IN THE early 1990s America’s opinion-makers competed to outdo each other in triumphalism. Economists argued that the “Washington consensus” would spread peace and prosperity around the world. Politicians debated whether the “peace dividend” should be used to create universal health care or be allowed to fructify in the pockets of the people or quite possibly both. Francis Fukuyama took the optimists’ garland by declaring, in 1992, “the end of history” and the universal triumph of Western liberalism.
Samuel Huntington thought that all this was bunk. In “The Clash of Civilisations?” he presented a darker view. He argued that the old ideological divisions of the Cold War would be replaced not by universal harmony but by even older cultural divisions. The world was deeply divided between different civilisations. And far from being drawn together by globalisation, these different cultures were being drawn into conflict.
Huntington added another barb to his argument by suggesting that Western civilisation was in relative decline: the American power-mongers who thought that they were the architects of a new world order were more likely to find themselves the victims of cultural forces that they did not even know existed. The future was being forged in the mosques of Tehran and the planning commissions of Beijing rather than the cafés of Harvard Square. His original 1993 article, in Foreign Affairs, was translated into 26 languages and expanded into a best-selling book.
But he believed that it was vital to mix liberal idealism with a pessimism rooted in a conservative reading of history. He rejected the economic reductionism that drove the Washington consensus, and insisted instead on seeing people as products of culture rather than as profit-and-loss calculating machines. He also rejected the beguiling idea (some say it has beguiled The Economist) that all good things tend to go together—that free markets go hand in hand with pluralism, democracy and the American way. He felt that America was a living paradox: America’s culture turned it into a universal civilisation but those values were in fact rooted in a unique set of circumstances.
A great article on Huntington's impact: as a classical liberal, he was also that rarest of birds, the historically-informed (and philosophically-informed) analyst who doesn't allow himself to get caught up in a trend.