Francis Fukuyama

This paper is based on a speech given at a conference with the University of Geneva and the Latsis Foundation in December 2011. It has been edited by Professor Fukuyama for The Global Journal.

I would like to begin this lecture on European identity with an anecdote: on 1 May 2004, I was at The Vatican for a conference of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, when the European Union was expanded to include a number of Eastern European countries. I was seated at a table with a German (a former head of the Bundesbank) and a Polish former minister - both of whom were in their 70s. And as we were talking - on the very day that Poland was admitted to the EU - it turned out that the German bank president had served in the Wehrmacht, while the Polish minister had served in the Polish resistance during World War II. I thought to myself: what an amazing symbol of what the EU means for that generation of Europeans: that these two people are sitting at the same table at an academic conference. Poland had re-joined Europe after its long nightmare of invasion by Germany and then occupation by the former Soviet Union.  So I very much appreciate the motives that led to the formation of the European Union...

As I think we are all aware from reading the daily newspapers, the EU is undergoing a life-threatening crisis. It’s not simply a technical matter better left to financiers and economists. In many ways, it is really a crisis over the identity of the EU, and beyond that, of the identity of Europe and what obligations and responsibilities Europeans will have towards one another.

But of course, the problem of identity is not one that exists only at the European level; it exists in every state in Europe as well.  The question of national identity was one that Europeans hoped to be able to avoid in the decades after World War II. But as result of immigration and the growth of cultural diversity - the rise of multiculturalism - it’s an issue that everybody has had to confront.

In this talk, what I want to do first is to go over the history of the concept of identity - where it came from and why it exists. Then I want to discuss the meaning of identity - both at the level of individual European societies and at the European level - and the significant political issues that are raised by this question.

Let's begin with the question of where identity politics comes from.  The first thing to say about it is that it is a modern phenomenon. Identity as we understand it simply did not exist in medieval Europe. If you were a peasant, growing up in the outskirts of Geneva, Saxony or somewhere in the English Midlands in the year 1500, you didn't worry what your identity was because your identity was completely ascribed to you by your surrounding society, including what your religion was, who you would marry, what your work would be, and under whose sovereignty you fell. These were not decisions that any individual could take for himself or herself.  Therefore, the question “Who am I? Who am I really?" never came up for people in this period.

With modernization, this began to change. I would highly recommend the book by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, which is one of the best introductions to the concept of identity. Taylor argues that the modern concept of identity begins in many ways with the Reformation and Martin Luther.  Luther argued that the essence of being a Christian believer is not the acceptance of the rituals of the Catholic Church, but about “what I believe on the inside - not whether I follow the rituals dictated by my society.  God looks inside my soul at whether or not I have faith". And this opens the possibility that one’s interior and exterior are different - and that the authentic self is a self that dwells beneath all of the layers of social conformity. 

A secular version of this concept emerged in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau - a citizen of Geneva - who in the Promenades and the Discourse on Inequality argued that the authentic self was not the social self that was created by the passage of historical time. In fact, social evolution distorted the nature of human beings.  The true inner self was expressed in the "sentiment de l’existence": where each one of us was different from what our surrounding society told us we should be.  Obviously, there are many other thinkers that have versions of this.  Johann Gottfried Herder had a nationalist version saying that the authentic self is actually a biological communal reality.  The modern notion of identity was also driven by the sociological reality of modernization.  A competitive market economy requires "la carrière overte aux talents":  what one becomes in the course of one’s career is not the role that is assigned by one's parents and by one's social situation. Social mobility is possible and - therefore - the inner self is something that develops over time. In many ways, the whole possibility that the inner self and individual identity are something different from the social conformity that we face living in society can only happen with the emergence of a mobile, competitive, pluralistic, modern society.

Recognition is extremely important with regard to identity: it is not enough to say, "who am I?" as an inward question unless other people inter-subjectively recognize my identity and my dignity as I understand it, as - for example - a Ukrainian or as an African-American.  Therefore, the struggle for identity is inherently a political act. This is a point that the philosopher Hegel understood well. His philosophy of history held that history itself is driven by the struggle for recognition, by the desire of human beings to have their fundamental dignity recognized by other human beings, and that modern democracy emerges when equal dignity - and not only the dignity of the master - is achieved. 

In this context, you get a phenomenon like modern nationalism - a form of recognition, a form of identity - that has been the most dominant in Europe over the last few hundred years.

