Samuel P. Huntington (1927–2008)

Issue Date July 2009
Volume 20
Issue 3
Page Numbers 186-90
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Samuel P. Huntington, the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor at Harvard and one of the world’s preeminent political scientists, died on 24 December 2008. Although he wrote numerous important books on a variety of topics, he was best known to students of comparative democracy as the author of The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1991), a book that established the historical framework guiding most subsequent studies of democratic progress. Huntington was also a founding member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Democracy and a frequent contributor to its pages. At the same time, his later books, including The Clash of Civilizations, tended to stress the impact of cultural differences on political life, leading some critics to regard him as a skeptic about the potential spread of democracy around the world.

To honor Huntington’s life and work, while also exploring this tension in his thought, the National Endowment for Democracy convened a memorial panel discussion on 10 March 2009. The event was introduced by NED president Carl Gershman, who spoke of Huntington’s long involvement with NED. “Sam enjoyed challenging us,” Gershman stated, “and I think we were the better for it. He forced us to sharpen our thinking and strategy, to understand who we were and what we were trying to accomplish, and to ground our work in a larger theoretical and political perspective.”

Journal of Democracy coeditor Marc F. Plattner, who moderated the session that followed, began by discussing Huntington’s key contributions to the Journal and to the International Forum for Democratic Studies. Plattner noted the apparent split, evident in the many memorial tributes to Huntington, between those of his students and admirers who were enthusiasts about the spread of democracy and those who were skeptics. He then concluded by introducing three eminent political scientists who discussed Huntington’s life and thought: Journal coeditor Larry Diamond of Stanford University; Francis Fukuyama, the Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy and director of the International Development Program at SAIS; and Donald L. Horowitz, the James B. Duke Professor of Law and Political Science at Duke University.

Excerpts from the presentations by these three scholars appear below. Full transcripts of their remarks, as well as of the statements by Gershman and Plattner, along with a video of the entire event, can be found [End Page 186] at Readers interested in seeing other tributes to Huntington may wish to view the website of Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at

Larry Diamond: I want to begin by expressing the profound debt I owe to Sam Huntington, personally and institutionally. The many testimonials that have poured in since his passing on December 24 have affirmed not only the pathbreaking nature of his prolific contributions to the study of politics and government, but also the deep impact he had on the lives and theoretical development of so many generations of scholars. . . .

There have only been a few books. . . that have had [a] genetic impact on my thinking. One was Huntington’s The Third Wave, which I think will stand for all time as not only the definitive book on his subtitle, Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, but one of the most important books ever written on democracy.

Whereas his earlier magnum opus on political development, Political Order in Changing Societies, dealt with basic questions of political order and change, and the deep structural forces that drove political change, The Third Wave was a treatise primarily about a distinct period in global political history, the decade and a half after 1974 (by now one could say three decades) during which democracy expanded in the world as never before. In his preface to The Third Wave, Huntington almost apologized for the merely “explanatory” nature of this work, the lack of the kind of grand and enduring generalizations about political systems that can be found in abundance in Political Order. Yet, as an acute student of contemporary history, Huntington saw beyond the structural and institutional factors he had grappled with in Political Order.

More than any scholar before him, he captured the astonishingly global nature of the democratic changes that were taking place, both through intentional efforts at democracy promotion (which is one reason why he so readily befriended and supported the National Endowment for Democracy) and through more diffuse and in a way unintentional processes of global imitation and inspiration, including what he called “snowballing.” And he understood how much democratization was a product of political leadership, organization, and calculation. This is why he freely offered, at five different points in his analysis, frank and in retrospect quite sage advice to those who would seek to democratize their countries. “If that makes me seem like an aspiring democratic Machiavelli,” he wrote, “so be it.” And so it was, in the best sense of that term.

Perhaps more than any of his other major works, The Third Wave is about the art of the possible rather than the constraints of history, culture, and social structure. In this sense, it is a very optimistic work, and somewhat different in tone from what preceded it and from some of what followed. To be sure, Sam was sensitive to structural constraints, [End Page 187] and thus conceived of democratic transitions as mainly taking place within an upper and lower boundary of economic development levels—what he called a “political transition zone.” But he notes continually throughout this book how shrewd strategies and determined organization can tip the odds in favor of democracy, and in fact how individuals can make a difference.

Yet, to be fair, there is in this book the seed of the next one. Toward the end of The Third Wave, Huntington expresses serious skepticism about the prospects for democratic change in Africa, East Asia, and most of the Muslim world. . . .

There is a way to understand all of this, and it drives to the heart of the debate between Huntington and Huntington, that is between The Third Wave and The Clash of Civilizations. It has to do with whether we see cultures as constituted largely by fixed and enduring values and beliefs, or rather as plastic, flexible, and open to adaptation in ways that can have profound implications for politics. If it was, as Huntington explains, theological and ideological transformation in the Catholic Church—repositioning it “from a bulwark of the status quo, usually authoritarian, to a force for change, usually democratic”—that helped to drive democratic transitions in Latin America, East Asia, and Eastern Europe, why is it so difficult to imagine similar change taking place in the Muslim world? In fact, it is possible to ask—and we have tried to do so in the Journal of Democracy—whether a similar kind of transformation might not now be getting underway within Islam.

