We Have Reached the End of History

Interview by Maxim Jean-Louis

Last summer Francis Fukuyama's essay, entitled “The End of History?” was published in The National Interest, a foreign policy journal based in Washington, D.C. Since then this 10,000—word essay has generated millions of words of debate, analysis, and criticism.

Mr. Fukuyama, who is Deputy Director for East—West Political—Military Affairs in the U.S. State Department, proposed that history is the story of competing ideologies, and now that there is a winner—namely, western economic and political liberalism—the story is complete. In other words, the world has reached the end of history; that is, “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Mr. Fukuyama received his PhD in Government from Harvard University in 1981. He has been an analyst at the RAND Corporation think-tank and served on the U.S. delegation to the Egyptian—Israeli talks on Palestinian autonomy.

In this interview, from his office in Washington, D.C., Mr. Fukuyama explains some of the misunderstandings he feels critics have had about his thesis. Mainly he feels that they have not understood his definition of the word “history” as a dialectical process with a beginning, middle, and an end.

Aurora: Could you summarize your much discussed thesis that we have reached the end of history?

Fukuyama: There's been misunderstanding about my thesis, which largely comes from the failure to understand my use of the term “history.” Most people are wedded to a fairly conventional view of history as simply events, and the bigger the events the more history. I was using the word in a fairly specialized Hegelian sense, which can be more precisely defined as the history of ideology or the history of thought about first principles related to social and political relations.

When I argue that we've reached the end of history, I'm saying that in a sense the French and American revolutions, and their underlying principles of liberty and equality, were the final resting point for human ideological evolution. So we need to consider whether Hegel, when he declared the end of history in 1806, was not right. My argument is concerned less with the world of real events and more with the world of ideas. Essentially the question I was trying to pose is whether there are any systematical ideological competitors left to modern liberalism.

Aurora: I wonder, Mr. Fukuyama, if you perhaps have taken a rather linear view of history? That is, one where it's very orderly in terms of progression while in fact it may well be that what we call history is only some way of trying to make some sense of very chaotic events occurring throughout time?

Fukuyama: Well, I don't see that my definition of history is any more linear than anyone else's. I never presumed to say that history was automatic or that democratization would proceed without reversals or zigzags. Hegel and his great French interpreter Alexandre Kojeve took seriously the claim that history ended in 1806. When Kojeve said that in the 1950s, he was obviously perfectly aware that there had been a lot of history in the conventional sense — several major revolutions and a couple of world wars and this sort of thing. Yet he continued to see a pattern in the spread of a democratic, egalitarian consciousness. I think that within the last two thousand years, there has been a general consensus about certain ideas, for example, concerning human equality. This consensus is not uniform, it doesn't exist in all parts of the world, and it can be reversed. Nonetheless, it does seem to be a pattern.

My question is simply whether we think that all of that is reversible, whether that entire progression over the last two thousand years is something that we can expect to see stood on its head in another generation or so. Might people again believe in the legitimacy of slavery, for example, or might we see the reappearance of monarchies and aristocracies which are considered as legitimate as modern egalitarian democracies? I suspect not.

Aurora: What would happen if glasnost and perestroika were to fail? Would you then see a new shift in terms of your interpretation of the pattern?

Fukuyama: I don't think that it really depends on those events. I take seriously the claim that history ended in 1806, not in 1986 or whenever. So my thesis is not closely related to current events. Now, it's true that we've seen a lot of remarkable gains for democracy in the past year, but if they were all reversed tomorrow, I would still believe that my theory is true. I suspect that we may well have reversals, because I don't believe the process is automatic or linear.

Aurora: What about the view that perhaps you are advocating some sort of utopia?

Fukuyama: Well, if you think that the countries of the European community are utopia, then I'm utopian. What I'm saying is that the end of history is what we've got now, warts and all. I've never tried to argue that liberty and equality were implemented completely or universally and that modern, liberal democratic societies still don't have lots of problems. I'm simply saying that the principles on which they are based cannot be tinkered with fundamentally without sending us backwards. In that respect, we are living in a utopia, except that it's a utopia that's been around for a couple hundred years, and it's one that's very familiar to us.

