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Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009

Prophet of world-culture clashes is dead


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — A giant died early last week. His name was Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor whose gigantism was intellectual. His ideas left huge footprints on our intellectual landscape, the way giant storms impact the Earth. Minds were shaken, sometimes stirred, and never left untouched.

His two most famous books burst on the scene decades apart: "The Soldier and the State" in 1957, and "Clash of Civilizations" in 1996.

The former offered a theory of how a strong military should function in a democratic system; it needs to form a professional caste and operate all but autonomously, yet remain always under civilian control. The latter book offered a theory about the basic nature of future conflicts in international relations.

It was Huntington's hypothesis "that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.

"Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."

Critics insinuated that Huntington was a militarist perhaps because of the deeply respectful way he wrote about the military, as well as a crypto-racist because of his emphasis on points about cultural, religious and racial fault lines that threaten to smash the globe into viciously competing civilizations.

But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the question arose: How right might the professor be?

Five years before, with the publication of "Clash," I took the view in a column that Huntington's certitude about the near unavoidability of conflict between civilizations and cultures (especially religions) was excessive to the point of morbidity. It amounted to a kind of apolitical fatalism: If widely credited in the West, it could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy of cultural isolation, rather than engendering a vigorous and open-minded internationalism.

Today we would all have to admit that his basic vision may yet prove more right than wrong in a way that compels us to pay attention to the problem of, say, Islam and the West, if only to manage the dangerous tension. To his credit, Huntington was an honest scholar as well as a great one, forever adding nuance to his views. At the 2002 World Economic Forum conclave in New York, he agreed that differences in values and cultures among civilizations need to be bridged rather than merely accepted.

Huntington, to be sure, was never very gung-ho about the upside potential of the U.S.-China relationship. A functional level of intimacy or ever-cooperative parallelism seemed to him to swim against the tide of cultural direction. The challenge, he once said, was to figure out whether the bridge to cross is a "bridge over a chasm, a wide ocean, a changing stream or what?"

But he did not quarrel with the effort to traverse civilizations, cultures and religions. "Differences in culture and civilization don't necessarily have to lead to conflict," he admitted.

He was especially strong in his belief that the West's political values and beliefs lack universal applicability. He tended toward the view that the quality of governance was more important than the form of government: "The differences between democracy and dictatorship are less than the differences between those countries whose politics embodies consensus, community, legitimacy, organization, effectiveness, stability, and those countries whose politics is deficient in these qualities. . . . Men may, of course, have order without liberty, but they cannot have liberty without order."

As always with Huntington, his views were more likely to make you think than to lure you into easy agreement. His scholarship was solid, and at Harvard he was revered by his students. But he was anything but a feeble footnote academic, gathering up tiny seeds and nuts like a squirrel stockpiling for the winter. His approach to politics and history was as a gigantic harvest machine, cutting through the chaff and the wheat of the times to yield a bumper crop of insight.

It was a tragedy that even the best U.S. newspapers underplayed the news of his death. The story should have been on our front pages; it wasn't. Perhaps America's editors didn't agree with his views, or are afraid of them. But we ignore this great mind at our peril. He has left us with much to think about.

American journalist Tom Plate, who taught world politics, ethics and the media at UCLA for 14 years, is a member of the Pacific Council on International Relations. © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center


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