On Monday, Slate ran a three-part book review by Bill Emmott and Fareed Zakaria in which they discuss Ian Bremmer’s new book The J-Curve, which purports to explain the difficulties of political transitions. Now I have not read the book, but this discription of Bremmer’s thesis struck me:
Bremmer’s argument is that history shows that the most stable countries are often also the most closed: North Korea, Cuba, China under Mao, Soviet Russia. But as countries become more open, they generally become more unstable in the first instance, as existing institutions are challenged and undermined, and the old power holders lose their grip. Only as and if new institutions are built and gain legitimacy, credibility, and power will stability rise again.
Any political science graduate student should immediately see the resemblance of this idea to Huntington’s famous thesis in Political Order in Changing Societies, a collection of Huntington’s lectures on the subject published in 1968. Huntington famously remarked that countries became more unstable as mass mobilization increased at a faster rate than the institutional capacity of the state. This disconnect led to instability. The book rightly focused scholars attention on the problems associated with transitions (the process of political change) rather than end states such as authoritarianism or democracy.
Given that Huntington’s book was published almost 40 years ago I am prodded to ask the question, “do we ever learn?”. The answer, based on recent American policy, would seemingly be–“no”.