Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

A reviewer of political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s first book compared him unfavorably to Mussolini. A reviewer of his 19th and latest book dubbed him “Patrick Buchanan with footnotes.” But those reactions were mild compared with the controversy over the international political paradigm advanced in Huntington’s most influential book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, published 10 years ago.

Although the book and a previous article of the same title in Foreign Affairs magazine did not predict the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Huntington has been credited with forecasting the cultural and religious context in which a 9/11-type incident could emerge. While he advocates tolerance and mutual understanding, he sees the West increasingly in conflict with Islam.

Huntington, 79, was interviewed while sitting under an apple tree in the back yard of his summer home.

For a contrasting view, see Five Years After 9/11, ‘Dialogue’ with Islam Cause for Hope

Samuel Huntington, Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor, Harvard. His books include Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004), The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996).

Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Editorial, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

You have been seen for many decades as one of the country’s premier political scientists. After the Cold War, you began to focus more on religion. What prompted this shift?

Religion is one aspect of a major interest I developed during the Cold War in looking at the ways in which different societies evolved. I came to the conclusion that central for shaping how they evolve is their culture, meaning their values and attitudes. Cultures evolve and change, but they almost always include large elements of tradition. So I started looking at the different cultures around the world — obviously, there are large numbers of cultures — but it seemed to me there may be eight or nine major cultures: Western, Orthodox, Hindu, Islamic, Sinic, Buddhist, Latin American, African and Japanese.

I began looking at the world in those terms, and that led me to the clash of civilizations and the relations among peoples of different cultures. I certainly don’t think I have ever argued that culture is the only thing that counts. But it is very important because it furnishes the basis for people starting to think about international relations and how people relate to each other. I think we all feel much more at home with people who have similar cultures, language and values than we do with other people.

There are many cultures in the world, most of them involving a relatively small number of people. But there are, I argue, maybe eight or nine major cultures, so I focus my attention on those — how they developed, how they are interacting with each other now and to what extent cultural differences make a difference in the way states deal with one another.

You see a very strong connection between culture and religion. Could you explain that?

Religion is one component of a people’s culture. There are other things, such as language that are centrally important, but religion is also vitally important because it provides the framework in which people look out at the world. Language enables them to communicate with the world. Bur religion provides the framework, in most cases.

The editors of Foreign Affairs magazine have said your article, “The Clash of Civilizations?” which led, of course, to the book of the same title, was one of the most influential pieces in the magazine’s illustrious history, second only to George Kennan’s article based on his “Long Telegram” on the doctrine of containment that would form the basis of U.S. Cold War policy. Why do you think that article struck such a nerve?

I’m delighted it struck such a nerve. I was rather surprised that it did when it was published. But in looking back at the things I’ve written and things other people have written, I think the extent to which something has an impact depends, in part, upon the logic of its argument and the evidence it presents; but it also depends overwhelmingly on timing. You’ve got to set that argument forth at the right time. If you set it forth five years too early, or five years too late, nobody pays attention to it.

You were certainly ahead of the curve in focusing on religion. Do you see your colleagues at Harvard and other academics realizing its importance?

You say I was ahead of the curve, but I was part of a wave of thinking, as people became aware that, despite whatever secularization had occurred, most individuals did start their thinking from religious premises, even if these were just absorbed unconsciously from the environment in which they lived.

You, of course, did not predict 9/11, but one could say that you did predict the context in which a 9/11-type incident would emerge.

I wouldn’t argue with that.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, you wrote that the attack was Osama bin Laden’s attempt to draw the U.S. and the West into a full-fledged clash of civilizations with Islam. As we commemorate the 5th anniversary of that tragic day, do you think he succeeded?

I don’t know that I would give him credit, but it certainly seems to me that relations between Islam and the West during the past several years involved a variety of difficulties. In large part, these difficulties are the result of the extent to which a good portion of the Muslim world was subject to Western colonialism. The peoples in those areas have now asserted themselves. So you have a natural tension and conflicts occurring between the gradually retreating imperial powers and the asserting native people.

Would you say that we are now in a full-fledged clash of civilizations?

Not simply one clash, but clashes of civilizations certainly occur. And this doesn’t mean, as I think I emphasized in what I wrote, that there are no clashes within civilizations; obviously there are. To a very large extent, most of the conflicts and wars are between people within the same civilization. Look at European history. The Europeans were fighting each other all the time.

