Between Fukuyama and Huntington: Defending Culture While Advancing Democracy

Draft PIAC Plenary Presentation

Between Fukuyama and Huntington:
Defending Culture While Advancing Democracy

Thomas A. Dine
RFE/RL, Inc.

(42nd Meeting of the PIAC, Prague 1999)

We meet today in the midst of an international intellectual debate that has already had enormous consequences for the peoples of Inner Asia and one that has profoundly affected the way others deal with them. It certainly informs what we do every day at RFE/RL. I refer, of course, to the discussion generated by the very different conceptions contained in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and those presented by Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations.

In its starkest terms, the debate between the two continues to be framed in the following way:

Followers of Fukuyama insist that human societies everywhere have reached agreement that liberal democracy and free-market economics are the best ways to organize society and that these arrangements should and will spread more or less rapidly over the entire world. They point to the success of such arrangements in the countries of Western Europe and North America and to the desire of other countries to share in that success. And they argue that any individual or group which tries to prevent the establishment of such arrangements is not only retrograde but fundamentally immoral.

Not surprisingly, the advocates of this position have shown little patience for differences among national societies. Indeed, many of them have shown little understanding of the differences that exist among countries that claim to be organized along these principles. And these attitudes in turn have often served as the intellectual underpinning for an almost contemptuous attitude toward the defense of long-standing values in other societies, including what some dismiss as the particularism of language and religion.

Not surprisingly, the often violent reaction by local elites and mass populations to such external guidance has led them to reject the ideas these guides seek to provide.

Followers of Huntington, on the other hand, dissent from this picture of human history and even more of the human future. They suggest, often far more radically than Huntington himself, that cultural differences rather than human commonalities define behaviour and will define it in the future. And they thus show far greater respect for cultural factors than do the followers of Fukuyama, precisely because they do not believe that history is unilinear or that every society is necessarily following along a similar and preordained path.

All of this tends to make Huntingtonians in countries where democracy and free markets already are institutionalized far more understanding of other societies than are the followers of Fukuyama. The latter often show little patience with anything or anyone who prevents history from marching toward its “end.” But the Huntingtonians have gained some allies that Huntington himself would certainly reject: despots in politics and economics who are that they represent a unique national way and that no one has the right to challenge them in the name of any universal principle be it democracy, human rights, or economic opportunity.

Not surprisingly, the appearance of such supporters of Huntington’s thesis, of his suggestion that the cultures of Islam or Orthodox Christianity will continue to develop in very different ways than that of cultures tracing their lineage directly or indirectly to the Christian West., has provided ammunition for the advocates of Fukuyama’s view.

While supporters of each side would argue that their positions are more complicated than that, I think we need to focus on the ways in which the two sides are speaking past one another rather than joining in a genuine debate. And I want to take this opportunity to describe for you the ways in which we at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in fact work to combine these two perspectives every day as we seek to promote democracy and free markets even while we are in the front lines of defending language and culture.

The Wrong Debate

As much as their followers may be unwilling to acknowledge, neither Fukuyama nor Huntington elaborated his ideas as a response to the other. Instead, each of these distinguished scholars was focusing on a different issue. Not surprisingly, each came up with different answers — ­precisely because he asked a different set of questions.

As he has acknowledged numerous times, Fukuyama was intrigued by the acceptance of both democracy and free markets by reform communists like Mikhail Gorbachev. If even communists accept these principles, Fukuyama felt, then the world had reached its end in the narrow Hegelian sense that there was no longer any fundamental debate about the proper way to organize a society.

But from the point of view of many who did not take the trouble to read his articles or his book, Fukuyama appeared to suggest something far more: that history made the triumph of these ideas both inevitable and rapid. And just as Lenin assumed that he had to work hard to implement the historical inevitabilities described by Marx, so too the followers of Fukuyama felt they must push a democratic and free market agenda on everyone, regardless of how those being administered this medicine felt.

And thus whether he wanted to of not, Fukuyama has provided a new justification for the interventionist impulse on the part of some groups and states, an impulse that helps to promote human freedom but sometimes at the cost of ignoring cultural distinctions.

