Fukuyama: ‘Putinism,’ radical Islam provide no alternative to liberal democracy

Special to WorldTribune.com

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Russian President Vladimir Putin and the extremist Islamic State group are sworn enemies that might seem to have little in common.

But both are engaged in efforts at state building that U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama says share two qualities: each seeks to create a political alternative to a modern liberal democracy, and each is doomed to failure.

Francis Fukuyuama
Francis Fukuyuama

Speaking in a wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL while visiting Tbilisi this month, Fukuyama said history shows that the process of modernization leads societies to form liberal democracies with market systems. Yet some leaders insist on trying to create alternative models, even though those models are unstable and retrograde.

Putin’s authoritarian effort to create a managed democracy in Russia offers a good example.

Fukuyama, a professor of international studies at Stanford University, recalls that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 many people expected Russia to make a rapid transition from communism to democracy. That was shortly after Fukuyama himself published a widely-read essay titled The End of History?, in which he argued that the ideological battles between East and West were over and that Western liberal democracy had triumphed.

However, what followed in Russia was a period of experimentation with relatively greater liberalism under President Boris Yeltsin that led not to democracy, but the rise of Putin and an authoritarian system informally termed “Putinism.” The system has the trappings of a democracy but is in fact a top-down order that keeps power and wealth in the hands of the president and his cronies.

“I think the idea people had after 1991 that there would be a quick transition is clearly wrong,” says Fukuyama, assessing what has happened in Russia under Putin.

But he says that Putin’s authoritarian system does not mean that he has built a successful alternative to liberal democracy. Instead, the system owes its existence in part to the slow development of a middle class in Russia that normally would demand a share of power. That slow development, in turn, is largely thanks to the state’s monopolization of the country’s most lucrative business activities: the export of energy and other natural resources.

“A lot of it has to do with relationships with economic growth because I think in really high-growth countries with a large middle class, with lots of educated people, there is a tendency to demand greater political participation,” Fukuyama notes. “I think what you are seeing with the rise of Putinism in Russia and in parts of Eastern Europe is in a way the failure of that kind of modernization to produce a really broad middle-class society.”
But if Putinism currently has a tight grip on Russia, the historian calls it an empty system.

“His model is based on a narrow energy-dependent economic model which right now is falling apart,” the political scientist notes. “I think what is happening in Russia right now as global commodity prices have fallen is the exposure of the hollowness of this and we will see after another decade of economic failure whether Russians really think this is such a great alternative to the kind of both freedom and prosperity that is seen in Western Europe.”

Fukuyama notes that it took Western Europe a 150-year period to develop its system of liberal democracy and that the two decades of recent history are “not necessarily a sign that there will never be this kind of political development” in Russia as well.

Similarly, the political scientist sees little future for radical Islam as an alternative to liberal democracy.

“The Islamic State is not a state and I would predict fairly confidently that they are not going to establish a viable one and it is certainly not an attractive state,” he says. “It is not a state in which millions of people are dying to live in a place which beheads people regularly and forces women into these highly constrained roles.”

He ascribes the success of Islamic State and other radical Islamic groups to the failure of authoritarian governments in the Arab world to create regimes that have popular legitimacy and meet the economic needs of their citizens.

“It’s true that liberalism is not doing well in that part of the world,” he observes. “But I do not think that radical Islam represents a long-term civilizational alternative to the kind of (democratic) regimes that exist in Europe and North America and Asia.”

Fukuyama says that “there is a historical process of modernization that comes from within societies” that causes them over time to develop into liberal democracies with market systems. As the best examples, he cites the democratic systems that exist in Western Europe today. There, citizens share power and have the opportunity to gain wealth, while the state assures economic inequalities do not grow too great.

“It is true that if you simply have market capitalism not embedded in a true democratic system, then you will get increasing inequality,” he notes. “And that is why every modern capitalist system has a welfare state and in Europe these welfare states consume 50 percent of GDP, redistribute it in fairer ways.”

“I have always thought the European Union represented a truer embodiment of what I would regard as something like the end of history,” he says. “The United States’ model is a little bit more liberal and therefore we do less redistribution than, let’s say, Holland or Sweden, but all modern states do that.”