Francis Fukuyama is on day 24 of a world tour to plug his fat new book, The Origins of Political Order.
I bump into him and a minder as he arrives at his publisher’s offices in central London. The offices, in what looks like an old warehouse, aspire to be a bit Manhattan — open plan, stripped wood, buzzy. The downside is that the ancient elevator has shut down, and the office is three floors up. Nobly, Frank — as his friends call him — insists on carrying a suitcase, which is almost as large as he is, as well as his backpack up all three flights, despite my efforts to help.
He has just had breakfast with the Financial Times and is doing the rounds of TV studios, but pausing only to get a cup of tea, we plunge straight in to what for me is a rather intimidating seminar on global politics. It is a bit like being 20 again and, horribly underprepared, going to a tutor to discuss the church under Henry II. Happily, Fukuyama fields my scattergun questions with polite aplomb. The only time he looks disconcerted is when the photographer asks him to start taking off his clothes to get a more relaxed look — Fukuyama doesn’t really do relaxed.
Almost 20 years after it appeared, he is still best known as the author of The End of History. It was that book — perhaps even just that title — that turned a foreign policy wonk and middle-ranking figure in the US Department of State into a global super-pundit. The 1992 book, which expanded on a famous essay published three years earlier, was much quoted without being much read. Much mocked, too, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when his critics pointed out that, far from being over, history seemed to be more urgent and unpredictable than ever. However, they had misunderstood his thesis: He had not argued that conflict would cease, but that, with the collapse of the Soviet empire, the ideological struggle was over. Liberal democracy was the only game in town.
The new book, the first of two volumes, explores how liberal democracies are established, how — in a nice phrase he uses prominently — countries “get to Denmark.” In the West, we take a great deal for granted — that we can vote governments out, that the rule of law will more or less hold sway, that corruption will be punished, that we will enjoy political freedoms, but much of the world doesn’t enjoy those privileges. Fukuyama is attempting to work out how states developed and why some became liberal democracies and others, notably China, opted for an authoritarian model.
Fukuyama argues that getting to Denmark relies on three things that have to be in harmony — a functioning state, the rule of law and accountable government. China’s problem was an overmighty state: It got civilization too soon. By a series of happy accidents, England managed to get all three by the 17th century, exported them to the US via freedom-conscious settlers and provided a model for the rest of the world. Those three preconditions of liberal democracy are the holy grail.
“The fact,” he writes, “that there are countries capable of achieving this balance constitutes the miracle of modern politics, since it is not obvious that they can be combined.”
The condition that the debt-ridden and divided EU is in at the moment made me wonder whether “getting to Denmark” was quite so desirable a journey these days, and I begin by asking him what he makes of Europe’s nervous breakdown.