Samuel Huntington’s Legacy

Why his works on world order -- political and otherwise -- are still relevant today.


Of all of Samuel Huntington’s contributions to the study of politics, the most important was his 1968 work Political Order in Changing Societies. This book was probably the last major attempt to write a general theory of political development, and its significance needs to be placed in the context of the ideas that were dominant in the 1950s and early 1960s. This was the heyday of "modernization theory," probably the most ambitious American attempt to create an integrated, empirical theory of human social change. Modernization theory had its origins in the works of late 19th-century European social theorists like Henry Maine, Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Max Weber. While based primarily on the experiences of early modernizers like Britain or the United States, they sought to draw from them general laws of social development.

European social theory was killed, literally and figuratively, by the two world wars. The ideas it generated migrated to the United States, and were taken up by a generation of American academics after the Second World War at places like Harvard University’s Department of comparative politics, the MIT Center for International Studies, and the Social Science Research Council’s Committee on Comparative Politics. The Harvard department, led by Weber’s protégé Talcott Parsons, hoped to create an integrated, interdisciplinary social science that would combine economics, sociology, political science, and anthropology.

The period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s also corresponded to the dissolution of European colonial empires and the emergence of what became known as the third or developing world — newly independent countries with great aspirations to modernize and catch up with their former colonial masters. Scholars like Edward Shils, Daniel Lerner, Lucian Pye, Gabriel Almond, David Apter, and Walt Whitman Rostow saw these momentous developments as a laboratory for social theory, as well as a great opportunity to help developing countries raise living standards and democratize their political systems.

If one were to sum up the Americanized version of modernization theory, it was the sunny view that all good things went together: Economic growth, social mobilization, political institutions, and cultural values all changed for the better in tandem. There was none of the tragic sense of loss that one sees in Weber’s concepts of disenchantment or the iron cage of capitalism, or in Durkheim’s anomie. The different dimensions of social change were part of a seamless and mutually supportive process.

Political Order in Changing Societies appeared against this backdrop and frontally challenged these assumptions. First, Huntington argued that political decay was at least as likely as political development and that the actual experience of newly independent countries was one of increasing social and political disorder. Second, he suggested that the good things of modernity often operated at cross-purposes. In particular, if social mobilization outpaced the development of political institutions, there would be frustration as new social actors found themselves unable to participate in the political system.

Political Order pointed out that from the vantage point of the year 1968, political development was not occurring in much of the recently independent, former colonial world. The world was rather characterized by coups, civil wars, upheavals, and political instability. Huntington suggested that if the pace of social mobilization outran the ability of political institutions to incorporate new actors, you would get a condition that he called praetorianism, or political breakdown and political decay.

It is safe to say that Political Order finally killed off modernization theory. It was part of a pincers attack, the other prong of which was the critique from the left that said that modernization theorists enshrined an ethnocentric European or North American model of social development as a universal one for humanity to follow. American social science found itself suddenly without an overarching theory and began its subsequent slide into its current methodological Balkanization.

Huntington drew a practical implication from these observations, namely that political order was a good thing in itself and would not automatically arise out of the modernization process. Rather the contrary: Without political order, neither economic nor social development could proceed successfully. The different components of modernization needed to be sequenced. Premature increases in political participation — including things like early elections — could destabilize fragile political systems. This laid the groundwork for a development strategy that came to be called the "authoritarian transition," whereby a modernizing dictatorship provides political order, a rule of law, and the conditions for successful economic and social development. Once these building blocks were in place, other aspects of modernity like democracy and civic participation could be added. (Huntington’s student, Fareed Zakaria, would write a book in 2003, The Future of Freedom, making a somewhat updated variant of this argument.)

This argument is still very much with us. In the wake of America’s flawed nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, many people have suggested the need for sequencing in development, putting state-building ahead of efforts to democratize and expand political participation.

Political Order in Changing Societies was one of Huntington’s earlier works, and one that established his stature as a political scientist, but it was far from his last major contribution to comparative politics. His work on democratic transition also became a point of reference in the period after the end of the Cold War. Ironically, this stream of writing began with a 1984 article in Political Science Quarterly titled "Will More Countries Become Democratic?" Surveying the situation following the Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American democratic transitions of the 1970s and early 1980s, Huntington made the case that the world was not likely to see more shifts from authoritarianism in the near future given inauspicious structural and international conditions. This was written, of course, a mere five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He shifted gears quickly after the collapse of communism, however, and wrote The Third Wave, a book that gave the name to the entire period.

