The most important event of the last month was not the State of the Union address, with its laundry list of tax breaks. It was not Bill Clinton's marriage problems or draft problems or election problems. It was not Mike Tyson's rape conviction or the Noachian floods that descended on Southern California.
These events made headlines, but they did not make history. And that has a lot to say about what was, in fact, the most important event of the last month: the publication of The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama. It is the first book of the 21st century, the century that began, psychologically, with last August's failed Soviet coup. (See "Fin de Siècle," November.)
Fukuyama's book is both evidence of and an argument for the disappearance of the West. And its appearance poses a fundamental challenge to liberalism: Either the book is correct, in general terms, about the end of history, or liberalism is incorrect about the nature of man, incorrect that human beings are best served by free minds and free markets.
Fukuyama's argument is complex, subtle, and almost always misrepresented. Like the book's title, it has two components. First, Fukuyama argues that history is not random or cyclical but in fact linear—that human societies progress toward a political and social arrangement that will harmonize with human nature, satisfying the deepest needs of human beings as human beings. (This historical progress is not without backsliding; witness the horrors of the 20th century.)
We have reached "the end of history," Fukuyama argues, because we have found that most satisfying arrangement in liberal democracy, "the doctrine of individual freedom and popular sovereignty." Although not every society on earth is liberal or democratic, there is no competing ideology that can credibly claim to satisfy human beings.
The second part of Fukuyama's argument presents a challenge to the economics-based liberalism of the Anglo-American tradition, the liberalism springing from John Locke and Thomas Hobbes and based on the notion that human beings seek first and foremost self-preservation. Fukuyama does not repudiate this tradition, but he finds it inadequate.
People clearly act at times on motivations quite removed from self-preservation—risking their lives for their countries or their families, for the thrill of hang gliding or the prestige of an Olympic gold medal. Satisfying these other drives is essential to producing a historical end state; tapping them is necessary to creating and preserving liberal democracy.
Fukuyama's discussion of thymos, the desire for recognition, attempts to understand the nature and implications of individuals' nonrational quest to be recognized as fellow human beings, as distinctive individuals, or as superiors. The varied manifestations of thymos have varying implications. Channeling the desire for dominance into productive pursuits—to create Ted Turners rather than Adolf Hitlers, or Mike Tyson the boxer rather than Mike Tyson the rapist—is a different kind of problem from accommodating national identity or ensuring equality before the law.
Although his exact formulation has flaws, Fukuyama is on to something in his discussion of thymos, for liberalism depends on recognizing not only what is the same about all human beings but also what is unique about each individual. The romantic is as much a part of the liberal heritage as the rational.
That heritage, Fukuyama claims and this magazine insists, is the common heritage of all mankind. It is the nature of human beings to seek freedom and to own it. Absent a rival ideology seeking to impose itself by both force and suasion, liberalism now faces the test of history.
The best expression of this test comes, interestingly enough, from a man whose record is far from liberal, Lee Kuan Yew, the authoritarian prime minister who ruled Singapore for 32 years. Pressed by New Perspectives Quarterly editor Nathan Gardels to reject the notion of universal human rights and claim that authoritarianism is better for Asia, Lee suggested instead that the difference between Singapore and Britain is a matter of historical stages, not inherent culture.
And, Lee said, "if Western values are in fact superior insofar as they bring about superior performance in a society and help it survive, then they will be adopted. I truly believe the process is Darwinian."
Which brings us to the fate of the West. It no longer exists. The term has ceased to be meaningful, for without an East there can be no West. Regions, nations, cultures still express themselves, still claim allegiances. But "the West" has blended into a world civilization, to which many cultures contribute. This civilization is greater than and different from the sum of its parts. And its basis is liberal democracy—an idea that wasn't supposed to work in Germany, or southern Europe, or Latin America, or Russia, or Asia, and still isn't supposed to work in Africa.
The disappearance of the West discomfits many people. Some cannot imagine life without international struggle and prefer to seek enemies, particularly to the East. Observing a post–Cold War world, foreign-policy analyst Christopher Layne, among others, suggests that we adopt a "geo-economic" strategy based on hurting Japan. This is not simple economic protectionism but something far more aggressive—the creation of an enemy from a commercial rival.
Others rebel against a universal culture, either by trying to fragment that culture into racially pure segments or by trying to fix the "correct" culture at some time and place in the past. But both the multiculturalists and the traditionalists are wrong; mirroring each other, they fail to recognize or accept the common, and evolving, civilization.
In this climate of division, Fukuyama's book is an audacious declaration that we are right, that freedom is in the nature of human beings, that the Whig historians were not fools or apologists but prophets. Progress is possible, despite the sins committed in its name.
Those who find a Golden Age in the past, whether in the 19th century or the 1950s, will not agree. Nor will those who see only the Other in the name Fukuyama.
But I believe the claim to be true. I believe it because in my lifetime I have seen the death of Jim Crow and of the Soviet empire, systems that seemed eternal before they collapsed and seemed impossible afterwards. That impossibility, and that collapse, suggest that Fukuyama is right—that it is our fate to be free.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "New World Man".