Samuel Huntington, 1927-2008
Published on: December 29, 2008
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  • Frank–If you listen to what Chinese intellectuals tell themselves, as I did recently in Shanghai, you might be a little
    less certain that Westernization and modernization go hand in hand there…here is
    my report from the last NPQ. best, Nathan Gardels

    Post-Olympic Powershift: The Return of the Middle Kingdom in a Post-American World

    Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of NPQ and Global Services of Tribune Media Services International. His forthcoming book with Mike Medavoy is entitled American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age. (Wiley/Blackwell, 2009).

    Shanghai—When scholars from all across China gathered here recently to assess their country’s role in the afterglow of the Olympics, their pride shone as bright as the waxing Autumn Festival moon. More than a patriotic triumph, the “best games ever” were seen as a knockout blow against a West on the wane after 500 years. To those charged with thinking professionally about China’s future, the Beijing Olympics marked the advent of a new era in which the Middle Kingdom emerges again out of the mists of history—not as a hegemonic superpower, but as the superior civilization in a post-American world.

    Whether one agrees with this view or not, it is unquestionably the driving spirit behind the powershift in the world order today and bears a close hearing in the West. It is, after all, what the Chinese tell themselves.

    Among the political heavyweights at the third annual World Forum on China Studies, convened in a monumental Stalin-era exhibition hall now dwarfed by a towering sea of neon-rimmed, Godzilla-scale skyscrapers reminiscent of Blade Runner in the night haze, was Zheng Bijian. He is the former vice chair of the Central Party School, confidant of the current Communist Party leadership and author of China’s “peaceful rise” doctrine.

    Zheng argued that China’s dream of escaping Western subjugation since the Opium War in 1840 had finally been realized in the “new awakening” of the last 30 years of “reform and opening up.” Now awakened, the whole nation was engaged in sorting through “a hundred schools of thought” about the way ahead in a globalized economy. Indicative of the millennial time frame in which the Chinese see themselves, Zheng compared this historical moment to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476bc) and the Warring States Period (475-221bc).

    In the view of this party ideologist, an awakened China had proven the superiority of its way over the grand Western theories of a “clash of civilizations” and triumph of the West at the “end of history” through solving the “riddle of the century” by abruptly lifting hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty and underdevelopment. This success had proven, beyond any empirical doubt, the neo-Confucian wisdom of Deng Xiaoping to “seek truth from facts” and, step by step, like feeling one’s way across a shallow river, “constructing socialism” in tune with local characteristics and rising in peaceful development. This offers the world a third way between the models of conflict or domination that emanate from the Western mind.

    The reawakened Middle Kingdom, according to Zheng, “would not be puffed up with self-importance, divorcing itself from economic globalization and modernizing with the door closed.” Nor would the new China “belittle itself” with dependence on the West but “act independently with the initiative in our own hands.”

    This new China, Zheng argued, would resist the path of the rise of the Western powers “with their colonialist plundering of the world’s resources in the process of industrialization” as well as the ill-fated paths of the “military nations like Germany and Japan who waged wars to reshape the world.” The new China would also avoid seeking superpower hegemony like the former Soviet Union “under the cover of the so-called world revolution.” Instead, based on its remarkable success, the new China would seek an “open, non-exclusive and harmonious” relationship with all others to “mutually open up the route to world development.”

    Lest the resurgent Confucian sentiments behind this worldview be lost on the rest of the world, other prominent thinkers underlined the civilizational character of China’s project.

    Zhang Xianglong of Beijing University’s philosophy department highlighted the “non-universalist” nature of Confucianism and thus the emphasis on truth being grounded in particular, concrete circumstances instead of universally applicable standards—whether the Western concept of universal human rights and democracy or the Marxist idea of universal laws of development. Because of its non-universalism, Confucian civiilization seeks “pragmatic discourse” with others following their own path rather than seeking to lord it over them.

    It is easy to see in this brief sumum of the Confucian worldview the basis of all the slogans repeated ad nauseum by China’s leaders today—“seek truth from facts,” “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” “peaceful rise” and “harmonious society.” Reinforcing Zheng’s claim of China having found a harmonious third way, Zhang argues that a “clash of civilizations” or the “end of history” can “only occur when universalist cultures encounter each other or prevail over each other. When two non-universalist cultures meet there may well be friction, but total warfare that aims at mutual annihilation is generally avoided. When, however, two universalist cultures meet, even though they may compromise and negotiate to ensure their temporary safety, in the long run they are in principle engaged in a to-the-death struggle.”

