Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order: Why hasn't liberal democracy swept the planet?

Reading between the lines.
May 2 2011 6:45 AM

How To Get to the End of History

Francis Fukuyama turns to, well, history to chart the way.

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Some 19th- and 20th-century Westerners concluded from this older theory of history that the only way to become modern was to become European, by—for instance—accepting European colonial rule until the necessary values had been learned. Others, including Marx and Lenin, instead decided that non-European societies must be shocked out of their slumber by revolutionary vanguards that would shatter the old, fossilized order, at whatever cost. This vision of history was not, of course, the only reason why Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and the Kims of North Korea visited such horrors upon their peoples; but it bears a heavy burden of responsibility.

Fukuyama draws a more optimistic lesson from history. If today's developing societies can recreate the kind of balance between state power, independent judiciaries, and accountability to nonstate actors that prevailed in 17th-century Western Europe, he suggests, they too will get to Denmark.

Specialist historians will, of course, want to argue with Fukuyama over whether he has really got the history right. Taking on so much of the past in 500 pages is an epic achievement, and—not surprisingly—there are plenty of places that Fukuyama's analysis might be challenged.

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The most important, I suspect, is the idea that Qin China was the world's first modern state, which perhaps overstates Qin's similarity to early modern Europe while understating its similarity to other empires of the first millennium B.C. All across Eurasia, from China to the Mediterranean, climate change and population growth drove the rise of much bigger, more bureaucratic, and less patrimonial empires in the first millennium B.C. Qin China was neither the first of them—that honor should go to Assyria, in the eighth century—nor the most developed (Rome in the first few centuries A.D. surely takes the laurels here).

This, of course, is all ancient history; but it matters. If this alternative view of antiquity is correct, we should not trace current differences between China, India, the Middle East, and Europe back to the empires of the first millennium B.C., because the similarities between these empires far outweighed the differences. We should also think twice before following Fukuyama in concluding that Europe has been leading the world in moving toward a modern political order for nearly 1,000 years—or that this modern order is the product of historical contingencies.

In this alternative view, Eurasian empires all followed similar rhythms, with state power, accountability to nonstate actors, and the rule of law all broadly advancing across the first millennium B.C. and then retreating in the early first millennium A.D. as invaders such as the Huns poured in from the steppes of central Asia. After "Dark Ages" of various lengths and depths, which saw repatrimonialization everywhere, the package of state power, accountability, and rule of law resumed its advance all across Eurasia, beginning in China in the sixth century, in India and the Middle East in the seventh-eighth century, and in Europe in the 10th century.

Europe remained for centuries the country cousin of Eurasia, similar to the grander civilizations of Asia in its social structures but backward in crafts and scholarship and poor in resources and technology. Only in the 15th century, on this reconstruction, did Europe begin to diverge—but not because it had stumbled several centuries earlier onto the perfect balance between state power, the rule of law, and the accountability of rulers to nonstate actors. A different catalyst gets credit: As soon as ships were invented that could be relied upon to cross oceans (as happened in the 13th-14th centuries), the fact that Western Europe was geographically so much closer to the resources of the Americas than was any other part of the Old World began pushing Europe down a distinctive path.

This way of looking at the past suggests that the creation of a modern political order in Western Europe happened rapidly, in the 17th-18th centuries, rather than gradually, over the long period since the 11th century; and that it was driven by the new wealth and market economy generated by Atlantic trade, not by the accidental outcomes of struggles between popes and emperors in Germany and kings and commoners in England during the Middle Ages.

And if that is true, it might point us toward an even more optimistic conclusion than Fukuyama's—that there is no need for 21st-century politicians to try to reproduce a delicate balance between state and civil society that Europeans created slowly, accidentally, and violently across 700 years. Rather, history's lesson is that from the first millennium B.C. to the third millennium A.D., ordinary people have successfully—and quite quickly—restructured their societies to respond to the challenges that economics thrusts upon them. Responding to the problems and opportunities that Atlantic trade created in the 17th and 18th centuries, Western Europeans rebalanced state power, rule of law, and accountability; responding to the challenges of global trade in the 20th and 21st centuries, other countries may well repeat the act.

These are the kind of questions that Fukuyama's new book forces us to think about. It is an intellectual triumph—bold in scope, sound in judgment, and rich in provocations; in short, a classic. And perhaps the most delightful thing of all is that the author of "The End of History" is now stepping forward as the champion of history's importance.

Ian Morris is a professor at Stanford University and author ofWhy the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future.

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