Praise for Samuel Huntington as one of the rare great thinkers

[James Kurth is the Claude Smith Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College and an FPRI Senior Fellow. Parts of this memorial essay were published in First Principles: ISI Web Journal (January 13, 2009).]

American political science has not produced very many great ideas, and what ideas it has produced have not been very consequential. In part this is because most American political scientists have very much adhered to the liberal or progressive tradition in American politics (one of the principal founders of the American Political Science Association was Woodrow Wilson), and they have tended to merely reflect that tradition rather than to reflect upon it, and thus to reiterate it rather than to reinvent it. The only real discipline in this peculiar academic discipline has been the discipline imposed by a pervasive progressive ideology.

However, there has been one American political scientist who did produce great ideas, and even a succession of them. He was also very conscious that ideas have consequences, and some of his own ideas had consequences that are still reverberating around the world today. That political scientist was Samuel P. Huntington, whose exemplary scholarly life came to an end this past Christmas Eve. One of the reasons that his ideas are both great and consequential is that he did not adhere to the conventional liberal and progressive ones. Rather, Huntington sought to create a distinctive kind of American conservatism, one that would recognize the energy and even the value of traditional American liberalism and self-advancement, but would guide that energy into paths of realism and self-restraint. In this way, American conservatism could enable American liberalism to conserve itself. Most consequentially, given the great international challenges the United States has faced in the past century, it could help America to conserve itself in a world filled with non-liberal and even anti-liberal ideas and powers.

Samuel Huntington spent most of his life and did most of his work in places where conservatives are rarely found and where conservatives rarely look. Indeed, those places—New England, Harvard University, the American Political Science Association (APSA), and the Democratic Party—have been centers of liberalism and progressivism for most of the past century. Yet it was by being in this liberal world, while not really being of it, that Huntington developed a kind of American conservatism that was particularly tempered and resilient, strong and solid, and consistent and enduring. Throughout his scholarly life, he was an inspiring model of intellectual courage.

Huntington’s career began in the early 1950s with a number of innovative and definitive articles on American politics, including a seminal piece on American conservatism. Then, for half a century from the publication of The Soldier and the State (Harvard University Press, 1956) to the publication of Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (Simon and Schuster, 2004), he produced a series of great books (in this essay, we will discuss six), roughly one in every decade. Each developed a distinctive conservative position on an important political challenge and policy issue of its time, but also of today. Each was met with a chorus of liberal criticism, but each became the center of the intellectual debate on its topic, a lion in the path that every other serious scholar had to confront. Huntington’s professional colleagues in APSA continuously criticized his arguments, but they nevertheless recognized his greatness, not only by selecting him to be the Association’s president but also by repeatedly identifying him in their polls as the most distinguished member of their profession.

Huntington’s intellectual perspective was shaped very much by the political conflicts that issued from the legacies of the New Deal and the Second World War and by the challenges of the Cold War. On the one side, there was the liberalism of the Democratic Party, which had been exemplified by the internationalism of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and which was still prominent within the party in the 1950s. On the other side, there was the putative conservatism of the Republican Party (which European conservatives saw as just another kind of liberalism), one version being the defensive isolationism of Senator Robert Taft and the other being the assertive nationalism of General Douglas MacArthur. Each of these Democratic and Republican approaches had led to some kind of American debacle in the course of the previous two decades.

These policies were criticized by a new kind of American conservative, exemplified by George Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr. Such thinking was also enriched by the contributions of European immigrants to America, such as Hans Morgenthau and FPRI’s founder, Robert Strausz-Hupé. These conservatives sought to construct more solid and successful American policies upon a basis of central and enduring American national interests, with these interests in turn representing central and enduring American national traditions which went back to the balanced and realistic conceptions of the founding generation of America statesmen, for example, Washington, Madison, and Hamilton. The result was a distinctive kind of American conservatism dedicated to conserving fundamental American interests and traditions in a world of hostile powers and ideologies such as the Soviet Union and communism, and in an America which all too often had lurched from one unrealistic ideology and reckless policy—indeed adolescent and self-indulgent mentality—to another. Huntington came of intellectual age in this milieu.

The Soldier and the State

In his first book, The Soldier and the State, Huntington developed just such a balanced, realistic, and conservative conception with respect to the challenging issue of civil-military relations, i.e., the proper relationship between elected political leaders and professional military officers, particularly that within a liberal democracy and constitutional order. Prominent in the 1950s (President Truman’s firing of General MacArthur during the Korean War had occurred only recently), this issue has reappeared in every decade since, right down to the Iraq War. We can be sure that it will reappear again in the wars that the United States undertakes in the future.

