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  • Samuel P. Huntington (1927–2008)

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...