Francis Fukuyama: Liberal World Order at Risk

Francis Fukuyama, a historian and an American political science professor at Stanford University in the US. is known for his 1992 international bestseller "The End of History and the Last Man" and other works. Professor Fukuyama was recently in Japan to study the latest trends in Asia, and to see how the region is responding to changes that are taking place. NHK World Special Affairs Commentator Aiko Doden sat down with him for an interview during his visit.

Fukuyama's work continues to provoke debate today 25 years after it was published. "The End of History and the Last Man" was printed around the end of the Cold War. Fukuyama examined the state of world politics at the time, and speculated what was to come in the post-Cold War world. He drew readers' attention to the rise of religious fundamentalism, progress in science and technology and to the changing nature of wars and conflicts, issues that sound all too familiar today.

But because it was around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, to many readers, the book provided a boost to liberal world order over communism. The focal point was that liberal institutions and the rule of law mattered in democracies in the age of globalization. Fukuyama spoke about whether a liberal world order still prevails today.

"In today's world, what do you see as some of the issues that are posing a challenge to the liberal order?"

"I think there's been a huge backlash against globalization. Because globalization made the world richer, but it didn't make everybody in every country richer. And in fact a lot of people in developed countries lost ground. Their jobs were exported to developing countries. They experienced downward social mobility and so they're very angry about that. I think that life in a stable democracy is often times not all that satisfying because people want something more than just consumerism and stability. They want, as I said, recognition of what's inside them.

"And so I think that's one of the things that's playing out for example now in American politics with Donald Trump who wasn't satisfied with just being a billionaire businessman, he also had to be a political figure. And we're trying to deal with that ambition as we speak."

Fukuyama is concerned that the US under Trump is drifting away from the ideals of a liberal world order, as "America First" comes to the forefront of its foreign policy.

"So, the United States created the existing liberal order in the decades after the Second World War. And it's now walking away from that leadership position. Donald Trump has, unlike any president prior to him, rejected that order. He got out of the TPP in his second day in office. He's pulled out of the Paris Climate accords. He's attacked all of his allies within the G7 on trade grounds. So the United States is temporarily -- I hope -- on vacation from any kind of leadership role in that liberal world order."

As the American presence fades, Fukuyama thinks China, with its rising power, is filling the vacuum, and that could be a problem for the liberal world order.

"I don't think that China will ever support the kind of open liberal order that the United States traditionally has supported. They are too nationalistic, and I think self-interested in a way, to provide the public goods that are needed to sustain that kind of order. You can see already in their actions in the South China Sea that they don't want to keep that part of the Pacific open for everybody. They think it's part of their territory and they want to claim it for themselves."

"China actually provides a big service to many countries because they have the capacity and the financing to actually build roads, hydroelectric dams, you know, electrical grids, all these things that countries really need. On the other hand, they do it without a concern for the kinds of safeguards that have been built into modern Western projects. And these safeguards have to do with environment, with worker safety, with consultation, with respect for the rights of indigenous peoples that may be affected by these sorts of things."

But Fukuyama thinks that a less transparent regional order such as the one led by China will not solve Asia's problems.

"There is a lot of dangerous ethnic politics going on, particularly in Southeast Asia right now. The Rohingya in Myanmar is the clearest example of that where there's been outright ethnic cleansing. But there has been a rise of radical Islam in Thailand, in the Philippines, in Malaysia, in Indonesia. And all of those are driven by resentments of various sorts. And so I think that's really why we need a liberal order. Because liberal order was supposed to get us away from this kind of identity, religiously based politics."

"And so I think both from the standpoint of the developing countries themselves, who need choice, and from the standpoint of geopolitics, it's important that there be alternatives to China."

"And Japan can play an important role supporting democracy in countries like Sri Lanka or Cambodia, or Thailand, or other countries in the region."

While the geopolitical forecast for the region remains gloomy, Fukuyama says hope still exists.

"And when will the US come back from vacation?"

"So it's up to the people?"

"It is ultimately, yes."

Aiko Doden spoke to Newsroom Tokyo anchors Hideki Nakayama and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Nakayama: It's interesting that Fukuyama sees a positive role for Japan as the power balance shifts in Asia. What specifically does he expect from Japan?

Doden: He looks to Japan as an alternative power who will provide another option for countries in Asia. He doesn't mean Japan is a fallback option, but that it will work to maintain and represent liberal order while the US is temporarily on vacation and China's presence looms large. Shibuya: You've been covering the young democracies and rising economies in South East Asia. Do you think that's what expected of Japan from those countries?

Doden: To be honest, I am not sure if countries in the region see Japan that way. South East Asia would rather take advantage of every opportunity than make an either/or choice. There is China's Belt and Road Initiative, a massive economic development scheme on the one hand, and Indo Pacific Strategy put forward by the US, India, Australia and Japan on the other. ASEAN countries in South East Asia sit right at the intersection of the 2. Fukuyama says he wouldn't anticipate a clash but that there will be a competition. And Japan will very much be a player in it.

Nakayama: What might possibly get in the way of the liberal world order in Asia?

Doden: Fukuyama warns of what he calls an "identity issue" emerging in Asia. In fact, his new book titled "Identity" is coming out later this year. Growth in Asia tends to be rapid and dramatic but not inclusive, and people can feel marginalized. Their anger and resentment may lead to struggle for recognition. The struggle may positively transform society but can also destabilize it when people refuse to accept the status quo. In part of Asia, whether it be Cambodia, Thailand or Myanmar, democracy is still in transition or being put to a test. In that context, this struggle for identity may be something we should keep an eye on.