contributor perspectives

Huntington on Upheaval

Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst, Stratfor
7 MINS READJul 31, 2013 | 09:02 GMT
Global Affairs with Robert D. Kaplan
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By Robert D. Kaplan

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, governed."

Institutions, 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.

Huntington 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.

For 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.

How 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.

Huntington 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.

Huntington 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.

As 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."

In 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.

As 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 mass society.

The 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.

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