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.