Ernest Gellner, the British social anthropologist, argued that the phenomenon of nationalism is a type of identity politics and, as such, a modern phenomenon. In an agrarian society, people are bound by social class, by religion, by local ties to the lord of the manor. All of this began to change with the rise of industrial society; these older ties dissolved and society needed a different kind of glue to hold it together.  That glue typically was language and culture, because that is the common matrix by which people can communicate with one another, and live under the pluralistic complex modern division of labor that characterizes the modern world.

I think we are all familiar with the nation-building exercises that have taken place in Europe over the past 500 years.  The French example is one I want to keep in mind. The creation of the French nation took several centuries to accomplish. The Capuchin dynasty started as a small enterprise around Isle de France which began to incorporate more and more territories, where people spoke different languages and had very different customs. It required a high degree of political will to create the hexagonal-shaped country we all recognize as modern France, with a common administration, common language and common culture.  All of this was the product of deliberate social creation. 

The twentieth century obviously saw tremendous excesses of nationalism, and the European project was put in place by wise people in recognition of the fact that August 1914 had in some way signaled the end of European civilization: the glorious European civilization of the nineteenth century. Europe could not survive after two horrific World Wars unless - as Jürgen Habermas put it - Europeans moved into a post-national identity. In Europe, the discussion and the promotion of national identity at the level of individual countries became a very politically incorrect subject. Germans were not encouraged to wave German flags at football matches and the like. But it also made inappropriate the idea of nation-building itself on a pan-European level.  This is an issue that has now come back to haunt the European Union.

We are familiar with the destructive impact of nationalism, the form of identity politics that involves the aggressive assertion of national identity and the domination of one nation by another. But national identity and nation-building are absolutely critical for the success of any society. I have spent a lot of time looking at the problems of developing countries - very poor and fragmented - and failed states such as those of sub-Saharan Africa.  In virtually every case, the central weakness is the lack of national identity, the lack of a state, and the lack of a common sense of purpose that allows governments to actually formulate and execute policies. Shared culture is necessary as a medium of communication - as a way of getting individuals living in inherently complex and diversified societies to communicate. You cannot have a modern successful society without some degree of nation-building and national identity.

The phenomenon that has emerged in the last couple of generations is the development of sub-national identities and the assertion of identities in the context of minorities in pluralistic societies.  This is the origin of multiculturalism. Universal recognition of "my dignity as a human being" underlies liberal democracy.  It turns out, however, that it is not enough for many people. People now want to be recognized as a Québecois, as a native American, or as a gay person - with equal dignity. This has led to multicultural politics of the sort that we readily recognize all over the world today - most typically ethnic group recognition. In many respects, this was invented in Canada, with the assertion that the French-speaking community in Québec is a distinct society within the Canadian federal system, as proposed by The Meech Lake Accord, which established as a constitutional principle separate rules for the way Québec was to be governed - as distinct from the English-speaking Canada.  This recognition of group rights in Québec is a very important departure from the liberal principle that the liberal state recognizes individuals and not groups.

Every society that is de facto multicultural has been wrestling subsequently with the question of how to adequately recognize the demands made by ethnic and religious groups for special status as a group. In my own country (the United States), this has taken a form of bi-lingualism amongst Hispanics and other groups, but also multi-lingualism in a school system like that of New York City, where over 100 languages are taught.  Demand for group rights has fueled controversies over affirmative action because the threat of dignity is always felt more intensely by groups that are excluded or marginalized. Rectifying those injustices is becoming one of the driving forces of modern politics.

There are a lot of important theoretical issues that have been raised and discussed in the context of the multiculturalism debate. In a liberal, tolerant, pluralistic society - do we owe the protection of a state to individuals alone? Are rights held by individuals or by groups? This question appears in Europe when, for example, a Muslim family wants their daughter to marry somebody back in Morocco or Turkey, and the girl doesn’t want to. If the girl goes to the state and says, "I want to defend my right to make my own choices in life", should the state support her, or her family? This is an issue that European courts have wrestled with. In my view, there is no way you can interpret our tradition of modern liberalism if you don’t take the side of the girl against the family. But that is not the way that every court in Europe has interpreted rights; some have upheld the right of the family in deference to the cultural practices of a particular group involved.

