The death of long-time conservative scholar Samuel Huntington has kicked off a lively discussion in various quarters on his legacy, his ideas, and his enduring argument – made much more popular after 9/11 – that the fundamental source of conflict in global politics will not be ideological or even economic, but rather cultural. Later on we of course had his anti-immigration writings which I prefer to ignore. However, I thought that Francis Fukuyama’s respectful piece was rather thought provoking in terms of viewing Huntington’s ideas in light of what has occurred in Russia over the past number of years. Culturally, the disputes with the Georgians, Ukrainians, and Baltics aren’t very convincing of the clash of civilizations, but on the other hand, Huntington’s warnings that a rush to adopt liberal political and economic models could result in illiberal authoritarianism – a bullseye for Russia.
While I fully appreciate the power and durability of culture, and the way that modern liberal democracy was rooted in Christian cultural values, it has always seemed to me that culture was more useful in explaining the provenance than the durability of democracy as a political system. Sam, in my view, underrated the universalism of the appeal of living in modern, free societies with accountable governments. His argument rests heavily on the view that modernization and Westernization are two completely separate processes, something which I rather doubt. The gloomy picture he paints of a world riven by cultural conflict is one favored by the Islamists and Russian nationalists, but is less helpful in explaining contemporary China or India, or indeed in explaining the motives of people in the Muslim world or Russia who are not Islamists or nationalists. Nation-states and not civilizations remain the primary actors in world politics, and they are motivated by a host of interests and incentives that often override inherited cultural predispositions.
Be that as it may, Sam’s arguments were always made with greatforce, erudition, and persuasiveness. Even if one disagreed with him,it was impossible to not take his arguments with the greatestseriousness. They provided vocabulary and structure to all subsequentdiscussions of the topic, whether latter was American politics, defensepolicy, democratic transition, or American identity. In addition to hiswritten work, he was a great teacher, and produced an entire generationof students who have reshaped virtually all of the sub-fields ofpolitical science. From his earliest writings to his last works, he hasdrawn vociferous critics, but that is the mark of a scholar who hasimportant and fundamental things to say.