Is liberal democracy still for export?

Francis Fukuyama is currently touring to promote his new book “The Origins of Political Order.” In a recent interview by the Guardian, it appears the once die-hard-right winger known for declaring liberal democracy the end of history, has softened his edges. He has accepted “the possibility for political decay.” Fukuyama goes on to say “Your institutions can get too rigid; your ideas can get too rigid.” In a somewhat unforeseen concession, he states, “I think right now a lot of developed democracies are going to have to renegotiate their basic social contract, because a lot of the welfare state arrangements are just not sustainable, and that’s something democracies are really not good at.” If liberal democracy isn’t what the US should be exporting, then what is it Mr. Fukuyama? And what role does the US play in advising the emerging democracies of the Arab world?

I’ve been interested lately in the question, how do failed states transition to successful societies? What does a “successful society” look like? What are the indicators? Can we have common indicators across all societies? Must we a priori factor in religious and ethnic differences, or level of development, causal vs. consequential social norms and political systems? Rather than looking at a political system as the end of history, can we flip that on it’s head and ask how does that political system contribute to a successful society?

No sooner had I formulated this question, that I came across the book “Violence and Social Orders” by Douglass North et al. (2009). They provide the example of 25 countries that have made the transition from Natural States to Open Access Societies—the defining feature being open entry into politics and economics. Their main argument is that open access societies have a greater degree of adaptive efficiency. The key to this efficiency is a greater level of experimentation (and/or creative destruction).  But still the question remains, why would the elite ever create an institution to allow rule by the citizens? North et al. turn to work by Acemoglu and Robinson (2006) to eloquently demonstrate that elites would subside their power when they know they will lose it anyways (ie. Mubarak). North et al. take this a step further in order to illustrate the case in “natural states” such as Afghanistan. Here they emphasize the necessary move from personal to impersonal relations to create an “open access society.” But how is this shift initiated among tribal factions, terrorist groups and global military operations?

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