Francis Fukuyama is late. We have agreed to meet at Roast, a quintessentially English restaurant in Borough Market, just five minutes from the Financial Times' London office. I arrive on time at 12:30 p.m. and am shown to a relatively quiet table. After 10 minutes I become anxious. Maybe professor Fukuyama expected to meet me at the office. I call the FT reception and am relieved to learn he is not waiting for me. I sip the water and wait.
Fukuyama, slight, short, and dressed in a respectable gray suit and tie, arrives 20 minutes late, apologizing profusely, saying his publicist had not realized how long it would take to reach the restaurant. The American writer and academic is in London to publicize his new book, The Origins of Political Order, about the development of political institutions throughout history. (This is such a large subject that Fukuyama is tackling it in two volumes with the first covering From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.)
I have known Fukuyama, who is 58, for some time. In 2006, I delivered a series of lectures for him at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., where he was professor of international policy economy before his move last year to Stanford University.
We agree to forgo wine and starters and he chooses chicken and bacon pie while I have already picked the day's special, meat carved from a whole roasted lamb.
We start with the news of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest, which has just broken. "Isn't that an amazing story?" Fukuyama says. "Even if it was an entrapment of some sort, the way he responded, if it's even remotely true, it's just unbelievable."
The food arrives quickly and I tuck into my excellent lamb while Fukuyama eats slowly as he thinks about his answers. (Later on he still has food in front of him long after I have finished but waves away the waiters who want to remove it.)
Fukuyama is best-known for his book The End of History and the Last Man(1992), in which he stated that liberal democracy was the only way to run a modern state. I get the impression that his support for democracy is now much more conditional than he thought then.
He says: "The way I feel right now is that it's an open question which system is going to do better in the next while—a high-quality authoritarian one or a deadlocked, paralyzed, democratic one, with lots of checks and balances? Over the long run, it will be easier to sustain a system with checks and balances, precisely because the checks and balances permit adaptation. You can get rid of a bad leader.
"And, then I think that the normative dimension comes into play because an authoritarian state doesn't recognize the dignity of its citizens. That makes me dislike the system but, more importantly, it's the weakness of the system because, at a certain point, the anger of people at being treated in this fashion will spill over."
Nevertheless, he goes on, "in many ways, Asian government, not just China, but Singapore and in an earlier day, Japan and South Korea, had governments that looked more like a corporate board of governance because there's no downward accountability whatever. You don't have to deal with constituents. ... You run the whole country like a corporation, and I think that's one of their advantages at the moment."
Turning to China, Fukuyama says: "One of the advantages of their form of authoritarianism is that they concluded after Mao that they would never again allow a single individual to exert that kind of domination over their system, and that's why they have term limits. That's why all of the decisions have to be taken collectively. But, in the end, that system is also going to have its inefficiencies."
Yet it soon becomes clear that he does not think much of the U.S. political system either. "Just look at the way that interest groups in the United States have a veto on the simplest kinds of reforms," he says. "We allow mortgage interest deduction regardless of how expensive the house is. Why is that the case? Because we have a real estate industry that says, 'Don't even think about changing this.' "