Books That Don’t Say What People Say They Say: The Clash of Civilizations

Note: Given the current conflict in Ukraine, which Samuel Huntington predicted, I think it timely to discuss this book.  It gives valuable insight into our current problems.

Over the last year I repeatedly heard colleagues of mine refer to Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order They always said it with the same contemptuous tone.  That’s fine, except that they consistently misrepresented the book.

According to them, here’s what Huntington said:

  1. War between the West and the Muslim World is inevitable.
  2. War is inevitable because Muslims are bad, violent people.

I love Clash of Civilizations.  I’ve actually read it – the entire book.  Huntington did not say what my colleagues said he said.  In the case of the first point above, he in fact said the opposite.

What Huntington actually said:

  1. His argument applies only to the post-Cold War context, so he necessarily rejects eternal/universal claims about Muslims.
  2. With the collapse of the bipolar superpower system of the Cold War, culture, civilization, and nationalism have became the overriding organizational principle of global politics.
  3. We can prevent major conflicts in the new global context by allowing the “core” states of each civilization to assert their influence and control over other countries within their civilization, especially those countries on the border with other civilizations
  4. America must not try to dominate the world.  We must back off of China and Russia, for example, and let them extend a sphere of influence over their neighbors.  Having acquired their spheres of influence, they will gain an incentive to prevent wars between those states and their neighboring civilizations.
  5. We must, however, expect conflicts within countries that are split between two civilizations.  He predicted, for example, that war would develop in Ukraine with the West and Russia seeking to exert their influence.  The best thing to do, according to Huntington, is to let, in this case, Russia have eastern Ukraine and the West have the west – with the clear understanding that incursions into each others’ civilizations is off-limits.
  6. The greater than average amount of conflicts involving Muslim countries has nothing to do with Islam.  It is the result of 1) there being no core state to unify and organize the Muslim World, 2) there being so many civilizational fault lines running through countries with Muslims on one side and other civilizations on the other, and 3) a youth demographic bubble leading to lots of unemployed, easily influenced, and angry men.  The last issue will be resolved within a generation or two.

Still, one need not agree with Huntington’s assessment of the post-Cold War world.  It would be easy, for example, to question his concept of civilization or to at least dispute claims of clear boundaries between them.  But if you want to disagree with what he actually said, you need to contend with the question of whether he was at least more right than wrong.

After the Cold War, the American political class offered us two possible visions of the future.

  1. The dominate one, enunciated by both neoconservatives and liberals like Bill Clinton, told us the world would be increasingly unified, peaceful, and prosperous.  They advocated the world of globalization.  Even critics of globalization tended to accept this view, except maybe the prosperity part; they just said that there would be bad parts about it, like the increasing Americanization and homogenization of the world.
  2. Huntington, Pat Buchanan, and others foresaw a world in which the collapse of the Soviet Union and resistance to American hegemony would unleash the forces of nationalism.  Nationalists would reject and resist the forces of globalization.

What does the world look like today?

  1. Scotland might narrowly vote to leave the UK.
  2. The average European increasingly wants out of the European Union.
  3. While America drives NATO up to the borders of Russia, Russia wages a covert war to take back eastern Ukraine and parts of Georgia.
  4. India and China engage in global trade, not to become subsumed in a global economy and culture, but to strengthen and assert themselves as Indian or Chinese.  Moreover, they are both building up their navies in order to strengthen their influence over or positions relative to their neighbors.  They are becoming old-school great powers.
  5. Much of the Muslim World rejects globalization as Americanization.  Reactionary groups even emerged to reject Western modernity.

This world looks to me a lot more like Huntington’s clash of civilizations than it does Clinton’s globalization.  Perhaps we should reconsider Huntington’s proposals for peace.

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