The Clash of the Samuel Huntingtons

illustration by Taylor Jones--click to go to his web site

Since the end of the Cold War, two opposing schools of thought on American foreign policy have emerged. The first school consists of what we might call triumphalists. Triumphalists argue that America has an obligation to democratize the world. For them the successful conclusion of the Cold War validates a Wilsonian approach to spreading democracy—a core tenet of the Clinton administration's foreign policy. Triumphalists range from Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to academics such as Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington. Then there is school number two: the debunkers. Debunkers view the post-Cold War era with apprehension and gloom. Far from believing that the end of the Cold War will usher in a new golden age of American foreign policy, debunkers insist that America should avoid foreign entanglements with a world now riven by ethnic conflict. America, they maintain, should seize the opportunity to mend its own woes rather than waste precious treasure on crusading abroad. Debunkers range from former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger to academics such as . . . well, Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington.

Huntington may be America's most distinguished political scientist. He is certainly its most exasperating. In the October 1997 issue of the National Endowment for Democracy's Journal of Democracy, Huntington wrote: "The Comintern is dead. The time for a Demintern has arrived." But in the September-October 1997 Foreign Affairs, he delivered just the opposite message: American foreign power is in decline and its foreign policy is fractured by ethnic lobbies, each pursuing its own particular interests. "[I]nstead of formulating unrealistic schemes for grand endeavors abroad," he wrote, "foreign policy elites might well devote their energies to designing plans for lowering American involvement in the world in ways that will safeguard possible future national interests."

Whom are we to believe? Huntington I or Huntington II? One thing is certain: they can't both be right. Either a democratic international is a fool's errand or it is a sound strategy to safeguard future national interests. It can't be both.

Foreign policy experts can, and often do, change their minds. But to produce two concurrent and flatly contradictory articles is an exceptional feat. These articles do, however, point to a deeper conflict in Huntington, one on display in his most recent books, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1991) and The Clash of Civilizations (1996). Where Huntington I claimed that a third wave of democracy was washing across the globe, Huntington II now seems to argue that it never amounted to more than a momentary splash. The Clash of Civilizations holds that the United States is in decline, that democracy is limited to Western cultures, and that America must accept Asian authoritarianism as a good thing.

This is a profoundly illiberal doctrine, an emphatic denial of universalism. It not only denies that the United States should seek to spread its democratic creed; it also rejects the proposition that other peoples can, or even should, aspire to achieve democratic self-government. Regardless of American action, or inaction, immutable cultural differences dictate authoritarian democracy at best, or tribal warfare at worst. The universality of human rights is replaced with the parochiality of ethnic rights.

Huntington is hardly the only foreign policy thinker to cast doubt on the universality of American democracy. Fareed Zakaria recently wrote that we should distinguish between political democracy and constitutional liberalism, arguing that countries such as Russia and Argentina are "illiberal democracies." Others, such as Atlantic Monthly contributor Robert Kaplan and James Schlesinger, take a far more saturnine view: they highlight the rise of ethnic particularism and bemoan what they regard as American liberals' naive and foolish penchant for interventionism.

Huntington, however, is the most substantial and perplexing exponent of this newly fashionable doctrine of noninvolvement. Huntington has always been a Democrat, but never a liberal or a neoconservative. Instead, he is something different—a conservative realist. Realism has always held that in an anarchic world, states must ruthlessly pursue their national interest or face extinction. But defining the national interest has always been a slippery task and realism a mutable doctrine. Now Huntington appears to have mutated along with it. While he attacks the United States as a decadent society, he apparently views Asian authoritarianism as superior to the American model of democracy. This amounts to a refurbished critique of the charges leveled against American intervention abroad by the 1960s left. Thus Huntington's intellectual odyssey is not just a story of how one of America's leading foreign policy thinkers has repudiated the democratic universalism he once espoused. It is also an example of how the right has begun to attack the country it used to defend: America.

