culture and clash for samuel huntington

Samuel Huntington has died, but one need only to read the abundant commentary on the fighting in Gaza to recognize the deep influence of his writing on civilization and conflict.

Equally germane to our times, but less widely read, is his theory of civil-military relations, articulated in The Soldier and the State.  In 1957 he wrote that the conservative realism of the military mind was incompatible with the liberalism of civil society. Democratic society would best be defended, he thought, by a military that was highly professional and autonomous from civilian politics. This issue has recurred in the troubled civilian relationship with the US security and intelligence apparatus. The top-down professionalism of these institutions make accountability difficult (just look how fingers were pointed all through the chain of command after Abu Grahib). Their secrecy and their disregard for civil rights have been controversial, and books like Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side show one way in which authorizing a group of professionals to defend democracy at any costs can undermine liberal society. Some exigencies do demand illiberal solutions, and in taking that fact seriously  Huntington was doing something fairly bold and original (though Niebuhr comes to mind as a fellow-traveler). What the recent history of unregulated torture and surveillance demonstrates, however, is the folly of institutionalizing illiberal practices in one sphere in order to bulk up liberalism in another.

When it comes to Huntington’s most famous work, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, my verdict is similar: he locates an important fact that liberals usually miss, but strays from there. Traditional ways of life do structure our systems of values, and that inheritance can be a source of enrichment and of conflict. When I wrote about Huntington’s theory while doing research in Bosnia, my bigget objection was that he did not seem to appreciate the ambiguity of cultural boundaries and memberships. Cultures clash, but they also blend and fray.

The shortcomings in Huntington’s thought on culture mar his last book, Who Are We? The United States, he wrote, faced cultural disintegration from the onslaught of affirmative action, multiculturalism, and Hispanic immigration. The only solution he could concieve wasa strong and singular rearticulation of traditional American culture: a kind of Anglo-Protestant nationalism that emphasizes individualism and hard work. What Huntington betrayed in this nationalist capitulation was a deep fear of pluralism. The meeting of cultures was, for him, only a source of anxiety.

Recommended: Opinio Juris and South Jerusalem both featured commentary on Huntington’s legacy this week.


~ by staticandme on December 30, 2008.

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