    Indeed, Zhang notes, Buddhism and Taoism coexisted for millennia in China. Other scholars even posited that Confucian virtues constitute China’s “soft power.”

    Tan Chung, who for many years was the dean of the Centre for East Asian Studies at Jawaharal Nehru University and the Delhi Institute for Chinese Studies, views the Beijing Olympics not just as the coming-out party for the new China, but for the reappearance of the Confucian sensibility in world affairs. “The magnificent success of the Beijing Olympics,” he says, “objectively marks the transition of the world from the ‘geopolitical paradigm’ to the ‘geocivilizational paradigm’ in which China takes the lead. In Tan’s view, China, as has been the case historically, is not interested in maximizing power through the conquest of territory or ideological space like a superpower, but in the integration of civilizations through harmonious coexistence.

    Tan is particularly struck by the 5000 years of harmonious coexistence between India and China—marred only by the 20 years between 1958 and 1978 when both civilizations were infected with Western nationalist notions—as well as by the fusion of cultures in Central Asia known as “Serinda” or “Indochina” in Southeast Asia.

    “In the Western Hemisphere,” as Tan labels it, “all the brilliant ancient civilizations like Babylonia, Egypt, Greece and Rome have become ruins without being handed down. This was because there was no ‘geocivilizational paradigm’ among them. The ‘geopolitical paradigm’ pushed them to scramble for space and indulge in mutual destruction. The basic difference between Eastern and Western hemispheres lies here.”

    For Tan, the success of the Olympics will allow China to “bid farewell to the sorrowful feelings of history, discard the pursuit of power and return to its civilizational vocation of advocating a culture of harmony.” He cites the famous adage of Confucius in the Analects that the “Qi” state—which pursues power—is to transform into the “Lu” state—which seeks higher cultural development—and ultimately transform into the “Tao,” or truth-prevailing state. (On the mundane level, Tan already sees that, filled with pride and esteem in the Olympic aura, Chinese are smoking and spitting less.)

    Of course, no one need be naive about what the influence of a neo-Confucian China means for Western values in the coming century. For example, Zhang Wei Wei, famous as one of Deng Xiaoping’s favorite interpreters, confidently predicts that as power shifts East, the “tired” old debate in world affairs about “democracy vs. autocracy” that so irritates the Chinese authorities will, following the highly successful Chinese experience, be replaced by a more pragmatic and less conflictive discourse about “good governance vs. bad governance.”

    And it goes without saying that the exercise of Confucian authority is not beyond the brutal enforcement of internal harmony against rebellious children, as everyone remembers from Tiananmen Square in 1989.

    But it would be equally foolish for the West, whether out of ignorance or cynicism, to dismiss the profound civilizational impulse behind China’s rehabilitated self-image. For anyone who cares to look, it is written all over the proud face of post-Olympic China.

  • Professor Fukuyama has written a fine and above all comprehsnive statement. Huntington deserves the praise herein received. But as a footnote one might mention that modernization theory had quite a few critics alongside and even before Sam Huntington! That does not mitigate his effort – only places it in a larger academic perspective. Well done. ILH

  • There is considerable evidence before our eyes that neither Huntington (though he was close to it) nor Fukuyama (in the review above, but not in much that he writes) stress. The nation-state is an unusual social system that arose under quite specific conditions beginning at the end of the 16th century (its outlines having been sketched by Machiavelli, esp in the Discoursi). To be stable, it’s necessary that a sense of NATIONAL identity (ideally supported by generalized sharing in a common language and culture) coincide with a government capable of generating genuine “collective goods” for the population. Where collective goods are NOT the predominant product of state formation, as occurs when leaders from a specific political party, clan, ethnicity, or religion use state structures to favor selective benefits for their members, ethnicity becomes the primary focus of individuals’ self-identification. As a result, weak states spawn ethnic conflict (or religious conflict) in the form epitomized by recent conflict in Kenya, Iraq, and numerous other so-called “states.” The assumption that “Nation-states and not civilizations remain the primary actors in world politics” ignores ethnic and religious groups whose saliency in weak or “failed” states ought to be visible. In my view, the problem doesn’t arise from Huntington’s perspective: it derives from the continued reliance on the theoretical paradigms derived from the early modern political thinkers from Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau to Hegel and Marx. For these reasons, it’s useful to suggest consulting Aristotle — not least because his conception of humans as “the political animal” is strikingly confirmed by contemporary evolutionary biology (the paradigm of the future in the coming era of genomics and cognitive neuroscience, even if it is anathema to today’s social scientists). Genes are thicker than water, and “inclusive fitness theory” explains ethnicity more readily than the socio-cultural models now generally adopted. I realize that the foregoing remarks will seem strange, but perhaps it is fitting that a Straussian political philosopher (myself) recommend we revisit Aristotle in the light of contemporary biology (admitting — finally — that we ARE animals, and that Darwin’s views of human origins have now been so fully confirmed that the concepts of “the state of nature” and “social contract” at the origin of governments MUST be viewed as ideological constructs rather than “self-evident truths”).

