Samuel Huntington, RIP

He pointed out a geopolitical factor that remains politically incorrect to this day

“In this new world,” Samuel Phillips Huntington wrote in his 1996 book,The Clash of Civlizations and the Remaking of World Order, “local politics is the politics of ethnicity; global politics is the politics of civilizations. The rivalry of superpowers is replaced by the clash of civilizations.” Arguing that future conflicts will be sparked off by cultural factors rather than economics or ideology, he wrote that “the most dangerous cultural conflicts are those along the faultlines between civilizations.”

From the time Professor Huntington’s essay was published in 1993, it became fashionable, politically correct or both, to reject this uncomfortable thesis. But that should hardly be surprising: it is still fashionable, politically correct or both, to reject the thesis of balance of powers, millennia after it was first articulated.

Professor Huntington was onto something when he held that “that cultural identities, antagonisms and affiliations will not only play a role, but play a major role in relations between states.” India, in his book, was the core state of what he described as the “Hindu” civilisation: a choice of words which caused many to reflexively reject his hypothesis. Yet shorn of the famously incorrect interpretation of the word “Hindu” as a religion in the Semitic mould, there is much to recommend his thesis.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2007 interview:

NPQ | Your colleague Amartya Sen at Harvard criticizes your civilizational thesis, saying that “identity is not destiny” and that each individual can construct and reconstruct chosen identities. He argues that the clash-of-civilizations theory suggests a “miniaturization of human beings” into “unique and choiceless” identities that fit into“boxes of civilization.” What is your perspective on citizens who have multiple identities?

Huntington | I think that statement by Amartya Sen is totally wrong. I never argued that, and I realize that people have multiple identities. What I argue in my book, as I indicated earlier, is that the basis of association and antagonism among countries has changed over time. In the coming decades, questions of identity, meaning cultural heritage, language and religion, will play a central role in politics. I first elaborated this idea over 10 years ago, and much of what I said has been validated during that time.

NPQ | How do people with multiple identities negotiate that?

Huntington | They work out accommodations, and that’s been done for the past two or three centuries, at least. When you have increased migration of peoples and ethnic and religious minorities, you develop a set of rules and language the larger society can accept and the minority community can accept.

The larger society has to recognize some degree of autonomy for the minority: the right to practice their own religion and way of life and to some extent their language. Many of the most difficult questions concerning the role of ethnic minorities centers on language. To what extent are they educated in their own language or in the national language? To what extent does the society formally or informally become a country of two national languages? Or is only one language used in the public proceedings, courts, legislatures, executive branch and politics? These, as we know, can become very tricky issues. [Amina R Chaudary/NPQ]

In other words, the rest of the world—especially the “core-states” of the Islamic world and also the European Union—has to go through a process that India went through in the twentieth century. The Indian model is by no means perfect. It might not even be considered satisfactory by many. But it remains among the better ones that can negotiate in a world where there is an unprecedented churning of peoples, languages, cultures and identities. The atmosphere of rejection that greeted Professor Huntington’s thesis in academic & intellectual India missed the grand opportunity of elaborating how clashes could be managed in a civilised manner.

Samuel Huntington passed away on December 24th, on Martha’s Vineyard, aged 81. Even before we finished reading all his books.