But now, because of all of the momentous changes in communications and transportation, people from different civilizations are interacting in a way they haven’t before, and are interacting on a more equal basis. In the past, people in one civilization, for example, the Chinese or Europeans, have expanded, conquered and dominated people from other civilizations.

We have a world in which there are a significant number of major civilizations — it’s a pluralistic world. And while the United States is undoubtedly more powerful than other countries, it’s not terribly useful to think of it roughly, or even primarily, in terms of a hierarchical world. The United States, as well as the European Union, Japan and other major actors all have to take into consideration the interests and probable responses of other major actors to what they do. I think religion certainly plays a tremendously important role. It is manifest broadly, but not exclusively, in the rise of religious consciousness in the Muslim world.

How can we defuse the tension with the Muslim world?

I think we have to take a calmer attitude and try to understand what their concerns are. I think we have to recognize that there are tremendous divisions within the Muslim world, between different varieties of Islam and different states. It is a very pluralistic world. We should recognize it as such, and deal with the individual segments of that world, and try to accommodate, to the extent that we can, their particular interests.

You have counseled the U.S. and the West to aggressively combat terrorism, but without violating a sense of security in the Islamic world — in other words, to not make it seem as if the U.S. is attacking Islam itself. How would you assess the Bush administration’s performance in this regard?

I’m a Democrat, but I think they have done all right in that regard. You use the term “the Islamic world,” but the Islamic world is highly divided — different varieties of Islam and different states. Inevitably, you end up having different types of relations with these different entities. We certainly haven’t had a major, violent clash of civilizations. There have been lots of issues. Some of them have been dealt with more successfully than others. I guess I am reasonably satisfied with what has happened just because I can contemplate how it could have been so much worse.

What would the worse scenario look like?

The development of major coalitions on each side, if the Muslim countries had come together effectively and attempted to reassert their control over broad sections of the West, which after all, they did control a thousand years ago when they controlled all of Spain and a good part of southern France. Conceivably, that might happen in the future, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet.

You wrote in your latest book, Who Are We? that at its core, the United States is an Anglo-Protestant culture. If that is indeed true, how is this missionary core, if I can use that word, contributing to a clash of civilizations with Islam?

We have an Anglo-Protestant culture. It’s fairly clear. You used the word missionary. I don’t think it necessarily has to be a missionary culture. But, at times it certainly has been, because, after all, virtually all the settlements here on the East coast in the 17th and 18th century were established by religious groups. In our origins we are a religious nation. We have sent missionaries out all over the world from the Protestant, Catholic and other denominations. Since the expansion of Islam in the seventh century, I don’t think any other groups besides Western Christians — even Orthodox Christians in Russia — have done the kind of proselytizing that Western Christians have done. Western religions are missionary religions.

Do you see our attempt to export democratic values, some might say American values, as part of a missionary impulse or an Anglo-Protestant impulse?

As far as the United States is concerned, that impulse certainly derives from our Anglo-Protestant heritage. But that is not the only source. Catholics are often driven by that impulse. There are people in every religion who share the impulse to go out and try to convert other people. But in American history, that certainly has been, if not a powerful motivation, then certainly a central characteristic. As the settlers here expanded westward, they often massacred the Indians, but those they didn’t massacre they converted, or tried to convert.

You have criticized the idea that American values are universal, and that these values should be exported to other countries through democracy. Could you elaborate on that point?

I have argued that there are a variety of different cultures and value systems in the world. They have many common elements, but they are also different entities. Western culture, particularly American culture, emphasizes individualism to an extent no other culture that I know of does. Other cultures put the emphasis on community, family, and social factors, whereas we talk about the rights of individuals. When we have gone abroad and have had to exercise our influence, very naturally, we bring our values and cultures with us and try to persuade, at times coerce, other people to accept them.

Has it surprised you that when democratic elections have been held in some Muslim countries recently, that Islamist parties have been chosen by the electorate?

I can honestly say, no, it did not surprise me. I have, at various times, expressed warnings to people out promoting democracy to not assume just because a government wins power through relatively fair elections, it is going to implement the same values we have and be friendly to us.

Governments that do win by elections have to appeal to the sentiments, and, in large part, nationalist sentiments, of their peoples, and for understandable reasons, are often rather anti-Western.

Do you think the Bush administration miscalculated in not anticipating that Hamas would be thrust into power by Palestinian voters?

I think there is a general failure on the part of many Americans — this would include people in the Bush administration — to appreciate the probability of that sort of thing happening, and its religious appeal. Again, we have tended to make it seem that religion was somehow a thing of the past.