  • Savas Bicer


  • Dhavan Shah

    A brilliant essay pointing out some of the misconceptions and limitations concerning Huntington, one of the most important voices on geo-politics in two generations. The fact that it comes from another, often misunderstood, but equally important voice about geo-politics makes it all the more compelling. “Clash of Civilizations” or the “End of History?” – to me, the question remains unanswered and all the more worthy of our attention.

  • Karen

    His last book did not have much to do with scholarship. It was an emotional outburst.

  • Hein Goemans

    I am saddened too that this great original thinker has passed. Very few political scientists have published more than one piece of significant scholarship. Sam Huntington, as noted by Fukuyama had a handful. (The only other political scientist that comes to mind with a record that approaches Huntington is Russet.)

    I am sure that he will be deeply missed by his family, colleagues, students and by many who never knew him for his penetrating insights and ability to ask important and provocative question.

  • Christopher Schaefer

    Farewell and Godspeed, Professor Huntington. You will be missed. Your books have provided me with countless hours of intellectual enjoyment that I can only hope to repay in kind when I pass my collection on someday. Thank you for the editorial eulogy, Dr. Fukuyama.

  • This statement is a salient and I believe accurate reason why I believe we are not in an era where religion is defining the development of democracies, but where, rather, religion in its death throes is acting to obfuscate and impede the growth of a world where liberal values hold sway:

    “While I fully appreciate the power and durability of culture, and the way that modern liberal democracy was rooted in Christian cultural values, it has always seemed to me that culture was more useful in explaining the provenance than the durability of democracy as a political system. Sam, in my view, underrated the universalism of the appeal of living in modern, free societies with accountable governments. His argument rests heavily on the view that modernization and Westernization are two completely separate processes, something which I rather doubt. The gloomy picture he paints of a world riven by cultural conflict is one favored by the Islamists and Russian nationalists, but is less helpful in explaining contemporary China or India, or indeed in explaining the motives of people in the Muslim world or Russia who are not Islamists or nationalists.”

  • Bruce Byers

    January 3, 2009

    In your very fine summary of the life and work of Samuel P. Huntington, you write that, “Sam, in my view, underrated the universalism of the appeal of living in modern, free societies with accountable governments. His argument rests heavily on the view that modernization and Westernization are two completely separate processes, something which I rather doubt.” Further you write that, “Nation-states and not civilizations remain the primary actors in world politics, and they are motivated by a host of interests and incentives that often override inherited cultural predispositions.”

    I would add another layer to this for consideration. First, nation states are human constructs and it is people who drive politics and political decision making. So it would seem more precise to ascribe the actions of nation states to their political elites as well as to organized groups that find themselves supporting or at odds with those elites.

    Second, Huntington was aware of something that, perhaps, escapes many of us who study governments and international affairs. On a much more elemental level, all of us share certain things in common across all cultural lines and strata. This was pointed out in great detail by Claude Lévy Strauss in his seminal 1962 work La pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind). He challenged a fundamental assumption among ethnologists of the time that modern humans in advanced societies were more intelligent and more rational than primitives in the rain forest because they were the heirs to much greater and more complex social and cultural experiences.

    To conventional thinkers of Levi Strauss’s generation this assumption was evident in the rise of Western civilization and the explosion of knowledge about the natural world through scientific investigations. Levi Strauss introduced a different thesis based upon extensive field research.

    He argued on the basis of his observations among pre-literate hunter-gatherers in Amazonia that so-called primitives and members of modern cultures share unconscious mental structures in human intelligence. He wrote that as a result of this, there can be no qualitative difference between modern and more “primitive” intelligence. The mental faculties for problem solving are the same. Levi Strauss differentiated between untamed and domesticated ways of thinking. In his research among isolated groups in Amazonia, he learned how they sized up their environments, identified what they needed to survive and flourish, and made the tools to achieve their goals. He wrote that the totality of their environment captured their attention.

