Francis Fukuyama doesn't shy from sweeping statements, bold pronouncements or the Big Idea.
The Stanford University scholar's best-known work, "The End of History and the Last Man" (an expansion of a 1989 essay), caused a ripple in the political-science world in 1992 by arguing that the global ideological struggle has finally come to an end, with liberal democracy as the undisputed champion. The book served as a retort of sorts to Karl Marx, who had his own ideas about what the "end of history" would look like. Though some critics took the title too literally, the controversy only fueled Fukuyama's rise to the very pinnacle of America's political-science establishment.
Fukuyama's latest book, "The Origins of Political Order," will almost certainly cement the reputation, but for starkly different reasons. As the title implies, the work is more a survey than a polemic, though the Stanford professor doesn't avoid poking holes in the teachings of Marx, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Max Weber and other European thinkers who dominate college syllabi. His aim is to answer the million-dollar question: Why do some nations, like China and Russia, end up with strong but unaccountable governments while others like India and England have political systems that restrict their respective rulers' authority?
Such questions, by definition, are far from straightforward. As Fukuyama explains early on, "Human societies are so diverse that it is very difficult to make truly universal generalizations from the comparative study of cultures." Not that this will stop him from trying.
"Origins" is ambitious in its goal, sweeping in its scope and nuanced in its method. Much like Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel," which detailed the ways in which geography shaped the differences between civilizations, and Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilization," which pegged cultural differences as the main driver of conflicts in the post-Cold War world, Fukuyama's newest work seeks to explain how the world became the way it is.
Fukuyama, who dedicates the book to Huntington, traces the history of political development from the time we were swinging from trees to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. He casts his net across the globe and takes us from the warring tribes of ancient China — the first civilization to invent bureaucracy and create the centralized "modern state" — to the Mamluk warriors of ancient Egypt (whose powerful armies and state bureaucracy were sustained by the nascent institution of military slavery); from the Catholic popes who provided a crucial check to royal power in England to the Brahmins in India, whose dominance of the social order made it nearly impossible for a strong state to emerge.
Fukuyama breaks down "political order" into three components — the state, the rule of law and government accountability — and shows how each component evolved over time. Along the way, he challenges the Hobbesian characterization of man as an isolated brute who opted to improve his "nasty, brutish and short" life by forking over his freedom to the "Leviathan" of state in exchange for security. Even chimps band together, elect leaders and more or less follow the Golden Rule. The "presocial state" that Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau wrote about never existed in Fukuyama's universe. We are, by nature, social, family-oriented and capable of reciprocating altruism, he argues.
Rather than sign a contract to join a state, we gradually transitioned from smaller, kin-based groups to larger bands, tribes and, ultimately, states, Fukuyama writes. This transition followed various timelines and trajectories in different parts of the globe, with warfare as the major engine of change.
China led the way in the third century B.C., when the king of Qin challenged the traditional kin-based social order and began conscripting peasants into his army. He ultimately conquered his rivals and established the modern institution of state throughout most of northern China.
The bitter tension between the central state and family-based organization is a continuing thread throughout "Origins." It helps explain why Chinese emperors employed networks of eunuchs as spies against political enemies (and why China's Confucian rulers decided to exterminate all the royal eunuchs in the year 165).
The Han Dynasty, which followed Qin, took the modern state a step farther and created the world's first bureaucracy. Officials were now selected based on merit rather than on family connections, and regional leaders were asked to supply the central government with "fixed quotas" of young men to serve in the bureaucracy, Fukuyama writes. In 5 B.C., there were about 130,000 bureaucrats serving in China.
The empire went through numerous shifts and relapses under subsequent dynasties with central authority giving way to aristocratic rule and vice versa. The nation's Confucian ethos, which encouraged family loyalty, continued to clash with the strong-state "Legalism" of authoritarian rulers. Nevertheless, China succeeded in emerging as the first modern state.
The conflict between kin-based tribes and the central state wasn't restricted to China. It loomed particularly large in the Islamic empires of the Middle East, where the Ottoman Empire fought back against the tribal loyalties by creating a system of military slavery. The slaves in this system were foreigners from conquered nations who were separated from their children and brought in to serve the state. As the empire's military successes around the year 1500 demonstrated, the system worked like a charm.
