Clash of Civilizations- A Critique

USA fought the Cold War in accordance with theoretical framework postulated by George Kennan in his highly influential article “Sources of Soviet Conduct”, published in Foreign Affairs in its June edition of 1947. Kennan advocated the superiority of the Western way of life over the collectivist ideals of Soviet Communists which needed to be countered by force and contained by anti-Soviet Union alliances. His ideas provided the framework within which American foreign policy was conducted which shaped the world politics during the era before the fall of the Soviet Union.
After the fall of USSR in 1989, fundamental changes in the objective realities necessitated a new paradigm for the academia and policy makers for understanding international relations. Consequently several ideas started competing to find acceptance with the intellectuals of the world. One such idea was the End of History thesis, postulated by Francis Fukuyama in 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He argued that after the reform in the Soviet Union, the decline in communism, and the emergence of democracy, the humankind had reached an end point in ideological evolution with the triumph of the western ideals of liberal democracy and market mechanism as universally accepted ideological forces. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, he maintained, the world would be dominated by liberal democracies led by the United States. These democracies would be less inclined to go to war with each other and more interested in cooperation to maintain peace in the world.
This view was challenged by his teacher Mr. Samuel P. Huntington in a lecture delivered at the American Enterprise Institute in 1992. Contrary to Fukuyama’s image of the post-Cold War world as a place marked by “perpetual peace” among liberal democracies, Huntington anticipated a world characterized by the clash of civilizations in which the principal conflicts of global politics will be cultural and “they will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.” He asserted that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had only reverted to a normal state of affairs characterized by cultural conflict.
His views were later published in 1993 as an article titled “The Clash of Civilizations?” in one of the most prestigious magazines, Foreign Affairs. (http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/pnorris/Acrobat/Huntington_Clash.pdf). In 1996 Huntington expanded this thesis in a book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
According to Huntington, “the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future’. Based on this he concluded that the Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and ‘possibly the African cultures would be the potential sources of the “battle lines of the future” at both micro and macro levels. He then offers six explanations for why civilizations will clash:

  1. First, the “real” and “basic” differences among cultures will cause war, because, although “differences do not necessarily mean conflict,” still over the centuries “differences among civilizations have generated the most prolonged and the most violent conflicts.” Differences among civilizations are too basic in that civilizations are differentiated from each other by history, language, culture, tradition, and, most important, religion. These fundamental differences are the product of centuries, so they will not soon disappear.
  2. Second, “the world is becoming a smaller place,” and as a result, the interactions across the world are increasing. As cultures rub against one another more tightly, the process generates greater tension and intensifies civilization consciousness and awareness of differences between civilizations and commonalities within civilizations.
  3. Third, modernization and social change “are separating people from long-standing social local identities, with the result “that religion has moved in to fill this gap.” providing a basis for identity and commitment that transcends national boundaries and unites civilizations.
  4. Fourth, Huntington contends that an increasingly bitter reaction to western ideas and values will exacerbate civilizational conflicts. The growth of civilization-consciousness is enhanced by the dual role of the West. On the one hand, the West is at a peak of power. At the same time, a return-to-the-roots phenomenon is occurring among non-Western civilizations. A West at the peak of its power confronts non-Western countries that increasingly have the desire, the will and the resources to shape the world in non-Western ways.
  5. Fifth, “cultural characteristics and differences are less mutable and hence less easily compromised and resolved than political and economic ones.”
  6. Sixth and finally, “economic regionalism is increasing,” a process that “reinforces civilizational-consciousness”. Economic regionalism may succeed only when it is rooted in a common civilization.

Huntington’s thesis reignited the debate about the likely post-Cold War scenarios which started with the publication of End of History thesis by Francis Fukuyama and soon became a recommended reading for anyone interested in understanding the international politics. And it still rightly occupies a prominent place in this genre of discussions because of its in-depth analysis of complex situation, kaleidoscopic reach of his conclusions and wealth of anecdotal and statistical information provided.
His thesis has been extensively discussed, criticized by many on account of its accuracy and eulogized by others for its simplicity during the last two decades. While Edward Said has been its outspoken critic on the one hand, Bernard Lewis who initially started the debate about the clash of civilizations via his 1990 essay, “The Roots of Muslim Rage”, was a strong proponent of Huntington’s views. Mahbubani, like Francis Fukuyama, believed that the world was gravitating towards universal civilization and hence rejected the clash of civilizations thesis.
However, it must be pointed out that although name of Samuel Huntingdon has become synonymous with the clash of civilization thesis, he was not the author of the term itself. In fact this term was earlier used by Basil Mathews in 1926 in his book “Young Islam on Trek: A Study in the Clash of Civilizations” in which he expressed his views about the changing sociopolitical dynamics of the Middle East. Later on, the French writer Albert Camus also used it in 1946.Interestingly, two years before the delivery of Huntington’s lecture, Bernard Lewis had expanded on this idea in an article in the September 1990 issue of The Atlantic Monthly titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage”.
What are the strengths of this thesis and where does it fails, either at intellectual level or practical implications, depends upon what is your own frame of mind. It is an internally consistent framework of analysis in the sense that if you agree with the assumptions he has stated or taken for granted, then the logical conclusion follows as smoothly as night follows the day. For example if you believe in his implied assumption that there exists an all embracing, powerful Islamic Civilization with unity of command and a desire to conquer the post-Cold War world, then a strong case can be made to counter it by pooling the resources of
Non-Islamic nations to counter it.
However, the reality is quite the opposite. There are more than thirty Muslim states, some big, some small, at different levels of modernization. A few of them are at daggers drawn with one another to protect their respective national interests, not in a position to pose a serious challenge to the western civilization. Rather they are slowly and gradually becoming westernized in accordance with the predictions of Fukuyama.
Keeping aside the disastrous practical policy implications of his thesis mentioned above, it suffers from some serious several flaws even as an analytical framework. In his zeal to postulate a grand general theory of post-cold war international relations, he has tried to oversimplify a complex situation by selective application of facts and figures that he feels substantiates his views .Similarly one of his flawed argumentations is the over emphasis on cultural unity of the Muslim nation-states while understating or even ignoring all the vast gulf exiting among them on account of pursuing their respective political and national security self-interests.
According to Marc Cogen, in his zeal to warn the West about the rise of the Islamic fundamentalism, Huntington has oversimplified his arguments about the impending civilization clashes and equated it with the real modern day reality of ideological conflict. As a result of his oversimplification of cultural unity  at a higher level of civilization, Huntington fails to account for many other factors responsible for the rise of China, India, Russia, Brazil etc as global powers instead of any Islamic country.
Another criticism of Huntington is what can be termed as Confirmation Bias-the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs. When sifting through evidence, Huntington tends to value anything, no matter how inconsequential, that agrees with his thesis. He also interprets ambiguous information as supporting his beliefs and uses carefully selected statistics to prove his thesis. “When he uses statistics, he gladly provides information that he feels substantiates his views. If he needs a chart to substantiate that English (the West) is not truly the dominant language of the world, he gladly pulls out one that shows a trend of language usage over the last 34 years.”
In conclusion we can say that irrespective of the fact whether one agrees with him in toto or not, one must acknowledge that his thesis articulated a theoretical framework for analyzing the post-cold war global politics. It is, however, unfortunate that for quite a few policy makers it provided perfect perspective to take actions particularly after the September 11, 2001 tragedy which provided practical validation of Huntington’s viewpoint

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