Response to Fukuyama’s Talk: How liberal is the liberal world order?


By: Melanie Rose

In my second year of undergraduate degree in political science, I took an introductory international relations class. As is common in this field, my professor assigned our class an excerpt from The End of History and the Last Man (1992), by Francis Fukuyama. A political scientist by training, Fukuyama is also  the current Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Director of the Susan Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy at Stanford. When I learned that Fukuyama was speaking at the Munk School, I was excited about the opportunity to see this renowned political scientist, who had greatly influenced my undergraduate learning experience. Entitled “Liberalism and the Liberal World Order,” Fukuyama’s talk touched on why he believes in liberalism as a political philosophy, the liberal world order, and issues faced by liberal societies. While Fukuyama’s talk was informative, interesting, and engaging, it was ultimately a promotion of these political concepts. In his talk, Fukuyama upheld liberal states, specifically the United States, as the model to emulate, but failed to mention the illiberal actions these countries have taken, and continue to take, in order to become and remain liberal democracies. Hence, I argue that instead of the world order established in the postwar period being a liberal one, as Fukuyama states, the actual world order created was one that is actively against liberal values, with the United States at its helm.

Fukuyama defines liberalism through a classic, seventeenth-century lens, which posits that all humans have equal dignity and the right to choose, while the purpose of the rule of law is to uphold these beliefs by granting people equal rights. Meanwhile, according to Fukuyama, the concept of liberalism was first developed in the context of the Hundred Years’ War in Europe, throughout which millions of people were killed because of their religious beliefs. Therefore, the philosophy aimed to counter the idea that individuals’ lives were valued on the basis of their beliefs. Accordingly, liberalism posits that all humans have equal dignity and the right to choose, while the purpose of the rule of law is to uphold these beliefs by granting people equal rights. Thus, the liberal world order promotes the values at the root of this liberal philosophy. In his talk, Fukuyama spoke about the emergence of the liberal world order in the postwar period, how it is beneficial to the world at large, and how all countries in the world, even authoritarian ones, will eventually tend towards liberalism.

Despite his favourable view of liberalism, Fukuyama did offer some criticism about this political framework. For example, he critiqued liberal states’ inability to build infrastructure efficiently and partisan politics’ impediment of policy developments, including in the fight against climate change. Fukuyama also gave examples of common critiques from across the political spectrum. These include the precedence of economic efficiency over other forms of human welfare, which has led to inequality both within and between countries. Other assertions have claimed that populist leaders such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán are acting using liberal values – critiques which Fukuyama dismissed, stating that the promotion of economic efficiency and populist leaders are extensions of liberal theories but are not the practice of liberal values themselves. Thus, according to Fukuyama, classic liberalism cannot be blamed for either of these situations. However, from my perspective, Fukuyama seemed to disregard any legitimate criticism of liberalism, instead reframing the critiques to justify why liberalism is the superior political philosophy. Further, he claimed these comments were departures from classic liberalism and therefore not actual flaws of the theory, but did not discuss how to return to classic liberalism’s eminence in society.

In proving the power of the liberal world order, Fukuyama gave three examples of illiberal states that he believes are gradually trending towards liberalism, one of which is Iran.      Fukuyama cited the country’s ongoing protests against the extremist religious regime, which started four months ago after the police killed 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, as proof that Iran will eventually trend towards liberalism. While Amini’s death was the catalyst, Fukuyama argued that the Iranian people’s ability to protest against the authoritarian regime itself was proof of the growth of liberalism in Iran. However, I would argue that, in analyzing Iran’s supposed liberal shift, it is important to recognize how the Islamic Republic arose. The emergence of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader did not happen in a vacuum, nor did it happen solely because of domestic events. The current existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran can be linked to the US and the UK instigating a coup in 1953 against the democratically elected president of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh. To the detriment of the UK, Mossadegh wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil and keep the profit. Iran supplied the majority of the UK’s oil at the time, and the UK also profited from Iran’s oil. In Mossadegh’s place, the British and Americans reinstalled Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the Shah of Iran. The political unrest and military suppression during the end of his regime led to the Islamic revolution in Iran.

The overthrow of Mossadegh was not the only coup that the Americans initiated. During the Cold War, the Americans organized coups against and participated in the murders of several revolutionary or democratically elected leaders in newly independent countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America.. The alleged fear was that the new, often left-wing leaders would join the Soviet bloc, enhancing the Soviet position as a superpower and threatening that of the Americans. According to Fukuyama, this was the period in which the liberal world order was established. While I agree the United States was establishing a world order with itself as the model state, I would argue that it was an illiberal one.

When the US and its western allies participated in coups against and murders of countries’ leaders, often installing pro-American authoritarian leaders in their place, they acted in opposition to liberal principles. The US took away countries’ opportunities to become liberal states, as well as their residents’ right to dignity and choice. Instead, the world order enforced by the US was one in which it would be the sole superpower at whatever cost. For example, the United States and Belgium supported Mobutu’s overthrow of democratically elected, left-wing leader Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, leading to Mobutu’s dictatorship for over 30 years, through which the United States continued to support him. In Guatemala in 1953, the United States participated in the overthrow of democratically elected leader Joseph Arbenz, and supported successive authoritarian regimes. While liberalism was founded on the idea that one’s beliefs should not dictate whether someone has worth, the US acted directly against this philosophy; leaders’ beliefs were often a central reason for their overthrow or murder. When analyzing the Americans’ actions during the Cold War, it is more likely that the US was establishing its position as the world leader and ensuring its and its allies’ access to resources in former colonies, rather than truly promoting liberal values.

Ultimately, during the postwar period, the world order was not a liberal one, but rather an anti-liberal one. Although Fukuyama upheld the ideal of liberal states and liberalism during his talk, the truth is that a liberal world order in which every country is granted the opportunity to establish a state and society on liberal values does not exist. Rather, during the Cold War, the majority of the world’s countries were not given the dignity of choice. Instead, they faced coups and authoritarian regimes to ensure the primacy of the United States. As we consider the current world order and its shift, it is easy to uphold the United States as an ideal. Nonetheless, it is important that we question the existing order and the actions countries took in its establishment.

Melanie Rose is a first year Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Her policy interests include urban policy, social policy, specifically focusing on food insecurity, and cultural policy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science from McGill University.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s