The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is Putin facing defeat? The ‘End of History’ author remains confident.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on economic issues via teleconference call in Moscow on Sept. 12. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

In mid-March, less than a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, political scientist Francis Fukuyama offered a striking prediction: Ukraine will win.

Six months later, Ukraine is on the offensive, and is recapturing key territory amid signs of weakening Russian resolve. Reports indicate that weaponry and intelligence supplied by the United States and other allied nations are giving Ukraine’s counteroffensive a serious boost. The NATO alliance has remained durable and united behind Ukraine, despite Russia’s attempt to undermine that unity by limiting natural gas exports to Europe.

While it’s impossible to say whether Ukraine will prevail, it’s now a real possibility. Fukuyama, who authored the “end of history” thesis and has a new book about liberalism’s travails, believes a defeat for Russia — and President Vladimir Putin — could reinvigorate liberal democracy and deal a blow to rising authoritarianism around the globe.

I spoke to Fukuyama about the latest developments and what a Russian defeat could mean. An edited and condensed version of our exchange follows.

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Greg Sargent: The last time we talked, you predicted a Ukrainian victory. Now Ukraine is on the offensive. What’s your prognosis now?

Francis Fukuyama: The Ukrainians are going to continue to rout the Russians. It’s hard to know exactly how long it’s going to take. But I think it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.

It’s now possible to contemplate the eventual liberation of Crimea, given the rate at which the Ukrainians are going. That creates a whole different geopolitical outlook for everyone.

If this kind of success continues to unfold, then you can think about an end to the war.

Sargent: What does it look like to get to a favorable resolution for Ukraine?

Fukuyama: The minimum condition is for the Russians to be driven out of the territories they conquered after Feb. 24.

Sargent: You identify one big looming uncertainty: Will Western democracies maintain support for Ukraine as we head into colder weather and energy prices continue rising?

The dynamic seems to be that if Ukraine can continue its gains, it becomes easier for Western leaders to make the case to their peoples to hold out.

Fukuyama: I don’t think there’s going to be any problem holding the Western alliance together this winter. Ukraine had to show that there was light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the military conflict. And they’ve done that in spades.

It will be relatively easy for European leaders to tell their people, “Yes, it’s bad. There’s inflation. You’re paying more for gas. But the Ukrainians are on the move. One winter will get us through and allow us to achieve this big victory for Ukrainian democracy.”

Sargent: The solidarity behind Ukraine seems rooted in a desire of citizens in Western liberal democracies to stand on one side of a conflict between liberal democracy and illiberal autocracy.

Do you think people in Western liberal democracies understand this as kind of a threshold conflict between ideological alternatives?

Fukuyama: I think Putin represents something very sinister in the minds of many people in the West.

A lot of people in Western democracies see that in their country, there’s a right-wing nationalist politician that is either supporting Putin or acts a lot like Putin. Matteo Salvini in Italy; Éric Zemmour, Marine Le Pen in France; Viktor Orban in Hungary. And Donald Trump.

So I do think there is a kind of awareness of more liberal-minded people that this alternative also exists in their country.

Sargent: It’s like a right-wing authoritarian Internationale. How do you think about the global right?

Fukuyama: I think it’s much deeper than most people realize. Russia has been giving support to every single one of these right-wing populists.

I don’t know of a single democracy that’s not been hit by mountains of Russian disinformation, all of which is trying to weaken people’s confidence and trust in their existing institutions and leaders.

Sargent: The idea that liberal democracies are a spent force — that they’re decadent and can no longer make big decisions — seems like a central propaganda point behind this authoritarian Internationale.

What has to happen for the outcome in Ukraine to blunt this right-wing Internationale’s future?

Fukuyama: There are two sides to that. One is to demonstrate that authoritarian decision-making can be really, really bad. Putin has done that.

China is also doing a lot of things to undermine confidence in their system, with this insane zero-covid strategy.

However, I would say that the accusation against Western democracies has traction because there is something to it. Many democracies really have not risen to some of the challenges that they’re facing.

Sargent: We’re in a split-screen moment: Liberal democracies are proving more resolute and capable of rallying behind Ukraine than many expected.

But meanwhile, our system is still having tremendous trouble delivering on major challenges such as inequality and climate change. We’re hamstrung by the filibuster. Political violence is rising. A determined authoritarian movement has taken hold domestically. Real accountability for elites like Trump seems far off.

For liberal democracy to thrive, don’t we have to show a capacity to deliver?

Fukuyama: First of all, the more liberal forces and political parties in the Western world need to win elections. In the short run, you can’t reform institutions unless you have enough political power to do that.

My personal opinion is that the Democratic Party has not recently done a great job of attracting centrist voters needed to win in the electoral college. That’s part of the reason that Trumpism has done well.

You’ve got to solve the short term problem of winning elections and getting sufficient political consensus so you can move on to deeper institutional fixes.

Sargent: In the United States, what’s your suite of institutional reforms?

Fukuyama: I would put term limits on Supreme Court justices. I would move to ranked-choice voting. You could certainly eliminate the filibuster or lower the number required to pass ordinary legislation to something less than 60 senators.

Things like that can be perfectly well accomplished within a democratic framework. We accomplished big things in the 1930s, when we were in a similar kind of crisis. I think we could do it today.

Sargent: There seems to be a disturbing tension here. On one hand, if Ukraine does in some sense prevail, it would reinvigorate faith in liberal democracy. But on the other, we’re perilously perched on the edge of all kinds of backsliding, regardless of what happens in Ukraine.

That plus all the institutional barriers to our democracy really delivering — a major moment of possibility could get squandered.

Fukuyama: That could happen. But I do think that if Ukraine is able to defeat Russia, the demonstration effect is going to be really tremendous. It’s going to have domestic political consequences inside every democracy that’s threatened by one of these populist parties.

You’ve got a long list of right-wing MAGA Republicans that have expressed sympathy for Russia and hostility to Ukraine, on the grounds that strongman leadership is needed. If Putin falls as a result of the fiasco he’s created, it’s going to undermine this as a solution for America’s problems.

I do think that we could recover a little bit of the spirit of 1989. Ukraine could trigger something like that in the United States and Europe.

Sargent: Let me press you further on that optimistic scenario. It seems like the clear lesson of the last couple of decades is that an alternative — white nationalist, Christian, patriarchal, antidemocratic, authoritarian — seems compelling to many around the world.

How does success in Ukraine put any dent in that?

Fukuyama: First of all, there is no modern democracy in which that type of voter is predominant. The problem is that the opponents of these populist nationalists have not organized broad enough coalitions. They’ve not been able to formulate an alternative that is sufficiently appealing.

But the potential is there, because they’ve got the majority of votes. I do think a catalyzing moment of democratic success could be inspiring.

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