Time to Get Real About World Order

Establishing stability—and eventually democracy—in the world's most troubled countries requires letting go of starry-eyed notions about self-government in the near term.

In the early 21st century, the problem of weakly governed states is a pervasive one. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Somalia, along with many other countries I could name—especially in Africa—all pose significant challenges to world order for the chaos they have unleashed (or threaten to unleash) as a result of their ineffective, unresponsive, or nonexistent government institutions.

A major policy goal for the United States, therefore, is to try to reduce instability by building or bolstering institutional capacity in these countries, especially in those areas most tormented by violence or extreme underdevelopment. All around the world, for U.S. troops and civilian foreign aid workers alike, the quest for stability is paramount. In this regard, even counterinsurgencies can be beneficial, providing physical protection to a subject population, and overseeing basic infrastructure projects—in effect, serving as the military arm of foreign aid.

Weak states have been a major issue since the end of World War II, when the dismantling of European empires resulted in self-government for many peoples who had little experience of it, and who suddenly had to cope with the rigors of modernity. The adjustment process is one that has taken, and will continue to take, decades to complete. The outside power that best understands this process, without harboring sentimental illusions about “ideal” forms of government, will have a significant advantage over the others. Indeed, the undeclared battle between the United States and China in Africa—over which of the two countries’ approaches to development works best—will speak volumes about the future balance of power in the world. While we’ve tended to emphasize democracy, human rights, and civil society, the Chinese have emphasized massive infrastructure projects and authority by any means possible, civil or uncivil.

Our own idealistic approach may fit nicely with our view of ourselves as a high-minded nation apart. But it may not, in fact, be the best approach – either for our own sake, or for the well-being of the nations upon whom we seek to impose it. Fortunately for us, however, there is an incisive philosophical guidebook we can consult for advice on how to proceed more effectively.

The book to which I refer is the classic Political Order in Changing Societies, published in 1968 by the late Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington. It is Huntington's most important work, and it deals presciently with the rigors of how states are formed in an era of globalization (this, decades before the term “globalization” was coined).

As a guide, the book can make for uncomfortable reading, because, more in keeping with the Chinese mindset, it recognizes, as did Hobbes long ago, that authority—even of a brutal kind—is preferable to none at all. Indeed, Huntington's most arresting assertion comes at the very beginning: that the degree to which a state is governed is more crucial than how it is governed. Huntington explains that, despite the ideological differences, the United States had far more in common with the Soviet Union than it did with any weakly ruled state in Africa. For though the U.S.S.R. was Communist, it at least had strong institutions, unlike most states in Africa. It is the quotidian elements of power, Huntington suggests—the police force, the tax authority, the motor vehicles bureau, the electricity company— that give a governmental system legitimacy, and which are signally lacking in the developing world. When Iraq or Afghanistan have even a few of these things, our troops can take off their body armor and go home.

Americans tend to believe that the way to develop such institutions is by holding elections and establishing democracy. But Huntington argues that this is a flawed assumption. He contends that we are seduced by the notion of a "unity of goodness," according to which all good things go together and responsive institutions flow from democracy. But what if democracy isn’t the panacea we imagine? What if democratic elections frequently break down along ethnic lines and produce civil war? What if one weak democratic government after another follows in succession, so that a state remains in a perpetual situation of partial anarchy? Or what if, as many examples attest, strong, responsive institutions sometimes evolve from dictatorships that have become increasingly benevolent over the years? Think of South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile, all of which evolved peacefully into model democracies. Huntington goes so far as to suggest that monarchies, of all regimes, are the ones most likely to develop liberal institutions because, being an anachronism in the modern world, they have to prove themselves through good works—unlike radical nationalists or other extremists who can justify their grip on power merely through ideology.

Huntington pours scorn on our fixation with corruption in places like Afghanistan. Corruption, he explains, can be a means of stanching violent revolution. It offers an alternative means of government and tax collection, in places where formal government itself is weak or incapacitated. And as with the high levels of corruption in the U.S. in the 1870s and 1880s, it can be a sign of dynamic development. Corruption is not therefore a sign of the illegitimacy of those in power, but merely of their impurity and inability to consolidate institution building. Those who insist on purity will have no allies.

Huntington goes on: military coups are not in and of themselves evil, but a sign that the military finds itself in a more advanced stage of institution building than its counterparts in the civilian side of the bureaucracy. Young officers who revolt are often better educated or less corrupt than those whom they overthrow.

The American experience, Huntington points out, has been about limiting the power of government. After all, we imported our institutional practices wholesale from 17th century England and then sought to curtail them, rather than having to build them from scratch like so much of the rest of the world. We are not, then, in a position to share with the rest of the world our experience of establishing a democracy. To the contrary, our historical experience is somewhat irrelevant to the countries we are now trying to help.

Becoming more effective in the places where our military is embroiled will thus require that we lay aside our own historical experience, much as we are proud of it. Ungovernability has a set of rules all its own. We would do well to study it.