Francis Fukuyama on Why We Should All Be Paying Attention to Ukraine

Francis Fukuyama Francis Fukuyama speaks onstage during “Our Tribal Nature: Tribalism, Politics, And Evolution” symposia in September 2019 in New York City. Photo: Astrid Stawiarz - Getty Images.

Of all of the countries in the world attempting a transition to democracy, Francis Fukuyama thinks that Ukraine is the most promising.

“The election of [Volodymyr] Zelensky and the new parliament is just a miracle,” Fukuyama told Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) Director Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast. “Can you imagine, a country getting rid of two-thirds of its parliament and starting over with new people, many of whom are under 35 years old?” 

Ukraine is at a crossroads of sorts, said Fukuyama, who is the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at FSI, and the director of both the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program. On one hand, the country could use this opportunity to transition into a successful reformist government, or its efforts could fail and the government could collapse. 

It doesn’t help that Ukraine’s relationships with foreign allies are not as strong as they once were, he told McFaul.

[Get stories like this delivered to your inbox by signing up for FSI email alerts]

“The United States had been their strongest ally, but now there’s a president in the White House who doesn’t particularly like them,” he explained. “I think Germany and France are also both weakening in their support for Ukraine’s independence, so [Ukraine is] in a really tough spot.”

Before Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, Fukuyama said he actually thought the country would be among the least likely to liberalize in the way that it has. One important factor in Ukraine’s success has been the exercise of broad individual and political freedoms —  for example, Ukraine’s press has stayed active throughout the years and the country boasts many investigative journalists, he said.

“In a way, it’s a very free and open society with lots of creativity,” Fukuyama noted. “You can criticize the government. I actually think [Vladimir] Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has stimulated Ukrainian nationalism — I think it made citizens realize that they actually do have something to lose.”

[Ready to dive deeper? Read “Small Battle in a Big War: The Post-Maidan Transformation of the National Bank of Ukraine”]

Fukuyama has been interested in Ukraine for a while now — he’s visited the country six times over the past five years. During his most recent trip in November 2019, he taught a crash-course in policymaking to 50 of Ukraine’s members of parliament. With an average age of 41, it’s the country’s youngest parliament ever elected, and many of the newest members have no previous political experience.

He described his time with the young Ukraianian members as inspiring, adding that they want to see a genuine democracy, and to eliminate corruption in their country.

“It does seem to me that we who live in democracies owe it to the people of Ukraine to support them,” Fukuyama said. “Because if they fail, it’s going to have repercussions way beyond Ukraine.” 

Related: Listen to Fukuyama explain “identity politics,” where it comes from and how it will shape the future of our society, on a previous episode of World Class.