    You point out that in confronting the modernists who proposed a more linear progression of human political development from simpler to more complex structures, Huntington argued that “political decay was at least as likely as political development, and that the actual experience of newly independent countries was one of increasing social and political disorder.” I would support his assertion that decay is as likely an outcome as development and that when societies of people are under stress and attack, people tend to revert to simpler forms of social and political organization to meet their needs. Political decay has always been as much a part of the human condition as political development. The fundamental issue is that of human consciousness and how it reacts to changing circumstances at the everyday, existential level rather than at a more abstract, academic level.

    If one accepts Levy Strauss’s conclusion that human consciousness is the same across a broad range of different groups of people in very difference cultural and social circumstances, then it would be fair to say that people strive to make sense of their experiences in very similar ways, regardless of the immediate situations they face. If this is so, then the process of deductive reasoning that people in different cultures apply to sense making is also probably very much the same.

    You write that in his book The Third Wave Huntington argued that “the vast bulk of Third Wave transitions had occurred in culturally Christian countries, and that there was a distinct religious underpinning to the pattern of democratization in the late 20th century. The Catholic world, in particular, was catching up to the Protestant first movers, just as Catholic societies had come late to the capitalist revolution. The Third Wave was not, however, a manifestation of a broader cross-cultural modernization process that would eventually encompass all societies, but one rooted in a particular set of cultural values inherited from Western Christianity.”

    This last sentence seems arbitrary. I would add that it was in this Western cultural crucible that the two most devastating wars in human history ignited and destroyed much of modern Western civilization in “Old Europe” and ended Europe’s heavy colonial presence in other parts of the world. We like to believe that the most important outcome of the two world wars was the spread of democratic freedom, but this would be an oversimplification of history. Recalling the history of the Middle Ages, it was the European “breakout” sparked by the First Crusade in the 11th century, that imposed Western Christian values on other cultures and started a process that has brought us to where we are today. It was also Western Christian values that drove Jews out of Spain and centuries later provided a basis for attempting to exterminate them throughout Europe. We are still feeling the impact of the medieval Crusades and of the Holocaust. However one might assess Western values and actions, I agree with Lévy Strauss that all of us still operate from the same level of consciousness even though our individual and group conditions vary greatly across cultures and social groups.

    Whether one uses Huntington’s formulation or not, the acquisition of skills and knowledge through experience is still subject to the same unconscious mental structures that Lévy Strauss wrote about. This is especially significant when studying the behavior of political leaders and their entourages. It would be fair to ask whether the human brain has evolved significantly through the process of natural selection and random mutations in the past 40,000 years to the point where our consciousness and our unconscious mental structures are substantially different from those of the Magdalenian artists who left us their paintings and engravings in caves and on rock faces across Spain, France and other locations. It is worthwhile to think about the long record of prehistoric artistic achievement that exceeds in its duration all of the history of empire building and political theory that has brought us to our current state. It is worth asking whether we, today, are really any more advanced in our abilities to make sense of things and to solve problems than were our ancestors. We, too, have our rituals and myths to live by.

    Huntington was right to believe in the durability of cultural values. We moderns still read Homer and study Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle for good reason. They argued about how human consciousness manifests itself in a vast range of activities. They wrote about the development of mental structures for analyzing the world and the conditions in which we live. They were the beneficiaries of countless prehistoric tales and myths that were passed down from generation to generation. All of this boiled down to learning how to make sense of things. Modern political theory still does. Who is to say which method of sense making is superior and which inferior?

    It has been my experience while living in different parts of the world for more than thirty years that modernity is relative to a given society and a given cultural context. We accept too readily that we are the heirs of Western Christian values that have allowed us to evolve politically and socially to a superior state of human existence. We are like those ethnographers and anthropologists in the 1950s who Lévy Strauss challenged. We are trapped by our “domesticated” belief system and this hinders us from understanding how people in other societies function. We bang our heads on policy walls wondering why other peoples cannot see what is plain to us. It keeps us from accepting that the way they live is every bit as valid as the way we live. It keeps us from understanding ourselves.

    Bruce K. Byers

  • I am very glad to read an opinion about Huntington`s theories where his book “The Clash of Civilization” is not cited as the greatest… after Huntington`s death we can, finally, sort/arrange his intellectual legacy…

