The History of Political Succession

Victor Davis Hanson, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, explains the history of political succession.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And we turn now to the tale of three Sheikhs.

Today, the Kuwaiti parliament resolved a nine-day political crisis of leadership, following the death of there emir in January. They nominated Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah to replace Sheikh Saad al-Abdullach al-Sabah, who replaced the late Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah. If you detect a certain similarity in those names, it's because Kuwait traditionally alternates power between two branches of the Royal Sabah family. But the late emir failed to name a successor, thereby forcing the country's parliament to decide the question for the first time.

Democracies provide a clear process to determine who succeeds to power, but in other types of government, this can be a major problem, and has been many times throughout history.

Joining us now is Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. He's with us in the studios of member station KVPR, in Fresno, California. Nice to have you on the program again, Victor.

Mr. VICTOR DAVIS HANSON (Senior fellow, Hoover Institute, Stanford University): Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: The case of Kuwait, this seems to be a country that's almost on the cusp between traditional monarchy, and constitutional monarchy.

Mr. HANSON: It is, but I think in most of the 22 countries of the Middle East, the Arab Middle East, whether you look at Bathism, or the Mubarak Dynasty, or the Assad Dynasty, or the Saudi Royal family, however you would characterize them left to right, they all have one thing in common; succession presents a dilemma, and it's usually tried to, they've tried to pass on power to somebody who's related to them. And, if not, preferably a son, as we see in the case of Egypt and Iraq and Syria.

CONAN: And this has been the traditional problem of monarchies, is that these transitions can occur at awkward moments, when people are sick, or very young, or very old.

Mr. HANSON: Absolutely. And classical political thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle, this was one of the central cruxes that they dealt with; how to pass executive power to a new generation. And that was one of the great triumphs of constitutional government, that it had a mechanism that was not specific to individuals, because they didn't really discuss this, and they felt that merit was not passed, necessarily, on to someone just because he was related to you. And that, when, not everybody has children that are, happen to be males. Until the last century, that was the preferable gender to assume power. And...(unintelligible).

CONAN: Well one thinks of the adventures of King Henry VIII, for example.

Mr. HANSON: Absolutely. Or look at Julius Caesar, and then Augustus. For the next eleven Ceasars, there was not instance where a father was able to make his son an emperor.

CONAN: There have been other attempts to come up with other solutions. The Ottoman Empire, for example. Their sultan was descended from a royal line, but there was a tradition of selecting the operational head of the government, the grand vizier, from non-Turkish stock.

Mr. HANSON: That was a very innovative method that the Ottomans used, say, after the 1600's, where they actually used Christian and infidel children who had been brought up into the royal court for key military and diplomatic and bureaucratic posts, on the idea that they were not beholden to a particular clan within Turkey that might threaten the authority of the sultan. And the sultan himself was, in theory, a slave as well, because he was the son, most often, of his father, plus a woman out of the harem who was, in theory, a slave. So, there was these strange mechanisms to prevent a takeover power. But monarchies always had this problem, there's no way around it.

CONAN: And this is often the result in, well, how do you do it? Well, coup d' etats and assignation are always popular.

Mr. HANSON: Absolutely. We, ever since Roman times, we've had generals that march on Rome from Spain, or Gaul, or Egypt, to circumvent the hereditary process. Once it breaks down, the only time it really endures is if somebody can find a male son who seems to be competent, and is brought up, and has an apprenticeship. And, uh...

CONAN: This may be the origin of Winston Churchill's famous quote that democracy is the worst of all possible forms of government, except for all of the others.

Mr. HANSON: It is, and we think, we in the west, this is just a relic from our past, but look at the royal family in England. Today, Prince Charles is aging, he has two bright children who've avoided scandal so far, it's going to be very interesting to see if he's leap-frogged by them. And it reminds me that, of it's 16th and 15th century wars of succession in England.

CONAN: May not be a war this time, I don't think. But, hey...

Mr. HANSON: No, I don't think so. But it'll be, it's the same issue, only in a different landscape.

CONAN: Victor Davis Hanson, as always, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. HANSON: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, with us from the studios of member station KVPR, in Fresno, California. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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