Professor Samuel Huntington: author of The Clash of Civilizations

January 1, 2009 - 0:0

For millions of ordinary readers, as for conservative politicians and pundits, Samuel Huntington was the man who predicted the grand narrative of the 21st century. But long before bloggers and book groups were discussing The Clash of Civilizations (1993), Huntington had been among America’s most influential political scientists for decades. In an era when many academics were content to hoe narrow specialties, he bestrode whole disciplines; writing seminal works on international relations, comparative government, political theory and American politics. In the early 1990s a colleague asked the Harvard professor, then writing the work that would make him a household name, why he had chosen to focus on civilisation. Huntington shrugged: “It was simply the biggest thing I could think of.”

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order was a hard-headed look at what political scientists had traditionally dismissed as a soft subject: culture. Originating as a 1993 article in the policy journal Foreign Affairs, and published three years later as a book, it argued that the key sources of post-Cold War conflicts would not be national or ideological, but cultural. Clash was Huntington’s riposte to those who thought the fall of communism meant the universal triumph of Western values. The West’s arrogance about the universality of its own culture would blind it to the ascent of “challenger civilizations”, particularly Islam and China. Shot through with cautions about Western decline, the book counsels Europe and America to unite: “The prudent course of the West is not to attempt to stop the shift in power, but to learn to navigate the shallows, to endure the miseries, moderate its ventures, and safeguard its culture.” Exporting American pop culture and trainers was easy, exporting values of freedom and democracy far harder. “Somewhere in the Middle East,” Huntington wrote, “a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner.”
After 9/11, Huntington was hailed as a seer. The Clash of Civilizations was translated into 33 languages and seized on by Western and Muslim hawks, who read in it the historical inevitability of conflict between Islam and the West. Huntington’s critics attacked it as a crude Manichean world view, penned by an old Cold Warrior in need of new enemies.
In many ways, Huntington — a Wasp with an Ivy League chair who had advised two White Houses on foreign policy — was the ultimate East Coast insider. But his conservatism on subjects from Vietnam to immigration made him a countercultural figure in academia. A lesser man might have sought sanctuary at a right-wing think-tank. Not Huntington, whose devotion to scholarship and the academy kept him at Harvard for the better part of five decades.
Samuel Phillips Huntington was born in 1927 and brought up in New York, the only child of a journalist father and a mother who wrote short stories. He was a precocious youth who wrote poetry, which didn’t necessarily make for an easy life in New York City schools. Once, in a taxi with a colleague, Huntington, then Harvard’s Albert J. Weatherhead III Professor, pointed out a rundown street corner in Astoria as the place “they used to beat me up for my lunch money”. He graduated from Yale at 18, the age most undergraduates matriculate, served in the U.S. Army, and went on to study at the University of Chicago and Harvard, where he wrote his PhD dissertation in four months. By 23 he was teaching government at Harvard. At Harvard, Huntington, a lifelong Democrat, wrote speeches for the presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson, the patrician liberal who ran in both 1952 and 1956. An evening spent revising a Stevenson address called A Nation of Homeowners, with a Radcliffe student, Nancy Arkelyn, turned out to be Huntington’s first date with his future wife.
His initial book, The Soldier and the State, came out in 1957, at a time when unprecedented peacetime mobilization of the U.S. military had sparked debate over the balance of power between army and civilians. The military needed to recognize the absolute authority of civilian-run government, but, in turn, America’s liberal society needed to leave national security to the military professionals, Huntington argued. The book, which closed by lauding the elite military college West Point as “a bit of Sparta in the midst of Babylon”, was viewed by some senior Harvard faculty as a paean to militarism. Huntington was denied tenure, and decamped to Columbia University, New York City. Four years later Harvard asked him to return, this time as a tenured professor of government.
