Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama on Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

I cannot promise that this will be my last post on Viktor Orbán’s  infamous speech and its reverberations. As so many people have already said, in that speech delivered in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad, Romania, Orbán may have crossed the Rubicon. Until now only his critics called him a wannabe dictator, but now he himself made clear that in the last four years he has been creating an illiberal state in Hungary. For good measure, he repeated the adjective four times. For foreign consumption the official English translation of the speech tried to avoid the term. The translator used the word “illiberal” only once. Surely by that time the staff of the Prime Minister’s Office must have realized that Orbán had gone too far and tried to minimize the damage.

Even the subdued English translation, however, couldn’t paper over the dire import of the speech. The message the speech conveyed was frightening in and of itself, but given the tense situation in Ukraine Orbán’s words sounded even more ominous. Perhaps it was he who shot himself in the foot and not the European Union which decided to punish Russia with economic sanctions, as he claimed in his customary Friday morning interview.

I have been collecting every important article pertaining to Orbán’s ideas about the future of Hungary under his leadership. Most of them are in English or German and therefore easily accessible. Here I would like to summarize an important interview with Francis Fukuyama, the well-known political scientist. The interview appeared today in Magyar Narancs.

First a few words about Francis Fukuyama, who is currently the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Institute for International Studies and a resident at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. Prior to 2000 he was a professor and director of the International Development program at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

The Hungarian edition of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man

The Hungarian edition of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man

While I was perusing Fukuyama’s biography I was struck by his varied interests and expertise. He received his B.A. in classics from Cornell University. He went on to do graduate work in comparative literature at Yale University, during which time he spent six months in Paris where he studied under Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. It was only after his stint at Yale that he finally decided on political science, in which he received his Ph.D. at Harvard.

His first book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), made him famous overnight. What did he mean by that title? With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, he argued that the struggle between ideologies was largely over, and he predicted the triumph of liberalism.

Fukuyama is interested in Hungarian political developments. A few days after the Orbán speech, he wrote a tweet expressing his dismay over Viktor Orbán’s ideas on the illiberal state. He said: “Hard to believe that a European leader would openly call for illiberal democracy as Viktor Orbán has done.”

I guess it was this tweet that prompted the editors of Magyar Narancs to approach Fukuyama for an interview. So, for those of you who don’t know Hungarian here is a loosely translated summary of the interview.

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The first question was about how seriously we have to take Viktor Orbán’s words. Did he simply use them as a rhetorical device or is the situation more serious than that?

Fukuyama was inclined to consider the message of the speech as more than rhetoric. These were not empty words. Here is a European political leader who openly admits that he became an admirer of authoritarian states. These words will sooner or later have consequences. Such a case is unprecedented. He violates the consensus in the western meaning of the word that is the essence of good governance.

The journalist of Magyar Narancs wanted to know what Fukuyama thinks of Hungary’s place on a scale between democracy and dictatorship. The answer shows that Fukuyama follows the events in Hungary. In his opinion, the concept of  illiberal democracy describes pretty well everything that is happening in Hungary today. We can talk about democracy in the sense that a large majority of the Hungarian people voted for Orbán’s government, but at the same time democracy means a great deal more than an election won with a large majority. In normal circumstances the rule of law, the system of checks and balances, the guarantee of  minority rights are part and parcel of democracy. Orbán and his friends destroyed all that. What Fukuyama is most worried about is that this kind of thinking is spreading in Europe. But other European leaders who entertain similar ideas are quiet about their thoughts on the subject. Orbán was the only one who openly trumpeted his own illiberal system.

The conversation then turned to the weaknesses of the left both in Hungary and in the United States. Fukuyama expressed his surprise that the 2008 economic crisis electrified the right, in the United States the Tea Party, instead of the left as one would have expected.

After this brief detour the conversation returned to Orbán’s fascination with the East, countries like China, India, Turkey, Russia, and even Kazakhstan. Fukuyama admitted that it doesn’t matter how hard he tries to find an answer to the efficacy of such an orientation for Hungary, he cannot come up with anything. Hungary’s aim should be convergence towards countries like Germany, the Netherlands or Scandinavia. But Russia and Kazakhstan? Yes, these countries have immense energy reserves, but otherwise what keeps these countries together is sheer corruption. It is most likely the case that Orbán is guided by short-term interests, but “that game cannot be won without serious consequences.”

Fukuyama was then asked what he thinks of China’s prospects. Everybody, he replied, wants an “opening” toward that country. In his view, China already has serious economic and political problems. What keeps the regime going is economic development, but that accelerated growth cannot be maintained in the long run.

The next topic was whether a welfare state can exist without democracy. Fukuyama brought up the example of Singapore as an authoritarian regime that is economically very successful. But he pointed out that in Singapore the president can stay in office for only two five-year terms, and politicians obey the law mostly as a result of the inherited British common law system of justice. Clearly, although Fukuyama did not mention it, he is aware of Viktor Orbán’s plans for staying in power for a very long time, if necessary by the ruse of becoming president following the example of Putin and Erdoğan.

The next question was a really pessimistic one: Could Hungary end up being an outright dictatorship? Fukuyama did not answer this question directly. Instead he talked about the weaknesses in the European Union’s structure that fail to give Brussels any effective instrument to deal with a politician like Viktor Orbán. He noted, however, that Angela Merkel and the European People’s Party have shielded Orbán in the past because of the party’s selfish interests. Perhaps now, after this speech, they will wake up and, instead of playing party politics, will rethink their policies toward Hungary.

Another question concerned the role of the United States in the resurgence of illiberalism. Fukuyama replied that the reaction to 9/11–the invasion of Iraq–was a huge mistake and caused a loss of American prestige. And the economic crisis gave the opponents of democracy an opportunity to show the U.S. and Europe as failed economic and political systems. These mistakes can be corrected. “But the damage done to the image of the United States as a strong democratic model will be more difficult to restore.”

Finally, there had to be a question on Fukuyama’s famous book, The End of History. In that book he proclaimed the final victory of democracy. Is he still that sanguine about its prospects? His answer was that if one looked around the world in the 1970s and 1980s there were no more than 35-40 democratic countries. Today they number 110-120. Yes, there is China and Russia, but democratic institutions are resilient. The autocratic models of China or Russia don’t offer long-term sustainable models.

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Hungarians always complain that foreigners know so little about their country. There are many who keep telling us that Hungary is too insignificant and that the influential countries pay little or no attention to it. But this is no longer the case. First of all, people are increasingly interested in what’s going on in Hungary because they have awakened to the fact that something went very wrong in that country. Second, we shouldn’t think that Hungary is insignificant in international affairs. No, its geopolitical position can make the country an important player, as the present situation amply demonstrates. There is a war going on next door in Ukraine and while the EU stands by Ukraine, Viktor Orbán is trying to weaken its resolve. The small Hungarian minority seems to concern the Hungarian government more than the Russian encroachment on a neighboring state. Just yesterday Tibor Navracsics raised his voice in defense of the Hungarian minority.

It is hard to tell what the next step of the European Union will be, but I am sure that, just as Fukuyama predicted, Orbán’s speech will have serious consequences.