Samuel Phillips Huntington (1927–2008) was an American political thinker, and one of the late twentieth century’s most influential social scientists. He taught at Harvard University with short interruptions for fifty-eight years and remained engaged in politics throughout his life. His students, including Francis Fukuyama, went on to lead prominent and sometimes opposing schools of thought.

Huntington made significant contributions in the fields of civil-military relations, modernization and democratization theory, American political thought, and international relations. His life and work, which were never value-neutral and often challenged conventional wisdom, remain the subject of intense interest and controversy.

Civil-Military Relations

Huntington’s first major work, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (1957), develops a theory of civil-military relations and inaugurated the systematic academic study of the subject. The book is intended to correct “a confused and unsystematic set of assumptions and beliefs derived from the premises of American liberalism.” Drawing on a broad range of historical examples, it offers an account of how the military and government might best work together in order to “maximize security at the least sacrifice of other social values.”

Huntington argues that the military craft, and the officer class in particular, have undergone a process of professionalization beginning in early nineteenth-century Prussia. The process parallels professionalization in other fields, such as medicine. Huntington argues that the professional military officer is no longer motivated by unbounded personal ambition and the vagaries of inspiration, but by love of his craft, extensive technical training, historical education, standardization, and above all, by responsibility to the state as “client.”

Though the military professional sees himself as a civil servant, he nevertheless holds a worldview organic to his profession: tending to “conservative realism,” he views “conflict as a universal pattern throughout nature and sees violence rooted in the permanent biological and psychological nature of men.” The military craft consists in the “management of violence,” and its ultimate goal is not “military victory” but, rather, “military security.” Military security consists not in any specific military victory, but in the cultivation of the military might necessary to provide the state with the maximal degree of long-term stability and security.

Huntington argues that the success of military professionalism depends on the independence and isolation of the military from civilian interference. In the absence of such independence, the military falls under “subjective civilian control,” in which various civilian groups wielding power successively influence military culture and undermine the professional ethic of military security. The desirable alternative, which Huntington develops at length, is a regime of “objective civilian control,” in which the military and civilian spheres are separated as much as possible, and military professionalism is cultivated.

Given the increased size and importance of the Cold War U.S. military, Huntington worries that “objective civilian control” is becoming more difficult. He warns that “the tension between the demands of military security and the values of American liberalism [which oscillate between isolationist pacifism and the crusading demand for total victory] can, in the long run, be relieved only by the weakening of the security threat or the weakening of liberalism.” He concludes in the hope that the “conservative realism” of the military outlook might influence American political culture at large.

More than fifty years after its publication, The Soldier and the State is still the most widely cited academic work on civil-military relations. According to Eliot Cohen, “a simplified Huntingtonian conception of military professionalism remains the dominant view within the American defense establishment.”

Read More: Civil-Military Relations

Political Development and Democratization

Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) remains Huntington’s most influential work among social scientists and policy strategists. It launched a wide-ranging challenge to the fundamental premises of “modernization theory,” then the dominant paradigm for understanding political development in the Third World. According to modernization theorists, the various aspects of modernity, including economic and technological advancement, urbanization, increased education, liberalization and democracy evolve in unison and reinforce one another. Huntington contended, on the contrary, that “modernity breeds stability, but modernization breeds instability.”

Political Order opens with the claim that “the most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government.” Modernization generally, denoting economic development, secularization, urbanization, and the breakdown of traditional social relations, is contrasted with political modernization, reflected in the rationalization of authority, the independence of the bureaucracy, and organized political participation. Huntington argues that these processes are not only separate, but often work at cross purposes.

In traditional or pre-modern states, he maintains, the centralization of power is necessary to effect modernization, but it makes political modernization more difficult by reducing the sphere of political participation. In “praetorian” regimes, where the military takes a leading role in government, the problem is reversed: “The democratization of government in a society in which violence is a key part of government also means the democratization of violence.” In the case of states undergoing modernizing revolutions, economic development tends to suffer and “economic deprivations may well be essential to [the revolution’s] success.” At the same time, growing middle-class expectations often produce disorder and unrest. Reform “programs catering to the demands of the radical middle class only increase the strength and radicalism of that class.” Therefore from the perspective of order and stability, “the appropriate response to middle-class radicalism is repression, not reform.”

The thesis of Political Order lends itself to a qualified defense of authoritarian modernizing in developing countries. The book also separately advances the idea that the strength and organization of political parties is essential to stability in modern as well as modernizing regimes.

The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1991) surveys the worldwide wave of democratizations occurring between 1974 and 1990. In contrast to Political OrderThe Third Wave provides an historical account and largely avoids theoretical generalizations. The “first wave” of democratization is identified as having lasted almost a century, between the 1820s and 1926, and having created 29 democracies. It was followed by a “reverse wave,” including the rise of fascist states in Europe, which reduced the number of democracies to 12 by 1942. The “second wave” followed the Allied victory in World War II, and concluded in 1962 with 36 democracies worldwide, and was likewise followed by a reversal, leaving only 30 democracies standing.

The book offers a detailed account of the causes animating the most recent wave of democratization, which commenced in the mid-1970s, and produced 30 new democracies. Chief among these causes is the rise of the democratic ideal, global economic growth, the shift in the Catholic Church’s attitude to democracy in the mid-1960s, the weakening of Soviet influence, and “snowballing,” or the tendency of states to follow similar trajectories. Huntington considers the possibility of an impending “reverse wave,” and attempts to determine the historical causes and obstacles to democratization. He maintains that there is an economically defined “political transition zone” most likely to produce democratization, as well as important and recurrent political and cultural factors that influencing the process.