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Huntington is a professor of government at Harvard, where he also heads the Olin Center for Strategic Studies. Since he began his career as a graduate student at Harvard along with Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Stanley Hoffmann, he has produced a steady stream of articles and books. Apart from tours of duty at the National Security Council during the Johnson and Carter administrations, he has spent his entire career as an academic.

Huntington initially focused on civil-military relations. His first book, The Soldier and the State (1957), offered a keen examination of the tensions between civilian control and military strategy. Since the book's appearance an entire subfield has emerged in political science to grapple with the question of civil-military relations—a topic that has acquired fresh importance in the post-Cold War era as doubts have surfaced about the reliability of the American officer corps. In his next book, Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), Huntington maintained that economic progress could not be divorced from political liberty—again, an argument that is now hotly debated, and one from which Huntington himself now seems to dissent.

It was with American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (1981) that Huntington first displayed his interest in the question of ethnicity and national identity. Huntington maintained that there was a distinct American creed based on the Protestant ethic, natural rights, and equality. "[E]thnic cultural identities," he wrote, "coexist with a national identity rooted in a particular set of political ideas and institutions." In the United States, he maintained, ethnic groups did not claim to represent a separate national identity, and ideology and nationality were fused.

In his most recent book, The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington returns to the question of ethnicity, but on a global scale. He argues that the world is made up of seven major civilizations: Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Western, and Latin American. The post-Cold War world is divided along rigidly civilizational-ethnic lines and therefore is inhospitable to democracy. In Huntington's view, democracy is a Western creation that cannot be transplanted to the inhospitable environments of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Over the centuries, these countries have developed their own habits and practices, which the West should respect rather than attempt to change. Anything else would smack of cultural imperialism. The best that the U.S. can do is to team up with its western European partners to form a kind of imperium that can resist marauding foreigners.


The Clash of Civilizations is brilliant, provocative, and utterly unconvincing. Like so many previous efforts to devise grand theories of history and politics—from Spengler to Toynbee to Fukuyama—Huntington's collapses under the weight of its own assumptions. In fact Huntington's form of theorizing suffers from its own kind of malady. Though he stresses that he has written a popular book rather than a political science text, The Clash can be properly understood only in the context of conservative realist and neorealist theory.

Before the Second World War, the study of international relations was simply another term for diplomatic history. Political scientists such as Archibald Cary Coolidge and James Shotwell served on Woodrow Wilson's Inquiry Commission to determine European borders, and they wrote readable prose about America's role in the world. It was only with the arrival of European émigrés such as Hans Morgenthau that the European realist tradition—with its neoclassical emphasis on a mechanical balance of power—became dominant in the United States. This tradition emphasized power politics, stability, and a diminished role for ideology—all themes that Henry Kissinger embraced at Harvard and later sought to follow as national security advisor and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

As political science became increasingly wedded to scientific and mechanistic thinking in the 1970s, international relations theory skidded off the rails. The weakness of "realist" theory had always been its assumption that a balance of power should be maintained among nations. Should any nation become too powerful, so the thinking went, opposing nations should form an alliance to balance against it. Neorealism, which emerged in the 1970s, went even further.

Neorealism held that the nature of a regime was largely irrelevant to its behavior. The leading neorealist, Kenneth Waltz of the University of California at Berkeley, explains that the manner in which nations behave is best understood by viewing them in terms of neoclassical economic theory. Whether the Soviet Union was a totalitarian power or a democracy was secondary to its objective geopolitical interests. It was simply responding to the international environment, to the incentives and disincentives of an organized and coherent system. Any government or statesman running a Russian-led empire at mid-century would have behaved more or less like Stalin or Khruschev. Neorealism thus implies that given a sufficient number of case studies, political scientists should be able scientifically to predict the behavior of regimes.