Huntington argued that elected officials of course had to be the ones who set the nation’s policies, but that these officials also had to recognize and respect the distinctive perspective and knowledge of the military profession in setting realistic limitations as to how these policies could be implemented. Huntington’s position was thus very much like that of Carl von Clausewitz, but with the right civil-military balance being even more difficult—but just as necessary—to achieve in democratic America than it had been in monarchical Prussia. The Huntington conception is conservative in its recognition that the best political order is a proportioned balance—i.e., a mixed regime or constitutional order—composed of separate institutions with distinctive perspectives, but coming together around shared values and a common objective. This kind of conservatism was represented by Aristotle in classical political philosophy, by Burke in British political thought, and by Madison in American constitutional theory, and it has an enduring validity. There has always been a need for such a political order and particularly for civil-military relations, and there always will be. This was true in the 1950s, it was true in the 2000s during the Bush administration, and it will be true in the 2010s during the Obama administration. Huntington’s The Soldier and the State therefore remains an excellent guide for steering us through the civil-military challenges of today and in the future.

The Common Defense

It soon became evident to Huntington that the U.S. military was characterized by a certain kind of proportioned balance within itself, one that was also composed of separate institutions with distinctive perspectives, in this case the separate military services. This condition resulted in the purported problem of inter-service rivalry, something that often perplexed and troubled American civilians. They had expected a unified American military, especially after the supposed unification of the services within a single Department of Defense in 1947.

Huntington examined this inter-service rivalry in The Common Defense: Strategic Programs in American Politics (Columbia University Press, 1961). He demonstrated that the most important U.S. strategic programs were the product not of some rational deduction from a central strategic concept, but instead were the product of political negotiations between the different military services. Within the executive branch of the U.S. government, there was really a log-rolling process similar to that which had always occurred within the Congressional branch; Huntington called this process “executive legislation.” In his extensive analysis of the U.S. defense policies of the 1950s, he showed that executive legislation—this proportioned balance between the military services—had actually produced strategic programs which were better overall for U.S. national security than simple executive direction would have done. He concluded that inter-service rivalry was not so much a problem for America as it was a solution, a solution very much in keeping with the traditional and successful ways in which Americans had normally addressed challenges. Here, too, Huntington’s work has enduring value. The existence of separate U.S. military services with different perspectives—and the problems or solutions which are the result—are realities that have shaped U.S. defense policies ever since Huntington wrote about them, and they will continue to do so as long as the United States has any defense policy at all.

Political Order in Changing Societies

By the mid-1960s, the United States was confronting the challenges posed by the collapse of the European empires, the onset of political anarchy, and the threat of communist revolutions in the new Third World. Huntington directly addressed these challenges in his Political Order and Changing Societies (Yale University Press, 1968), which instantly became the major work in the field of political development. He acknowledged that liberal democracy was certainly a desirable political system, but he argued that our American version was the product of a distinctive American history and British legacy, going back to Tudor times. It was unlikely to be successfully exported to other countries with other traditions. Rather, the best political system for any country would have to be the product of its own particular history and legacy, with these being embodied in strong and stable political institutions. Only these could bring about the political order which was the necessary condition for any civilized society.

As Huntington saw it, the problem in many countries was that the new political mobilization of the population was outpacing and overwhelming their existing political structures. What was needed was new (or renewed), strong, and stable political institutions. The United States’ role in political development should be to assist countries in establishing such institutions. Huntington thus followed Hobbes in his emphasis on political order, but he also followed Burke in his emphasis on cultural conditions, and, again, his work has an enduring validity. Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies therefore remains an excellent guide for Americans in addressing the challenges of “failed states” and “nation-building,” today and in the future.

American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony

At the very moment that Huntington published his analysis of political mobilization and the need for political institutions abroad, however, political mobilization was overwhelming political institutions within the United States itself. By the late 1960s, newly-mobilized movements—such as civil rights and student protests—were surging into American politics, while long-established institutions such as the Democratic Party, the federal government, and the military services were losing their political legitimacy. This destabilizing conjunction of ideological demands and institutional illegitimacy continued throughout the 1970s.

It was in these circumstances that Huntington wrote American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (Harvard University Press, 1981). He showed that there had been earlier periods in American history that were similar to the 1960s-1970s. At the core of the American national identity was the American Creed, a deeply rooted and well-articulated set of distinctively American ideas and ideals. These ideals were so abstract and exalted that they often bore little relationship to reality. Conversely, at the foundation of the American political order was a set of distinctive American political interests and institutions. These institutions often maintained and preserved reality, even if that reality seemed to be unjust. This permanent gap between ideals and institutions (which Huntington called the IvI gap) gave rise to a permanent tension in American politics, and at times this tension was transformed into a full-blown ideological passion for radical change, by which the ideals would supplant the institutions and bring about a whole new political world. These radical hopes were, of course, always disappointed, and so American politics would then return to some version of the old equilibrium between ideals and institutions, at least until the next era of ideological passion arrived.

Of course, Huntington’s analysis of these successive phases of American politics turned out to be exactly correct. The ideological and radical passions of the 1960s-1970s were followed by the institutional and conservative stability of the 1980s-1990s. And now, as America passes from the sour political frustrations associated with the Bush administration to the exalted political hopes attached to the Obama administration, we may be entering once again into a new era of passionate ideas and ideals.

