A giant whose ideas will continue to stir minds

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 January, 2009, 12:00am

A giant died recently. His name was Samuel Huntington. The Harvard professor's gigantism was intellectual. His ideas left huge footprints on our intellectual landscape, the way giant storms can impact the Earth. Minds were shaken, sometimes stirred and never left untouched.

His two most famous books burst on the scene decades apart: The Soldier and the State was published in 1957, Clash of Civilizations in 1996. The former offered a theory of how a strong military can and should function in a democratic system: it needs to form a professional caste and operate all but autonomously, yet remain always under civilian control.

The latter book offered a theory about the basic nature of future conflicts in international relations. Huntington put it this way: 'It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic.

'The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations. The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future.'

Critics insinuated that Huntington was a militarist perhaps because of the deeply respectful way he wrote about the military, as well as a crypto-racist, because of his emphasis on points about gigantic cultural, religious and racial fault lines that threaten to smash the globe into viciously competing civilisations.

But, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the question arose: how right might the professor be? Today, we would all have to admit that his basic vision may yet prove more right than wrong.

To his credit, Huntington was forever adding nuance to his views. In 2002, he agreed that differences in values and cultures among civilisations need to be bridged rather than merely accepted. He was never gung-ho about the potential of the Sino-US relationship.

And he did not quarrel with the effort to traverse civilisations, cultures and religions. 'Differences in culture and civilisation don't necessarily have to lead to conflict,' he admitted.

He was especially strong in his belief that the west's political values and beliefs lack universal applicability. He tended towards the view that the quality of governance was more important than the form of government.

As always with Huntington, his views were more likely to make you think than to lure you into easy agreement. His scholarship was solid and, at Harvard, he was revered by his students as a great teacher.

His approach to politics and history was as a gigantic harvest machine, cutting through the chaff and the wheat of the times to yield a bumper crop of insight.

Tom Plate is a veteran US journalist, who taught world politics, ethics and the media at UCLA for 14 years. Distributed by the Pacific Perspectives Media Centre