Francis Fukuyama, Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (my own alma mater), had a high profile essay in Newsweek in October, boldly titled “The Fall of America, Inc.” Professor Fukuyama addresses the declining global appeal of America’s “brand.” Two “fundamentally American ideas have dominated global thinking since the early 1980s,” he contends. The first of these was “a certain vision of capitalism” accompanied by “pared-back government.” The second idea was “America as a promoter of liberal democracy around the world.”
Fukuyama sees both of these ideas now tarnished and discredited. The U.S. economy “has gone off the rails and threatens to drag the rest of the world down with it. Even worse,
“the culprit is the American model itself: under the mantra of less government, Washington failed to adequately regulate the financial sector, and allowed it to do tremendous harm to the rest of society.”The idea of American democracy was “tarnished even earlier,” with the freedom agenda of the Iraq War widely perceived around the world as “an excuse for furthering U.S. hegemony.”
In my book The End of the American Century, I make similar arguments about the decline of brand U.S, but I show that this decline started long before the recent financial collapse, and even before the Iraq War. Global public opinion surveys in recent years have shown little enthusiasm for “American-style democracy” and even less support for the American ways of doing business. And while Fukuyama uses the term “brand” as a metaphor, there actually have been marketing surveys of the popularity of “nation brands” among consumers around the world. In one such study, the United States ranked eleventh out of twenty-five countries.
Fukuyama’s Newsweek essay is interesting both for its perceptive insights, but also because of who he is and what he has written and argued in the past. He gained national prominence in 1989 with the publication of an influential and controversial article titled “The End of History?” In that essay, and a following book, he argued that the collapse of European communism and the end of the Cold War marked “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Later he became a key figure in the neoconservative movement and its Project for the New American Century which, among other initiatives, strongly encouraged the removal from power of Saddam Hussein, even before September 11. By 2002, though, he had turned away from the neoconservatives, and became critical of the Bush administration and the Iraq War.
Much has changed in the world since the Western triumphalism following the collapse of communism. It has become painfully clear, for one, that many people around the world—perhaps even most people—are not so convinced that Western liberal democracy is—or should be—“the final form of human government.” Even so, it is quite startling to see one of the intellectual fathers of the neoconservative movement so frankly recognizing the failure of the American model to take hold in the rest of the world. As Fukuyama concludes his essay,
“the ultimate test for the American model will be its capacity to reinvent itself once again. Good branding is not, to quote a presidential candidate, a matter of putting lipstick on a pig. It’s about having the right product to sell in the first place. American democracy has its work cut out for it.”