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Exclusive Insight – Francis Fukuyama: Ukraine is Pushing History Forward

In an exclusive interview with Kyiv Post, Francis Fukuyama, renowned political thinker, author, and professor at Stanford University, discussed the nature of Russia’s war against Ukraine and Putin’s i

In an exclusive interview with Kyiv Post, Francis Fukuyama, renowned political thinker, author, and professor at Stanford University, discussed the nature of Russia’s war against Ukraine and Putin’s intentions, the probability of using nuclear weapons by Russia, Elon Musk’s influence, and artificial intelligence risks for the future. And what Ukraine’s defense of freedom means for history.

The interview was conducted by Professor Fukuyama’s former student, now a journalist with Kyiv Post, Aleksandra Klitina.

What is the nature of Russia’s war in Ukraine? Is it a war between the democratic world against autocratic regimes, or is Putin’s real goal to destroy the Ukrainian nation?

I think it’s both. I think he has specific objectives in Ukraine. He didn’t like the fact that the Soviet Union fell apart. And so, he’d like to reassemble as much of the Russian Empire as possible. But he also clearly doesn’t like liberal democracy, and he has been supporting anti-democratic regimes all over the world, and there’s one right on his doorstep.

I think that Ukraine was always particularly threatening to Putin because Putin argued that for a Slavic people democracy wasn’t appropriate, that they needed strong centralized authoritarian government, of the sort that he was providing. And as long as Ukraine survives as a democracy, it undermines his narrative, and I think that was another reason he launched this invasion.

Can we compare Putin to Hitler as the media often does?

Well, I think there are many things about contemporary Russia that are very similar to fascist Germany, and between Putin and Hitler there are also a lot of similarities. He and people around him have talked in genocidal terms. He really wants to eliminate Ukraine as a people, and if that requires killing a lot of Ukrainians, he’s willing to do that. But he also would like to snuff out Ukrainian language, culture, any kind of separate identity. He published a famous article last year where he said that the Russian and Ukrainian people are one. So, he doesn’t accept the fact that Ukraine has a separate national identity, has its own traditions, and has the right to its own sovereignty. So, for him, it’s very similar to Hitler’s attitude towards the Jews, towards Slavs, towards other non-German people.

Certainly, in terms of the methods that Putin is using, it’s very similar to Hitler, holding these big rallies, trying to indoctrinate people, using mass media to whip up nationalistic support for the war effort. So, in that respect, it’s also quite comparable to what happened in Nazi Germany.

And yet, the Russians call themselves anti-fascists.

It’s the misuse of language. Putin is very good at projecting onto other people what he himself is doing. So, he claims that this is a defensive war to protect Russia from NATO aggression. It’s ridiculous, but it’s one of the things he can say that will build support among Russians, many of whom are now convinced that they’re the ones under attack.

You are famous for coining the title: The End of History. So where are we now, in which cycle of history?

You have to realize, that when I used the word “history,” it was meant in this very long-term sense of progress in human institutions, and my argument was that we were making progress and that the end of history is not the termination, but rather the goal, or the point towards which progress was heading – which I argued was not communism, the way [Karl] Marx believed, but rather some form of liberal democracy.

This is a nonlinear process. We don’t make progress every single year, and sometimes we have huge setbacks. So, we had a huge sat back in the 1930s, we had another one in 1960s and 70s; and over the last 15 years, there’s been a lot of reversal of democracy: in Turkey, in Hungary, in Venezuela, in Myanmar, in Tunisia, a whole series of places that we thought were becoming more democratic.

But history is not pre-determined, and it really depends on the actions that people take in defense of democracy. And one of the things that I think is extremely admirable about Ukraine is the way that Ukrainian citizens have risen up to defend their own society against Russia. I think it’s demonstrated to the rest of the world that there are people who want to fight for their freedom, they’re willing to take risks and to die for that freedom. And it’s a very inspiring story to everyone else.

