Reihan Salam says Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is “a book that has suffered more deliberate mischaracterization and obtuse misreading than any other I can name.” Judging from this response to Huntington’s untimely death, I’m tempted to agree with him:

Apropos Matthew’s comments about Samuel Huntington, let’s not forget Huntington’s intellectual background. After the publication of Who Are We?, the Harvard prof was accused by many liberal journalists and academics of being an arch right-winger and nativist; however, in reality he was always a Cold War liberal. One can see this reflected not only in his thoughts on the universal, democratic “American creed” but also in his famous “clash of civilizations” thesis, in which new religio-ideological blocs would replace the former American and Soviet spheres, and in which, it was presumed, Washington would play a dominant, “global” role. I’ve also always sensed a connection, even if it were one of elective affinities, between Huntington’s “clash” thesis and the jihad-obsessed conservatism of Robert Spencer (no relation) and many like him, whose criticisms of “human rights” violations and the persecution of Christians in the Arab world are often implied justifications for American military intervention.

This characterization defies basic reading comprehension. If anything, Huntington’s appreciation for the enduring importance of culture, tradition, and religious affiliation is a profoundly conservative insight (even Mark Steyn gets this). Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations envisioned a world defined by cultural identity. He not only questioned the universal applicability of Western political traditions, he also proposed a foreign policy that emphasizes humility and restraint when interacting with other cultural blocs. On the spectrum of mainstream political opinion, Huntington is about as far as you can get from rabid interventionists. This passage from Robert Kaplan’s profile of Huntington is particularly telling:

Beyond that, the United States must take this opportunity to accomplish two things: first, to draw the nations of the West more tightly together; and second, to try to understand more realistically how the world looks through the eyes of other people. This is a time for a kind of tough-minded humility in our objectives and for an implacable but measured approach in our methods.

Not exactly the stuff of unbridled military adventurism. Prospective critics ought to actually read his book before commenting on the man’s intellectual legacy.

UPDATE: To his credit, the author posted an e-mail challenging his interpretation of Huntington’s work.

Upon further reflection, I think we should distinguish between Huntington’s actual intellectual contributions and the way his scholarship has been misappropriated by pundits. Phrases from The Clash of Civilizations like “Islam’s Bloody Borders” easily lend themselves to hysterical warnings about the West’s impending war with the Jihadist menace. But Huntington’s prescription for avoiding civilizational conflict is to give other nations a wide cultural and political berth. This sensible suggestion has been drummed out of the political mainstream, but Huntington is hardly to blame for this failure.


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