We all know Sam loved a good intellectual argument, so maybe that is why he had one with himself. I do not think it is possible to fully square these two books, but maybe he did us a favor by drawing the lines of debate and letting us settle it for ourselves. And maybe he knew that is exactly what he was doing.

Francis Fukuyama: I think one of the most impressive things about Sam Huntington as a scholar was that he wrote a foundational book not just in one subdiscipline of political science but in virtually all of them.

But I want to talk about the comparative politics Sam and, in particular, his book Political Order in Changing Societies. I thought about this a lot because, when he wanted to do a reprint of the paperback edition, he asked me to write a foreword to it. I did this gladly because I use the book all the time in my teaching and think that it was probably his most important single contribution.

This book was probably the last major attempt to write a general theory of political development. I think all of the other theories that have come since then have been more midlevel theories that try just to talk about some aspect of it like “democratic transitions,” but this was a work of extraordinary ambition. It had an important impact on the general thinking about political development because it was finally responsible [End Page 188] for killing off modernization theory. Modernization theory really got its start with the great European social theorists of the nineteenth century—people like Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Ferdinand Tönnies, Henry Maine, and the like . . .

[But] when the European social theory got Americanized, there was a subtle change in emphasis, and particularly an emphasis on democracy. To summarize a very vast and complex school of writing, I would say that this type of modernization theory—the Americanized version of modernization theory—held up something like the United States of the 1950s as a model for modernization. It was the endpoint to which people were going. But this theory also maintained that the different dimensions of modernization—economic, political, social, and cultural—all mutually supported one another. That is to say, economic development brought about cultural change that led to greater pluralism, tolerance, and acceptance of democratic norms, which in turn promoted rapid capitalist economic development.

What Huntington’s book did was simply to point out from the vantage point of 1968 that political development was not occurring in much of the recently independent, former colonial world. At that point in history, that world was characterized by coups, civil wars, upheavals, political instability. His book provided an explanation for why that was the case, which had to do with the fact that the different components of development did not necessarily support one another. In particular, I think the central model in that book is the idea that modernization involves social mobilization, and if the political institutions do not themselves develop in such a way as to incorporate the newly mobilized political actors, you would get what he called praetorianism, or political breakdown and political decay. I think that this remains a very powerful insight—that political order really has a different source from either economic development or democratization, and that you can have one without the other.

Now, I just want to say a few words about Sam’s democracy writings. I actually think that The Third Wave, The Clash of Civilizations, and his last book Who Are We? are not disparate books. They are all tied together by a central theme, which is the theme that cultural identity is central to virtually everything—to international relations, to democracy, to political development, and to what we Americans are as a country.

Donald Horowitz: The winner of the Nobel Prize in biology in 1937 for the discovery of Vitamin C, Albert Szent-Györgyi, once said “Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” That is a perfect description of what Sam Huntington did. . . And he did it in all of the major subfields of political science. . . .

[I]n The Third Wave there is no assumption that democracy will prevail universally. It is true that the book ends on a more or less optimistic note, but it also finds the obstacles to democracy to be formidable. [End Page 189] And that brings me to the obstacles he cites first and foremost—which are cultural ones. Sam acknowledges that democracy was not just a Western product in the first instance, but a product of countries that were, in the main, Protestant. One of the reasons for the third wave that began in 1974 was a change in the Catholic Church having to do with Vatican II and the role of the Church vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes.

Islamic countries and what Sam calls Buddhist and Confucian countries are, he asserts, the most recalcitrant cases, and he does not come down with a firm prediction in The Third Wave one way or the other on them. But it is no surprise that he says in The Clash of Civilizations that the former USSR, China, and Vietnam won’t necessarily become democratic, because as early as 1984, he was skeptical about their prospects. Now, in point of fact, Sam never really thought there were universal values. The idea of an Anglo-Protestant culture in the U.S. in Who Are We? is no departure. . . .

He had a fascination with problems of change, especially those that arise from the difficulty that established institutions have in dealing with change. . . That is the frame in which the analysis of democratization should be viewed. And it is an analysis rather than a teleology. In other words, democracy is not inevitable, and some cultures are less conducive to it than are others.

One final observation may, I hope, help to explain some of the tensions that have been perceived to be present in his work. As he himself interjected rather loudly at his retirement party about a year ago, Sam had a knack for getting himself into controversy. He was very proud of it when he said it at that time. I am not just talking about his willingness to write in ways that would subject him to mostly tendentious, refutable, even crude criticism of the sort that he got for Who Are We? or for The Clash, both of which were certainly subject to legitimate criticisms. . . Once he got an idea, he was willing to pursue it, and his gift for dramatic formulation could certainly create misimpressions.

Sam tended to get invested in each work and to push the limits of generalizations. Hence what could be seen as contradictions from one work to another. Once you get right to the limit in each theme, of course, you are going to have some tensions among themes and among works. He could be contrary, and he was willing to stick his neck out, and others were more than willing to meet it with a guillotine, whether or not capital punishment was warranted; and eventually it became a bit of an affectation with him.

Why? My sense is that he would have concurred with G.H. Hardy’s assessment in A Mathematician’s Apology that “It is never worth a first-class man’s time to express a majority opinion. By definition, there are plenty of others to do that.”

Sam was a first-class man in just about every way. [End Page 190]