Samuel P. Huntington has died. I guess he will be most remembered for the Clash of Civilizations thesis. At first it appeared seductive, even prescient, but in the end it didn't bear scrutiny.
In his 1993 essay, The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington articulated a new paradigm to replace an outmoded Cold War world-view predicated on a tripartite arrangement of the Free World, Communist bloc and non-aligned Third World. The fundamental source of conflict, he suggested, would no longer be ‘primarily ideological or primarily economic’, but cultural. There will be a clash of civilizations and ‘the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.’
His 1997 monograph of the same name expands on the original hypothesis. Contrary to the neocon belief in unipolarity, he suggests the world is now multipolar and multicivilizational. A civilization-based world order is emerging and the balance of power is shifting. He considers a clash of civilizations inevitable. Civilizational differences, the ‘product of centuries’ , are more fundamental than those of political ideologies. Fundamentalist religion has revived and Sinic societies are advancing. The West’s belief in its universality – that is, the primacy of democracy and liberalism – antagonises the rest and, at the ‘peak of its power’ it is faced with ‘non-Wests that increasingly have the desire, the will and the resources to shape the world in non-Western ways.‘ He warns of the perceived connection between universalism and imperialism and, while this there is an element of reductive fallacy about this, it contains a germ of truth. Muzaffar, for example, suggests: ‘it is the US and Western dominance of the planet, and not the clash of civilizations, which is the root of global conflict.’ Accordingly, Huntington concludes that ‘the dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise because of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance and Sinic assertiveness.’
Huntington understands what neocons and even cosmopolitanists overlook – that Western attempts to promote global liberal democracy are often seen as arrogant. Lowry, for example, notes that neocons ‘[assume] a universal admiration for America that does not exist.’ And cosmopolitanists do not always understand that the NGOs and IGOs they believe are the bulwarks of globalizing democracy are often seen as being dominated by the West and mandated, as Archibugi notes, to defend very narrow economic interests.
Nonetheless, it would be quite wrong to suggest that Huntington’s thesis gives an accurate depiction of the world today or a reliable forecast of its future. For example, he is unable even to articulate how many civilizations exist. There are ‘seven or eight’, he suggests (in the later monograph he explains that a discrete African civilization is only a ‘possibility’.) Moreover, it is clear he is only interested in three of these – the West, plus Islamic and Sinic civilizations. And in his doomsday scenario he sees the latter combining to form an alliance against the West: in effect, as Edward Said notes, he basically reformulates the Cold War paradigm of West against the rest. Far from articulating a new paradigm, Huntington simply refuels old paranoia.
Global war, therefore, becomes his first future scenario, although he concedes this is not inevitable if world leaders cooperate to ‘maintain the multicivilizational character of global politics.’ He is not especially confident that such cooperation will occur: the West’s universalism is bringing it into conflict with ‘the rest’, who are becoming increasingly belligerent. ‘Kin-countries’ are bonding and alliances – most frighteningly, in Huntington’s eyes, a Sino-Muslim one – are being formed.
His second and third scenarios are of the decline of the West, and its mirror, Western resurgence. Unsurprisingly, it is to the latter that Huntington devotes his greatest attention. The West remains the most powerful civilization but is already in decline. Suggesting it will deteriorate further, he now articulates his theories on cosmopolitanist-inspired multiculturalism, which he considers to be a considerable threat to American, and indeed Western civilization. These arguments, shallow and borderline racist, emphasising the apparent dangers of different cultures within the US, begin to give the impression that it is not different civilizations that Huntington decries, but different races. Indeed, this point was noted by many observers at the time of the original essay. Ali Mazrui, for example, asked whether the clash of civilizations is no more than a euphemism for a clash of races. Kalam, too, suggests that Huntington’s paradigm appears ‘as a veiled attempt to conceal his racial face,’ while Edward Said likens Huntington’s depiction of the West and ‘the rest’ as ‘a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly.’ In a world where cosmopolitanists are advocating cultural cohesion and even neocons talk of benevolent hegemony, Huntington’s thesis feels uncomfortably sectarian.
Huntington’s is an essentially antagonistic model, suggesting a future of either cold or active war, where civilizations grow and are kept apart. Is this appealing? In the sense of desirability, clearly it is not: the world has known prolonged global tension for over a century and an extension of this state is undesirable. In terms of likelihood, there are two considerations. Firstly, there is a considerable fear of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy: his original thesis has been welcomed by extremists in both the West and the Islamic world. On the other hand, it contains profound weaknesses.
Firstly, it fails to take account of economic drivers. His suggestion that the West faced no economic rival but Japan was wrong even in 1993: today, with the rise of China as an economic superpower, it is nonsense. Further, there is no evidence that China is aligning itself with Muslim states: indeed, in conflicts such as Bosnia it took the opposite side. To identify Confucian states as potential enemies, but exclude Japan from such a description, is perverse, and it appears that Huntington does so only because it better fits his thesis. The multiculturalism that he criticises so heavily begins to unpick his assertion that there is a single, cohesive ‘Western’ civilization. Similarly, it is impossible to look at the array of Islamic states, from semi-secular Turkey to fundamentalist Iran, as a unified whole. As a vision of the future, Huntington’s is neither desirable nor likely.
The trouble is, with the world in its current situation, it remains seductive. The greatest fear is a self-fulfilling prophesy.