Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, dies aged 81

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For millions of ordinary readers, as for conservative politicians and pundits, Samuel Huntington was the man who predicted the grand narrative of the 21st century. But long before bloggers and book groups were discussing The Clash of Civilizations (1993), Huntington had been among America’s most influential political scientists for decades. In an era when many academics were content to hoe narrow specialties, he bestrode whole disciplines; writing seminal works on international relations, comparative government, political theory and American politics. In the early 1990s a colleague asked the Harvard professor, then writing the work that would make him a household name, why he had chosen to focus on civilisation. Huntington shrugged: “It was simply the biggest thing I could think of.”

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order was a hard-headed look at what political scientists had traditionally dismissed as a soft subject: culture. Originating as a 1993 article in the policy journal Foreign Affairs, and published three years later as a book, it argued that the key sources of post-Cold War conflicts would not be national or ideological, but cultural. Clash was Huntington’s riposte to those who thought the fall of communism meant the universal triumph of Western values. The West’s arrogance about the universality of its own culture would blind it to the ascent of “challenger civilisations”, particularly Islam and China. Shot through with cautions about Western decline, the book counsels Europe and America to unite: “The prudent course of the West is not to attempt to stop the shift in power, but to learn to navigate the shallows, to endure the miseries, moderate its ventures, and safeguard its culture.” Exporting American pop culture and trainers was easy, exporting values of freedom and democracy far harder. “Somewhere in the Middle East,” Huntington wrote, “a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner.”

After 9/11, Huntington was hailed as a seer. The Clash of Civilizations was translated into 33 languages and seized on by Western and Muslim hawks, who read in it the historical inevitability of conflict between Islam and the West. When a pirated translation appeared in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards ordered half the 1,000-copy print run. Huntington’s critics attacked it as a crude Manichean world view, penned by an old Cold Warrior in need of new enemies.

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