Francis Fukuyama: Will We Ever Get Beyond The Nation-State?

In the face of planetary challenges, the nation-state is both the problem and the solution, says the Stanford scholar.

Raw & Rendered for Noema Magazine

Nils Gilman, the vice president of programs at the Berggruen Institute and deputy editor of Noema Magazine, and Jonathan S. Blake, a 2020-21 Berggruen Institute fellow, recently spoke with Francis Fukuyama, the Olivier Nomellini senior fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Mosbacher Director of FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

Gilman: Governments around the world, especially democracies, are facing twin crises of efficacy and legitimacy: They seem increasingly unable to solve major planetary problems like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, and, from such failures, a crisis of legitimacy follows.

Have we reached a point where states need to delegate some amount of authority to some sort of supranational political institution that could effectively address planetary challenges?

Fukuyama: That’s a big question. I am probably a bigger fan of the nation-state than you are, and there are a couple of reasons for that.

It’s not that I don’t recognize that there are these planetary challenges. We’ve never had a need for international cooperation greater than we do now.

But I have always been in favor of cooperation among nations. Supranational units with real power and authority create difficult issues that no one has fully resolved. There are two reasons the nation-state remains important.

The first has to do with violence. The state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in order to enforce laws, maintain domestic order and defend the nation from external enemies.

Consider what happened during both the Euro and refugee crises in the European Union. In theory, the EU is a community that can dictate common rules. But the moment any of the powerful member states — or even some of the less powerful ones, like Hungary — saw a core interest being challenged by an EU decision, they said, “Fuck you, we’re not playing like this.” And there was nothing the EU could do about it.

“The moment any of the powerful member states — or even some of the less powerful ones — saw a core interest being challenged by an EU decision, they said, ‘Fuck you, we’re not playing like this.’”

So, I think power is going to remain at the nation-state level. I just don’t see a way that governing the use of violence could be delegated upward to a supranational body anytime in the future. The EU is not going to develop its own police force and enforcement capacity. And if the EU can’t do it, I don’t see how it can work anywhere else.

The second reason the nation-state is important is cultural legitimacy. The nation-state remains the largest political unit that can also be a cultural unit, meaning that people believe that they have a shared set of values, traditions or historical narratives. The importance of these shared narratives is not diminishing; if anything, those narratives have become a little too powerful, with nationalism again on the rise. I don’t think you can have a state if you don’t have a sense of an underlying identity that makes citizens believe they’re all part of the same political unit.

In short, both that the political need to have an evolved institution that can control violence and the cultural need for the community to believe in those institutions of control still reside in the level of the nation-state. So if you’re going to address planetary issues, you first need to get those units to cooperate, rather than delegate serious coercive power to some higher-level body.

Gilman: Your 1989 essay “The End of History” is often paired with Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” as classic texts that tried to anticipate the sorts of challenges the post-Cold War international relations were likely to face. But I’ve always felt those two ought to be read alongside Robert Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy” (1994) and Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague (1994).

Neither Kaplan nor Garrett directly engaged with your and Huntington’s arguments, but both painted very different and quite prophetic pictures of the challenges the world would face outside of states. Garrett was one of the first to argue that controlling emergent pandemic diseases would be beyond the scope and capacity of the nation-state. And Kaplan argued that parts of the world would not have effective states at all, with chaos and anarchy spilling out into the so-called civilized places.

How do these arguments make us rethink the Fukuyama-Huntington debate?

Fukuyama: They’re not mutually inconsistent, and I think to some extent both have come true. Living in the middle of a pandemic, it’s obvious that Garrett’s argument about planetary challenges is real. And there are plenty of other similar challenges that are just around the corner, including climate change.

Kaplan’s argument, meanwhile, has proven true but in a limited way. I think he was way too pessimistic about the capacity of states to restructure things and reimpose order.

What I don’t think any of those authors, myself included, really anticipated was the general decline of authority and trust in institutions across the board. This is a bit of a surprising miss, because there’s plenty of empirical support for the fact that this has been happening on a long-term secular basis. Since the 1960s, trust in government has been declining everywhere.

Some of the reasons why that is happening actually reflect positive developments. For example, compared to 50 years ago, we have much more distrust of our institutions at the same time as we have much higher levels of education and wealth. Those two facts are connected: If you’re an uneducated peasant, you trust your landlord or whatever authority comes and tells you what to do. But if you have more education, you learn a certain amount of critical thinking — you learn to not simply respect authority because a guy is wearing a uniform. So to some extent, the decline in trust in institutions reflects the fact that people are more individually critical.

“Compared to 50 years ago, we have much more distrust of our institutions at the same time as we have much higher levels of education and wealth. Those facts are connected.”

It also reflects the world’s greater diversity. The trusted institutions used to all be run by a bunch of older white men, in almost every developed country. All these men went to the same schools and the same country clubs, and they ran in the same social circles. By contrast, today we have much more diverse leadership — maybe not diverse enough, but certainly the closed social circle of power that existed in the past has been broken in many countries. As a result, you don’t have the same level of trust for elites that you once did. That’s a good thing!

The final thing has to do with information. Today, the amount of information about the world that is available is overwhelming. And obviously there’s been a chaotic reordering of authority within the different hierarchies that used to define what we regarded as credible information.

