Today's date:
Spring 2009

Huntington: Prescient and Principled

Fareed Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International. His latest book, The Post American World, was published in May, 2008. This comment first appeared on PostGlobal.

New York—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 US 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 religions or ethnicities. The US, 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 today.

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 prescient.

My relationship with Huntington, however, was uncomplicated. I admired him through and through. He was a path-breaking 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 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 and patriotism.

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."