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The Clash of Civilizations: 20 years on

Update : 11 Nov 2013, 06:37 PM

On its 20th anniversary, I’ve been rereading the essay “The Clash of Civilizations” (1993) by Samuel P Huntington. It is a farsighted, pre-9/11, hotly-debated analysis and prediction of global conflict patterns. Huntington basically argues that all future conflicts – wars and possibly world wars – will be over cultural and religious divisions. In putting forth a hypothesis on a “new phase of world politics” after the Cold War, it also predicted major conflicts emerging between Islam and the West. This essay briefly explores the influence and relevance of The Clash of Civilizations.

Most political scientists consider the Cold War as a conflict between capitalist countries in the West and the Communist Bloc in the East. As such, it was essentially a conflict of ideology. At the end of the Cold War, an unavoidable question arose: what would drive the next wave of conflicts?

“Civilizational rifts,” replied Huntington.

The Clash of Civilizations deals with modern, post-Cold War empires and conflicts, but draws inferences from much older civilizations, cultures and traditions. It delves beyond political scuffles and explores the oldest, most deep-rooted sources of conflict. But first, we will review how the essay defines and differentiates a civilization.

What is a civilization?

In short, a civilization is the highest, common cultural grouping of humans. The only higher dimension of commonality is the Homo Sapiens species. In modern times, racial boundaries have been blurred – but not that of civilizations. That’s because civilizations often transcend national boundaries and geographic locations.

We are all human beings. Physically, we can be divided into races. Culturally, we are categorised into civilizations. Different civilizations, like Western, African, Islamic and Hindu, can contain many sub-cultures and nations. But these smaller units often share unique languages, history, traditions, folklores, religion and most importantly, identity. So, for example: I am a Dhakaite, a Bangladeshi, a Muslim, a citizen of the subcontinent, an Asian and a part of the Islamic civilization. Of course, part of my identity is influenced by the Hindu civilization – and by the same token, civilizations often overlap.

Civilisations may consist of a large population e.g. China (“A civilization pretending to be a state” – Lucian Pyle), many countries e.g. Latin America or a single country with a (relatively) small population e.g. Japanese. But they all identify with commonalities inherent in their respective civilizations. In historical research, 21 civilizations have been identified only six of which exist till this day.

Reasons for civilizations clashing

Huntington identifies a number of reasons as to why he thinks civilizations will clash. Highlights from these reasons are:

Basic differences: nations fight and nations become friends. Their differences emerge and then vanish. But civilizations are fundamentally unique from one another and have been so for thousands of years. Each views man, family, society, nation, world and God in a unique way. For example, it may be okay to move out of one’s parents’ house in the West but it’s viewed as relegating duty and responsibility in the East. People in each civilization hold their own view to be “the right view.”

Smaller world: through increased trade, travel, immigration and cultural exchanges civilizations are coming into contact with one another. While languages may be learned and discrimination/racism, overcome cultural identities are permanent baggage, always harder to explain or reconcile. That is why Diaspora communities stick together and myriad cities have Chinatowns. That is why the French prefer European over African migration and why Americans resent Chinese, but not Canadian investment.

Disappearing nation states: with economic modernisation and democratisation nation states are becoming identical. They no longer offer unique identity elements to citizens. Religions and culture are moving in to act as the primary sources of international identity. So, people are increasingly clinging harder to their religion, traditions and customs. This means: more and more polarisation of civilizations e.g. unsecularisation of the world, rise of the far-right and the re-Islamisation phenomenon.

Civilisation consciousness: following the end of colonialism, civilizations are returning to their roots. As the proverbial “West” rises to the peak of its power confronting all non-western civilizations through economics and warfare the latter are turning inwards, to soul-searching (e.g. Asianisation, Hinduisation, Islamisation, etc). They are increasingly seeking to reinvent themselves and the world in non-western ways.

Solidifying civilizations: as two-sided conflicts (Nazi vs Allies, Communists vs Capitalists/Democrats) have subsided regional blocs are coagulating. European nations aren’t fighting each other, USA-Canada-Mexico are coming together. So the question has gone from “which side are you on” to “who are you.”

Regional economics: countries are seeing the benefit in trading with neighbours and keeping war out. Platforms for regional economic cooperation (e.g. EU, Mercosur, African Union, SAARC) are thriving. Trading relationships are strengthening cultural/religious cohesion and unity.

Key civilizations in conflicts

Huntington identified eight key civilizations and predicted significant conflicts brewing between the West and Islam, the West and China, India and China etc. In his hypothesis, the Western civilization is hostilely engaged with all other civilizations. Most of these hold true in our times, though not all have broken out into explicit wars. It’s also interesting to note that Huntington foresaw little or no conflict between the Islamic world and Latin America or between Sinic and African civilizations.

The conflict between Islam and the West is a major theme in the essay. It predicts continuation of the 1400-year old conflict that started with the so-called birth of Islam. “The Muslim world has bloody borders,” it claims. Even if decrepit regimes fell, it suggests, there would still be a fundamental clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.

Solidification of civilizational identities

Twenty years back, Huntington had predicted that the clash would happen along the “fault-lines” between civilizations: the line that runs between Scandinavia and Russia, the historic Habsburg and Ottoman borders etc.

