There’s an old Soviet joke about a Radio Moscow listener calling in with a question.
“Comrade,” he says. “One day you tell us America is on the edge of a precipice. The next day you say we’re going to overtake America. I don’t get it.”
This joke came to mind while reading Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, “The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.” Fukuyama, a senior fellow at Stanford University and the author of “The End of History and the Last Man,” tells us why some countries and not others have achieved liberal democracies, but it’s not all just a pat on the back. Those democracies, he adds, may not endure for all time.
A sobering message, but then this is a truth-telling book. The argument is complex, sometimes convoluted, but for me what Fukuyama is saying is that there is little use expecting swift new strides toward democracy in countries where the cultural or historical background is lacking.
For progress toward a modern political order, he says, three things are necessary: the existence of a state with centralized power and a monopoly on the means of coercion, as distinct from warring tribes or kinship groups; the rule of law; and accountable government. One or two of the three, he insists, won’t do without the other.
China, for example, was the earliest and strongest state the world has seen, dating from 221 BC, but the powers that be -- yesterday the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, today the Communist Party -- are accountable to no one.
India, with its quarrelsome religions and hard-wired caste system, had no real state before the British came. Today it is a democracy of sorts, though with a shaky rule of law, institutionalized corruption and a large number of parliamentarians wanted on criminal charges.
Muslims had a vision of a global state of believers -- the ummah -- yet were riven by tribalism from the start: that’s what gave rise to the Shiite/Sunni schism, all too visible today.
In Europe, state power was balanced earlier than elsewhere by the rule of law. Russia, on the other hand, had been barbarized by the Mongol invasion. So while serfdom was being relaxed in the West, in Russia it was viciously reinforced.
At the same moment in Europe a literal-minded reading of the Bible was promoting a message of equality before God. Historically the consequences for Russia are plain to see: Just as the Qin dynasty paved the way for the totalitarianism of Mao Zedong, so Ivan the Terrible was a foretaste of Josef Stalin.
‘Getting to Denmark’
Fukuyama is not saying that the past invariably dictates the future. Though the recent bolstering of authoritarian rule in Putin’s Russia and communist China might suggest otherwise, nations are not stuck in backward modes forever. Yet political advance will not be smooth or quick. Tribalism, despotism and religious bigotry have tenacious roots, and “Getting to Denmark” -- a country seen by students of politics as a model democracy -- can take what seems forever.
Modern communication technology can speed things up, but the risk is that institutional change will remain on the surface while more atavistic instincts operate underneath. High levels of tribalism and corruption in Afghanistan and Iraq are evidence enough of that. Let’s hope we’re not saying the same thing soon about the Arab Spring.
To revert to our Soviet joke: How is it possible that liberal democracies, once established, can tumble into the abyss? By political decay, says our author. In the U.S. everyone sees the need to tackle long-term fiscal problems but powerful interest groups can terminally stymie the democratic process. In other words, America’s massive deficit could end up bringing down American democracy. Unlikely, in my view, though not in Fukuyama’s.
A promised companion volume, covering the 18th century to the present, will no doubt elaborate on how best to encourage other nations to take to the democratic road, while ensuring we hold fast to it ourselves.
“The Origins of Political Order” is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the U.S. and Profile in the U.K. (585 pages, $35, 25 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(George Walden, a former U.K. education minister, diplomat and member of Parliament, is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)