Samuel Huntington and the Clash of Civilizations – Part I

Revised 4 March 2010


Samuel Huntington and the Clash of Civilizations – Part I


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.







Samuel Huntington and the Clash of Civilizations – Part I

At his death in 2008 at the age of 81, Samuel Huntington, professor emeritus of Harvard, embodied the political science and international affairs Establishment in the United States.


During his 58 years of teaching undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, he shaped the thinking of several generations of American scholars and practitioners of foreign policy. He twice chaired the university’s Government Department and was for 12 years director of its Center for International Affairs. On the national stage, he served as president of the American Political Science Association. His presence was also felt in Washington, where under President Carter he was coordinator of security planning for the National Security Council and in the 1980s was a member of the Presidential Commission on Long-Term Integrated Strategy.

However, it was as a thinker and writer, rather than administrator and teacher that Samuel Huntington made his greatest mark in the world. As his colleague at Harvard, economist Henry Rosovsky commented: “Sam was the kind of scholar that made Harvard a great university. People all over the world studied and debated his ideas. I believe that he was clearly one of the most influential political scientists of the last 50 years.” His friend Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School called Huntington “one of the giants of American intellectual life of the last half century.”

Huntington was the author of 17 books and 90 scholarly articles. Many of those articles were published in the country’s most widely read and prestigious journal on international politics, Foreign Affairs. At the end of this two-part essay, I will comment on several of the articles which Huntington addressed to fellow professionals and which justify the view that scholarship can produce serious recommendations which statesmen ignore at their peril. However, most of what follows concerns another side of Huntington’s writing which is less flattering but has been far better known to the general public.

Of all of Huntington’s works, it was his 1997 book The Clash of Civilizations that gave currency to his name around the world. The book followed from a 1993 article of the same name (but modestly followed by a question mark) which appeared in Foreign Affairs. The spur to write the book came when the magazine told him the article had generated more reader interest than anything they published since the 1940s. For its part, the book continued to make waves in the same way. It was ultimately brought out in 39 languages.

As with so much else, uncanny timing had much to do with the book’s success. It captured the public imagination upon its appearance by providing a road map to the future in a world still left disoriented by a Cold War that had ended just 5 years earlier. After 9/11, it took flight anew, providing insights into the new world shaped by Islamic terrorism.

The book received encomiums even from those whom Huntington treated dismissively in it. The edition I read has on the cover two attention-getting citations.

Kissinger: “one of the most important books to have emerged since the end of the Cold War”

Fukuyama: “The book is dazzling in its scope and grasp of the intricacies of contemporary global politics”

From its very first edition, The Clash of Civilizations profited by holding up a mirror to many peoples around the world and telling them what they wanted to hear. Huntington seized upon the various claims to uniqueness made by spokesmen for non-Western “civilizations” and served them up as scientific fact.

And though he is disparaging of elites in the book, it is precisely elites in various parts of the world who found elements in this book, which had become conventional reading worldwide, that they could use for their own purposes. Speaking in terms of Huntington’s analytical framework became one more proof of urbanity, even if the outsiders reworked the particulars to suit their own identity.


Huntington applied himself and some researchers to the huge and, I submit, unachievable task of providing a theory encompassing and attempting to explain and predict all of international affairs. What I offer here is pointers to the methodological failings that vitiate Huntington’s work and erase the distinction between scholarly objectivity and unsupported prejudice.


Huntington’s objective and his ‘sell-by date’

Though written in laymen’s language accessible to the general public, Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations was directed primarily at policy makers in Washington, whom he offered a new paradigm, a road map to the future. By the terms he set for himself, the validation of the book would be its practical, predictive value.

As of the present, the outstanding case speaking in favor of Huntington’s perspicacity was his stress on the conflict with the Muslim world whose military aggressiveness he called out. Yet, one would hardly have had to subscribe to his multicivilizational explanations to arrive at the same prognosis…..


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2009-2010

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For the full analysis, see the author’s 2010 book Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations.   G. Doctorow was a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University. He is today (2013) an occasional lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest work, published in April 2013, is Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Non-conformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12. Both works are available from and amazon websites worldwide in paperback and e-book editions. They are also on sale at Barnes & Noble and other leading bookstores.