And I think if Ukraine is successful in pushing Russia back, it will be a big victory for democracy, not just in Ukraine, but around the world as a whole. Putin was the leading anti-democrat in the world. He and the Chinese were arguing that democracy was weak, it was ineffective and in decline, and now it’s his society that seems to be declining.

So, for all those reasons, I think Ukraine is helping to push history forward – if you want to put it in those terms.

Has history been jump-started?

Well, I do think if Russia is really forced to back down and pull out of Ukraine, it is going to be a big boost to democracy in other parts of the world. There are many people struggling against dictatorship in many different countries that are looking to Ukraine. And if Ukraine is able to resist Russia in this manner, then I think they will be inspired by it.

Do you think Russia would survive as a state in the event it loses?

I suspect that it’s going to survive. Putin may not survive. Putin’s legitimacy is built around the fact that he’s a strong man and that he can get things done, he is successful in using power. But what he’s done is really turning into the biggest disasters that I can think of in my lifetime. He’s basically led to the destruction of his own military. He has isolated Russia from the rest of the world, he’s undermined the economy and his own society. And I think that anyone who is defeated in that stark a way is going to have a hard time surviving if his only claim to power is the fact that he’s strong. If you demonstrate a strong man as weak, he’s not going to last very long.

But Russian society is quite supportive of Putin’s actions.

So far. But I think the sanctions are going to kick in over time much more strongly than they have, where it’s going to affect Russian living standards. I think that many Russians don’t appreciate the degree of military loss that they’ve suffered already at this point. And I think once that begins to sink in…  Also, I think the mobilization in Russia has scared a lot of people, because now, for the first time, they realize that this war is going to affect them. So, all of these things, over time, will erode the kind of automatic support that a leader gets when he starts a war.

That was what has happened historically with Russia’s wars. Russians do not forgive their leaders for losing a war.

That was true in 1905, it was true in 1917. So, I think that’s right.

What will happen if Putin uses nuclear weapons in the war, in your opinion? What is the probability of that?

Well, I don’t think it’s likely. Nobody can rule it out, because it is the one element of Russian power that gives them claim to be a really big great power. But I don’t think they’re going to use a nuclear weapon precisely because I don’t think it’s going to benefit them. I don’t think it’s going to turn the tide militarily. It’s going to undermine what remaining support Russia has internationally. It’s going to have a lot of bad effects on Russia itself, because radiation is not something you can aim just against one country when you set off a bomb that close to your own territory.

And finally, I think that NATO has many options in response to the use of a nuclear weapon. NATO does not have to use nuclear weapons itself. But I could see NATO drawn directly into this war in attacking Russian targets both in Ukraine and in Russia in response to the use of a nuclear weapon. Ukraine is about to defeat Russia all by itself, but if NATO comes into this conflict as well, the Russians have no chance. They are not going to survive that. So, I think that Putin is rational enough to make this calculation, that the use of a nuclear weapon isn’t going to help him, it’s probably going to make his situation much worse. And that’s the reason I don’t think it’s likely he will do this.

Why doesn’t NATO intervene now, for example, to stop this war as soon as possible?

I think NATO has been cautious precisely because of this nuclear issue. If the escalation really seems to be coming from the NATO side, then the Russians are going to fear that NATO really is going to take this opportunity to go after them directly, and that changes their calculation. Whereas if all of the pressure is just coming from Ukraine, with NATO support obviously, but in a more graduated fashion, I think they’re much less likely to resort to extreme measures. So that’s why I think NATO has been cautious. I think they’re probably a bit too cautious. I think, for example, NATO should be supplying much longer-range missiles to Ukraine so that Ukraine can hit targets in Crimea and other places. Very possibly, that’s going to happen in the future. I hope it does.

I would like to ask you about Elon Musk. How has one person managed to become so powerful in the democratic world? Is there any risk associated with this situation in the future?

Sure, there’s risk. There are a lot of rich people in capitalist societies. Elon Musk is a very brilliant entrepreneur. He’s created several companies, especially Tesla, which are very successful, and we want that to happen. But it’s turning out that his political views are questionable.

