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Opinion Could Putin lose? Here’s why the ‘End of History’ author is optimistic.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Anatoly Maltsev/Pool via Reuters)
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Is Russia destined to lose in Ukraine? What would that mean for the future of liberalism and the West?

Francis Fukuyama, the political theorist who developed the famous “end of history” thesis, is generating some buzz with a new piece that makes a stark prediction: “Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine.”

Fukuyama argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin badly miscalculated, underestimating Ukrainian resolve to resist annexation, and that Putin doesn’t have the military resources to subjugate the whole country.

This comes as fears are mounting that Putin, angry and frustrated, is escalating the civilian slaughter to industrial levels. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky just warned that the situation is “urgent.”

Yet Fukuyama remains optimistic, and not just about a near-term Russian defeat. He predicts such an outcome could have world-historical long-term implications:

A Russian defeat will make possible a “new birth of freedom,” and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.

The 1989 reference, of course, is to the end of the Soviet Union. In “The End of History and the Last Man,” Fukuyama argued that Western liberalism had triumphed over all its ideological competitors, and would end up as the single form of government over the long term.

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The rise of illiberal authoritarianism around the world — including here at home — has led some to question that thesis. But Fukuyama’s argument is more complicated than it’s usually credited with being.

So I asked Fukuyama, who has a forthcoming book on liberalism’s struggles, to expand on his optimism about Ukraine and the future of liberal democracy. An edited and condensed version of our exchange follows.

Greg Sargent: Why should we not believe that eventually Russia will grind down Ukraine through mass slaughter, necessitating some kind of surrender by Zelensky, followed by a partial occupation and ferocious resistance?

Francis Fukuyama: Russia does not begin to have a large enough military to occupy Ukraine and bring Ukraine to a point where they’d make that kind of concession. This is a country with a population of over 40 million, and Putin has already committed the vast bulk of his military.

It’s extremely costly for the Russians to keep up this kind of siege. Every single day, they lose a large number of armored vehicles, men, supplies. The morale in the Russian army appears to be extremely low.

Sargent: Are you suggesting there will come a moment of clear Russian defeat? What might that look like?

Fukuyama: It’s possible that at a certain point it becomes a little bit like Stalingrad, when the Germans had to retreat from that city: They can’t resupply the forces that are in place, and either they’re forced to withdraw from positions they occupy, or the position just crumbles.

Sargent: You write that Russia’s invasion has already done huge damage to the world’s right-wing authoritarian populists. Can you expand on that?

Fukuyama: A moral clarity has been imposed on populist politics. Many of these populists, including Donald Trump, have been able to pretend they’re really tribunes of the people, that they’re channeling a democratic urge.

But they’re also flirting with an open kind of authoritarianism. That authoritarianism has now been translated into horrible slaughter, where everybody can see that kind of politics leads to military aggression, the loss of innocent lives, and so forth.

That’s the reason every one of them — except for Trump, evidently — has been trying to backtrack from the support they gave Putin.

Sargent: You see this on the home front. Demagogues like Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance and others have really lost their ideological footing. They know they’re supposed to express concern about Ukraine, yet they also want to keep arguing that there’s nothing inherently malignant about right-wing nationalism and that we shouldn’t bank on any sort of international order to deal with these types of problems.

Are we in a moment where many in the West are kind of remembering why we want a liberal international order?

Fukuyama: I have a general theory about this populist moment. It has to do with generational turnover. People really like being in liberal societies after they’ve gone through either horrible nationalist conflict (as in the two world wars of the 20th century) or they’ve had to live under authoritarian dictatorship (as people in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union did under communism).

This generational cycle has turned, and you’ve got this whole generation of people who don’t appreciate liberal democracy because they haven’t really experienced the alternative.

Sargent: You write that a Russian defeat would revitalize democracy globally. Does that mean we should be optimistic about this defeat leading to some sort of revitalized liberal international order?

Fukuyama: I do think that if people are made to appreciate institutions like NATO and the fact that they live in liberal democracies, presumably it’s going to increase the solidarity that these democracies feel.

The challenges are not going to stop with Putin. You’ve got China waiting in the wings. And then you’ve got a whole bunch of lesser dictators around the world.

Hopefully, we will devise cooperative mechanisms by which democracies can become mutually supportive again.

Sargent: I’d like to talk about another idea in “The End of History,” that the victory of Western liberalism would create a kind of “boredom” with a world in which great questions are resolved, and a “nostalgia” for a world in which you had to pick a side in a grand battle of ideas.

I wonder whether we’re seeing something like this in the extraordinary outpouring of support for Ukraine across the West: There’s a mass embrace of this opportunity to stand tall again on one side of an ideological struggle.

Fukuyama: I think that’s right. There’s a lot of pent-up idealism. The spirit of 1989 went to sleep, and now it’s being reawakened. I do think people like the idea of struggling for a just cause, and they really haven’t had anything other than consumerism and mindless middle-class pursuits in the last 30 years.

By the way, I think a lot of that right-wing populism is driven by that same boredom.

Sargent: I wonder if this reflects some sort of fundamental failing on the part of liberal democratic capitalist societies.

Fukuyama: Liberalism is a doctrine that deliberately says, “The purpose of politics is not to serve final ends, like the vision of the good life that’s defined by religious doctrine, because we can’t agree on what those are. So we’ll agree to tolerate people that are very different from us.”

It means that every liberal society therefore has a weaker sense of community than one based on a single religion or single ethno-nationalist tradition. Liberalism by design doesn’t give people this tightly bound sense of brotherhood or sisterhood with their fellow citizens.

Sargent: Revisiting the “End of History” thesis, how optimistic are you that the rising forces of illiberalism around the world will ultimately not amount to what many fear they might?

Fukuyama: Taking a very long-term historical perspective, liberalism has been around in some form or other since the middle of the 17th century, when it arose in response to the Wars of Religion in Europe.

It got beaten back in the 19th and early 20th centuries with the rise of European nationalism. Again, there’s a series of wars that were horrible. In 1945, everybody looked up from their foxholes and said, “Hey, maybe liberalism is not such a bad thing, after all. Because nationalism is pretty awful.”

Maybe we’ll have to go through another cycle like this, where the alternatives to liberalism are explored and then lead to disaster.

Sometimes that’s the way history works. It’s not a linear process. You do have to go through these struggles before people appreciate what they’ve got.

Sargent: It sounds like you harbor at least some optimism that a defeat of Russia could achieve the goal of avoiding the type of cataclysmic cycle that we’ve seen in the past.

Fukuyama: It might be a sufficient reminder of what the alternatives to liberalism are. Let’s hope that we will avoid having to go through the full cycle like we did during the 20th century, which would be really terrible.

After more than two weeks of war, Russia has failed to establish military dominance over Ukraine. Here's why. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)