The Rest is Silence

30 December 2008

Samuel P. Huntington (18 April 1927 - 24 December 2008) as "Davos Man"

Samuel P. Huntington, 18 April 1927 - 24 December 2008, as "Davos Man"

The death of a scholar is usually attended with a minimum of fanfare. Only a few close intimates are likely to know the day or the hour. His books and ideas live on quite without regard to the dying animal to which they were once fastened. Indeed, his readers are likely to be unaware of his passing, not knowing whether he is alive or dead, until such time as he is long dead and his death another of those dates that the unscholarly disdain to fix in their memories. And so Samuel P. Huntington passed away this Christmas Eve, about a week ago. I was alerted to the loss by a piece in yesterday’s Financial Times.


Huntington will be best remembered for his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. I have looked through this book before, but didn’t have my own copy, so upon learning of Huntington’s death I stopped by a library and picked up a copy to look through again and remind myself what Huntington was about. Huntington’s name is often mentioned in the same breath with Francis Fukuyama, as both wrote influential articles in political theory not long after the end of the Cold War (and in the light of the end of the Cold War), and both articles were subsequently expanded into books that become the focus of much debate. Moreover, that debate was frequently perceived to be a debate with each other, with Fukuyama representing the “end of history” and Huntington representing the “return of history”.

Color me civilized.

Color me civilized.

For Huntington, as for Toynbee, civilizations are the fundamental unit of historical thought and analysis. But whereas Toynbee was primarily interested in cycles of development and decay, Huntington’s focus is on the interrelations of civilizations in the present, hence their clash. In structuralist terms, we could say that Toynbee has a diachronic perspective and Huntington a synchronic perspective. Huntington’s is very much a spatial, or a geographical, vision.

Thinking about Huntington again, with his book in my hands, I realized that much of what I have written in this forum could fall under the rubric of the “clash of civilizations”. So long as there are civilizations in existence, the topic of their conflict will be timely, and we can expect that Huntington’s thesis as maintained in The Clash of Civilizations will gain more of a hearing in the immediate future, especially in light of the backlash against an idealistic foreign policy based on the explicit promotion of democracy. The end of history would have meant that the world entire had converged on the model of liberal democracy pioneered by the West, and it would then be the task of the West to stand up democratic governments around the world and help them to refine and build their societies on this model; the return of history means that we must acknowledge and indeed even make concessions to historical realities rooted in the deep past of societies, and this means that the West must step aside and allow other societies to be what they are, which is to say Non-Western.

Huntington’s thesis in The Clash of Civilizations has been extensively discussed, so that there is little new that can be said of it. There are those who see his approach as gratifyingly pragmatic, as well as others who have dismissed it as overly simplistic. Interestingly, some of the harshest initial criticism came from the political left, as in Edward Said’s critique, which ridiculed Huntington’s views as the “clash of ignorance”. Now Huntington’s pragmatism is seen as an antidote for the rightist overreach of the Bush administration, and has been recently invoked by the popular media as a gratifying dose realpolitik in contradistinction to the unrealistic idealism of the right’s own pointy-headed intellectuals.

There is much of interest in Huntington’s book, and much wisdom as well, but if I had to choose up sides, I would have to count myself among the opposition. There is much of value in Huntington’s basic notion of respecting the spheres of influence of other civilizations, but it becomes a vulgar exercise when we stoop to drawing lines across a map à la Versailles. And equally doomed to failure. Indeed, such an imperial division of the globe is an instance of what Huntington himself calls the universalism of Western civilization. Huntington strongly criticized the pretensions and inevitable hypocrisies of universalism, but fell victim to them himself.

Huntington’s handful of civilizations – anchored by “core states” much as a shopping mall is anchored by a major retailer – would have us consign presumably “minor” states to oblivion, despotism, or worse. But those “minor” nation-states will not cooperate in their convenient marginalization. We will be forced to again decide our position regarding “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”. History will not judge us kindly if we simply say that it was none of our business because it was someone else’s civilization.

One example in particular stands out: Korea, and even Vietnam (and presumably all of Indochina), are to be consigned to the “Sinic” sphere of influence, to genuflect before the interests dictated by the Chinese. (In Huntington’s scheme, the Japanese get their own “civilization” and are not required to be part of the Chinese sphere of influence.) The Koreans and the Vietnamese that I know would not be especially comfortable with the idea that they are a “part” of Chinese civilization. States like Korea, with high technology and an advanced industrial infrastructure, have chosen to forego nuclear weapons and advanced military arsenals of weapons of mass destruction for the time being, but this apparent cooperation could cease abruptly if it is seen as contrary to the national interest. Korea could produce an advanced arsenal in a relatively short period of time, and if faced with an existential threat, it would do so.

Do either of these look like China to you? Notice they are both colored pink in the map above. Maybe we should ask the locals what they think.

Do either of these look like China to you? Notice they are both colored pink in the map above. Maybe we should ask the locals what they think.

So I could not resist adding my two-cents worth to the sprawling debate over Huntington’s thesis. But, as I said recently in Marxism Lite (and was thoroughly castigated for doing so in regard to Marx), we do a thinker honor not by repeating what he has said, but by engaging objectively and fairly with his work. There is no reason that seriously engaged scholarship should not be utterly furious, so long as it sticks to the real problems.


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