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  • Samuel Huntington’s Moral Geography
  • Michael J. Shapiro (bio)

Samuel Huntington is an articulate exemplar of those who think that the U.S. - as part of an entity called “the West” - is threatened by the increasing presence cultural Others. He warns against welcoming cultural diversity:

Some Americans have promoted multiculturalism at home, some have promoted universalism abroad, and some have done both. Multiculturalism at home threatens the West; universalism abroad threatens the West and the World. Both deny the uniqueness of Western Culture. 1

It turns out that “security” is now cultural security for Huntington. It is people flows rather than weapons that threaten the territory with which he identifies. His perspective on “the clash of civilizations” is one among many approaches, particularly those aimed at a security-oriented mapping of the globe, which, in Fredric Jameson’s terms, collapse ontology with geography. 2 Two approaches to the self-recognition of the modern state help situate this practice. First, it is necessary to heed what Michael Taussig has called “the cultural practice of statecraft”3 in which the state is understood to be continually crafting itself as the avatar of a national culture. Second, it is necessary to locate the ways in which that cultural practice of the state constructs the worlds of danger to its coherence.

This latter aspect of the state’s structures of self-recognition and reproduction is most evident in security discourses. “Security,” is not a thing to be defined, indeed as a concept among scholars of international politics it is more or less “essentially contested;”4 it is to be understood in terms of how and when it is articulated. While its articulation is often associated with strategic arguments in struggles among states, it is also expressed as part of the general ontological defense of the primacy of the state and its claim to be supported by and expressive of a primordial sovereign/citizen identity.

Construed in this way, “security” emerges as involvement in the ontological grounding of the political.5 But Huntington eschews an ontological or desiring impetus for his moral geography. His ontological and cosmological commitments to a geopolitical and civilizational order are, for him, detached, realistic assessments of threats to the “security” of the “West.” Failing to see the arbitrariness with which civilizational codes have emerged, he sees other “civilizations” as a threat to the West, and the immigration of non-western Others as a threat to what he constructs as a unitary American national culture.

Ironically, as one for whom power is a dominant category for interpreting global process, Huntington views knowledge as primarily technical; appropriately pursued, it has no intimacy with the operation of power or authority. He suggests that maps simply serve a rational, heuristic function:

Simplified paradigms or maps are indispensable for human thought and action...We need explicit or implicit models to: 1. Order and generalize about reality; 2. understand causal relationships among phenomena; 3. anticipate and, if we are lucky, predict future developments; 4. distinguish what is important from what is unimportant; and 5. show us what paths we should take to achieve our goals. 6

In contrast, over a century ago Joseph Conrad understood well the “violence of representation” that inheres in some geographic imaginaries.7 Under the general rubric of “imperial geography,” he proposed a chronology of geographic perspectives that accompanied and legitimated various stages in the process of the European colonization. His stages ran from “geography fabulous,” based on myths of the new world, through “geography militant,” coinciding with the invasions,” to “geography triumphant,” expressed in the subsequent cartographic representations of the European settlements.8

As Conrad’s discussion makes clear, maps reflect practiced imaginaries; they are irredeemably entangled with moral and political projects.9 The “power-knowledge” circuit that Conrad’s “geography triumphant” reflected was associated with the establishment of the Euro-American dominated geopolitical world of states. Huntington’s replacement of that map with one based on a “civilizational” ordering reflects another project. Rather than extending the early project of settlement and domination, it is a project of enclavization, of retreating to the citadel of “Western civilization” around which he draws a line that separates the West from “the rest.”


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