Political Scientist Samuel P. Huntington

Samuel P. Huntington, a longtime Harvard professor, was an influential and provocative writer on important issues of the modern world.
Samuel P. Huntington, a longtime Harvard professor, was an influential and provocative writer on important issues of the modern world. (By Jane Reed -- Harvard University)
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By Joe Holley and Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 29, 2008

Samuel P. Huntington, 81, an influential Harvard political scientist whose views on the clash of cultures sparked intellectual clashes of their own, died Dec. 24 on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

His wife, Nancy Arkelyan Huntingon, attributed his death to congestive heart failure complicated by diabetes.

Dr. Huntington, who had retired from active teaching in 2007, was the author, co-author or editor of 17 books. One of them, published in 1996, appeared particularly germane after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order."

Expanding on a provocative 1993 Foreign Affairs article, Dr. Huntington argued in the book that the principal causes of future wars would not be nation-state rivalries over trade, territory or ideology. Instead, he wrote, wars would erupt over differences in religion, history, language and tradition.

He asserted that Cold War antagonisms were relatively minor compared with "the continuing and deeply conflictual relation between Islam and Christianity."

Over the years, Dr. Huntington probed a number of the overarching issues of the modern world: matters of war, peace, social progress and international development; the place of the military in a republic; tensions between democratic forms and social order; the upheavals of the 1960s; and even the very nature and distinctiveness of the United States.

Dr. Huntington was a lifelong Democrat, and he was a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey's unsuccessful 1968 presidential campaign. But Dr. Huntington was "an old-fashioned Democrat, the kind that no longer exists," Robert D. Kaplan wrote in a 2001 Atlantic article.

Kaplan wrote that Dr. Huntington "has always held liberal ideals. But he knows that such ideals cannot survive without power, and that power requires careful upkeep."

Dr. Huntington was drawn to the views of Reinhold Niebuhr, the leading Protestant theologian of 20th-century America. He said Niebuhr offered a "compelling combination of morality and practical realism."

Dr. Huntington cited a need to distinguish between antagonists with whom negotiation is possible "and unrelenting enemies who will try to destroy us unless we destroy them first."

Often described as quiet and soft-spoken, he generated ideas that sparked vociferous clashes of opinion inside the academic world and without. "Huntington may be America's most distinguished political scientist. He is certainly its most exasperating," Jacob Heilbrunn wrote in a 1998 issue of the American Prospect.

Heilbrunn took issue with the thesis of "The Clash of Civilizations," as did others. Robin Harris, writing in National Review, described it as a "bold and brilliant book" but concluded that the analysis does not "ultimately pass muster." Robert Jervis, writing in Political Science Quarterly, remarked: "His critics are not likely to be persuaded, but I cannot imagine a reader coming away without rethinking many accepted ideas."

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