  • Michael Cull

    De mortuis nil nisi bonum, so I will only speak ill of The Clash of Civilizations, a truly awful book that has had a pernicious influence on American political discourse of the past decade. The book illustrates how a failure to understand the history and philosophical significance of key concepts–civilization, culture–can lead an author of undisputed brilliance into patent falsehoods and fallacies. To anyone familiar with the development of the concept of civilization in the 18th and 19th centuries, Huntington’s main thesis–that civilizational identities are (or soon will be) the cause of war and conflict between peoples and nations—makes about as much as the Orwellian slogan from 1984 that Peace is War, and vice versa. Put simply but I think not inaccurately it is equivalent to saying that as people become more civil or civilized they become in fact more warlike. Plato and Rousseau might have thought something along those lines, but the inventors of the concept of civilization were of a decidedly different opinion. For that is what civilization meant to several generations of thinkers (Condorcet, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Kant, Benjamin Constant, August Compte, John Stuart Mill etc.) who thought that the goal of civilizaton was universal peace. Through enlightenment, science, the rule of law, refinement of manners, democracy (to name the main components of the concept) human beings were thought to be progressing away from a state of barbarism and war towards a state of civility and peace.

    The proton pseudos of Huntington’s argument was the identification of civilizations with the major world religions. From there everything else followed inevitably to the bellum omnium contra omnes.

  • Harold Kildow

    Fascinating, the tension between culture and politics as the definitive baseline for development. Dr Fukuyama, you and Dr Huntington both have your hands on significant parts of the elephant, none of which can be discarded or left out of account. It has often seemed to me that the prematire forcing of modernity on tribal and even primitive cultures was not only a mistake, but a move that guaranteed the inability of these people to ever join the modern world. Freedom is the answer, so that each developing nation comes to the modern world in its own way, at its own pace, for its own reasons. But the onrush of scientific, technological, and economic progress is a harsh environment for backward nations to try to join in, perhaps more cruel and difficult than other, past eras in world history.

    Unfortunately, freedom is not the default position for humanity, and it almost seems it is not a native plant in many places in the world. It must be cultivated assiduously even in the most fertile soil, and has little chance in the stoniest. We are then faced with the prospect that, though liberalism is the high water mark for political development, much of the world will not accomplish its establishment any time soon due to the miriad of countervailing and opposing conditions that seem so easliy to snuff out the improvements made possible by the arts and sciences.

    I believe Huntington was correct in positing culture as the soil in which decent political development grows. Whether non- Western and premodern cultures are malleable enough to accept the preconditions of orderly development in the current milieu, and whether the West is judicious enough in ordering the sequence of develpment, are questions we must wait for time to answer.

  • Totar Singh

    And we write, and write, and write, and write…………………………….

    And nothing changes it goes on, and on, and on, and on……………………………

    Only blood brings forth major changes.

    Politican who is suppose to be our servants end up with the largest pension ever. They have at their disposal 40,000.0000 employees at federal, state, and city.

    We pay their wages. They end up with an average of 60,000.00 a year in pension and other benefits to carry out the orders from our servants to keep us in our place.

    Greece died. Rome died. Europe is dying. America is infected. No cure in sight. It is dying time.

    Totar Singh

  • safe bet

    Tis is not to belittle Huntington in any way, bet Fukuyama’s credibility for picking safe bets is certainly less than stellar:

    “If socialism signifies a political and economic system in which the government controls a large part of the economy and redistributes wealth to produce social equality, then I think it is safe to say the likelihood of its making a comeback any time in the next generation is close to zero.”

    Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, in Time magazine in 2000.

  • John Nazelrod

    A great mentor was lost. But we should be grateful for the likes of Frank Fukuyama to keep the colloquy alive.

  • aaron mueller

    I believe FF also owes an intellectual debt to Leo Strauss. I should like very much to read a reconciliation (if he thinks them in opposition), or a harmonization, of their fundamental positions, and his own take on whether or not LS is relevant.

  • Francois Bredenkamp

    The regrettable death of a highly respected political scientist. He played an immense role in the minds of political and social planners for South Africa’s peaceful transition to full democracy. Since then, the (new) SA govt has flagrantly disregarded his rich insights – at our society’s peril.

  • Mahir Zeynalov

    Samuel Huntington’s academic work is not that huge yet whatever he said became the top discussion agenda among political scientists and even people beyond this line. He had few yet very sounding books with very general and strong claims.

    I like his persuaviness, very clear and coherent language, amazing presentation of facts to support his thesis and of course, argumentation.

  • rob strauss

    sam huntington will be seriously missed in academia, who need more people like him – bold and clear thinkers who opened up new avenues of research. most of academia today tests other peoples arguments and/o puts stale arguments forward that can immediately be framed around formal models and tested with fancy statistical models. huntington’s arguments made political science an interesting and policy relevant (real world relevant) area of research. political science needed him and we need others like him; people who come up with bold ideas and then for others to test the arguments so that an accumulation of important knowledge can occur. today, we have some accumulation, but over less real-world or practical knowledge.

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