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Samuel P Huntington

United States

SAM HUNTINGTON is a ‘big ideas' kind of guy. From his lofty perch in the Political Science Department of Harvard University he wields influence that helps shape the political ideas of the US policy élite and intelligentsia. He was a key figure in the US foreign policy and security establishment especially when the Democrats were in power. He was a founder and editor of the establishment journal Foreign Policy and has authored over a dozen books.

In the 1970s his first ‘big idea' was the notion that there was a ‘crisis in democracy' which was due to a ‘democratic surge' which was making Western-style democracies ungovernable and endangering authority ‘based on hierarchy, expertise and wealth'. The patrician Huntington was disturbed by the demands for popular power and extended economic rights that had grown out of the social movements of the 1960s. His report for the Trilateral Commission rang the alarm bells about this excess of democracy.

The Trilaterals are drawn from the Euro-Asian-North American corporate élite, from such corporations as Fuji Xerox, BP and Goldman Sachs. Other worthies include former ambassadors and wellplaced suits from international development banks and other such institutions. They meet every year to compare their stock portfolios and bemoan the lack of respect for their power and beneficence. They proved a willing sponsor of The Crisis of Democracy (1976), lending eager ears to the clarion call to reassert a ‘more authoritative and effective pattern of governmental decision-making'. The Democrat Huntington may not have approved of how this got played out in practice – rollback of the welfare state, the Reaganesque polarization of wealth and poverty, projection of military power abroad to police the empire and the growth of a shadowy security apparatus at home – but once you put a ‘big idea' out there you can't expect to control how it gets used.

Huntington's next big idea was ‘the Clash of Civilizations'. It followed the usual course: a high-profile 1993 article in the journal Foreign Affairs then, in 1996, by the book (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order), complete with the US flag flapping on the cover and glowing quotes from the likes of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Francis Fukuyama. Huntington's new schtick was the not particularly original idea that the Post-Cold War world was polarizing according to ‘the interactions around seven or eight major civilizations'. Neither economic inequality nor domination were the issue, it was culture that defined the faultlines of global politics. To prove this, Huntington produced a schematic history that led the late Edward Said to classify him as ‘ an ideologist, someone who wants to make “civilizations” and “identities” into what they are not: shutdown, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history'.

Not surprisingly the book focuses on the necessity for the West to maintain its power and vigilance in the face of threats – particularly from those nasty Muslims. Now it may be a long way from the lecture halls of Harvard to Abu Ghraib prison but one has to wonder whether it wasn't some bastardized version of the ‘clash of civilizations' that motivated those Marine interrogators. Sam Huntington, an opponent of the Iraq intervention, would be appalled at such a suggestion but, again, once you rally the country around a ‘big idea' it's hard to control how it gets used.

As he gets older Huntington tends to combine an aristocratic pessimism with defensive glorification of a highly sanitized version of ‘the core culture of this country, which derives from the founding settlers and includes the work ethic and individualism'. This brings us to his latest big idea, which animates his most recent book Who Are We? Now he is really worried about the waves of Hispanic immigrants who are ‘swamping' the US, endangering its core values with their insistence on speaking their own language and eating rice and beans. Huntington rails against multiculturalism and bilingualism and those who support it. He is cheered by the number of Hispanics who are becoming ‘born again' Protestants but discouraged by those who are illegal or won't take out US citizenship. No matter that vast numbers of native US citizens don't bother to take any interest in public affairs or even to vote. No matter that the lands these new Hispanic immigrants are settling in (Texas, California and Florida) are lands seized from their ancestors by an expanding US in the 19th century. No matter that Huntington's founding settlers hardly ‘integrated' into the native North America they ‘discovered' but instead simply massacred the indigenous population. Certainly the liberal Huntington will be appalled when they start rounding up Hispanic illegals and putting them in camps but once you put a ‘big idea' out there...

The scariest thing about Sam Huntington is that in the US context he is a liberal. He describes himself as not a ‘Mayflower snob' but an old-style Democrat. He claims to be a friend and neighbour of John Kerry. With influences like these it is little wonder that Kerry is now calling for more US troops in Iraq and justifying extrajudicial killing by the Israeli Defence Force.

In a hilarious recent interview in the New York Times, Huntington trots out the Armenian origins of his wife to establish his cosmopolitanism, adding that her parents ‘totally and successfully assimilated, as immigrants should'. At the end of the interview he seeks the Olympian high ground. He claims not to be speaking about ‘people' but about ‘ideas and practices'. But it is people who suffer when social services are slashed to make ‘ democracy' more efficient, when illegal immigrants are robbed of what few rights they possess, when the Islamic world is reordered to the liking of the US. Come on Sam, ideas matter, take some responsibility!

New Internationalist issue 369 magazine cover This article is from the July 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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