Samuel Huntington, 1927-2008

I wonder which was the oddest part for Samuel Huntington: to be best-known for a thesis that was so easy to pick holes in, or one that was so often misrepresented. (Heather Hurlburt does a nice job of pointing out both — holes and misrepresentations — at Democracy Arsenal, while the Boston Globe’s obituary fills in some of the blanks for those, like me, who knew him in reference to his late-career opus.)

There are admittedly many minor details — and not a small amount of major ones — that Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations got wrong. But it’s important to put it into the context of when he was writing. At a time when many were suggesting that the end of the Cold War signalled history’s definitive convergence, Huntington was clearsighted enough to spot its stubborn, persistent divergences.

Those express themselves in countless ways, but if they have an essential common cause, it is one that transcends culture as we normally understand it. From there, the academic taxonomy of society and civilization presents all sorts of pitfalls that Huntington’s thesis was vulnerable to. And there’s also the problem, as Hurlburt points out, that many of the world’s most enduring conflicts are taking place within, and not between, Huntington’s civilizations.

But however you explain, for instance, the emergence of Mecca Cola, it illustrates the fact that the increasing homogenization of global culture will not automatically erase the identity faultlines that Huntington traced to what he called civilizations. It was a prescient vision that is increasingly borne out today. And while, like all stabs at big picture paradigms, it was off the mark in many ways, I’d love to be wrong like that just once in my life.

More World Politics Review