People like to blame social media for this situation, but the geopolitical analyst Martin Gurri, for example, has argued that it’s really the whole modern media ecology: the internet, newspapers, TV, movies and so on. Everything we think we know about the world is now mediated by a screen of some sort, and therefore, we increasingly don’t have a direct connection with reality. Instead, everything is mediated, and all those mediations impose filters and distortions. This mediated world has created for many people a very distorted sense of reality. It’s certainly undermined the ability to have shared or common narratives, which has contributed to this long-term decline of authority.

“People like to blame social media, but it’s really the whole modern media ecology: the internet, newspapers, TV, movies and so on.”

Blake:  What’s pretty obvious is that the institutional design of nation-states — optimizing for economic growth and developing a welfare state — is almost certainly not the best one for dealing with the kinds of challenges that face collective life in the future. Those challenges are not nation-state sized. Should the institutions that tackle them be?

Fukuyama: I agree with you completely that you these challenges cannot be solved by individual states. But let me ask you a question: How many of them could be solved by better cooperation among existing states? How many of them actually require a completely different institutional architecture in which really significant powers to make decisions independently have been delegated to some higher-level body?

Beyond the problem of how to legitimate such institutions, how do you actually, as a matter of practical politics, get nation-states to give up the kinds of powers that would be needed to create such a body?

Blake: Let’s take the two planetary challenges we’ve been talking about so far: climate change and pandemics. With the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, we got a series of sovereign states to agree to binding greenhouse emissions reductions, but the U.S. did not join, and China wasn’t required to make the reductions. With the Paris agreement, by contrast, the problem was flipped: Everyone got inside the agreement, but the commitments were entirely voluntarily. So, today we have a situation where states have not volunteered sufficient reductions, and many are not even achieving their commitments.

A similar dynamic played out with the COVID pandemic: The World Health Organization effectively had to sign away the ability to criticize Chinese policy or practice in order to do its research on the origins of the disease.

With both challenges, there is a fundamental tension in which, as you put it, the deciding unit —sovereign states — seems to be a barrier rather than part of the solution.

Fukuyama: I agree with all that. But I just don’t see a practical and legitimate means for delegating decision-making power to some kind of a planetary body that stands over the nation-state. The question is: Who controls actual power? Even if in theory you could design such a supranational body, as long as nation-states control the ultimate means of coercion, how is the supranational power going to get its will enforced when it doesn’t have independent power on its own?

Gilman: Might we not reach a point where national elites at some point think, “Holy hell, I’m being held accountable for results in the face of a set of challenges that I fundamentally don’t have control over.” And wouldn’t they be willing to give up power to another entity that is capable of addressing the challenges? Leave aside institutional design for a moment, the key point is the psychology of political powerholders: They’d rather give up control to somebody else than be held accountable for something they can’t control.

Fukuyama: In theory that could happen, but I have a hard time envisioning a supranational entity that political leaders would be willing to do give their authority to. But one thing that could change is people’s perception of the urgency of some of these threats. That hasn’t happened yet in either the case of climate change or pandemics.

I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Ministry of the Future,” and he posits such a scenario: an acute climate crisis so bad that India actually gets its act together. In this case of contemporary India, this seems like a darkly amusing fantasy, but in fact, that’s the way new institutions have been created in the past: an overwhelming and immediate challenge where people in power really do want to run away from authority if they don’t have an ability to do anything about it.

The problem with climate change, however, is that, politically, it’s exactly the wrong kind of threat. Mitigating the threat requires a lot of payment upfront. Oftentimes, you will not feel the benefits. They’ll be felt by somebody in another jurisdiction or by somebody who is not yet alive and voting. There’s little incentive to move in that direction.

What we need to do is think through the scenarios where a politician would want to delegate power to somebody else. How bad would things have to get before a politician would be willing to give up control of their budget authority, for example, or any of the other things that political leaders think they have responsibility for? I have a hard time imagining that, but I’m also open to the possibility or even the likelihood that at some point it’s going to happen, so it’s worth thinking now about how to design a new supranational institution.

“How bad would things have to get before a politician would be willing to give up control of their budget authority, for example?”

Part of the reason the nation-state remains so durable is that we’ve had 300 years to think about how to build institutions at that level. We’ve had a lot of experience thinking about checks and balances, about parliamentary versus presidential systems and so on. We haven’t had anything close to that kind of experimentation or accumulated knowledge with supranational institutions.

The immediate fear that is raised when we talk about creating a serious, powerful supranational institution is the question of checks and balances. How do we make sure that whatever new powers it is given are used exclusively for solving planetary problems and not misused to do other things? There’s a long history of political institutions just being power-accumulation machines and not actually focusing on using power for constructive ends.

A parallel challenge is to think through the political strategy for getting there. It’s the equivalent of writing a constitution. In Robinson’s Mars trilogy, the characters go through a whole exercise of creating a planetary constitution for Mars that is roughly based on the American constitutional convention. What’s the procedure for even designing a planetary institution? If you study comparative constitution-making, one of the things you learn is that the procedures used to devise the constitution are almost as important as the actual constitution that emerges.

Oftentimes, the procedures that are used to create the constitution end up in the constitution. But you don’t necessarily want that to be the case. That’s why you never let a sitting legislature design a constitution: All they’ll do is protect their existing powers. You’ve got to figure out how to bring in new stakeholders and actors.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.