The Third Wave‘s take on democratization was, however, different from many others in the field, which focused either on agency (as in the Schmitter-O’Donnell-Whitehead series) or on structural conditions for democratic stability (as in the tradition running from Seymour Lipset through Adam Pzreworski). Huntington noted that the vast bulk of Third Wave transitions had occurred in culturally Christian countries and that there was a distinct religious underpinning to the pattern of democratization in the late 20th century. The Catholic world, in particular, was catching up to the Protestant first movers, just as Catholic societies had come late to the capitalist revolution.

The Third Wave was not, however, a manifestation of a broader cross-cultural modernization process that would eventually encompass all societies, but one rooted in a particular set of cultural values inherited from Western Christianity. Democracy’s spread after the early 1970s did not rest on its universal appeal, but rather had to do with the power and prestige of the United States and other culturally Christian societies.

Although it may not have been obvious at the time, The Third Wave anticipated by this argument many of the themes that would be reprised in much greater detail in The Clash of Civilizations and Who Are We?, as well as in the volume that Huntington and Lawrence Harrison edited titled Culture Matters. In perhaps an even deeper rebuff to modernization theory than the one made famous in Political Order, Huntington believed deeply in the durability of cultural values and the primacy of religion as a shaper of both national political development and international relations. In the face of this, globalization was a superficial force that created the thinnest veneer of cosmopolitan "Davos men" and would not in the end guarantee peace or prosperity. And the United States did not represent the vanguard of a universalizing democratic movement; rather, it was successful due to its origins as an "Anglo-Protestant" society. His last scholarly efforts prior to his passing focused on the impact of religion on world politics.

Huntington is incontrovertibly right that historically the origin of modern democracy is, as he says, rooted in Western Christianity. This is not a new insight; thinkers from Tocqueville to Hegel to Nietzsche have all observed that in many ways modern democracy is in fact a secularized version of the universalism of Christian doctrine. But the fact that it arises in a particular historical context doesn’t mean that it can’t subsequently have universal application. To the extent that democracy has spread, it is because it is an effective method of holding rulers accountable to their people, and not simply because of its cultural prestige. If China ever becomes a democracy, it will not be because ordinary Chinese people so admire Americans and want to emulate them; it will be because they cannot solve their own problems of political corruption, environmental degradation, and social injustice without a greater degree of downward accountability.

Similarly, Who Are We? makes a similarly incontrovertible assertion — that American identity is not simply allegiance to the Constitution and the American creed, but that it has religious roots in what he calls "Anglo-Protestant culture." He says early on in that book that ‘If North America had not been founded by Anglo-Saxon Protestant Englishmen but by Spanish, Portuguese, or French Catholics, it wouldn’t be the United States — it would be Mexico, Brazil, or Quebec.’ But again, while this assertion is historically true, the question it raises is whether this historical fact actually makes a difference in contemporary American politics. Huntington spends a whole chapter on the famous Protestant work ethic, which he sees as deeply embedded in American character and central to American identity. But if you ask who is it who actually works hard in the United States today, it is not likely to be either old-line Boston Brahmin WASPs who are clipping their coupons from their trust funds, nor the Scotch-Irish who settled in a band from Appalachia through Texas to the Southwest, who have one of the lowest per capita incomes of all American ethnic groups. That modal American culture is now borne by Russian cab drivers, Korean grocery store owners, and Mexican day laborers because it has a kind of universal appeal and universal accessibility.

Huntington’s arguments were always made with great force, erudition, and persuasiveness. Even if one disagreed with him, it was impossible to not take his arguments with the greatest seriousness. They provided vocabulary and structure to all subsequent discussions of the topic, whether it was American politics, defense policy, democratic transition, or American identity. In addition to his written work, he was a great teacher and produced an entire generation of students who have reshaped virtually all the subfields of political science. From his earliest writings to his last works, he has drawn vociferous critics, but that is the mark of a scholar who has important and fundamental things to say. It is a safe bet that we won’t see his like for some time to come.

This article is based on a 2008 piece on the website of the American Interest and the preface to the 2006 edition of Political Order in Changing Societies.

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