Samuel Huntington: An Appreciation
(as published in the Bangkok Post, December 30, 2008)


Published: 30/12/2008 at 12:00 AM

Studying the Clash of Civilisations in a seminar with Samuel Huntington shortly after his influential 1996 book was published was an exercise in trying to detect an underlying order on a slippery and sometimes outright uncooperative reality. As such, there was lots of argument and debate, but the clashing was never less than civil. The soft-spoken professor would put forward strident ideas with an impish grin until someone in the small seminar, usually from somewhere far from Harvard, would disagree. The professor would listen attentively, take notes and continue the discussion.

What I would like to say as an appreciation of Sam Huntington, who passed away on December 24, is that he was an excellent teacher, not because he taught at Harvard for half a century and wrote many books but because he was such a good listener. No matter how senior he was or supremely knowledgeable about world politics before his students were even born, he was willing to consider new ideas, to discuss and digest them, if only to fine-tune his arguments with inclusions and counter-arguments.

We spent many an afternoon in his office arguing the pros and cons of what to some seemed like a cookie-cutter view of the world. When he advocated expanding Nato right up to the borders of Russia, I strongly disagreed, citing his own arguments about the natural boundaries between civilisations, Western and Orthodox in this case, urging him to view the problem as it might appear to the Russians.

We had similar disagreements about China, Japan and Thailand. Why is Japan a civilisation in its own right, while Korea or Vietnam or Thailand are not? What about rifts within civilisations, clashes among Muslims or Hindus or Christians responsible for heartbreak comparable to the "bloody borders" between civilisations?

The professor never got defensive, it seemed he never stopped grinning. He would hear you out, all the while jotting your ideas on his notepad, and he would incorporate some of it in what he had to say next.

His most famous book, like any book, is composed of words frozen in time. It is easy to disagree with many passages in a think-piece as provocative as Clash, perhaps even disagree with the book's entire premise, but what the snapshot of the printed work fails to capture is the restless mind in motion of the author, a good scholar and teacher, who continued to work on ideas put forward in the text with sufficient humility to let go of things that really didn't work and build on things that did.

That's not to say the seminal issues about culture, identity and the future of mankind raised in Clash were settled any easier in discussion than in the final draft of a book.

This was driven home to me a few years later when I was teaching at Chulalongkorn University and co-hosted a discussion with Dr Surin Pitsuwan at a lecture hall packed with dozens of ambassadors, some from countries in conflict.

"What's your take on the Clash of Civilisations?" I asked.

"Let's not get into that now," the former foreign minister, in semi-retirement at the time, said good-naturedly. "We'll never get to the end of it."

Dr Surin, who holds a degree from Harvard, is no stranger to Professor Huntington's ideas, but as a Thai Muslim who had been educated in America and served as foreign minister of a predominantly Buddhist country, his life is an affirmation of cross-cultural negotiation and peace-building. One might say the very concept of civilisational clash is an affront to the kind of civilisation synthesis that has characterised his own remarkable career, from AFS exchange student to secretary-general of Asean.

An armchair analyst and a roving diplomat not only experience the world in significantly different ways, but by need talk about it differently. For one, setting the terms of intellectual debate with bold pronouncements and startling new paradigms is the height of achievement, while minding one's words and finding common ground is the lifeblood of the other.

Professor Huntington's insights and prejudices have travelled far considering their roots are hard to separate from a cloistered intellectual life centered around Harvard Square with summers in Martha's Vineyard. The "culture" of Huntington's world is not only indelibly American, but echoes peculiar Boston-area values of conservatism and tradition; a quilt-work of distinct neighborhoods distinguished by economic class and ethnic origin.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a population of about 100,000, has racial demographics typical of America as a whole mapped into a jigsaw puzzle of rich and poor neighbourhoods, ethnic clustering and tight-knit enclaves. Might not half a century in such an environment have led Mr Huntington to see the larger, largely imagined world in similarly bundled terms?

An American expatriate writer in Thailand once pointed out that one enjoyed greater access to the world media in Bangkok than in Boston, especially in terms of cable television and newspapers. Boston is indeed parochial and insular in contrast to Bangkok - a messy, overflowing, dynamic, tolerant and cosmopolitan city if there ever was one - and one suspects that if a book on the clash of civilisations were to be written in the heart of Bangkok it would be a differently book, lacking the conceptual quilt of discreet cultures so prominent in Clash of Civilisations.

The true value of Clash, an oft-cited work translated into dozens of languages is not to be found so much in the book itself as in the quality of discussion prompted by its tentative and sometimes over-reaching text, itself an expansion of an article knocking down claims made by Francis Fukuyama regarding the "end of history". Despite its arbitrary appointment of civilisation zones, reminiscent of the bizarre world-map in the board game of Risk, Clash is a compelling corrective to the supposed triumph and centrality of Western ideals.

Huntington's ideas shaped discussion, and continue to shape discussion, not because he nailed the argument but because he raised it.

It takes only a glance at the day's headlines to realise that culture and identity continue to unite and divide the world in unpredictable ways, and borders are often the scene for conflict, because culture can be a font of inclusive harmony, or exclusive antipathy, depending on where you stand and how you look at it.