Looking to the future, do you anticipate that where democratic elections are held in Islamic countries, we will see a trend of Islamist parties rising to power?

I wouldn’t make a prediction, but it seems to me that is a big possibility, and a good probability in some societies.

You were critical of the U.S. going into Iraq.


Do you remain critical?

Yes. I didn’t see the need to go in. Sure, Iraq is an important oil producer. Obviously, we want to have stability in the Persian Gulf area. We want to counter the expansion of the influence of radical Iran. But I didn’t see the need for us to go into Iraq.

Do you see a way for us to get out?

There are many ways to get out. The question is how to get out in a fairly responsible fashion that won’t produce even worse consequences than our being there. And that won’t be easy. But I think setting a timetable, which we wouldn’t necessarily have to announce in advance, of gradual withdrawal, and trying to shift some of the responsibilities for dealing with Iraq to other countries, other Gulf states, or the European Union would be a start.

You were a State Department consultant in the 1960s for the Johnson administration. But you later concluded that a major problem with our Vietnam policy was our idealism. Similarly, do you see idealism driving our Iraq policy? Is that a problem?

The central, unifying factor for this country is a set of political beliefs and ideals. Quite naturally, when we go abroad, we try to persuade people of the validity of these beliefs and ideals. And in a relatively small number of direct colonies that we have had, we tried to construct democratic institutions on the American model. And that’s perfectly natural; all countries do that when they expand their influence.

But I am impressed with the extent to which our culture and values differ from those of other major portions of the world. We have to recognize the limits of what we can do. If you look at what has happened, usually in Asian or Eurasian societies, in terms of the impact of the West — a relatively small number of the elites, intellectuals and political leaders, many of whom have probably studied at Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard do imbibe Western values and attitudes and go back to their societies, but normally don’t have a great deal of political success. Sometimes they do, but the politicians that are staying at home and appealing to nationalist sentiments are much more likely to be successful in their countries.

You are an Episcopalian.

In a manner of speaking, yes.

Why do you say “in a manner of speaking”?

I’m not a formal member of any church. My father was a Baptist and my mother was an atheist. But I find the Episcopal tradition, values and theology, to the extent that it has a reality, appealing. And in Boston we live on Beacon Hill, just half a block away from what is probably the most important Episcopal church in Massachusetts, the Church of the Advent. We are not members of the church, but we go there from time to time.

In an interview you once described yourself as a child of Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant theologian. How has your own Anglo-Protestant background shaped your views, especially the view that America is at its core an Anglo-Protestant culture?

I’m not sure, maybe my own background has shaped my views, but that is a debatable point. Do we have an Anglo-Protestant culture in this country as a kind of core culture? Obviously, we have a multitude of sub-cultures, and, as a result of immigration, we have a very diverse society. We have a variety of ethnic groups which, at least in families and localities, might be speaking non-English languages. But settlements here were founded overwhelmingly by Anglo-Protestants who were being persecuted, often in England.

What would you say to people who are not Anglo-Protestants who might feel threatened by your notion that at its core this country is an Anglo- Protestant nation?

I would try to show them why they shouldn’t feel threatened. After all, we do have subcultures of people with their own languages, religions and ethnicities living in their own neighborhoods, where they may speak nothing but, for example, Czech or Chinese. We are a highly pluralistic society. And we are all a society because we do have some things in common. It seems to me there is a basic set of values and culture which goes back to the settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries and is embodied in our founding documents, in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and in a variety of other ways. That is what we have in common.

You’ve said that the Great Awakening of the 18th century was a religious revival that, “bequeathed to the American people the belief that they were engaged in a righteous effort to ensure the triumph of good over evil.” Are we still, as a nation, engaged in that righteous, essentially religious, effort?

I don’t know that I would phrase it in exactly those terms now. But I think we do differ from other societies, including most European societies, in the extent to which we very explicitly try to define our goals in moralistic terms, which have, in most cases, religious roots. And this gives our foreign policy, both in practice and certainly in the perception of other people, a highly moralistic content.

You’ve said America is only a disappointment because it is an idealistic hope. As you look to the future, what gives you the most hope for our country and its relationship with the rest of the world?

I think a great thing about America is its pluralism and the wide diversity of groups — ethnic, racial, religious and political — that we have in this country. We have, with one major exception, obviously — the Civil War — generally lived harmoniously with each other and developed this large, highly prosperous and most powerful society in the world, a society which, for all its limitations, at its core is a democratic society protecting the freedom of expression and religion. That is an unprecedented achievement in history.