The dissolution of the Soviet Union created a watershed moment in international history, as one of the two predominant hegemons of world power had utterly collapsed into numerous formerly-Soviet republics. For the first time in nearly a century, the steadfast presence of the Soviet Union had now disappeared, leaving many international relations scholars to ponder what the new world order would consist of. This article explores the efforts of scholar Francis Fukuyama to understand this new world in his now popularized term “the end of history”. In the following, it will be revealed how Fukuyama argues that the fall of both fascism and communism enables Western liberalism and free market capitalism to succeed and flourish. After that, a critical analysis of “the end of history” will be employed in order to better understand how the concept fits into the current trend of ever-increasing globalization.
Western Liberalism as the Ultimate Form of Government
Fukuyama begins his article within the context of the dissolution of the Soviet Union—specifically, detailing what appears to him a fundamental shift in how scholars conceptualize world history (Fukuyama, 1989, p. 3). Rather than detailing what appears to be superficial analyses and “accidental” aberrations in world history, Fukuyama argues that the twentieth century was marked by a specific “paroxysm of ideological violence” in which the two main players of the international stage, Western liberalism and socialism, fought to pronounce their dominance over the other ideology (Fukuyama, 1989, p. 3). He ultimately concludes that the Western liberal project has won precisely due to the lack of other viable alternatives at the end of the Cold War, evidenced by the cultural diffusion of consumerism such as the spread of rock music and department stores.
This argument is fully extended to its xenith, in which Fukuyama argues that the early 1990s is not home merely to the end of the Cold War or a new phase of postwar history. Instead, we have now entered a phase known as the end of history entirely: “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (Fukuyama, 1989, p. 4). For this point, he expands on the works of previous scholars such as Hegel. He borrows the concept of “history as a dialectical process”, with clearly defined beginning and end stages as humanity strives towards an ultimate existence. By distinguishing between the tangible power of the material world and the power of human ideas, Fukuyama ultimately reaches the conclusion that the ideas based in Western liberalism will ultimately triumph as the old ideologies of socialism and fascism fade into obscurity. Furthermore, large-scale interstate conflicts will continue to grow rarer due to the relative ubiquitousness of Western liberalism, instead to be replaced by growing civil conflicts and tensions between ethnic groups (Fukuyama, 1989, p. 18).
Though, if Western liberalism is to become the ultimate form of government for all states to strive towards, there might be other competitors left in the system, whose identity goes beyond class. Fukuyama points to the rise of religious fundamentalism and nationalism as the two main competitors to the liberal project. However, while they may constitute as a potential source of future conflict, Fukuyama does not believe in the staying power of either as a true problem. While the main three religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism do attract many followers, theocratic states do not have much appeal to those outside of the target religion (Fukuyama, 1989, p. 14). As such, theocracy as an alternative political ideology is estimated not to have universal appeal. Additionally, Fukuyama argues that though nationalism may seem like a contradiction and therefore aberration in the liberal project, “the vast majority of the world’s nationalist movements do not have a political program beyond the negative desire of independence from some other group or people” (15). As such, this lack of a cohesive political basis for their nationalism allows them to become compatible with other political ideologies, such as liberalism.
Despite Fukuyama’s relative optimism, it remains pertinent to maintain a critical lens as to the end of history and therefore analyze just how relevant the theory is in the 21st century. Therefore, the following section aims to review some common critical analyses of the theory, along with its current relevance in the modern international stage.
