Samuel P. Huntington is one of the most talked-about and controversial political scientists in the world today. Huntington asks the question, “Who are we?” of Americans, contrasting many different cultures to our own. Instead of a unipolar world in which America is the lone superpower, he sees humanity instead more accurately organized into nine major cultures: Hindu, Orthodox (Russian, Slavic), Latin American, Western, Islam, Confucian, African, Buddhist, and Japanese. He also investigates in his writings how these cultures will compete for preeminence in the world in the 21st century.
Born in New York City in 1927, Huntington has worked in government at the highest level. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Yale University in 1946, his master’s degree at the University of Chicago in 1948, and his PhD at Harvard University in 1951. He founded and coedited the magazine Foreign Policy (1970-1977) and was a member of the National Security Council from 1977 to 1978, where he served as Coordinator of Security Planning in the Carter Administration. Huntington is currently professor of political science and director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University.
One of Huntington’s main theses is that the West (comprising the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe) is facing the decline of its power relative to other cultures such as Islamic and Confucian (or Chinese) culture. The end of the Cold War has seen the attempted imposition of Western values on the rest of the world. This effort has been rejected by most of the Muslim world and others, including Cuba, China, and parts of Latin America. “Winning” the Cold War, however, does not translate to the creation of a democratic world in which Western values are substituted for all others.
Huntington sees the main threats to Western culture as coming from Islam and China. Economically, China continues to grow at a higher rate than the West. This is balanced by the West’s continued technological superiority. Huntington sees this state of affairs as temporary, however. Over the next decade, China will achieve near military parity with the United States. In Asia, China is the main trading partner of most of the countries in the region. The smaller nations of South Asia may look to China for leadership in economic and political affairs, while China simultaneously makes an effort to increase its influence among the region.
Concerning the Islamic world, according to Huntington, the West is at a disadvantage due to a simultaneous slow (nearly zero) birth rate in the West and an exploding birth rate for Muslims. Anti-Americanism in these countries continues to be politically supported by large segments of Muslims. Arms sales from China to Syria, Iran, Libya, and other Muslim nations are warning signs that should be heeded by Western political leaders. However, since Islam has no “core country” as the West does (the U.S.), this inhibits the culture’s dominance and its spread to non-Islamic countries.
Huntington’s most recent book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, focuses on immigration into the United States, particularly Mexican and Hispanic immigration over the last 20 years. Huntington fears the loss of a unique American identity. He forecasts the wave of Hispanic/Mexican immigration to be an acute source of future cultural and political conflict. Huntington envisions a situation similar to Canada, in which French-speaking citizens of one or two provinces desire political autonomy or outright secession. He writes of the “American Creed,” which values the English language, legal systems based on British law, our own traditions of democracy and individual liberty, and equality for women. Historically, immigrants have gradually assimilated into American society, combining these values with their own. As Huntington sees it, the last two decades of Mexican immigration have not witnessed the same type of “melting pot”—the newcomers instead simply move their cultures with them and have no intention of learning English or being assimilated into American culture. Another cause for alarm, according to Huntington, is that unlike other immigrations in U.S. history, Mexicans are closer in proximity to their home country, they can hold dual citizenship, they are much more numerous than other immigrants, and they possess a possible desire to redraw the map of the southwestern United States to reclaim lost territory from the mid-1800s.
At the same time, Huntington sees an internal enemy, the liberal elites who favor a “world community” model of nations. These are the influential politicians and policymakers who defer to the United Nations, international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol on the environment, and the World Court. American sovereignty is to these people a thing of the past, having little if any relevance in the age of transnational corporations and worldwide communications technology. Huntington believes that American values are superior to all others and to act in concert with other nations can compromise our national interests.
Huntington’s fault lines are sometimes inaccurate. Mexican immigrants, especially second- and third-generation Hispanics, do speak English, and the third generation will speak only English. Those granted U.S. citizenship are proud to be Americans. Instead of a unified Islamic civilization, the United Nations’ response after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait shows how states act according to national interest, not along supposed culturally divided lines. A military coalition of the West, other Arab states, and Japan fought against the Arab Iraqis to preserve the political status quo in the Middle East. Huntington cites arms sales from China to Syria and Iran as proof of a Sino-Islamic alliance against the West, when it is probably a result of the black market in weapons not transferred by normally peaceful countries.
Latin America, according to Huntington, is a separate “civilization” from the West, even though immigrants from Portugal, Spain, and other Western European states founded those nations. Roman Catholicism is the main religion throughout Latin America and large sections of the United States, yet Huntington does not explain why this isn’t a unifying force instead of a dividing one. Also, while India is nonaligned with the West, that society continues to modernize, and the leaders there do not desire to isolate themselves from the world economy. If anything, trends in technology will improve conditions for India’s middle class, further democratizing and opening up Indian society to Western investment. The same can be said for conditions in China and Latin America. Orthodox (Russian) culture is similar to Western society, at least since the late 19th century regarding the military alliances between France, England, and Russia. Economic associations such as the G8 cross these “civilizational” lines between the West, Orthodox, and even Japan. African culture too can only benefit from an influx of Western capital as the nations of the former third world gradually modernize. It is difficult to see how leaders of “African civilization” could see any benefit in estranging themselves from the West. Cooperation and interdependence would seem to be the more logical impulse for all nations, regardless of cultural, linguistic, or religious differences.
Huntington strives to define the new order of human civilization. He has defended this model of major cultural civilizations by asking, “If not this paradigm, how else can we describe the new world order?” As of this date, however, people throughout the world have much more in common than they have differences between them. It is in each nation’s economic and national interest to increase its involvement in the global economy, as opposed to increasing barriers to international cooperation. Furthermore, it must be pointed out that nations and governments control cultures, but the reverse is not true. Huntington is accurate when he says that Islamic and Chinese cultures are gaining prominence relative to American or Western culture. Core values of those other cultures, such as the importance of religion and family customs, certainly differ from those of the West; however, any predictions of a new “cultural cold war” must be seen as alarmist and premature.
- Huntington, S. P. (1981). American politics: The promise of disharmony. Cambridge and London: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.
- Huntington, S. P. (1991). The third wave: Democratization in the late twentieth century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Huntington, S. P. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Simon & Schuster.