I consider myself to be a liberal. I believe that liberalism is superior to all the major alternatives that I am aware of. But that does not mean that I do not recognize certain limits or problems within liberalism. We still have to ask ourselves whether a society that provides us perfect physical security and material well being is a sufficient kind of society or whether human beings don't require things that go beyond that. A problem with liberalism is that a liberal state does not refer its citizens to any sort of higher range, but we leave personal satisfaction up to individuals themselves. There's a certain kind of problem in that kind of society. I think that was really what I was trying to point out to you.

Aurora: Two notions have come to the fore subsequent to 1806, those two notions being nationalism and imperialism. Are you really prepared to argue that those two concepts are outside your definition of history?

Fukuyama: Well, again it depends on the specific definition. If you take a conventional definition of history or one that a professional historian would take, obviously they're not. However, if you use the narrow Hegehan sense that I am using, I don't think that imperialism and nationalism are really systematic ideological competitors of liberalism in the sense that let's say, Marxism—Leninism are. Imperialism is not one phenomenon. It's really a rubric for many different kinds of phenomena. Imperialism can proceed from Marxist ideology. It can proceed from the sense of historical mission that, let's say, Britain had in the nineteenth century; it can proceed from pure greed; and it can proceed from national self—assertion, as in the case of Nazi Germany. Imperialism is not one doctrine the way liberalism and Marxism are. So the historical phenomenon of imperialism falls apart into many different, separate questions.

So the question you have to ask yourself is whether in the future there will be a form of imperialism that will challenge liberalism, or whether liberalism itself could become imperialistic. This is, of course, a rather tortured question which I don't propose to get into, but I would simply repeat the argument that I was making in my article that in the developed world, absent of Marxism—Leninism, imperialism does not have much of a basis of legitimacy. The national consciousness of Western Europe, North America, or Northeast Asia does not support classical territorial imperialism. It supports a certain kind of economic expansion, but you have to speak about imperialism in a very different sense.

In the case of nationalism, once again I think that that concept is not a single concept. First of all, there are as many nationalisms as there are nations, and there are many different degrees of nationalism, some of which are benign and primarily cultural, and others which are highly systematic and do evolve into imperialism.

I think that again, if you are simply asking me to say whether I think that nationalism will continue to be a force, obviously it will continue to be a force. But you need to put that into a little perspective. In the first place, the nationalism of the developed world since 1945 has changed quite a lot. The way the nation states define themselves and their foreign policy particularly is quite different from the nineteenth century. And so I think that, whereas there is plenty of nationalist violent conflict in the world including in the south world, the threat that that poses to world order is overdrawn and does not come close to the kind of threat that we have been trying to deal with in the central East West conflict since the Cold War.

Aurora: What advice would you have for students of history?

Fukuyama: I would urge them to keep studying history because I think that it's relatively neglected in higher education. I would also say that history is not enough and that they need to think about philosophy. History by itself does not provide answers to so— called value questions, about whether things are good or bad. As a professional historian, one cannot say whether a particular civilization or a particular society was better or worse than another. Part of the problem just in understanding my use of the term history in the Hegelian sense is a lot of that comes from professional historians who have their own definition of history. They're perfectly entitled to that, but ultimately the questions of better and worse, good and bad, and less and more important have to come from another source. They don't come from the raw facts of history itself; it requires a different kind of analysis. I think that is something that students of history also need to pay attention to.

---------------Centuries of Boredom------------------

“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post—historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care taking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post—historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centunes of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.” Reprinted from The National Interest, Summer 1989.

Article originally published Spring 1990

An Aurora Update

Francis Fukuyama recently assumed a new position as Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. He was formerly Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Professor of Public Policy at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University.

Related Links:

The following link provides extensive information on Dr. Fukuyama.

John Hopkins University (SAIS)



Updated March 2011

Citation Format

Jean-Louis, Maxim (1990). Francis Fukuyama Discusses His Controversial Idea That We Have Reached...: The End Of History. Aurora Online: