In Memoriam: Samuel P. Huntington
American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, who died last December aged 81, acquired a reputation as a profound iconoclast who delighted in “goring sacred cows”, as The Economist put it. He would be more accurately remembered, however, as a sensationalist.
Students who challenged Huntington’s ideas in his lectures at Harvard, where he worked for 54 years, said they found him infuriatingly slippery: refusing to defend ideas like his “clash of civilisations” thesis, he often simply agreed with their criticisms, admitting he had exaggerated his arguments to spark controversies. Huntington’s prominence and influence also depended on his ability to provide novel scholarly justification for the prevailing wisdom of political elites.
Although his first book, The Soldier and the State (1957), became a classic text on civil-military relations, Huntington first came to prominence with his Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), an attempt to grapple with political developments in the Third World. Huntington controversially criticised the prevailing “modernisation theory” paradigm, which argued that capitalist development would organically generate stable democracies.
Huntington instead insisted that economic development did not produce stable democracy, but rather rapid social change and rising mass political demands, which prevailing institutions struggled to absorb or contain. For Huntington, it was excusable for governments to address the resulting political instability through authoritarian rule. Military intervention would suppress the masses (“halt the rapid mobilisation of social forces into politics”), build institutions capable of managing popular demands (“modernise”), and then return power to civilians.
Huntington’s work was his period’s most sophisticated attempt to understand military intervention into politics, rightly identifying its causes as social and political rather than military. But depicting armies as the last-gasp agents of modernisation had deeply reactionary implications, legitimising military intervention precisely at the moment when postcolonial democracies were everywhere succumbing to dictatorships. The year before Huntington released Political Order in Changing Societies, for instance, General Suharto, who also died in 2008, seized power in a bloody pogrom in which over a million Indonesian leftists were killed.
Huntington’s work masked the interests served by military intervention, which were nothing so abstract as modernisation. Huntington recognised: “As the mass society looms on the horizon, [the soldier] becomes the conservative guardian of the existing order.” Military intervention served in most cases to defend bourgeois power and undemocratic, capitalist relations against mass opposition. As Huntington chillingly put it: “The middle class makes its début on the political scene not in the frock of the merchant but in the epaulettes of the colonel.”
So, although Huntington daringly averred that “the truly helpless society is not one threatened by revolution but one incapable of it,” his clear preference was for a revolution that preserved rather than overturned the status quo—that is, counter-revolution. Huntington unsurprisingly became an ideologist for Washington’s authoritarian Cold War allies. He advised various dictatorial governments, including Brazil’s Medici regime and the US-backed regime in South Vietnam, where, as a State Department consultant, he advocated the concentration of the population to defeat the Viet Cong. He also applied his ideas to the developed world as co-author of the Trilateral Commission’s The Crisis of Democracy (1976), an expression of elite fears of a “crisis of governability” in an age of mass mobilisation in Western polities.
Unlike his supine later admirers, Huntington’s students at Harvard picketed his classroom, calling for him to be sent to Hanoi. Oxford’s All Souls College offered its usual respite for Cold Warriors, granting Huntington a visiting fellowship in 1973, but protesting students prevented him from lecturing at Sussex. His nomination for membership of America’s National Academy of Sciences was also rejected in 1986, following a determined campaign by Yale mathematician Serge Lang. Lang exposed Huntington’s use of a pseudo-scientific “frustration index” in “Political Order” to argue that apartheid South Africa was a “satisfied society”.
Huntington was nonetheless extremely influential in establishment circles. After serving as foreign policy adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey in 1968, he co-founded the journal Foreign Policy and took on major administrative roles at Harvard, mentoring a whole generation of Cold War hawks. His former student, Zbigniew Brzezinski, with whom he co-authored Political Power: USA-USSR (1964), became Carter’s National Security Adviser and hired Huntington as co-ordinator of security planning.
Despite his later reputation as an iconoclast, Huntington never stopped using his intellect to legitimise and celebrate elite strategies. When Ronald Reagan shifted from supporting authoritarianism to encouraging limited liberalisation, Huntington also shifted tack, welcoming the so-called “third wave” of democratisation in a 1991 book that identified America as the “premier democratic country of the world” and the “major promoter of democracy”. While warning that democratisation was always subject to potential “reverse waves”, a useful correction to the prevailing post-Cold War triumphalism, he nonetheless endorsed a “minimalist-procedural” vision of democracy that tended to leave prevailing socio-economic power relations intact. He even managed, implicitly, to defend his earlier position by including rising incomes and the development of middle classes—both expected outcomes of ‘authoritarian modernisation’—as key causes of democratisation.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union left US policymakers struggling to find a new vision to unite society in place of anti-communism and new ways to breathe meaning into the global projection of military and economic power. Clinton initially seized on Reagan’s legacy to promote “democratic enlargement”, but these efforts quickly faltered with the failed US intervention in Somalia and the breaking of the “third wave” on the rocks of Southeast Asia and the Middle East, where authoritarianism was proving remarkably durable despite rising incomes.
These developments also presented a theoretical challenge to Huntington. Just as policymakers quickly seized on the spectres of “rogue states” and “Islamic fundamentalism” as new substitutes for the “evil empire” of the USSR, particularly after the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, Huntington turned to grapple with “culture”. His “clash of civilisations” thesis—published in Foreign Affairs in 1993 then expanded into a 1997 book—replaced a universalist discourse, proposing that all countries would model themselves on the US, with suggestions of fundamental, irreconcilable differences. Far from responding to changing social and economic dynamics, politics according to Huntington was now determined by timeless cultural norms: some cultures were simply predisposed against democracy.
Huntington argued that the fundamental causes of post-Cold War conflict would be cultural rather than ideological. This thesis added a veneer of legitimacy to the quest for new enemies, but it was never internally consistent. Huntington’s positing of seven “civilisations” with Africa “perhaps” constituting an eighth, and his constant oscillation between definitions and usages, illustrated the incoherence of his most basic units. Cultural identities were supposed to be timeless and homogeneous, while political allegiances were dissipating everywhere. Interaction between culturally dissimilar peoples was bound, somehow, to stimulate conflict. Turning the emerging policy focus into social scientific “predictions”, Huntington argued such conflict would emerge particularly between “Western” and the “Confucian” and “Islamic” civilisations.
Countless reductionist and illogical examples littered his text. His claim that the 1990 Gulf War was an instance of Western-Islamic conflict completely ignored the widespread support for action against Saddam Hussein among Islamic states. His positing of a “Confucian-Islamic connection” in the arms trade smacked of conspiracy theorising, while ignoring massive arms flows from “Western” countries to “Islamic” ones. The attempt to draw “civilisational fault lines” on maps revealed the underlying absurdity of lumping heterogeneous peoples into grandiose “civilisations”, particularly in an age where peoples of different faiths and ethnicities criss-crossed the globe.
Bereft of more inspiring visions to make their societies cohere after the Cold War, leaders have indeed sometimes appealed to primordial identities in conflicts, for instance in Yugoslavia. Yet Huntington took such mobilisations at face value, naively viewing cultural identity as timelessly distinct, hermetically sealed off from external influences. As Fouad Ajami has pointed out, “even the most remote civilisation had been made and remade by the West” and its imperial reach, yet Huntington “found his civilisations whole and intact, watertight under an eternal sky”. This jettisoned his earlier, more sophisticated work, which stressed “the slyness of states, the unsentimental and cold-blooded nature of so much of what they do”.
The real concern underlying the “clash of civilisations”—and the present “war on terror”—is for the unity and purpose of “the West” after the Cold War, especially in the US itself. Replying to his critics, Huntington warned that America was increasingly threatened by groups unwilling to accept “colour-blind” assimilation into “the American creed”, claiming that “multiculturalism” and affirmative action “encouraged a clash of civilisations within the US”. Huntington wondered whether America’s cultural unity could be sustained “as fifty per cent of the population become Hispanic or non-white”, warning that the US might “cease to exist and … follow the other ideologically-defined superpower onto the ash heap of history”.
The supposedly homogeneous “Western civilisation” was thus revealed to lack unity. Huntington’s vision degenerated into a racialised one, expressing the elite fear that, without a communist enemy, capitalist society had no obvious factor of cohesion. Huntington’s last book was revealingly titled Who are We? America’s Crisis of National Identity (2004).
Whether justifying support for third-world dictators, the projection of power through democratisation initiatives, or the quest for new enemies to replace communism, Samuel Huntington never strayed far from justifying the strategies of the powerful, even as he appeared to attack prevailing wisdoms like modernisation and post-Cold War triumphalism. In this way he became a giant of American academe, his work undoubtedly influencing generations of thinkers and policymakers. But rather than a daring iconoclast, he should be remembered as a particularly gifted and sometimes sophisticated practitioner of the art of mirroring in scholarship the fears and concerns of prevailing elites.
Lee Jones is Rose Research Fellow in International Relations at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.