For most of his half-century-long career, Samuel Huntington, professor of government at Harvard, has made a point of telling the US ruling elite what it has most wanted to hear. During the Age of Eisenhower, he extolled “the military values [of] loyalty, duty, restraint, dedication” and argued that the United States had more to learn from “the disciplined order of West Point…than the garish individualism of Main Street.” In the 1960s he assured America that time was on its side in Vietnam because “forced-draft urbanization and modernization”–i.e., the free use of napalm and defoliants–was emptying the countryside and depriving the Vietcong of its rural base of support. He called for a stronger presidency and a more disciplined Congress after Watergate and added for good measure that granting equal rights to African-Americans might be more than the American political system could bear. “There are…potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy” was how he put it in a 1975 report sponsored by the Trilateral Commission. During the early years of the Reagan Administration he warned that the United States faced “a major survivability gap” and urged the deployment of the MX and a Star Wars antimissile defense system to counter what he said was a growing Soviet threat.
Despite such unpleasant tidings, however, he remained essentially optimistic about America’s long-term prospects. Xenophobia was on the rise, but Huntington continued to stick with the longstanding liberal line that immigration and diversity were positive and that there was no ethnic group that an open and dynamic America could not absorb. Rather than an ethnic state, he wrote in 1981, the United States was an ideological state based on an “American Creed” of liberty and justice for all. Where ordinarily one might expect such a belief system to weaken over time, the opposite was more likely. “The more culturally pluralistic the nation becomes,” he declared, “the more essential the political values of the Creed become in defining what it is that Americans have in common.” Diversity, in other words, was a source of strength. The more America’s population mirrored that of the world at large, the more ideologically united it would become.
This was also what the ruling elite wanted to hear. Yet a dozen years later, just as the United States was celebrating its final victory over the Soviet Union, Huntington’s thinking took an unexpected turn. Despite America’s unparalleled triumph, he argued in “The Clash of Civilizations?,” an article in Foreign Affairs that he later expanded into a bestselling book of the same title (minus the question mark), it would not get its long-awaited opportunity to remake the world in its image. On the contrary, the United States would find itself embroiled in a series of global conflicts pitting a secular West against an Islamic Middle East, a Hindu South Asia, an Orthodox Russia and so on. The epic contest between capitalism and socialism, in Huntington’s view, thus turned out to have been an epiphenomenon masking the real struggle among the followers of Jesus, Mohammed, Vishnu et al. Now that the cold war was out of the way, the struggle of some seven, eight or nine regional civilizations (Huntington was vague as to the exact number) was once again coming to the fore. Instead of advancing into the twenty-first century, the world, as he saw it, was returning to the eleventh.
This was grim, but, as things have turned out, not entirely inaccurate. The world is more fractious since the demise of the cold war system, and post-9/11 a growing portion of the conflict is transpiring along “civilizational” lines. Osama bin Laden has declared war on Crusaders and Jews, while the President, according to an unnamed family member quoted in Peter and Rochelle Schweizer’s new book, The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty, believes that “we the Christians” must “strike back with more force and more ferocity than they will ever know.” One might argue that Huntington’s argument is more than a bit self-serving, since Muslim fundamentalists, Christian Zionists and others sympathetic to his point of view are acting in concert, more or less, to see to it that his prophecy comes true. Still, there’s no question that his influence has been growing.