Leaving Clash of Civilizations Aside

Samuel Huntington died on December 24th, 2008, at the ripe old age of 81. And as one of the preeminent political scientists of his generation, the inevitable deluge of obits, tributes, and assessment of his work is understandable.

Whereas most mainstream, non-academic media sources will probably focus on his book The Clash of Civilizations, I think Huntington’s real legacy is his work on comparative politics, especially in political development. (Here is his original article in Foreign Affairs that became the basis of his book and will serve as a useful introduction to his idea on the topic).

But before I talk about his work in comparative politics, let me just take a moment to say why I think the attention focused on his clash of civilization thesis is disproportionate. First, culture is a notoriously unreliable explanatory factor for political development in the field. Second, I think the clash thesis only received so much attention because of what happened on September 11th seemed to vindicate it. THe whole thesis smacks of too much Manichean duality that reminded me too much of Bush’s “you are either with us or against us” mentality. In this regard, I think Clash of Civilization should be read and studied as a historical artifact, interesting because of the reaction it generated, not because of the actual accuracy of its main thesis.

Having said that, I think Francis Fukuyama’s piece in The American Interest gets something right about Huntington’s legacy in comparative politics. Political Order in Changing Societies remain a staple in introductory undergraduate courses on comparative politics and development, and for good reason: namely, it advanced a thesis that has largely borne itself out in most successful developing countries of our time. Fukuyama sums up the thesis as follows:

“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.”

This is an important thesis because it explicitly broke the connection between political and economic development. Instead of arguing that social and economic development inevitably flows from democratization, Huntington argued that without political order and stability, development is dead in the water. The practical implications of this thesis is seen in the most successful developing country in the world today: China. Indeed, Huntington’s thesis can be applied almost verbatim to Chinese development: a non-democratic, authoritarian government takes control of development by first providing political stability. Conversely, all one needs to do is to take a look at Iraq to see what happens when political liberalization proceeds at too quickly a pace: the entire system becomes fragmented and destabilized.

The normative implications of Huntington’s thesis, however, are somewhat unsettling: it implies that we should tolerate authoritarian regimes if they can provide for the political stability of their country. But the question then becomes: how long must we tolerate them? Again, using modern China as an example: it is beyond dispute that the Communist Party, starting with the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, has put China on the path of economic prosperity and lifted millions of people out of poverty at a faster rate than any other country in the history of the world. But at what point do we say to the CCP: okay, you’ve done your part and successfully ushered China into the 21st century, but it’s time you let the people become sovereign.

At bottom, the stake in this debate is one about values: which one do we value more–order or liberty? Huntington made an important contribution to this debate by arguing that political order/stability is an intrinsic good, but someone who values political liberty can argue that political order is only an instrumental good, as a means to an end, which is liberty. Which side you fall on has huge implications for what kind of political activities you are willing to tolerate in developing countries like China. As far as debates go, this one is fundamental.

So if all you’ve ever heard of Professor Huntington’s work is the clash thesis, I highly recommend you read his political orders thesis, which in my opinion has far more relevance today and represents his true, lasting legacy to the field of political science.


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