Interspersed among the historical analyses, Huntington offers a series of tactical and at times illiberal “guidelines for democratizers,” remarking in the introduction that “if that makes me seem like an aspiring democratic Machiavelli, so be it.” Political Order had been criticized by some for its implicit support of authoritarian modernizing transitions. The Third Wave, on the contrary, was described by French scholar Pierre Hassner as “universalist and militantly pro-democracy.” History, Huntington concludes in the book’s final sentence, “does not move forward in a straight line, but when skilled and determined leaders push, it does move forward.”

Read More: Political Development, Political Participation

American Politics

In the first of his two major works on American politics, Huntington addresses a central paradox at the heart of American political culture. American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (1981) argues that the liberal moralism of the American creed stands in enduring tension with the requirements of American power: “The gap between promise and performance creates an inherent disharmony, at times latent, at times manifest, in American society.” By producing an impossibly high standard of political morality, the American creed makes the necessary exercise of power extremely difficult: “Its ideas run counter to the nature of government in general.” As a result, political “cleavage in the United States does not take the form of idea versus idea, as in Europe, but rather of idea versus fact.”

Huntington traces the historical eruptions of moralism in American political life, which he designates as periods of “creedal passion.” The last creedal passion period, led by the “new moralists,” began in the 1960s. Periods of creedal passion work to intensify American disharmony. This disharmony has, moreover, no unambiguous solution: “American moralism ensures that government will never be truly efficacious; the realities of power ensure that government will never be truly democratic.”

Nowhere is the “promise of disharmony” more evident than in the realm of American foreign policy. As a democratic superpower, America has a special interest in reducing the gap between other nations’ institutions and its own creed. Here again, “the promotion of liberty abroad requires the expansion of American power; the operation of liberty at home involves the limitation of American power.”

The high moral demands Americans and non-Americans place on American government, argues Huntington, give rise to the “myth of American repression,” or the idea that all, or most, American foreign involvement tends to demote liberty. To counter this myth, Huntington outlines American contributions to democratization beginning around 1900 in Europe, Latin America and Asia. “Despite the reluctance or inability of those imbued with the myth of American repression to recognize it, the impact of the United States on the world has, in large part, been what the new moralists say it has to be.”

The gap between theory and practice is nonetheless an inescapable fact of American politics. Huntington sees four possible responses. Moralism attempts to eliminate the gap, and thereby weakens American power. Hypocrisy denies the gap, and thereby undermines the American creed. Cynicism and complacency, each in its own way, are attempts to learn to live with the gap, but tend to enervate and corrupt politics. “Intense moralism could lead Americans to destroy the freest institutions on earth because they believed they deserved something better.” Huntington therefore suggests that a sensitive balance of these four responses is the best Americans might hope for. “Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals… America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.”

Huntington’s last work, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004), discusses the theme of American politics from the perspective of American national identity, which Huntington views as threatened by recent developments. He argues that American identity has historically been founded on elements of race, ethnicity, culture, and ideology. Race and ethnicity, however, no longer serve this purpose. Moreover, the fall of the Soviet Union demonstrates that ideology, although important, is insufficient to maintain a political identity by itself. What remains is culture. “The principal theme of this book,” he writes, “is the continuing centrality of Anglo-Protestant culture to the national identity.”

Huntington is careful to emphasize that he intends to present “an argument for the importance of Anglo-Protestant culture, not Anglo-Protestant people.” Praising the historical success of the United States in assimilating people of diverse backgrounds, he worries in particular that large-scale Hispanic immigration threatens the dominance of both the English language and the Protestant ethic in America. “The American creed,” he writes, “is Protestantism without God, the secular credo of the ‘nation with the soul of a Church.’”

Bilingualism and multiculturalism represent “deconstructionist” efforts to weaken American cultural identity. While most Americans remain committed to a liberal nationalist culture, factors such as the “denationalization of elites,” the geographic concentration of Hispanic immigrant populations, and the rise of transnational and diaspora identities, have rendered assimilation to American culture “slower and less complete” than in the past. America now faces the alternatives of a cosmopolitan, imperial, or national future. The national future, which Huntington views as indispensable to American “societal security,” can, he argues, be achieved only through a reaffirmation of America’s founding Anglo-Protestant culture.

Read More: American Politics

The Clash of Civilizations

The article “The Clash of Civilizations” (1993) and subsequent book The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order (1996) increased Huntington’s renown. “Not intended to be a work of social science,” the work sets out to develop a new paradigm of international relations following the fall of the Soviet Union. “It is my hypothesis,” he writes, “that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural …. [T]he clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

Huntington’s student, Francis Fukuyama, had argued in The End of History and the Last Man (1992) that with the spread of liberal democracy, the world had reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Huntington rejects this idea as both false and politically dangerous. Not only was the idea of a universal civilization an illusion, but, in fact, Western civilization had already begun to decline: “It will take a long time, and certainly the West will remain the dominant civilization well into the next century, but the decline is occurring.”

Although political identities are composed of disparate elements, a civilization, according to Huntington, is the “broadest level of identification.” Following in the footsteps of the British historian Arnold Toynbee (1889–1970), Huntington identifies at least eight major civilizations: Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Latin American, Western, and possibly African. Factors such as the decline in Western power, increasing ease of communications, and the resultant breakdown of local identity, will increasingly intensify civilizational identity. From this will follow both large and small-scale clashes.

Huntington predicted clashes particularly among the Sinic civilization, as it increases in wealth and assertiveness, the Western civilization, and the Islamic civilization. “The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.” Huntington urged the West to look to its own “short term advantage and long term accommodation,” rather than hoping for the spread of liberal democracy. “In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.”

Read More: Clash of Civilizations

–Essays by Jonathan Yudelman