Francis Fukuyama: Interviewed about today's challenges to freedom

Historians in the News

Francis Fukuyama is author of the seminal post-Cold War book, The End of History And the Last Man. NPQ editor Nathan Gardels met with Fukuyama at his office at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. in March.

NPQ | The late Isaiah Berlin famously made the distinction between "negative" and "positive" freedom—the first being "freedom from" tyranny and interference and the second being "freedom to" do what one will in his or her zone of non-interference; the freedom of self-realization.

As you pointed out in your argument about "the end of history," negative freedom has pretty much been accepted universally, in principle if not in practice, since the end of the Cold War. Even in China the zone of personal space has grown immensely.

But, almost by definition in a diverse world, positive freedom, the "freedom to," is not universal. Some people want to wear headscarves, others want to marry the same sex.

After the "end of history" aren't most conflicts now over positive freedoms?

Francis Fukuyama | It's true. Most liberal democracies have been able to avoid this question of what positive freedoms they want to encourage because they haven't been challenged. Now they are challenged by minorities—Muslim immigrants in Europe, for example—or in some way by rising cultures in Asia that have a very strong sense of their own moral community, their own nonliberal values. It has become a very live issue.

In Europe especially, the issue of immigration and identity converges with the larger problem of the valuelessness of postmodernity. The rise of relativism has made it harder to assert positive values and therefore the shared beliefs Europeans demand of immigrants as conditions for citizenship. Postmodern elites have evolved beyond identities defined by religion and nation to what they regard as a superior place. But aside from their celebration of endless diversity and tolerance, they find it difficult to agree on the substance of the good life to which they aspire in common.

Also, to be clear, what I argued in The End of History was that Hegel had a more positive sense of what freedom is in terms of the recognition of basic human dignity, of the capacity to make moral choices. So, in a sense the "end of history" means the beginning of the reconstruction of a more positive, substantive, idea of what it means to live in a liberal democracy.

NPQ | Just as immigrants asserting their identity bring new conflicts to liberal societies, doesn't the projection of the West's "postmodern valuelessness" —relativism, secularism, permissiveness, materialism—into other cultures through the mass media and entertainment generate clashes of a global scope? Migrants come here; our media go there. After all, Osama bin Laden never came to America. He knows it through the "Hollywood image."

The globalizing media simultaneously tie together, differentiate and define; they are the space where recognition is granted, where dignity is assigned. If they are the new agora, aren't they also, then, the new ground of conflict?

Fukuyama | Definitely. There has been a culture war going on within the United States for a long time over this issue. Cultural conservatives and the religious right have long criticized Hollywood for undermining the values of family and faith. In a sense, their position is not all that different from Osama bin Laden's. The valuelessness projected by American mass culture is a problem.

Obviously, Muslim extremists don't accept the basic framework of liberal tolerance within which America's culture wars are waged. But there is a relationship. What we see today on the global stage is in some sense an extension of America's own culture wars.

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