A Critical Lens
Both Fukuyama’s contemporaries and modern scholars find the majority of their critiques resting upon the idealist nature of accepting Western liberalism alone, and a rather simplified notion that the Cold War had indeed ended because of the triumph of market liberalism and the dismissal of socialism. A common sentiment among critical analyses is the lack of an economic lens to Fukuyama’s theory: the sole reliance on ideas as the main driving force behind the end of history, though an important facet, leaves little room for more nuanced analyses (Boyle, 1995). Rather than analyzing the economic effects of policies such as perestroika and glasnost, a series of political and economic reforms with the intention of revitalizing the Soviet economy in the 1980s, many critiques point out a reductionist focus on Western cultural diffusion of consumerist products. For as much as the world was “clamoring for [a] consumerist boom in an orgy of free-market excitement”, a certain historical determinism to return to the liberal hopes of the early twentieth century seems to be present (Lee & Stanley, 2014). On a similar note, many opponents such as New York University professor Gertrude Himmelfarb criticize Fukuyama’s dismissal of factors such as race, ethnicity, and nationalism as serious contenders to the liberal project due to its simplistic understanding of such issues (Bloom, 1989). Even further, political theorist Benjamin Barber points to contemporary conflicts such as Balkan nationalism and the Rwandan genocide to argue that one victory of American unipolarity cannot account for growing unrest (Barber, 2005).
After thirty years, the other predominant critical analysis of Fukuyama’s work is the simple notion that history has, in fact, not ended and proceeds to be crafted and woven with each passing development in international relations. In fact, many critics proclaim an “end to the end of history”, as the conditions which helped elect Western liberalism to many states worldwide continue to recede and become replaced by conditions which favor illiberal democracies and authoritarian regimes (Mounk, 2020). A growing portion of international relations is focused on the conditions in which authoritarianism gains prominence, as states who showed promise of adopting democratic norms decades ago continue to backslide and recede on their commitment to human rights and rule of law. To these critics, it is evident that Western liberalism is not the sole method of political determination, and that Fukuyama’s work does not adequately address such developments in international relations.
Fukuyama’s conclusions rest within the context of the turbulent fall of the Soviet Union, an era of history in which many scholars were attempting to find answers for the reasons behind its collapse and predictions for the road that lay ahead. As mentioned earlier, Fukuyama was interested in determining the staying power behind free-market policies and consumerism behind liberalism. To this extent, the end of history remains a pertinent piece of international relations scholarship, exemplifying the very importance of cultural norms on the system as a whole and the optimism present post-dissolution of the Soviet Union. The theory created a fervor for its time; though, thirty years after its emergence in the discipline, many critical analyses remain skeptical of the staying power of liberalism and the end of history’s relative simplicity in accommodating other factors of international relations.
Barber, B. Can History Have an End? Big Questions in History, 262. Bloom, A., Hassner, P., Himmelfarb, G., Kristol, I., Moynihan, D. P., & Sestanovich, S. (1989). Responses to Fukuyama. The National Interest, 16, 19–35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24027185 Boyle, N. (1995). Hegel and “The End of History.” New Blackfriars, 76(891), 109–119. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43249716 Fukuyama, F. (1995). Reflections on the End of History, Five Years Later. History and Theory, 34(2), 27–43. https://doi.org/10.2307/2505433
Fukuyama, F. (1989). The End of History? The National Interest, 16, 3–18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184 Lee, A., & Stanley, T. (2014). It's still not the end of history. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/09/its-still-not-the-end-of-history-francis-fukuyama/379394/
Mounk, Y. (2020). The End of History Revisited. Journal of Democracy, 31(1), 22-35. https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/the-end-of-history-revisited/
Cover Image: Law, J (2020). How do we Change America? [Illustration]. The New Yorker. Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-do-we-change-america Figure 1: Unknown (n.d.). How the Death of the Soviet Union Transformed the Middle East. [Photograph]. Washington Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/how-death-soviet-union-transformed-middle-east Figure 2: Unknown (n.d.). Catalonia's Hesitant Nationalists. [Photograph]. An Sionnach Fionn. Retrieved from: https://ansionnachfionn.com/2014/09/29/catalonias-hesitant-nationalists/ Figure 3: Van Ryn, A. (n.d.) The desire for recognition, Fukuyama argues, is an essential threat to liberalism. [Illustration]. The New Yorker. Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/03/francis-fukuyama-postpones-the-end-of-history