The question of national identity has not been a great subject for discussion in Europe until the past decade when the question of immigration - and particularly immigration of people from Muslim countries - began to appear as an important political issue. It became more acute after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and the other attacks that occurred or were attempted in Spain, Britain, The Netherlands and elsewhere. All of which raised the possibility that radical Islamist groups would seek to undermine the very foundation of democratic societies...

I think it is worthwhile to think a little bit about the challenge that contemporary religion represents. I believe that modern Islamism in many of its manifestations actually should not be interpreted as a form of religiosity, if by religiosity one means that people are suddenly converted to a belief in God, and to a religiously-inspired inner conversion.  I think that, in fact, the phenomenon of the rise of Islamism is better understood as a species of identity politics - much as nationalism is a form of identity politics. This is an argument made by a number of people other than myself, in particular, Olivier Roy, the French expert on Islamic matters. He argues that traditional religiosity in Muslim countries is very particularistic. That is to say: your religious identity is ascribed to you; it is not something that is freely chosen. It is a product of your local mosque, family and environment; you have no choice over your choice of religion. What begins to happen with urbanization in Muslim countries and particularly with immigration by people from that part of the world to non-Muslim countries is what Olivier Roy calls the "de-territorialisation of Islam".  Especially for Muslim immigrants or their children living in non-Muslim countries, the question of identity comes to haunt them in a particularly acute way. They are not living in a society that prescribes a very specific role to religion - one that defines their social role, that tells them who they can marry and how they need to behave. And it is for that reason you have what Emile Durkeim called the phenomenon of anomie. You lose contact with the norms that governed social life - the life of your parents or grandparents - and all of a sudden you are put into a new situation: "What is haram or halal?", because there has never been a precedent for it back in Morocco or in Pakistan.

It is in this context that radical Islam may fill a certain vacuum, because Al Qaeda and other sophist preachers can pose an answer to the question: "Who am I?" They can tell people in this situation in immigrant communities: you are not a traditional Muslim, you are not practicing the Islam of your forefathers nor are you accepted by the society into which you have immigrated. What your real identity is - is a much purer and more universal form of Islam: you are a member of an umma, an enormous community that stretches all the way from Tangier to Indonesia. That is who you are. It is a more abstract form of Islam and has tremendous appeal, particularly to second- and third- generation Muslims who are no longer rooted in the localized Sufism or saint worship that characterized the religion of their parents, and who do not feel accepted by the European society in which they have been living.

This leads to what Olivier Roy describes as the protestanization of Islam because - for this group of people - Islam is no longer a social norm imposed by the outside society; it is something that one believes on the inside. When the rest of the secular society around them does a lot of forbidden things, it is really an internal belief that makes one a Muslim. And this may explain why recruitment into extremist groups has been particularly strong among second-generation Muslims in Europe.

Let me then move on to the question of European identity and why this has posed a particular problem for Europeans of this generation; as I said, European identity is problematic because the whole European project was founded on an anti-national identity basis. It was intended to get beyond the national selfishness and antagonisms that characterized twentieth century European politics. And therefore, there was a belief that there would be a new universal European identity that would supplant the old identities of being Italian, German or French. But it was also the case that these old identities never disappeared - even though politically they are not something that anyone spent much time talking about. Particularly on a popular level, I don’t think that any citizen of a European country during the intervening decades ever forgot that they were indeed German, Dutch, Danish or Swiss. 

The ghosts of these old identities really became a problem with the influx of immigrants and the growth of immigrant communities that did not necessarily share traditional European values. I think what terrorist violence did was to suggest to these people that there are those in the community that do not share basic values that we have grown up with - that they were fundamentally hostile and willing to use violence in order to undermine that sense of community. Therefore, the question of identity and national identity, "What is it that you owe to the community that you live in?" comes to the fore.

There has been, in fact, a tremendous variation in European responses with very different impacts on the degree of integration and success in creating national identity across different countries in Europe. Let me just give you the different examples of France, Germany, Holland and Britain.

French national identity is, in one sense, the least problematic because there is a single republican tradition coming out of the Revolution, a tradition that is secular - that treats all citizens equally. In many respects, the French concept is the only viable one for a modern society that grounds citizenship not in ethnicity, race or religion, but in abstract political values to which people of different cultures can adhere. 

French national identity is very much built around the French language. I always found it very impressive that Leopold Senghor, the Senegalese poet, was admitted to L'Académie française back in the 1940s: it was an important symbol - something that was indicative of the way the French see their identity. If you spoke French and if you could write beautiful poetry in French - that qualified you for L’Académie française. Therefore, that republican sense of identity has underlined French citizenship.

