Missing Huntington’s Message

One of the oddities of recent Roman commentary on world events has been the virtually unanimous criticism of Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s celebrated argument that the 21st century world will be shaped by a “clash of civilizations.”



Professor Huntington is a friend and colleague so perhaps I’m a suspect witness. But ever since Huntington first sketched his proposal in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article, I’ve been convinced that a good bit of his analysis should commend itself to the Vatican, and indeed to anyone interested in what was once called “Catholic international relations theory.” For Professor Huntington quite agrees with the classic Catholic view that culture is the most potent force in history and that at the heart of culture is cult: what we cherish, honor, and worship.

Many foreign policy analysts undervalue the transformative power of culture. During the Cold War, for example, “realists” insisted that “power” was something you could measure, militarily, economically, and politically. M1 Abrams tanks, Pershing-2 missiles, and a hi-tech economy were, to be sure, measurable forms of “hard power” with real political consequences. The communist crack-up was accelerated, however, by the “soft power” of aroused convictions, including religious and moral convictions. Those convictions sustained the human rights movements that laid the cultural foundations of civil society and, ultimately, democracy in east central Europe. The Catholic Church played a considerable role in this process.

Sam Huntington is that rarity among academic international relations specialists, a man who takes the power of culture seriously. Surveying the post-Cold War landscape, Huntington saw that the world of the 21st century would be shaped by the dynamism and interaction of different forms of civilization or culture: Western, Islamic, Chinese, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, Buddhist, Latin American, African, Japanese. Among other things, Huntington’s distinctive analysis challenged those secularization theorists who had argued for decades that, as the world became more “modern,” religious conviction would wither as a force in human affairs. Religious conviction, Huntington insisted, would play a large, perhaps even determinative, role in shaping post-Cold War world politics.

As Professor Huntington ruefully noted in the book that grew out of his Foreign Affairs essay, his original article “…had a generally ignored question mark in its title.” A “clash of civilizations” — in the sense of a world of cultural conflicts boiling over into violent confrontations — was a possibility. But a cataclysmic “clash of civilizations” was not a certainty, and in any event, cultural Armageddon was not a desirable future that Professor Huntington was avidly promoting (as some of his Rome-based critics evidently assumed). What Huntington did insist upon was a careful, empirical appraisal of the cultural or civilizational bases of the fault-lines that were shaping the 21st century world.

Like Huntington’s critique of the alchemists of secularization theory, Huntington’s analysis about what happens, for good and for ill, when cultures abut each other should commend itself to Catholic students of world politics. “Catholic” means “universal.” The Catholic “presence” in the world is genuinely global in scope. Thus it’s inevitable that tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of Catholics are going to find themselves in zones where the tectonic plates of civilizations grate against each other — as the unhappy situations in Nigeria, Sudan, and Indonesia, to take but three examples, make clear. Huntington’s courage in looking these hard facts in the face, disturbing as the view may be, should commend itself to a Church that has long rejected the utopian politics spawned by the left wing of the Protestant Reformation.

Professor Huntington reports that the most controversial phrase in his original article was his reference to Islam’s “bloody borders.” Yet here, too, facts are unavoidable. Of the three dozen or so armed conflicts in the world today, two-thirds involve Islamic militants, insurgents, or terrorists. How can a genuine Catholic-Islamic dialogue ignore this? Shouldn’t one goal of that dialogue be to strengthen the hand of those Muslims who resist the violent politics of the Islamists and who want to develop an Islamic case for tolerance and pluralism, precisely on Islamic religious and legal grounds?

Sam Huntington’s seminal thinking about the dynamics of 21st century history should be critically engaged, not summarily dismissed. To misread Huntington is to miss a lot of contemporary history.

George Weigel is author of the bestselling book The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church.

This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.

George Weigel

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George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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