A Gloomy Take On Global Democracy

John Gray finds a sobering message in Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, Political Order and Political Decay, about what it takes to make democracy work:

One of the merits of this ambitious and wide-ranging book is that it recognises the daunting difficulties of creating an effective state – democracy’s most essential precondition. ‘Before a state can be constrained by either law or democracy’, Fukuyama writes, ‘it needs to exist. This means, in the first instance, the establishment of a centralized executive and a bureaucracy.’ Much of the book is a catalogue of the vicissitudes of state-building, and Fukuyama recounts in impressive detail the disparate results in countries such as Prussia, Italy and the United States. Part of the book is given over to examining semi-failed states, with an instructive chapter devoted to Nigeria. Here Fukuyama’s analysis is incisive: ‘Lack of democracy is not the core of the country’s problems.’ What Nigeria lacks is ‘a strong, modern, and capable state … The Nigerian state is weak not only in technical capacity and its ability to enforce laws impersonally and transparently. It is also weak in a moral sense: it has a deficit of legitimacy.’

In some ways Political Order and Political Decay may be Fukuyama’s most impressive work to date. The upshot of his argument is that functioning democracy is impossible wherever an effective modern state is lacking. Since fractured and failed states are embedded in many parts of the world, the unavoidable implication is that hundreds of millions or billions of people will live without democracy for the foreseeable future. It’s a conclusion that anyone who thinks realistically is bound to accept. It’s also a view that runs counter to nearly all currents of prevailing opinion. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Fukuyama – who is not known for challenging ruling orthodoxies – makes little of this aspect of his analysis. At the same time, it is a conclusion that is hard to square with his continuing talk of ‘the globalization of democracy’.