Samuel Huntington, the highly influential thinker who authored The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, died on Dec. 24 on Martha's Vineyard -- of all places, not a bad place to go.
One of the first books I read about Estonia was Marju Lauristin and Peeter Vihalemm's Return to the Western World: Cultural and Political Perspectives on the Estonian Post-Communist Transition (1997).
Return to the West lays out Estonia's historical narrative for inclusion in the nordic and European community. The book heavily references Huntington's theory, and the authors are quite pleased to reprint his map with a thick border running through the middle of Lake Peipsi separating Orthodox Russia from Western Estonia. The differences are not merely about interpretations of history; these two countries sit on different civilizational tectonic plates.
Is this just smart geopolitical repositioning? Partially. Estonia's political leaders at that time passionately used such civilizational rhetoric. To President Lennart Meri, for example, Estonia was not "FSU" but "FSE" -- former Swedish empire. But even in the Soviet era, Estonia was a different kind of Soviet country. Magazine articles from the 1950s and 60s talk of a similar kind of limboland, where Soviet power was apparent but eastern civilization was not.
The genius of Huntington's work, like the best theories, was that it confirmed something we already intrinsically knew. What is interesting is how it continues to drive Western policies. At the Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn last year, I listened late at night as an older British diplomat explained his country's support for Baltic EU and NATO inclusion. "Tallinn could be Copenhagen," he said. "Riga could be Lübeck, Vilnius could be Krakow. This is the West!"
But Kiev? Tbilisi? The Western thinkers know not what to do. The strength of their convictions atrophies in the civilizational confusion that ensues whenever big questions over the future of Ukraine and Georgia are raised. As Peter Millar wrote in the Times in August. "For [David] Cameron to equate Estonia and Ukraine, as he did last week, is stupidity. Estonia’s history, language and culture are markedly separate."
That was a civilizational argument underpinning a contemporary foreign policy. And here you can begin to see why Huntington is still controversial and his theory is not loved in certain quarters.