Morally Objectionable, Politically Dangerous

Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

There is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Samuel Huntington. He is perhaps the most brilliant, articulate, versatile, and creative living political scientist. He has written the most authoritative work on the consequences of social change on political order. Besides his own analyses, he has often usefully denounced the simplifications and contradictions of the theorists of "endism" and "declinism"; or, in earlier times, of the "state-centered" and "transnational" schools in the debate over multinational corporations; or of the theorists of modernization and political development who were compelled to take refuge from their own miasma of confusion in the innocuous term "change."

Yet Huntington's taste for generalization, his gift for striking formulations, his knack for provocation and, one must say, his lack of political common sense and responsibility, lead him time and again to commit the very sins of excessive simplification that he has so well castigated in others. He has by such excesses generated serious intellectual misunderstandings and, ultimately, moral and political misdirections.

Faithful followers of Huntington's work will remember the storms created by his formulations about the urbanizing, and hence modernizing, effects of the U.S. bombing and strategic hamlets policies in the Vietnam War; or about the dangers of excessive democracy in post-industrial society. Readers of his great work on Political Order in Changing Societies will remember how his penetrating insights into the dialectics of mobilization and institutionalization led him to predict a bright future for Leninist parties-as opposed to individual dictatorships-in the Middle East. Others will recall how his recommendations in the 1970s of a NATO strategy made up of nuclear defense (through anti-ballistic missile deployments) and conventional retaliatory offense, while conceptually brilliant, could never be taken seriously due to their lack of economic and psychological realism.

The danger with The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is, on the contrary, that it could be taken too seriously. Huntington's verbal fireworks have never been so dazzling. They often convey illuminating insights, but more often are incredibly one-sided and inflammatory: "The West's problem is not Islamism but Islam"; "People in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia and the subcontinent slaughter each other because they believe in different gods"; "Islam's bloody borders", and so forth. The most striking formulations-including the central one characterizing the nineteenth century as defined by the clash of nations, the twentieth by that of ideologies, the twenty-first by that of civilizations-were present in his original Foreign Affairs article (Summer 1993), and have already sent shock waves around the world. But contrary to the case of Francis Fukuyama, whose sensational article in The National Interest (Summer 1989) was succeeded by a more moderate and balanced volume, Huntington's book is, if anything, more extreme than his article. It adds or expands a prescriptive and a predictive dimension that are the most disputable and dangerous parts of his argument. This is all the more regrettable because the analysis starts from very real and striking observations.

The book rests on two very solid pillars. The first-hardly a revelation but well worth the emphasis it is given-is that the balance of power is shifting from the West to Asia, and that China's economic power and the demographic growth of Muslim peoples together create a formidable challenge to the existing international system.

The second is that, today, identity and community are on the rise as mobilizing themes in comparison to political and economic ideologies; that ascriptive, particularly ethnic, affiliations are on the rise compared to functional ones; and that religion and nostalgia for the past seem to prevail over belief in science, progress, or utopian revolution.

Huntington is also right, and deeply original, in seeing a link between these two phenomena. In one of his most striking remarks, he points out that "no other civilization has generated a significant political ideology, and the West has never generated a major religion." The spiritual shift that he detects-moving from rationality and universalism to mysticism and tradition-coincides to some extent with the shift in economic and military power from West to East.
Where he seems to me to go deeply wrong is in fixing these phenomena on the primacy of one permanent factor, namely civilizations, interpreted essentially in terms of religion. Worse perhaps, Huntington assumes the closed and conflictual character of these entities as he tries to fit every conflict in the world into his scheme. And last but not least, he bases his prescriptions for Western policies on what amounts to a global segregationist scheme that negates the West's basic concepts and aspirations, and that ignores several of the imposing realities of modern society.


Civil SocietyPhilosophyPolitical TheorySociety