If there is one central, recurring mistake the United States makes
when dealing with the rest of the world, it is to assume that creating
political stability is easy. We overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq
and then dismantled the structure of the Iraqi state, sure that we could
simply set up a new one. We toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and were
confident that with foreign aid, elections and American know-how, we would
build a new, modern nation. After all, the governments we were helping to
establish -- democratic, secular and inclusive -- were so much better than
those they followed. But we should have heeded the wise man's declaration
that "the most important political distinction among countries concerns not
their form of government but their degree of government."
So many of the world's problems -- from terrorists in Waziristan to the
AIDS epidemic to piracy in Somalia -- are made worse by governments that are
unable to exercise real authority over their lands or people. That was the
central insight of Samuel P. Huntington, the greatest political scientist
of the past half-century, who died on Christmas Eve.
Huntington is most famous for "The Clash of Civilizations," but his
scholarly reputation properly rests on his earlier work. His analysis of
political order had immediate, real-world applications. While studying the
topic, he was asked by the Johnson administration to assess the progress of
the Vietnam War. After a tour of that country, he argued, in 1967 and 1968,
that America's strategy in South Vietnam was fatally flawed. The United
States was trying to buy the support of the population through aid and
development. But money wasn't the key, in Huntington's view. The South
Vietnamese who resisted the Viet Cong's efforts did so because they were
secure within effective communities structured around religious or ethnic
ties. The United States, though, wanted to create a modern Vietnamese
nation, and it refused to reinforce these "backward" sources of authority.
Sadly, this 40-year-old analysis describes our dilemma in Afghanistan
Huntington noticed a troubling trend. Sometimes, American-style
progress -- more political participation or faster economic growth --
actually created more problems than it solved. If a country had more people
who were economically, politically and socially active yet lacked effective
political institutions, such as political parties, civic organizations or
credible courts, the result was greater instability. Think of Pakistan,
whose population has skyrocketed from 68 million in 1975 to more than 165
million today, while its government has proved ill-equipped to tackle the
basic tasks of education, security and social welfare.
Living through change, people have often stuck with their oldest and
most durable source of security: religion. That was the most important
message of "The Clash of Civilizations." While others were celebrating the
fall of communism and the rise of globalization, Huntington saw that with
ideology disappearing as a source of human identity, religion was returning
to the fore.
My own relationship with "The Clash of Civilizations" is complicated.
When I was a graduate student, I was asked by Huntington to comment on a
draft of the essay. A few months later, shortly after becoming managing
editor of Foreign Affairs, I helped publish it. I still think Huntington
got some important things wrong, but much in that essay is powerful and
My relationship with Sam Huntington, however, was uncomplicated. I
admired him through and through. He was a pathbreaking scholar, a generous
teacher and a devoted friend. His work was remarkably broad. His first book
practically invented the field of civil-military relations; his last was on
demographics and culture. He was also broad-minded. While many academics of
his age and political persuasion -- temperamentally conservative -- were
seared by the campus chaos of the 1960s, Huntington saw the student
radicals as part of a recurring tradition of American puritans, righteously
enraged that American institutions didn't live up to the country's founding
principles. He closed one book by noting of such critics: They "say that
America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals. They
are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a
disappointment only because it is also a hope."
I learned from the books but also from the man. I never saw Sam
Huntington do anything deceitful or malicious, or sacrifice his principles
for power, access or expedience. He lived by the Anglo-Protestant
principles he cherished: hard work, honesty, fair play, courage, loyalty
In Robert Bolt's play about Sir Thomas More, "A Man for All Seasons,"
the young Richard Rich wonders whether it is worthwhile to be a teacher.
"If I was [a fine teacher], who would know it?" More answers, "You; your
pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that."