Marxist, yes, with a touch of bourgeoisie

July 16, 2004

Weak, not strong, states pose the greatest threat to our security, insists Francis Fukuyama - a man who wears his fame lightly, as Brendan Simms found

Francis Fukuyama is one of the best-known intellectuals in the world. Even the waiter who served me before the interview - who could not have been more than ten years old when my interlocutor first shot to fame more than a decade ago - volunteered that "Mr Fukuyama is a very interesting man". Yet Fukuyama wears his fame lightly: there is no trace of arrogance in his manner; he is not constantly looking over one's shoulder, or in a hurry to move on; and he answers questions carefully, without bombast. And he does not feel any pressure to repeat his triumph of 1989, when, as a young US State Department official, he published his article in The National Interest announcing the "end of history" and the victory of Western capitalist democracy over its rivals, in particular Soviet Communism. As he says, he does not want to be "drawn into saying outrageous things simply to stir up debate".

Instead, Fukuyama has stuck with big themes, but without any attempt to "dumb down". Over the past ten years, this has resulted in works such as Trust (1995), The Great Disruption (1999) and Our Posthuman Future (2002). Now he has tackled "state-building", in a book of the same name, subtitled "Governance and World Order in the Twenty-First Century". Despite its brevity, State Building is a demanding book that makes few concessions to the general reader. It reflects a determination on Fukuyama's part to remain engaged with the academic and policy milieu from which he rose to prominence after 1989.

State-building, Fukuyama argues, is the central challenge of our time. The main threat to our security today comes not from strong states, such as China, but from weak or "failed" states, in which terrorists and drug smugglers thrive, and whose only obvious export is large numbers of indigent, and sometimes diseased, migrants. As Fukuyama stresses in the interview, the Balkan crises of the 1990s demonstrated that state-building was something the West would have to undertake, whether it wanted to or not. More recently, the occupation of Afghanistan and the attempt to build a democratic alternative evolved from the US drive, in the aftermath of 9/11, to uproot the governmental sponsors of al-Qaeda in Kabul, and to prevent the country from ever becoming a springboard for attacks on America again. In that context, state-building becomes an act not so much of benevolence as of self-defence. A possible future case for semi-voluntary state-building, Fukuyama suggests, would be a collapse of North Korea, which would "inevitably" suck in the neighbouring countries and the US.

Fukuyama's solution involves a break from the ideological nostrums of the 1980s, which sought salvation in pruning back the role of the state. By contrast, he seeks to increase state power, or at least state "capacity", the ability to deliver a range of functions effectively. He is less firm on whether states should be broad in "scope", as in Europe, or narrow, as in the US. Rather, he emphasises the need for constructive norms of behaviour such as the rule of law and the absence of corruption, which cannot be implanted but must develop over time.

This is all very well, but what of programmatic state-building, such as that being attempted by the US-led coalition in Iraq? Can Fukuyama devise a list of criteria to underpin a doctrine of "proactive" state-building in cases where the West had a choice whether or not to intervene? His response is that no such abstract model exists, or is indeed desirable: the decision would have to be taken "not mechanistically" but on a case-by-case basis depending on regional context, possible allies and so on. Moreover, Western resources and attention spans are finite, says Fukuyama, so we should be "very careful" how many such commitments we take on.

As one might expect, State Building has had a mixed reception. Just as "the end of history" was seen as a piece of Western triumphalism, and premature to boot, the Western premises underlying the new book have given widespread offence, not just among the usual "anti-triumphalist" third-worldist suspects. One of Fukuyama's more formidable critics, John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, has dismissed the book's version of history as an amalgam of "weird, crypto-Marxian, neoconservative" Whiggery. Fukuyama retorts that Gray is in essence a cultural relativist who has lost his bearings. But he is happy to accept parts of the charge. In so far as he believes in progress and modernisation as inevitable and (largely) desirable processes, Fukuyama avers, he is certainly a Marxist. It's just, as he puts it, that he gets off "at the station marked bourgeois democracy".

Moreover, Fukuyama does not deny his connections to the neoconservatives, many of whom are his personal friends. His support for the original Project for a New American Century in 1997 - often seen as a founding charter for contemporary neoconservatism - is a matter of record, but since then he has been critical of neocons' failure to address economics. Most recently, before and after the Iraq War, Fukuyama has warned of the dangers of trying to transform Middle Eastern societies before they are ready. As political scientist Ken Jowitt put it recently, if Fukuyama is Marx, then the neocons are Leninist vanguardists seeking to accelerate what should be an unstoppable process through military force. This comparison does not seem to flatter the neocons; but it is also a tacit acknowledgement of the difficulties regime changers have faced in "operationalising" an abstract programme in difficult local conditions.

And so our conversation, like so many conversations nowadays, shifts to the neocons, and well beyond the confines of his new book. What is so curious about recent controversies, Fukuyama points out, is that the neocons, who have for decades been warning of the dangers of social engineering, advocate a project of regional transformation of epic proportions in Iraq.

At the same time, men who made their reputations arguing that the Arab world was fundamentally maladjusted now think it ripe for democracy. One might add that the reverse is also true: those who railed for years against "orientalist" construction about Arab predilection for tyranny suddenly claim that the Middle East is "not yet ready" for Western democracy.

The problem, Fukuyama suggests, is not that the neocons are ignorant, but that they are out of date. Thanks to their emigre friends, they are familiar with a centralised, quasi-totalitarian state, familiar to Western readers from the pages of Kanan Makiya's classic Republic of Fear . In fact, that Iraq was a casualty of the 1991 war, after which Saddam Hussein "retribalised" Iraqi society and sought to relegitimise his rule in religious terms.

One comes away with the thought that state-building in Iraq is proving so difficult not least because the state the coalition of the willing expected to reform has withered away.

State Building is published by Profile Books, £15.99.

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