A lot of people pointed to the riots that occurred in the French banlieues back in 2005 as evidence of alienation, and the fact that an Islamist threat existed in France itself. I think that this is a complete misunderstanding of what happened in that country.  There was an Islamist threat coming out of Algeria in the early 1990s that was largely dismantled by the French intelligence services. What was going on in the French banlieues was very different. These were people that did not reject French identity; they - in fact - believed in the goals that French society set out for them, but they were not able to achieve them. They could not get jobs; they were barred by racism from access to opportunities open to white French people, and that was the source of their unhappiness. It was in many ways much more comparable to African-American rioting in American inner cities that has occurred on numerous occasions in recent US history. And - by the way - I think of all European countries, in many ways, the French are closest to the United States in having a set of political values at the core of their identity. Both of these examples demonstrate what could happen in a broader European context.

The German case is very different. German national identity evolved very differently from France. Partly due to the fact that the Germans were scattered all over Central and Eastern Europe, the process of German unification required definition of German-ness in ethnic terms. So, legally, their citizenships law was based on the legal principle of jus sanguinis.  You become a citizen - not if you were born on German territory - but rather depending on whether you had a German mother. Up until the year 2000 - if you were an ethnic German coming from Russia - you could get citizenship far easier than if you were a second- or third-generation Turk who had grown up in Germany, spoke perfect German and did not speak Turkish at all. The Germans have changed their practice now, but the cultural meaning of saying "I am German" is very different from the cultural meaning of saying "I am French".  It has a connotation that is more deeply rooted in blood.  This means that when Angela Merkel says that multiculturalism has failed in Germany, I think she is only half right.  She would be quite wrong to describe that failure one-sidedly as an unwillingness of Muslim immigrants and their children to want to integrate into German society: as much of the failure of integration falls on the side of German society, as it does from the immigrant communities. 

Then, we have two very problematic places: Holland and Britain. In Holland, national identity has always been defined by the pillarization (verzuilung) of Dutch society: its division into Protestant, Catholic and Socialist pillars. The Dutch are famously tolerant but it’s a strange kind of tolerance.  They tolerate people as long as they do things over there, but not in my community. In a certain sense, it was a natural thing for Muslims to start arriving in The Netherlands and to create their own pillars, since that's the way the Dutch themselves were organized.  This leads to the emergence of so-called "black" schools, in which you find only Muslim students - with no opportunity to interact with native Dutch people. I think this has been one of the biggest obstacles to promoting faster and greater immigrant integration into Dutch society.

The failure of immigrant assimilation has in certain ways been the greatest in Britain - the European country that went in for multiculturalism the most whole-heartedly! This was based on a mistaken interpretation of multiculturalism. In Britain, there was a belief that pluralism meant you have to respect the autonomy of individual immigrant communities; the government had no role in actively trying to integrate them into a broader British culture. I had a colleague - Robert Leiken - who wrote a book called Europe’s Angry Muslims (to be published in the United States very shortly), that gives some fascinating statistics in terms of the number of members of minority groups recruited into extremist organizations.  In terms of the number of attempted violent acts by members of this community, on a per capita basis, he notes that Britain has the highest rate by far - much higher than in France, Holland or Germany. The reason for that was that the British approach to multiculturalism simply left radical imams to preach in their local communities without any interference from the authorities, and without any effort by the state to actively use the education system to produce people that have an allegiance to the British state. Again, the British have changed these policies in the last few years in the light of the subway bombings and other terrorist acts. But there is still a very problematic relationship between the country and its immigrant communities.

If we look across these different examples: which one of them is more successful? I think the French have been more successful. It’s a little bit hard to judge these things because it also depends on the absolute size of the immigrant communities. I do think, for many reasons, that the republican, liberal political identity that France is promoting is the model that needs to be followed by other countries. Bassam Tibi, who is a scholar at Göttingen University, is the inventor of the term Leitkultur, which was then later used by the Christian Democrats in Germany as a definition of what they wanted to immigrants to assimilate to. Leitkultur was mis-used but Tibi has a very similar idea in the back of his head to French republicanism.  By contrast, the British have had the worst experience, because in a sense they have not addressed the question of national identity at all, and they have not tried to form a political identity that would accommodate people with very different religious and cultural backgrounds.