Huntington was examining a very different question: what are likely to be the sources of conflict in the world following the collapse of Soviet communism? In his examination of contemporary international relations, Huntington suggested that politics based on the differences among major cultural groups would give rise to new conflicts in the future, precisely because the values of these cultures are so different and hence the agendas constructured on them by local elites will inevitably clash.

In marked contrast to some who have used his ideas for their own ends, Huntington has always been committed to human freedom and to democracy and free markets as the best ways of achieving that. The only difference he has with Fukuyama on this point is how quickly and inevitably such values will be realized. Not surprisingly, having focused on the cultural roots of conflict, Huntington has been more sceptical about the rapidity of such change and even more about the likelihood that the advocacy of such values by outside groups will not generate a backlash.

Moreover, Huntington has underlined one of the basic realities of human development that a commitment to democracy and free markets cannot by itself explain: the division of the human community into different cultures and the existence of states with competing interests.

Combining the Two

From what I have said so far, you can conclude that I believe there is much to learn from each of these scholars. Even more, I am convinced that we at RFE/RL are engaged every day in the search for precisely that combination, one that respects national cultures and especially national languages but also one that advocates democracy, human rights, and free markets and that supports those who are working for these universal values.

Your presence here not only in Prague but at RFE/RL headquarters testified to your interest in precisely this combination. You are aware that we broadcast to more different communities in Inner Asia than any other service. For almost half a century, we have been sending out programming in the languages of this enormously important but often neglected region. Today, we broadcast in Azerbaijani, Iraqi Arabic, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Persian, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek. In the past, we were often the only institution that cared about defending these languages and hence these cultures from the various forces that threatened them. And today, we continue to broadcast because of that commitment and because of our belief that these cultures have within them the resources and abilities to expand human freedom for all of their participants.

But you are also aware that not everyone in our broadcast region is pleased with our message concerning the critical importance of human rights, democracy and free markets. Some governments and individuals view these ideas as foreign; others as a direct threat to their power. And they make it difficult for our journalists and indeed for all journalists to fulfill their mission of providing the kind of news, information and analysis that individuals and nations need to make decisions about their own lives. Even worse, our opponents betray their own lack of self-confidence in their own cultures and their capaciity to change.

Indeed, today across Inner Asia, the state of press freedom is not good. Governments harrass journalists and work to control the media as a whole. Leaders proclaim themselves democrats but act in the most authoritarian of ways. And some within the cultures of this region have articulated a view that they do not need or want the values of democracy or that they must be allowed to define it in a way that drains the word of all possible meaning.

Because that is so, we at RFE/RL continue to have a responsibility to bring this message and this information to these people. We do so not because we want to denigrate anyone’s culture but rather because we have more confidence in these cultures than do some of their so-called advocates. Like you, we know that culture evolves, and we are confident that the cultures of Inner Asia are both strong and capacious enough for the values that allow for democracy and human freedom for every one of their members.

As you meet the representatives of our services working in this area — and I know that many of you will be meeting them as old friends — you will see just how the commitment to the defense of culture and the commitment to the defense of democratic values can be combined. And you will also see why I am so confident that we can have the best of both: a fully elaborated culture and a completely democratic one in all of the communities of Inner Asia. We may not reach that goal in the immediate future, but we are committed to making that happen.

Beyond Fukuyama and Huntington

In doing what we do, I am convinced that we are making a contribution to moving beyond Fukuyama and Huntington, both practically and theoretically. Practically, we are demonstrating that cultures are far more changeable than some believe, that democratic values are more adaptable than many now think, and that an approach which combines these twin understandings can achieve more than anyone might suspect.

For me as a practitioner, that conclusion is sufficient, but I fully appreciate that I am speaking to distinguished theorists today. And consequently, I want to conclude by drawing a theoretical lesson.

As many of you undoubtedly know, there was once an intense discussion among political scientists at Harvard University about office space in which the argument was finally ended with one professor remarking: “Yes, yes, that will work in practice, but will it work in theory?”

Moreover, I believe that a combination of Fukuyama and Huntington will work in theory as well, that it will help us move beyond the often sterile academic debates between the followers of each and beyond the defense of autocratic governments or insensitive export of values that each represents. I am confident that you will be able to contribute to that theoretical development during this meeting. I know we will benefit from your discussions. And I and my colleagues at RFE/RL look forward to these results and to our common efforts in the future.