During the 1960s Huntington’s work on political stability and the Vietnam War burnished his reputation as a conservative hawk. His Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) argued that stability was necessary for developing societies, and challenged the reigning orthodoxy that economic and social progress would lead to it. The book, whose unsentimental thesis drew comparisons with Machiavelli’s The Prince, remains required reading for political science students today. Huntington applied his ideas on political stability to Vietnam as a consultant to Lyndon Johnson’s State Department. In a study of the prospects of an American victory in South Vietnam he noted that ethnic and communal networks — albeit authoritarian and antidemocratic — provided useful bulwarks against the influence of the Vietcong in rural areas. “Even back then we were nation-building,” Huntington told the writer Robert Kaplan in 2001. “We rejected religious and ethnic loyalties as counterweights to the Vietcong because we wanted a modern, democratic nation-state with a national army. Our problem with Vietnam was our idealism.”
Huntington drew the anti-war movement’s wrath. Students picketed his Harvard classroom with placards reading Send Huntington to Hanoi. In 1973, while Huntington was a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, 500 protesters surrounded a University of Sussex building where he was due to speak, forcing him to leave the building with a police escort, his lecture undelivered.
In 1977 his old Harvard colleague Zbigniew Brzezinski, then President Carter’s national security adviser, asked him to Washington to serve as co-ordinator of planning at the National Security Council. Huntington wrote Presidential Directive 18, an overview of U.S.-Soviet strategic competition, concluding that though the Soviet Union posed a short-term ideological and military challenge, the U.S. would eventually prevail. Huntington’s analysis helped to inform the Carter Doctrine, the declaration that any attempt to gain control of the Persian Gulf would be an attack on America’s vital interests, and the creation of the Rapid Deployment Force to protect the region from Soviet encroachment.
Not seduced by Beltway success, Huntington returned to Harvard. Some of his former students — Francis Fukayama and Newsweek’s international editor Fareed Zakaria among them — went on to become celebrated pundits, straddling the worlds of media, policy and academia. Huntington, however, remained the consummate professor, chairing committees and mentoring students, many of whom went on to hold distinguished posts. Several of these “Baby Sams”, as they were dubbed, recall a mentor of striking intellectual modesty and openness. “A classic New England gentleman,” in the words of one, driven by the Yankee ideals of work, virtue and duty. Such was Huntington’s work ethic that he was once discovered passed out on the floor of his seminar room from exhaustion. A diabetic since the age of 20, he administered himself three or four insulin shots a day.
Urbane and shy, Huntington nonetheless displayed a steeliness when attacked, whether in academic journals or, late one night, on a Boston street. Walking home with Nancy and another couple, he was approached by some young muggers. The fiftysomething Huntington fought off one, strong-arming him to the ground, then jumped on a second, who was on top of another victim. The youths fled.
Staying strong in the face of outside threats was a classic Huntingtonian theme, but in his last book, Who Are We? (2004), he cautioned against the enemy within. America’s national identity, he argued, was in danger of being eroded in the face of sub-national, dual national, and transnational loyalties. Writing for a popular audience, “as a patriot and a scholar”, Huntington argued that some Americans, most notably liberal elites and Hispanics, were undermining America’s fundamentally Anglo-Protestant culture. Built on Christianity, the English language and British legacies of justice and government and mixed with the “American Creed” and its principles of liberty, equality and individualism, this was a culture that every immigrant group had assimilated — until recently. But globalization meant a growing chasm between “the cosmopolitan and transnational commitments” of elites, and the “still highly nationalist and patriotic values of the American public”. The most controversial chapter, on Mexican-Americans, warns that the fast-growing Hispanic population’s reluctance to assimilate could lead to “a bifurcated America”, with two languages, Spanish and English. These new immigrants would achieve the American Dream “only if they dream it in English”, he argued.
Such bluntness led admirers to laud his bravery and critics to charge that he was pandering to nativist sympathies. Huntington was a self-declared conservative, but an old-fashioned one, critical of the neocons in the Bush Administration. Though U.S. and British pundits used his ideas to promote the invasion of Iraq, Huntington was a steadfast critic of it, dismissing Bush’s plans to install a Western-style democracy as a “joke” even before the occupation began. “Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems,” he had written in The Clash of Civilizations. “It is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.”
Huntington is survived by his wife, Nancy, and two sons.
Professor Samuel Huntington, political scientist, was born on April 18, 1927. He died on December 24, 2008, aged 81
(Source: TimesOnline