Huntington's book moves beyond these increasingly sterile debates. He attempts to integrate an analysis of cultural and civilizational distinctiveness into traditional realism. In arguing that ethnicity stands at the heart of international relations, Huntington turns realism on its head. The nature of regimes becomes the most important factor in what he sees as a battle of rival civilizations jockeying for advantage. But in the end, Huntington himself succumbs to the flaws of the grand theory. For in his attempt to refurbish traditional, conservative realism with culture, Huntington has produced a profoundly illiberal book.


One of the main themes of The Clash of Civilizations is that Western arrogance has blinded the West to the true nature of world politics. While American politicians indulge the naive fantasy of a coming liberal universalism, Asian countries are girding themselves to fight off American intrusions into their spheres of influence.

There may be something to this. But the way Huntington describes it, Asia is set to dispense with the United States as an economic, cultural, and military power. In fact, Huntington's views of Asia turn out to be only a slightly more restrained version of the Japanese parliamentarian Shintaro Ishihara's warnings a few years ago: "There is no hope for the United States," said Ishihara. "Right now, the modern civilization built by whites is coming close to its practical end." Huntington approvingly quotes Tommy Koh, Singapore's ambassador to the United States, who observed in 1993 that a "cultural renaissance is sweeping across Asia." Asians, said Koh, "no longer regard everything Western or American as necessarily the best." Huntington agrees; he even goes so far as to argue that the Confucian work ethic is responsible for the economic progress of Asia.

But is this really true? One of the problems with seeking the roots of Asia's economic success in something as vague as Confucianism is that Confucianism might just as plausibly be used to explain Asia's current economic crisis. This is one of the pitfalls of reading broad cultural and civilizational conclusions into momentary economic trends. Confucianism is deeply rooted in the Asian cultural tradition. But its effects on Asia's current economic climate are complex and ambivalent—hurting in some respects and helping in others. And in any case, avarice, foolishness, and luck probably play at least as great a role in charting Asia's economic future.

What's more, Huntington likely has it exactly backward when it comes to Asian self-assertion. Economic failure, rather than success, seems far more likely to spark an anti-American backlash. Some Indonesians and South Koreans are already beginning to view the International Monetary Fund as a tool of the United States intended to upend their countries' economies. To write off Asia as an economic power, as some are now doing, would be absurd. But if we are looking for the roots of tensions between Asian nations and the United States, the source is less American arrogance than America's in ability to absorb ever greater productive capacity from Asia.

When it comes to the Islamic world, Huntington would seem to be on firmer ground. Radical states like Syria, Iran, and Iraq clearly view the United States as an interloper, and even America's relations with more moderate states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are plagued with religious and cultural tensions. But it would be wrong to assume that American dealings with any Islamic nation are fated to be hostile. Turkey, after all, enjoys a cordial and long-standing relationship with the United States. And even in Iran, the revolution appears to have burned out, leaving behind an apathetic youth eager to enjoy the trappings of American culture, despite the Ayatollahs' adjurations.

Viewing Asia and the Middle East as monolithic civilizations is also misleading because it masks the fact that many of the conflicts in these regions are conflicts within civilizations. It is no accident that Saudi Arabia and Egypt respond differently to the United States than Iran and Iraq do; their regimes perceive their interests as best served by friendly ties with the U.S. Similarly, if the West constituted a single bloc, as Huntington seems to believe, then it would be united in confronting the "Islamic peril." But as the collapse of the Gulf War coalition indicates, the West is divided over how to respond to Saddam Hussein's depredations. France and Germany would like to deal with Saddam as well as Teheran, while the United States vainly insists on isolating both countries. And the Middle East as a region corresponds rather closely to traditional realism. Middle Eastern countries are all jockeying for advantage against one another; the dream of Pan-Arab unity, which Nasser attempted to fulfill, has sputtered out, leaving behind a region united only in suspicion and fear.

