In 1968, Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published Political Order in Changing Societies.
Forty-five years later, the book remains without question the greatest
guide to today's current events. Forget the libraries of books on
globalization, Political Order
reigns supreme: arguably the most incisive, albeit impolite, work
produced by a political scientist in the 20th century. If you want to understand the Arab Spring, the economic and social transition in China, or much else, ignore newspaper opinion pages and read Huntington.
The very first sentences of Political Order
have elicited anger from Washington policy elites for decades now --
precisely because they are so undeniable. "The most important political
distinction among countries," Huntington writes, "concerns not their
form of government but their degree of government." In other words,
strong democracies and strong dictatorships
have more in common than strong democracies and weak democracies. Thus,
the United States always had more in common with the Soviet Union than
with any fragile, tottering democracy in the Third World. This, in turn,
is because order usually comes before freedom
-- for without a reasonable degree of administrative order, freedom can
have little value. Huntington quotes the mid-20th century American
journalist, Walter Lippmann: "There is no greater necessity for men who
live in communities than that they be governed, self-governed if
possible, well-governed if they are fortunate, but in any event,
therefore, are more important than democracy. Indeed, Huntington, who
died in 2008, asserts that America has little to teach a tumultuous
world in transition because Americans are compromised by their own
"happy history." Americans assume a "unity of goodness": that all good
things like democracy, economic development, social justice and so on go
together. But for many places with different historical experiences
based on different geographies and circumstances that isn't always the
case. Americans, he goes on, essentially imported their political
institutions from 17th century England, and so the drama throughout
American history was usually how to limit government -- how to make it
less oppressive. But many countries in the developing world are saddled
either with few institutions or illegitimate ones at that: so that they
have to build an administrative order from scratch. Quite a few of the
countries affected by the Arab Spring are in this category. So American
advice is more dubious than supposed, because America's experience is
the opposite of the rest of the world.
is rightly obsessed with the need for institutions. For the more
complex a society is, the more that institutions are required. The
so-called public interest is really the interest in institutions. In
modern states, loyalty is to institutions. To wit, Americans voluntarily
pay taxes to the Internal Revenue Service and lose respect for those
who are exposed as tax cheaters.
without institutions like a judiciary, what and who is there to
determine what exactly is right and wrong, and to enforce such
distinctions? Societies in the Middle East and China today reflect
societies that have reached levels of complexity where their current
institutions no longer suffice and must be replaced by different or
improved ones. The Arab Spring and the intense political infighting in
China are, in truth, institutional crises. The issue is not democracy
per se, because weak democracies can spawn ineffective institutional
orders. What individual Arabs and Chinese really want is justice. And
justice is ultimately the fruit of enlightened administration.
do you know if a society has effective institutions? Huntington writes
that one way is to see how good their militaries are. Because societies
that have made war well -- Sparta, Rome, Great Britain, America -- have
also been well-governed. For effective war-making requires deep
organizations, which, in turn, requires trust and predictability. The
ability to fight in large numbers is by itself a sign of civilization.
Arab states whose regimes have fallen -- Egypt, Libya, Syria -- never
had very good state armies. But sub-state armies in the Middle East --
Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Mehdi Army in Iraq, the various rebel groups
in Syria and militias in Libya -- have often fought impressively.
Huntington might postulate that this is an indication of new political
formations that will eventually replace post-colonial states.
implies that today's instability -- the riotous formation of new
institutional orders -- is caused by urbanization and enlightenment. As
societies become more urbanized, people come into close contact with
strangers beyond their family groups, requiring the intense organization
of police forces, sewage, street lighting, traffic and so forth. The
main drama of the Middle East and China over the past half-century,
remember, has been urbanization, which has affected religion, morals and
much else. State autocrats have simply been unable to keep up with
dynamic social change.
is full of uncomfortable, counterintuitive insights. He writes that
large numbers of illiterate people in a democracy such as India's can
actually be stabilizing, since illiterates have relatively few demands;
but as literacy increase, voters become more demanding, and their
participation in democratic groupings like labor unions goes up, leading
to instability. An India of more and more literate voters may
experience more unrest.
for corruption, rather than something to be reviled, it can be a sign
of modernization, in which new sources of wealth and power are being
created even as institutions cannot keep up. Corruption can also be a
replacement for revolution. "He who corrupts a system's police officers
is more likely to identify with the system than he who storms the
system's police stations."
Huntington's minds, monarchies, rather than reactionary, can often be
more dedicated to real reform than modernizing dictatorships. For the
monarch has historical legitimacy, even as he feels the need to prove
himself through good works; while the secular dictator sees himself as
the vanquisher of colonialism, and thus entitled to the spoils of power.
Huntington thus helps a little to explain why monarchs such as those in
Morocco, Jordan and Oman have been more humane than dictators such as
those in Libya, Syria and Iraq.
for military dictatorships, Huntington adds several twists. He writes,
"In the world of oligarchy, the soldier is a radical; in the
middle-class world he is a participant and arbiter; as the mass society
looms on the horizon he becomes the conservative guardian of the
existing order. Thus, paradoxically but understandably," he goes on,
"the more backward a society is, the more progressive the role of its
military..." And so he explains why Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa
underwent a plethora of military coups during the middle decades of the
Cold War: The officer corps often represented the most enlightened
branch of society at the time. Americans see the military as
conservative only because of our own particular stage of development as a
logic behind much of Huntington's narrative is that the creation of
order -- not the mere holding of elections -- is progressive. Only once
order is established can popular pressure be constructively asserted to
make such order less coercive and more institutionally subtle. Precisely
because we inhabit an era of immense social change, there will be
continual political upheaval, as human populations seek to live under
more receptive institutional orders. To better navigate the ensuing
crises, American leaders would do well to read Huntington, so as to
nuance their often stuffy lectures to foreigners about how to reform.