In the world of political science, books come and go, make their mark for a week or two then disappear into the University stacks, rarely to be seen again.

Then there is the kind of book whose influence cannot be denied and whose intellectual resonance long outlives its shelf life.    The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington, who died this week at the age of 81, was such a work.  Published in 1996, Huntington offered a riveting analysis of  the shape of the post-Cold War world and the conflicts likely to consume the West in the future. His work has effectively framed the discussion of  the West’s continuance as a unified civilization since then.   The book began its life as an article in Foreign Affairs attacking Francis Fukuyama’s equally influential  piece The End of History?    The latter article argued, in the Hegelian spirit, that in the wake of the Cold War, the struggles of the world would no longer be ideological but largely economic. Huntington’s stinging riposte to this was that the primary axis of conflict in the future would be neither ideological nor economic but along cultural and religious lines:

“The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future   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.”

Redrawing the geographical map along cultural lines, Huntington identified eight distinctive civilizations that would compete against one another: Islamic, Sinic (centered on the “core state” of China), Western (with the United States as its core), Orthodox (with Russia as its core), Islamic, Japanese, Hindu, Latin American, and African..  Geopolitically,  the latter two were of little moment.   Each of the others was likely to have an important role in the forthcoming struggle, but Islam, the Wets and China constituted  a tier apart, with the “most dangerous clashes of the future . . . likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness.” Or to state it more baldly: “The dominant division is between the West and the rest.”  

Huntington was writing in the days before the rise of Vladimir Putin and threat of a resurgent Russia.   Nevertheless he understood that China, at the time the most significant  economic and cultural threat to the United States and Western dominance, could be accommodated in the recrudescence of a new form of balance of power politics. Russia may well fall into the same category.

However when it came to Islam, Huntington appeared less optimistic. Here the prospects for accommodation, he argued, were not promising. “The twentieth-century conflict between liberal democracy and Marxist-Leninism,” he observed at one point, “is only a fleeting and superficial historical phenomenon compared to the continuing and deeply conflictual relationship between Islam and Christianity.”

It was only after the events of September 11 that Huntington’s book gained world wide attention and his thesis became hotly contentious.

Although we remember Huntington today for this great masterwork, it is his  21st Century book, Who Are We?  The Challenges to America’s National Identity (Simon and Shuster, 2004) that today has far greater relevance for  the challenges we face at home.   In that book, Huntington persuasively argued that America’s Anglo- Protestant dominant culture has been the key to both a cohesive American identity and national success.  The deconstruction of that identity threatens to undo 300 years of national ambition and progress.

Huntington the isolated the key battlegrounds for the soul of America on which this struggle was being waged: Racial preferences; bilingualism, multiculturalism, immigration, assimilation , national history standards and “Eurocentrism..”   He pointed out the threats to American identity posed by Mexican immigration and Hispanization; the absence of a sense of civic duty and obligation toward the republic; the emergence of the cult of individualism: the growth of atheistic culture and the furious assault by multiculturalists on the education system.

He identified an actual deconstructionist movement which threatened American survival. On one side of the trenches is straddled by  substantial elements of America’s political, intellectual and institutional elites, bonding arm to arm with the leaders, or aspiring leaders, of minority groups whose interests they promote.  In the opposing trenches are Christian Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, Conservative politicians, pundits and academics and the neo-conservative movement, all for whom patriotism and the Anglo-Protestant ethic on which the country had been founded were of profound importance to the maintenance of national cohesion.

The ultimate question in Huntington’s mind was whether America would be or should be a nation of individuals with equal rights and a common culture and creed or an association of racial, ethnic and cultural sub-national groups, held together by the hopes for the national gains that can be provided by a healthy economy and a compliant government.

The importance of this work cannot be understated.  In careful, deliberate prose Huntington revealed the portals through which anti-Western ideologies and ways of life inimical to American values and ideals, were penetrating our civilization.  While he did not point out the pernicious impact of the deconstructionists elsewhere, he could easily have offered evidence from Great Britain which is being roiled by an attack on national identity and seemingly losing the battle ( see my piece England’s Multicultural Revolution  The American Freedom Alliance actually held a conference last March in Europe titled Identity Crisis at which Europe was revealed to be already far gone, almost hopelessly so, on this deconstructionist path.   Huntington understood all of this and he warned that without vigilance and a fierce resolution to fight for American identity – framed by Anglo- Protestant tradition and values  – our way of life, with all its freedoms, liberties, tolerance and openness – is imperiled. 

Huntington’s thesis became the foundational principle of the American Freedom Alliance and that of many other organizations, think-tanks and foundations which have arisen over the past twenty years to join in this struggle against the deconstructionists.  Huntington understood that unless we can identify ourselves as a people with central unifying principles –  a common language, a belief in an omnipresent power, a fervent patriotism and recognition of American exceptionalism  – our clash with other civilizations committed to our defeat or destruction will be lost.

That is a message that should be ringing in the halls of power today. Sadly, Huntington will no longer around to provide the powerful intellectual heft that his works generated.   Others will, of course,  rise to take his place.   But he will be deeply missed.


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