Huntington's focus on culture becomes particularly far-fetched when he turns to Bosnia. Here he seems intent on ramming every possible event into his framework to supply it with desperately needed evidence. In Huntington's view, "the intensification of religious identity produced by war and ethnic cleansing, the preferences of its leaders, and the support and pressure from other Muslim states were slowly but clearly transforming Bosnia from the Switzerland of the Balkans into the Iran of the Balkans." But this is simply not true. While some Bosnians have gravitated toward Muslim fundamentalism, there is no evidence of anything like a massive upsurge of religious fervor. Rather than acknowledge that most Bosnians are thankful that the fighting has ended, Huntington repeats Serb propaganda. The ethnic differences between the Bosnians and Serbs were, in any case, largely the invention of Serbian nationalists motivated by territorial conquest and racial extermination. But Huntington declares that "the war in Bosnia was a war of civilizations," endowing the Bosnian conflict with a grandeur that it does not deserve. The Serbs were petty tyrants intent on rubbing out an inconvenient and despised neighbor. There is more here of the banality of evil than some grand clash of civilizations.

Huntington's theory runs into similar difficulties in trying to pit the West against another civilization. Since some European countries such as France and Britain were sympathetic to the Serbs, while the United States was pushing to help the Bosnians, Huntington starts to waffle. Why did the U.S. help the Bosnians, he wonders? He considers and rejects the notion that the Clinton administration was attempting to placate the Arab states. He then attacks the United States for having seen in Bosnia a peaceful example of multiculturalism: "American idealism, moralism, humanitarian instincts, naiveté and ignorance concerning the Balkans thus led [the U.S.] to be pro-Bosnian and anti-Serb."

In other words, the American government failed to realize that civilizational demands dictated that it should have stood by while the Serbs rolled over the Bosnians. That seems a rather uncivilized outlook. There is more: "By refusing to recognize the war for what it was, the American government alienated its allies, prolonged the fighting, and helped to create in the Balkans a Muslim state heavily influenced by Iran. . . . The Spanish Civil War was a prelude to World War II. The Bosnian War is one more bloody episode in an ongoing clash of civilizations." But the United States did not alienate its allies. It did not prolong the fighting. And it certainly did not help create a Muslim state influenced by Iran. On the contrary, the war ended only when America belatedly launched a few strikes against the Serbs. The Balkans have now become a de facto American sphere of influence, while the allies have happily sent their troops to ensure that renewed warfare does not break out. Where are the Iranians?


The final chapter of The Clash makes it clear where Huntington has been heading: American national identity itself is under siege. Other countries may fear American cultural imperialism; but Huntington fears their influence on us. No longer is Huntington sanguine about the American national creed that he extolled in American Politics. He believes that multiculturalism is destroying the United States. According to Huntington,

Western culture is challenged by groups within Western societies. One such challenge comes from immigrants from other civilizations who reject assimilation and continue to adhere to and propagate the values, customs, and cultures of their home societies. This phenomenon is most notable among Muslims in Europe. . . . It is also manifest, in lesser degree, among Hispanics in the United States.

What Hispanics could Huntington possibly mean? If anything, Hispanics tend to be among the most patriotic of Americans. And Huntington goes on to declare that "historically American national identity has been defined culturally by the heritage of Western civilization and politically by the principles of the American creed. . . ." If the United States is "de-Westernized," he warns, the West could be reduced to Europe and "a few lightly populated overseas European settler countries."

Essentially, Huntington wants the United States to renounce universalism abroad and at home. A multi-civilizational United States, he says, "will not be the United States; it will be the United Nations." But will it? The United States has always contained different ethnicities; the only difference in very recent history is that new groups are sharing power with the Anglo-Saxon elite. Even the succession of ethnic groups into the American elite is by now an old story. Bill Richardson, the ambassador to the United Nations, may be the first Mexican American to hold a high-level foreign policy appointment in the United States government. But his story is really no different from that of the Jews and Catholics who made their way into the foreign policy elite in the early Cold War era.