In particular, he is in this compromised position where he has big interests both in Russia, but especially in China, in terms of selling his vehicles. And for that reason, he probably doesn’t want to alienate the governments in either place. He’s already taken a Russian line in terms of pushing for a ceasefire and some kind of negotiation. He has also taken the Chinese position on Taiwan. It’s very bad when somebody who owns the most influential media companies in the United States starts pushing these kinds of positions.

On the other hand, I think he’s got a big problem on his hands because Twitter is not making money. I think it’s made a profit in one of the last eight years, and he actually paid way too much money for it. And it’s going to be extremely difficult for him to turn this company around. So, I’m not sure that Twitter is going to exist in another year. We’ll have to see what kind of damage Musk can do with it in that period.

Why would a successful businessperson invest in something not profitable? Is he trying to obtain more influence by buying Twitter?

There are a lot of oligarchs around the world that buy media companies not because they’re profitable but because they want to influence. But I don’t think that was actually his motive in this case. I think that he actually thought he could make money out of this. Why he bought it? Well, he made the initial offer when the market was much, much, higher. Everybody has declined; Facebook, Google and Apple, they’ve all seen big declines in their share prices since he made that offer. So that made him try to get out of the deal. It was too difficult to get out, so now he’s stuck with this thing. So, I think it may have been a big mistake in judgement on his part.

He made such pro-Russian statements on Twitter. Do you think he was influenced by the Russians?

That’s the story that has been going around, that he actually talked directly to Putin, and Putin essentially gave him these talking points. Putin’s done that with other people – Donald Trump was repeating a lot of Putin’s talking points when he spoke after they had summit meetings together. So yes, unfortunately, I think that’s what’s happened.

In today’s complex world of the internet, social media, and Wikipedia – has the value of scholars and thinkers like yourself been devalued? Is real intellect being supplanted by fake or artificial intelligence?

No, I don’t think it’s been displaced. There’s a different set of problems. The most negative aspect of artificial intelligence has to do with surveillance. China is the country that’s taking this to the furthest extent, where they’ve used the pandemic as an excuse to extend their surveillance to every single one of their citizens. They’re able to collect data and sort through that data using artificial intelligence on a scale that no one has ever attempted before. And that potentially gives them a degree of control over their society that no totalitarian regime could aspire to in the 20th century. So that is scary.

I think the threat to intellect and to discourse is really not coming from artificial intelligence; it’s really coming from social media. Social media grabs everybody’s attention, but for 15 seconds and it’s very difficult to have a prolonged, careful discussion. Everybody is distracted. People’s attention is taken by things that pop up on their phone so that you can’t pay attention to one single issue for any extended period of time.

And I think that’s really the problem that we’re facing. Younger people today walk around with a phone in their hands, staring at the phone, not talking to each other, and not looking at where they’re going, and so forth. I think that’s the real problem with regard to intellect. And it’s caused not by artificial intelligence, but by social media.

How long will this war in Ukraine last? What exactly could end this war?

It’s very hard to predict the course of a war. I have been more optimistic right from the beginning about Ukraine’s chances, and I still remain optimistic for a number of reasons. The morale on the Ukrainian side is much much higher than on the Russian side. The Russians have basically run out of equipment and manpower, and I think they’re struggling to replace the losses they’ve suffered already there. And they have a very poor strategic position in Kherson and in the South.

So, I’m expecting that Ukraine will at the least be able to push Russia to the other side of the Dnipro River in the next couple of months. I hope that that’s the case, and I think that would lead then to a real deterioration of their overall position in Ukraine by next spring. But I can’t see into the future any better than anyone else. But I do think there’s ground for cautious optimism with regard to the future of the war.

Are you working on a new book at the moment?

At the moment, not. I just published a book recently that, by the way, will be published in Ukrainian – Liberalism and Its Discontents. But for the time being, I am taking a break.

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