Let me turn to nation-building at the EU level. When we pass from the level of these individual European states to the question of European identity as such, what is it and what kind of deficit do we have? Everybody who is going through the Euro crisis realizes now in retrospect that there are many flaws in the Maastricht Treaty and in the whole process of creating Europe - such as the absence of a disciplining mechanism, and the absence of an exit mechanism out of either the Euro or the European Union. A lot of this discussion is dominated by people in finance and by economists because that is the short-term problem that has faced us - a new recession and the collapse of the European banking systems - as a result of Europe’s failure to address politically these kinds of problems.

I don’t want to minimize these problems at all, but in a sense, there is a deeper failure at the European level - a failure in European identity. That is to say, there was never a successful attempt to create a European sense of identity, and a European sense of citizenship that would define the obligations, responsibilities, duties and rights that Europeans have to one another beyond simply the wording of the different treaties that were signed.  The EU - in many respects -was created as a technocratic exercise for the purposes of economic efficiency. What we can see now is that economic and post-national values are not enough to really buy into this community together. So, wealthy Germans feel that they have got a sense of noblesse oblige towards poorer Germans; this social solidarity is the basis of the German welfare state. But they do not feel similar obligations towards the Greeks, whom they regard as being ill-disciplined, very non-German in their general approach to fiscal matters - and therefore, they feel no obligation to take care of them.  So there is no solidarity in that broader European sense.  I think - for various reasons - Europe is stumbling towards a short-term solution to this crisis.  But I do not think that any form of deepening at this point is a viable project unless someone pays more attention and is able to answer the question - in a more substantive sense - of what it means to be a European. Not just in a negative sense - that we don’t want conflict and old nationalism at war - but what it means in terms of positive values.

Now, let me just conclude by saying that these issues that I have discussed - immigration, national level identity and European level identity - in the next few years are going to merge as really the same issue, because these are the central issues of all the new populist parties that have arisen all over the continent of Europe. That is to say: opposition to immigration and Euro-scepticism. Nationalist parties like the Front National in France, the National Front in Britain and and the Vlaams Belang in Belgium have existed for a long time.  But in the last decade, we have seen the emergence of new ones: the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, the Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats, the True Finn Party, and the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) here in Switzerland. Opposition to Europe and immigration is a common thread amongst all these parties. It is basically a populist impulse. It is a feeling that the needs of ordinary citizens have been ignored by the elite with regards to both the deepening of the European Union and to immigration issues. In France, many people who voted for the Front National were extremely resentful of the fact that - for example - living in Marseille, there was a lot of crime and the state was not willing to deal with that problem because the crime was associated with Muslim gangs.  You can replicate the story in many European settings. The mainstream parties were too politically correct to recognize that these were issues and as a result, these populist parties had to take matters into their own hands and organize. And to be quite honest, the whole European project has been an elite-driven affair. We know that - on several occasions - when the issue of agreeing to a treaty was put up for popular referendum, and when the people gave the wrong answer, the elite would say the people were wrong - they are going to have to vote again. So, I think that - in a sense - the rise of populism reflects in a certain way the deepening of democracy in Europe: the public is not going to be led along by their elites like they were in the first decades after the Second World War. But it means that there are tremendous dangers for European democracy that lie ahead in the immediate future. I think we all recognize in the European Union that an important process either deepens it or it begins to split apart. The current middle ground is not one that is sustainable.

I will just leave you with the following fact: the deepening project - that is to say, moving from monetary to fiscal union - may make sense in terms of economics, but it is going to have a tremendous number of political costs that need to be taken into account. There is absolutely no grassroots support in Europe for this deepening project; this is again going to be an elite-driven project undertaken for largely technical reasons. It is actually something that is stimulating the re-nationalization of Europe.  Already, people have said fiscal union is in fact the Germanization of Europe. And it also forces conditions that amount to the suspension of democracy in Europe - now that you have technocrats running the governments of Italy and Greece who were not elected in the normal fashion by their constituents. The reason why they are there is because of the conditions set - not by the Italian and Greek public - but by other parts of Europe. This kind of deepening - both on the part by Northern and Southern countries - is going to lead to doubts about political accountability in both halves. All of this is being undertaken against the background of a prolonged and deepening economic crisis. In many respects, this identity problem is one that we all need to think about very deeply; it is one that will be coming back - I guarantee you - into the political debate in the near future.

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