What Huntington seems to fear is the rise of ethnicity in the United States itself. In his 1997 Foreign Affairs article, Huntington warned that ethnic lobbies have hijacked foreign policy. A unified national interest, he says, no longer exists. Multiculturalism has taken over. The only option for the United States is retreat. But this grossly exaggerates the perils and influence of multiculturalism. There is little reason to believe that multicultural activists have taken over the nation's foreign policy. Huntington's alarms about multiculturalism in the United States are as excessive as his claims that Bosnia has become an Iranian beachhead in Europe.

Above all, these musings suggest how disaffected American conservatives have become with the country itself. At the very moment when the U.S. is finally attempting to fulfill its promise of a color-blind society, Huntington is lashing out against fringe multicultural movements and depicting immigrants, in tired and sloppy language, as a menace to the Republic. Huntington is by no means the only conservative to bewail the state of the United States. Alexander Haig, who heads the Singapore-America Council, told me a year ago: "Here in our society we're not a good example." Singapore, according to Haig, is in better shape. Under Lee Kuan Yew's direction, "Singapore has made great progress . . . but in a model best suited to Singapore in his own judgment." Other conservatives who have hailed "Asian values" against American sloth include William F. Buckley, Jr., Henry Kissinger, and Patrick Buchanan. After the flogging of young American Michael Fay in Singapore, Buchanan wrote, "It is our moral elite's distance from reality . . . which induces a moral paralysis when it comes to punishing domestic enemies." Blaming America first has become the new code among conservatives.

In the end, Huntington's apprehensions about immigration and civilizational strife prompt him to suggest that the United States should retreat to a spheres-of-influence foreign policy. But why go through all these cultural and civilizational contortions just to arrive at this old conclusion? Huntington believes that the Anglo-Saxon world—Britain and the United States, with perhaps a few continental countries along for the ride—should form an imperium against the Asian, Islamic, and African hordes. But to confine America's role to such a rearguard action hardly corresponds with the country's traditional conception of foreign policy. The truth is that America, far from being an isolationist power, has steadily expanded its power abroad. Already in 1840, American lithographs depicted an eagle with a banner in its beak heralding: "Westward The March of Empire Takes Its Flight." The United States has moved from conquering the West to dominating the Caribbean to occupying Western Europe to, most recently, assuming responsibility for the Balkans and the Middle East.

There is a potential middle ground that Huntington ignores, one between the naive internationalism now embraced by a portion of the American elite and the dark isolationism that Huntington now apparently embraces. Had Huntington considered the work of Adam Watson, a prominent British theorist of international relations, he might have pondered the notion of a society of states. Watson has written what is probably one of the most brilliant texts on international politics, The Evolution of International Society. Like Hedley Bull and other English political scientists, Watson realized that it is absurd to project balance-of-power or other procrustean systems theories onto world politics. The norm, as Watson suggests, has been for one power—whether the Assyrian, the Roman, or the British Empire—to dominate over the rest. There is no reason to assume that the United States is not following in that path. Former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once mused that the United States was playing the upstart Rome to Britain's tired Greece. And there was something to that. The United States may not be attempting to create military rule over its client states and allies, but it does seek to create a new and peaceful system based on American democracy. Relations between states have historically been based not on anarchy but on organized rules of the game established and enforced by a single great power [see T. Alexander Aleinikoff, "A Multicultural Nationalism?" TAP, January-February 1998].

Whether or not the United States is able to create such a system depends not on civilizational forces but on its resources, skill, luck, and readiness to promote democracy. That is something that Huntington I seemed to understand even if Huntington II has repudiated it. "Other nations may fundamentally change their political systems and continue their existence as nations," wrote Huntington in The Third Wave. "The U.S. does not have that option. Hence Americans have a special interest in the development of a global environment congenial to democracy." The United States is unlikely to engage in reckless crusades, but it might forget that defending human rights abroad is what helps to define its national identity at home. There is no multicultural clash, no uniquely Asian democracy, and no grand clash of civilizations. But there are two Huntingtons. And the real clash is between them. Will the real Samuel P. Huntington please stand up?

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