Yesterday President Obama spoke again on the situation in Egypt, and this bit near the end of his speech really caught my attention:
Over the last few days, the passion and the dignity that has been demonstrated by the people of Egypt has been an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States, and to all those who believe in the inevitability of human freedom.
“The inevitability of human freedom” is a powerful phrase. President Obama is not only affirming the value of freedom but also claiming that, sooner or later, freedom is guaranteed to come to all. He’s essentially calling for everyone—Mubarak included, one hopes—to get on the right side of history.
But is freedom truly inevitable? About 20 years ago, philosopher and political economist Francis Fukuyama claimed that it was. Fukuyama’s claims are controversial and often misunderstood, but, in a nutshell, he argued that the fall of the Soviet Union marked the “end of history.” The great ideological struggles of the 20th century had come to an end, and though some loose ends still had to be addressed, capitalism and democratic governance had essentially triumphed as the best ways to structure society.
Interestingly, John Quiggin of Crooked Timber believes the recent events in Egypt vindicate Fukuyama:
So, how is Fukuyama’s view of the end of history looking?
As far as the dominance of representative democracy is concerned, pretty good. Given a decade or two to establish itself, representative democracy has proved to be a remarkably stable system, far more so (under modern conditions) than alternatives like hereditary monarchy, autocracy, military juntas or the one-party state.
Overall, though, the startling events in North Africa have undercut the recently popular criticism of the Fukuyama thesis, based on the temporary successes of Putin and the Chinese oligarchs. There is no reason to think that the rule of Putin, or of the Communist Party of China, will outlast the next economic downturn, or even slowdown, any more than Ben Ali or Mubarak.
I sure hope Fukuyama and Quiggin are right, but I’m skeptical. Freedom and democracy are not the sorts of things you can just sit back and wait to come to you. The unfree have to fight hard for their freedom, and members of a democracy have to actively participate in it to keep it healthy. There are plenty of opponents to freedom and democracy (Mubarak, of course, among others), and they will not cede their power without a struggle. Even in places with a well-established democratic tradition like the United States, sharply rising economic inequalities can threaten the freedoms of the less fortunate. Freedom is imperative, but it is not inevitable.
Interestingly enough, if Obama really believes his claim about the inevitability of freedom, he should probably keep the US as uninvolved as possible in the proceedings in Egypt. It’s no doubt incumbent on our government to support the protesters and call for a rapid end to Mubarak’s presidency, but beyond that the best way for Washinton to respect the sovereignty of the Egyptian people is to allow them to conduct their own affairs. The US has a not-so-nice track record of unsolicited involvement in the Middle East, as you may be aware, and we would do well not to let our list of mistakes grow any longer.
Of course, you might not agree with me about that. But whether or not you do, you should absolutely check out the next meeting of the Michigan Political Union (MPU), this Monday, February 7, at 7 pm in the Union Pond Room. They’ll be hosting a discussion of the proper role of the US government in the Egyptian crisis and Egypt’s next set of elections. The MPU folks do a great job with these events, so be sure to check it out!
(Image by Frame Maker used under a Creative Commons license.)