The Origins of Political Order


This book has two origins. The first arose when my mentor, Samuel Huntington of Harvard University, asked me to write a foreword to a reprint edition of his 1968 classic, Political Order in Changing Societies.1 Huntington’s work represented one of the last efforts to write a broad study of political development and was one I assigned frequently in my own teaching. It established many key ideas in comparative politics, including a theory of political decay, the concept of authoritarian modernization, and the notion that political development was a phenomenon separate from other aspects of modernization.

As I proceeded with the foreword, it seemed to me that, illuminating as Political Order was, the book needed some serious updating. It was written only a decade or so after the start of the big wave of decolonization that swept the post–World War II world, and many of its conclusions reflected the extreme instability of that period with all of its coups and civil wars. In the years since its publication, many momentous changes have occurred, like the economic rise of East Asia, the collapse of global communism, the acceleration of globalization, and what Huntington himself labeled the “third wave” of democratization that started in the 1970s. Political order had yet to be achieved in many places, but it had emerged successfully in many parts of the developing world. It seemed appropriate to go back to the themes of that book and to try to apply them to the world as it existed now.

In contemplating how Huntington’s ideas might be revised, it further struck me that there was still more fundamental work to be done in explicating the origins of political development and political decay. Political Order in Changing Societies took for granted the political world of a fairly late stage in human history, where such institutions as the state, political parties, law, military organizations, and the like all exist. It confronted the problem of developing countries trying to modernize their political systems but didn’t give an account of where those systems came from in the first place in societies where they were long established. Countries are not trapped by their pasts. But in many cases, things that happened hundreds or even thousands of years ago continue to exert major influence on the nature of politics. If we are seeking to understand the functioning of contemporary institutions, it is necessary to look at their origins and the often accidental and contingent forces that brought them into being.

The concern over the origin of institutions dovetailed with a second preoccupation, which was the real-world problems of weak and failed states. For much of the period since September 11, 2001, I have been working on the problems of state and nation building in countries with collapsed or unstable governments; an early effort to think through this problem was a book I published in 2004 titled State-Building: Governance and World Order in the Twenty-first Century.2 The United States, as well as the international donor community more broadly, has invested a great deal in nation-building projects around the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Timor-Leste, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. I myself consulted with the World Bank and the Australian aid agency AusAid in looking at the problems of state building in Melanesia, including Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Indonesian Papua, and the Solomon Islands, all of which have encountered serious difficulties in trying to construct modern states.

Consider, for example, the problem of implanting modern institutions in Melanesian societies like Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Melanesian society is organized tribally, into what anthropologists call segmentary lineages, groups of people who trace