went public. “I tried to keep it about ideas and policies, not to make it personal,” he says. But that’s not entirely true. He may think differently now, but Fukuyama wrote explicitly in Crossroads that “this is a personal subject for me.” People like Paul Wolfowitz (then undersecretary of defense and a neoconservative) were his friends—Wolfowitz not only gave Fukuyama his first job at the State Department, but later recruited him to Johns Hopkins—and Fukuyama had betrayed them. (Neither Krauthammer nor Wolfowitz responded to repeated requests for their sides of the story.) “No,” Fukuyama says, “I have not talked with Wolfowitz since.”
Fukuyama’s mother was born in Kyoto. His paternal grandfather fled the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 and settled in Los Angeles, where he opened a hardware store. Decades later, however, he had to hurriedly sell the shop in Little Tokyo when he was interned with other Japanese Americans during World War II, an episode Fukuyama calls a “grave injustice” and doesn’t hesitate to liken to the Islamophobia thought by many to be coursing through American society today. “This nonsense follows from the same impulse,” he says. It’s one of many opportunities he takes to sling arrows at conservatives, remarkable for a man who served two Republican administrations.
Over the years, Fukuyama has scampered across the world’s chalkboard like an intellectual chameleon. “Like many life stories, mine just meandered all over the place in a random fashion and landed in a couple of lucky places that were not planned at all,” he says. His books have taken on not only politics and philosophy, but also biotechnology and that tinderbox of an idea: human nature. “He’s incredibly intellectually honest,” says Walter Russell Mead, a historian of American foreign policy. “He goes where his head takes him. His first duty is to the truth as he sees it.”
If Fukuyama’s first duty is indeed to the truth, his personal hobbies rank a very close second. “They’re a part of why I don’t go back into government—I wouldn’t have time for them,” he says. In his home office, a floor-to-ceiling cabinet houses a tower of high-end stereo components—including a Space Age–looking turntable that cost as much as a used car. “People who are really nuts for this kind of thing don’t talk about lows and highs, they talk about the space of sound,” he says, dropping the needle on Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain . He keeps a woodworking shop there, too. He’s also an amateur photographer and recently remarked, “These days I seem to spend as much time thinking about gear as I do analyzing politics for my day job.”
Strolling amid the red-tiled roofs and sandstone façades of the Stanford campus, Fukuyama explains that with Origins he envisions himself as a throwback to what he calls the “great historical anthropologists” of the 19th century. You may not recognize the names—people such as Henry Maine and Frederic Maitland—but their method seems to be experiencing a kind of resurgence. They wrote books sweeping in scope and grand in ambition, reaching across academic fields and entire eras of human history. “Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is probably closest to what I’m doing now,” Fukuyama says, comparing himself to the author of a bestseller who argued in 1997 that geography and climate ultimately determined why some societies (like Europe and North America) thrived while others (like sub-Saharan Africa) remained underdeveloped and poor.
Sitting in his corner office at Stanford, the shades drawn to fend off that California sun, Fukuyama glances at the chaotic piles of books surrounding him. “But Diamond didn’t account for culture and ideas in his exploration of development,” he says. And that, for Fukuyama, is what’s most important. Ideas fuel the engine of history, and in a time when the number of vital and honest ideas are fading, he’s pushing at every turn to get more flowing again.