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Huntington’s “Who Are We?”

What are the questions before the United States as it tries to define its identity?

November 29, 2004

What are the questions before the United States as it tries to define its identity?

The United States is struggling to come to terms with a changing world. Old concepts of unquestioning allies have fallen victim to the reality of a transatlantic rift. In this Read My Lips feature, we present the views of Samuel P. Huntington — the author of “Who Are We?” — on the global importance of religion and the ways in which the United States has to reconsider its national identity.

What will shape our century's policies?

“The 21st century is dawning as a century of religion. Virtually everywhere, apart from Western Europe, people are turning to religion for comfort, guidance, solace — and identity.”

How are Muslim militants organized?

“As the Communist International once did, militant Muslim groups maintain a network of cells in countries throughout the world.”

Yet, how does the Islamists' approach differ?

“The communists wanted to mobilize a mass movement in order to fundamentally change the democratic political and capitalist economic systems of Western societies. Militant groups do not expect to convert Europe and American into Islamic societies. Their principal aim is to inflict serious damage on them.”

If religions are pitched against each other, what defines the Muslim identity — as opposed to a U.S. identity?

“In the Muslim world, the distribution of identities has tended to be U-shaped: The strongest identities and commitments have been family, clan and tribe at one extreme — and to Islam and the ummah — or Islamic community — at the other. With a few exceptions, loyalties to nations and nation-states have been weak.”

Did Osama bin Laden help redefine the identity of the United States?

“When Osama bin Laden attacked America, he filled the vacuum created by Gorbachev with an unmistakably dangerous new enemy — and he pinpointed America’s identity as a Christian nation.”

What is the question before Americans?

“Are we a ‘we’ — one people or several? If we are a ‘we,’ what distinguishes us from the ‘thems’ who are not us?”

How does globalization factor into all this?

“The United States’ national identity is challenged by the forces of globalization — as well as the needs that globalization produces among people for smaller and more meaningful ‘blood and belief’ identities.”

What adds to the challenges?

“No other first-world country has such an expensive land frontier with a third-world country.”

Do Americans face a similar question when it comes to foreign policy issues?

“Cosmopolitan? Imperial? National? The choices Americans make will shape their future as a nation — and the future of the world.”

What used to drive U.S. foreign policy?

“The imperial impulse was fueled by beliefs in the supremacy of American power and the universality of American values.”

Can the United States turn its vision into reality by going it alone?

“America cannot achieve any significant goal in the world without the cooperation of at least some countries.”

Will the American people be united in facing the challenges of the future?

“The central distinction between the public and elites is not isolationism versus internationalism — but nationalism versus cosmopolitanism.”
(April 2004)

And finally, why does the United States need to be careful about the wars it fights?

“War is now more often the breaker of states than the maker of states.”

If not indicated otherwise, this Read My Lips feature is based on Samuel Huntington’s “Who Are We?” (copyright © 2004 by Samuel P. Huntington and published by Simon & Schuster).