It is with great sadness that I note the passing on Christmas eve of Samuel Huntington, long-time teacher, friend, and editorial board member of The American Interest. I knew Huntington from my final year in graduate school at Harvard, when he had just returned from service in the Carter administration to the Government Department. He kept up with his former students better than most professors through annual meetings at the Wianno Club on Cape Cod every summer, and through seminars and meetings at the Center for International Affairs which he directed for many years at Harvard.
Huntington was easily the greatest political scientist of his generation. What was remarkable about his scholarship was the range of topics on which he wrote, and the way that each of his books became a major point of reference within each sub-field: The Soldier and State for civil-military relations; The Common Defense for defense policy; Political Order in Changing Societies and The Third Wave for comparative poitics; The Clash of Civilizations for international relations; American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony and Who Are We? for American politics. Through his own scholarship and through his students he virtually created the subfield of strategic studies, an area that was not seriously researched by most universities until he came along.
Since there are likely to be many testimonials to Sam in the coming days and weeks, I thought I would concentrate on one particular aspect of his scholarship, his work on comparative politics. Political Order in Changing Societies, first published in 1968, was perhaps the last great effort to build a general theory of political development, and left a profound mark on the entire field. In 1997, when I was a regular book reviewer for Foreign Affairs, I nominated Political Order as one of the top five books on international politics that had been published in the past 75 years. Perhaps as a result of this, Sam asked me to write a preface to a new reprint of paperback edition of the book which appeared in 2006. This was a great honor that I undertook gladly. I will simply quote from what I said in that preface:
“In order to understand [Political Order]’s intellectual significance, it is necessary to place it 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 nineteenth century European social theorists like Henry Maine, Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Max Weber. The writings of these authors established a series of concepts (e.g., status/contract; mechanical/organic solidarity; Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft; charismatic/bureaucratic-rational authority) that sought to describe the changes in social norms and relationships that took place as human societies made the transition from agricultural to industrial production. 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’s Department of Comparative Politics, the MIT Center for International Studies, or 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.
“Modernization theorists placed a strong normative value on being modern, and in their view, the good things of modernity tended to go together. Economic development, changing social relationships like urbanization and the breakdown of primary kinship groups, higher and more inclusive levels of education, normative shifts towards values like “achievement” and rationality, secularization, and the development of democratic political institutions, were all seen as an interdependent whole. Economic development would fuel better education, which would lead to value change, which would promote modern politics, and so on in a virtuous circle.
“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. This led to a condition he labeled praetorianism, and was the leading cause of insurgencies, military coups, and weak or disorganized governments. Economic development and political development were not part of the same, seamless process of modernization; the latter had its own separate logic as institutions like political parties or legal systems were created or evolved into more complex forms.
“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.)
“The significance of Huntington’s book must be seen against the backdrop of what was happening in U.S. foreign policy at the time it was published. The year 1968 marked a high water mark in the Vietnam War, when troop strength swelled to half a million and the Tet offensive undermined the U.S. public’s confidence. Many modernization theorists hoped their academic work would have useful implications for American policy; Walt Rostow’s book The Stages of Economic Growth was a guide for the new U.S. Agency for International Development as it sought to buffer countries like South Vietnam and Indonesia against the appeals of communism. But by the late 1960s, there were not a lot of success stories that Americans to which could point. The competing communist and Western nation-building strategies in North and South Vietnam ended with the latter’s eventual defeat.
“Huntington suggested that there was another way forward, through modernizing authoritarianism, a point of view that brought considerable opprobrium on him in the highly polarized context of America in the late-1960s. But is was exactly this kind of leader – Park Chung-Hee in Korea, Chiang Ching-Kuo in Taiwan, Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore, and Suharto in Indonesia – who brought about the so-called “Asian Miracle,” even as Vietnam was going communist.
“It is safe to say that Political Order finally killed off modernization theory. It was part of a pincer 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.”
Political Order in Changing Societies was one of Huntington’s earlier works, and one that established his stature as a political scientist, but it far from his last major contribution to comparative politics. His work on democratic transition also became of 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 entitled “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, who 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 Lipset through Pzreworksi). Sam 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.
Though 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 he and Larry Harrison edited entitled 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.
I disagreed with Sam on many of these issues. While I fully appreciate the power and durability of culture, and the way that modern liberal democracy was rooted in Christian cultural values, it has always seemed to me that culture was more useful in explaining the provenance than the durability of democracy as a political system. Sam, in my view, underrated the universalism of the appeal of living in modern, free societies with accountable governments. His argument rests heavily on the view that modernization and Westernization are two completely separate processes, something which I rather doubt. The gloomy picture he paints of a world riven by cultural conflict is one favored by the Islamists and Russian nationalists, but is less helpful in explaining contemporary China or India, or indeed in explaining the motives of people in the Muslim world or Russia who are not Islamists or nationalists. Nation-states and not civilizations remain the primary actors in world politics, and they are motivated by a host of interests and incentives that often override inherited cultural predispositions.
Be that as it may, Sam’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 latter 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 of the sub-fields 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.