One side of this divide experienced the Renaissance, Enlightenment and French Revolution – while the other had religious orthodoxy, Ottoman and Tsarist reigns. While this account is highly West vs Non-West oriented, the “fault-line” theory is also supported by real divergences in economic growth, democratisation and religious orthodoxy today.

To understand civilizational divergence in education, recall that some months ago Richard Dawkins tweeted, “all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge.” The intense controversy, furor and mudslinging that these 140 characters caused, drowned out the fact that the Muslim World had fallen dismally behind in scientific education, inventions and patronage.

There’s no way to deny that all the world’s recent, significant discoveries and inventions have come either from the Western or the Sinic civilization, where great value is placed upon science, research and innovation.

Solidification of civilization identities is also supported by distinct morals and values. There are divergences in how civilizations treat homosexuality for example. Many argue that the East’s refusal to acknowledge homosexual marriage can be attributed squarely to Islam. But then, Islam doesn’t explain China or Russia’s refusal to acknowledge such unions.

It may be safely assumed that moral codes that determine social attitudes are quite deeply rooted in civilizational identities. The present Islam vs West narrative, rise of a monolithic China, isolation of Japan, rise of trade blocs and pan-Arabism have fallen into place as predicted. The solidification of distinct civilizations seems well underway.

A self-fulfilling prophecy?

Huntington appears to have rightly predicted that people would embrace civilizational identities in the place of the nation state and/or religion. Identification of fault-lines also seems to predict the geopolitics of recent conflicts and wars.

All of this combined with endless wars in the middle-east, the budding Cold War 2.0 between USA and China, use of “regional stability” as a foreign policy standard, regional preferences for the War on Terror and even small things like squabbling over control of international institutions, rising far-right groups, tougher immigration and ethno-racial profiling by law-enforcement – may all be pointing towards an impending collision of civilizations.

However, the assessment that civilizations are bound to “clash” (and not embrace/tolerate each other, for example) may not have been entirely accurate.

The Clash of Civilizations is still useful as a macro analysis of global conflict. It may also be argued that the West’s foreign policy has been influenced by Huntington’s essay. Much of the economic, diplomatic and military interactions with non-western elements have had a tribalist feel. Consider the following passage from Huntington’s book:

“Democracy is promoted, but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; nonproliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq, but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth, but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue for China, but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is massively repulsed, but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians. Double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of principle (P-184).”

If US foreign policy has been shaped, to an extent, by Huntington’s thinking – then the global reactions to such policy are also outcomes of his worldview. Thus, The Clash of Civilizations came very close to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But in truth, the hypothesis stems from a very primitive instinct and a series of ancient rivalries. It may have already ceased to be relevant to a trade-friendly, hyper-connected and increasingly-tolerant world.

Clash of the future

Huntington takes a bird’s eye view of global conflicts, draws from history and in doing that, ignores nuances “within” civilizations. To illustrate, he had foreseen an indefinite continuation of the post-WW2 alliance between the USA and Western Europe, which has been considerably affected by financial and banking crises and mass spying allegations.

The Islamic civilization had been viewed as a glob that hates the West and is keen only to embrace authoritarian regimes. All of that seem dubious assumptions at best. The reemergence of Russia, strong US-Japan relations and an emerging Latin American confederation is missing from the essay, as is the alliances between the West and certain Arab countries.

The tremendous economic boom of the 1990s may have also gone unanticipated in the essay. Despite major civilizational differences, China has become the USA’s biggest trade partner. Western investments in Arab countries are substantial.

The fact is: countries can now ill-afford to hold on to differences, because that would mean paying the economic cost of not participating in a burgeoning, global economy. If wars are an extension of politics, and politics an extension of economics – it is economics that will fuel international agendas and alliances of the future.

Other trends and events that defy civilizational prescriptions include the constant infighting in Africa, regional leadership struggle between Egypt and Turkey, China’s no-conflict policy, growth of substantial, enfranchised diaspora communities in the West, collaboration to protect overseas investments, the War on Terror, increasing development aid and trade between regions and resurgence of social values and traditions in a financially-troubled west.

Additionally, proliferation of technology and social-media was completely unaccounted for in Huntington’s analysis. The instant sharing of information and ideas, ideals and appeals, have transcended not only national, but civilizational boundaries: think about Kony, Pussy Riot, Ai Weiwei or the Four Finger Salute and how fast these ideas spread. All these seem to promise to bring the civilizations together and ameliorate differences.

Of all the upheavals, the biggest surprise has come from the Arab Spring movements. Defying prophecies, Arab peoples have stood up against authoritarian rule. This time, the conflict was shaped by the Web, and the war, fought online. A well-educated generation had finally been equipped to fight a long-pending battle and they have turned Tahrir Square and Gezi Park into household names.

In the West, changes in country fortunes debt crises and corporate dysfunction have led citizens to reevaluate their political choices that had resulted in unfathomable inequality. Their resolve has been informed by whistleblowers and anonymous hackers who have emerged as a guerilla fifth-column. Never in history has so much meaning been attached to the simple phrase of “99%.” All of these are battles of the mind, wars of Ideas. And Ideas have no boundaries.

It seems that over the next decade or so, conflicts are likely to arise out of fundamental differences between governments and the governed. In a world that’s rushing towards individualistic, liberal worldviews – resources used to create and drive regional agendas and fund overseas wars will be challenged by citizens. They will demand jobs, economic emancipation, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and better living standards and employment. The future may well hold a clash of governments and peoples.  

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