The system of military slavery, Fukuyama writes, "emerged as a brilliant adaptation designed to create a strong state-level institution against the backdrop of one of the most powerfully tribal societies on earth."
Other states took far longer to coalesce. In India, where a firmly established caste system ruled the social order, it took centuries for a central state to emerge and when it did, it was far weaker than its Chinese counterpart. But the firmly established social order also gave India something that China lacked: the germ of the rule of law. India's caste system and Varna system "formed the bedrock organization of society and severely limited the power of the state to penetrate and control it." The rule of law in India, he writes, came from a power the population deemed superior to the political ruler.
Europe also lagged far behind China in centralizing authority, but when a state finally emerged to replace the existing feudal system, it bore little resemblance to the Chinese model. To be sure, some monarchs flexed their muscles, but England had no equivalent of Wu Zhao (a seventh-century concubine-turned-empress who had her predecessor chopped into pieces and stuffed in a wine vat; poisoned the heir apparent; framed her own son for the crime; prompted him to commit suicide; used her army of spies to execute all nobles, then did the same to the police).
For that, Fukuyama argues, we can thank the Catholic Church and a monk named Hildebrand. Even before he became Gregory VII in 1073, Hildebrand and his followers argued that popes should exercise legal supremacy over all Christians and had the right to depose the emperor. When Henry IV tried to challenge this doctrine during the "investiture controversy" (in which the church challenged the emperor's right to appoint bishops), things didn't go so well for the emperor. Fukuyama writes:
"Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV responded by attempting to oust Gregory from Apostolic See with the words 'Descend, descend, thou ever accursed,' to which Gregory responded in turn by excommunicating the emperor. Many of German princes, as well as a number of bishops, supported the pope and forced Henry in 1077 to come to Gregory's residence at Canossa. He waited for three days to present himself barefoot in the snow to receive the pope's absolution."
The Church and the State ultimately reached accord in 1122 with the Concordat of Worms. The emperor largely gave up the right of investiture, while the church recognized the emperor's authority in a range of temporal matters. Thus, the European secular state was born, in which "the existence of a separate religious authority accustomed rulers to the idea that they were not the ultimate source of law."
The religious component had thus set England apart from China and Russia, where absolute rule was (and in some ways remains) the norm, and where the rule of law is severely diminished by the power of the political ruler to change it at a whim. The church also introduced to the English monarchy the principle of accountability — the third ingredient in Fukuyama's formula for successful political development. It is this trinity that put England on the path toward a strong, functional liberal democracy — a path that Fukuyama terms "the road to Denmark."
Fukuyama's book overflows with colorful examples of less smooth transitions to political order. There's 18th-century France, where a rule of law favoring nobility forced kings to grant oligarchs unfair tax exemptions, putting heavy burden on the peasantry. The monarchy discovered accountability the hard way near the end of the century when the peasants revolted and Louis XVI lost his head in the French Revolution.
There's the Russian model in which the rule of law is weak and accountability is virtually nonexistent — factors that allowed despotic rulers to recruit nobility and to terrorize the population at leisure. On the flip side, there's the Hungarian model of the 14th and 15th century, in which the nation's oligarchs were more powerful than the state, leaving the country militarily weak and unable to defend itself against the Ottoman invasion.
"Origins of Political Order" is the first of two volumes Fukuyama plans to publish, with the sequel focusing on the period between the Industrial Revolution and the present. But even without reading the second volume, it is easy to see the parallels between the historical struggles between tribes and state, or state and citizenry in the modern world, from the rise of the lethal Haqqani network in Afghanistan to the Putin regime in Russia.
To be sure, Fukuyama's basic premise that political order emerges subtly and gradually out of the particular material and historical conditions of each society is unlikely to jibe well with those who believe in the power of the Big Idea to change the world (including Neoconservatives, Islamic fundamentalists and the guy who wrote "The End of History" in the late 1980s). Fans of "The End of History" may end up scratching their heads by the end of "Origins" and ask themselves, "What's the Big Idea?"
But what "Origins" lacks in hubris, it more than makes up for in elegance, scope and keen insight. Above all, it succeeds in showcasing one of the nation's top political scientists at the height of his power.