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

By the 1990s, the United States had been dramatically successful in overcoming the challenges posed by communist revolutions and even by the Soviet Union itself. But in their place there were now new problems posed by rising powers, such as China, and by reviving religions, such as Islam. Huntington directly addressed these new issues in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon and Schuster, 1996). This quickly became his most famous book, one translated into numerous languages. Indeed, his thesis became so well known, and in such high places, that his critics often said that his ideas about clashes between civilizations had actually had the consequences of aggravating those clashes, that his argument had become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Huntington proposed that the conflicts of the new era would emanate not from national states or political ideologies, as they had for much of the twentieth century and in the two world wars and the Cold War, but from distinct civilizations that were grounded in distinct religious traditions. He deeply believed in the traditions and values of our own Western civilization and of its leading state, the United States, and he sought the best way to preserve it in a world that was experiencing intensifying clashes deriving from religion and culture. Analogous to his approach in his previous works, he argued that Western civilization was the product of a distinctive Western history and Christian legacy and that its traditions and values were unlikely to be successfully exported to others with their own distinctive traditions.

Huntington was concerned that, in the aftermath of the victory of the United States and the West in the Cold War, Americans were prone to think that their particular ideas and ideals of liberal democracy, free markets, open societies, and individual human rights had such universal validity and popularity that they could and should be widely promoted and even imposed abroad. Globalization, in particular, was an ideology that stressed the inevitability of these American ideas being adopted around the globe, whatever had been the different traditions and ideas inherited from other, and now presumably past, civilizations.

Huntington thought that this belief in the universalism and globalization of particular American ideas would greatly aggravate clashes between the West and others. He saw some degree of conflict as being inevitable, but he argued that the clashes between the West and the rest could be kept manageable and limited, so long as the United States and the West recognized the distinctive nature and the limited applicability of their traditions and ideas. Western civilization should focus upon strengthening its own traditions and identity, while expecting that other civilizations would do much the same. The U.S. role within the West should be to encourage this strengthening, and within the world to facilitate mutual recognition and accommodation between the different civilizations. Huntington thus sought to conserve Western traditions and values which reach back more than two millennia, within the closest approximation to a world order as we are likely to get in the contemporary era.

Today, more than a dozen years after Huntington advanced his famous and controversial thesis, it is useful to see how it fits some of the current realities about different civilizations. On the one hand, the proponents of the universalism and globalization thesis can point to the greatly increased integration of China, and of Sinic and Confucian civilization more generally, into the global economy, along with growing business and professional classes which are adopting some version of Western ideas (albeit with Chinese characteristics). Similar developments are going on in India or the Hindu civilization. On the other hand, proponents of the clash-of-civilizations thesis can point to the greatly increased conflict between America, and the West more generally, and the Islamic civilization, with the United States engaged in wars against Islamist insurgents in both Iraq and Afghanistan and against Islamist terrorist networks around the world, and with new wars against other Islamists doubtless still to come. Given the continuing dismal and destructive conflicts between the West and the Islamic world, Huntington’s work once again has an enduring validity, and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order remains an excellent guide for steering us through such conflicts today and in the future.

Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity

By the 2000s, however, it was evident that Western civilization and even the United States were seriously divided within themselves about what their identity should be. Very few people in the West identified any longer with Western civilization, and many Americans, particularly among cultural and business elites, no longer identified with American traditions. Huntington directly addressed this phenomenon in Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (Simon and Schuster, 2004). He argued that at the core of American identity was a distinctive culture, which was the product of British traditions and the Protestant religion and which he termed Anglo-Protestant culture. Huntington made clear that this Anglo-Protestant culture and American identity was defined by traditions, values, and ideas and decidedly not by any particular ethnic origin. Generations of Americans from virtually all ethnic backgrounds had willingly adopted this culture and identity, and this had led to their own success and to the success of America as a whole.

In recent decades, however, this distinctive and successful American identity has been threatened by some elites who have developed ideologies of multiculturalism and globalization and who have effected a multicultural or global identity, rather than an American one. The American identity has also been threatened by new immigration patterns in which the rate of arrival of people from different cultures has exceeded the rate of assimilation into the traditional American culture. Huntington urged all Americans to recognize the reality and worth of their own traditions and identity, i.e., to conserve America and therefore conserve themselves. There can hardly be a more authentic kind of American conservatism than this.

It is historically fitting that Samuel Huntington called upon Americans to conserve America. In the seventeenth century, the first Huntingtons arrived in America, as Puritans and as founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the eighteenth century, Samuel Huntington of Connecticut was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In the nineteenth century, Collis P. Huntington was a builder of the transcontinental railroad. In the twentieth century, Samuel P. Huntington was for half a century the most consistently brilliant and creative political scientist in the United States. Huntingtons had been present at the creation for most of the great events of American history, and Samuel Huntington knew intimately and believed intensely in what America was all about. His ideas about America and its role in the world were simultaneously original, conservative, and consequential. He was a splendid exemplar of American creative intelligence and intellectual courage.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 1/29/2009

Of course, Huntington’s analysis of these successive phases of American politics turned out to be exactly correct. The ideological and radical passions of the 1960s-1970s were followed by the institutional and conservative stability of the 1980s-1990s.

Conservative stability? Active roll-back of programs from the 70s, 60s, 40s, 30s..... it was conservative activism, fueled by a passion for radical ideas (religious and libertarian) that drove the 80s and 90s.

History News Network