Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book Review: Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

May, 2014

Huntington, S. (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

In The Clash of Civilisations, Samuel Huntington offers a theory that seems accurate on the surface, but underneath leaves much to be desired. This review will outline some basic criticisms of Huntington’s theory.

Huntington’s central argument is that the world is a collection of competing and conflicting ‘civilisations’, a state of affairs which continues today and can be useful in predicting world trends in future. He poses that there are Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Western, Latin American and (possibly) African (45-48) civilisations. He defines civilisation (42-45) as ‘the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species’ (43). The trouble, which Huntington himself avoids by referencing earlier works to establish them, is trying in any detailed way to define the tenets or boundaries of individual civilisations, which would be vital if it is to offer any value in understanding their motivations or predicting their future actions. He identifies self-identification (43) with a civilisation as a factor and religion as another (42, 47). However, the former is chosen by an individual and the latter can be misleading as to where that individual falls on any issue based upon how strong their faith is. He acknowledges that civilisations change, ‘evolve’, ‘rise and fall’, ‘merge and divide’, and even ‘disappear’ (44). Though it may help explain the world as it is, the evolving nature of civilisations saps his theory of much of its predictive value.

Huntington’s most convincing point in defining civilisations is that civilisations are cultural groupings which outlive or transcend the politics, governments and states which govern them (43-44). Though the British Empire has fallen, there is still British civilisation. The Ottoman Empire is gone, but the civilisation still exists in Turkey. China and Germany have seen multiple forms of state over the last 200 years, but still maintain distinct civilisations very similar in character to those which predate these changes. Civilisations are cultural communities which outlive political, economic and scientific upheavals.

A weakness in the theory, which Huntington alludes to, is that civilisations ‘do not, as such, maintain order, establish justice, collect taxes, fight wars, negotiate treaties, or do any of the other things which governments do’ (44). Civilisations simply exist and their underlying cultures, as discussed above, evolve, merge, divide or disappear. No one controls them. Mao Zedong attempted to alter China’s ‘civilisation’ during the Cultural Revolution, as did Western powers in their colonies, and Hitler and Stalin in their own attempts. Arguably, none of them succeeded in permanently altering cultures or civilisations, despite killing millions. Huntington devotes Chapter 3 (56-78) to the concept of ‘universal civilisation’, dominated by Western ideas which Modernists attempt to portray as the ideal civilisation the world should adopt in order to progress. Huntington actually agrees with his critics, such as Edward Said, that the attempt to impose or promote this Modernist, Western-dominated version of a universal civilisation is a major reason for the ‘clash’ between cultures which reject its imposition upon them. Huntington believes ‘Western universalism is dangerous to the world because it could lead to a major inter-civilizational war’ (311).

However, the specific activities which can be seen as evidence of the’ imposition’ of this idea are conducted by certain identifiable states, not Western civilisation, because no one controls Western civilisation or any civilisation--accepting Huntington’s definition of them. Civilisations exist independent of any control. States within the West, and within other civilisations, often go in opposite directions. The United States and others may claim or be seen as speaking for the West as what Huntington calls a ‘Core State’ (35), but the US cannot control the will of Western civilisation. The division between Western powers over the War on Terror and the Iraq War in particular are examples. GW Bush’s attempt to rally the West with a ‘with-us-or-against-us’ line failed miserably among allies.

When Huntington points out armed conflicts as ‘clashes of civilisations’ they are also still clashes between states. As Huntington himself points out above, civilisations ‘do not, as such, ...fight wars’ (44). ‘Civilisations’ themselves cannot conduct any of the actions which Huntington must cite as evidence of ‘clash’. States can act. Civilisations cannot. Even non-state actors such as terrorist groups and international institutions have only a weak claim to represent civilisation. Different civilisations or cultures may present cultural differences which can lead to conflict, but civilisations themselves have no vehicle for armed conflict, or peace, or governing. Civilisations do not clash; states or non-state actors clash and claim their fight is for the good of their version of ‘civilisation’. Civilisation cannot be controlled by any state, but state behaviour can be controlled.

Civilizations do not clash; states or non-state actors clash and claim their fight is for the good of their version of 'civilization'.

If Huntington is right and civilisations are indeed the vehicle through which clashes are increasingly occurring and civilisations are entities which no state or other institution directly controls, then the ‘clash of civilisations’ would seem to be inevitable and uncontrollable. The only path to peace is for civilisations to retreat into themselves and recognise the spheres of other civilisations. This is exactly the situation Huntington describes and what he prescribes for the West (312). In a section called ‘The Renewal of the West?’ (301-308) he deplores the erosion of moral values, specifically calls for a rejection of multiculturalism, revival of Christianity and a renewed commitment to ‘liberty, democracy, individualism, equality before the law, constitutionalism, private property’ (305), concepts claimed as central to Western civilisation. This can be seen as a return to basic principles akin to fundamentalism. As discussed in a section called ‘The Islamic Resurgence’ (109-119), Huntington holds that Islamic Fundamentalism is the Islamic world doing just that, in line with his advice for the West. His answer to Islamic Fundamentalism is Western Fundamentalism. Arguably, this sort of ‘fight-fire-with-fire’ response could just as well serve to widen any divide and perhaps hasten the very clash Huntington wants to avoid.

Huntington outlines early on (31-35) why other prevailing international relations theories leave room for his argument and makes his weakest argument against Realism (33). He believes Realism explains much about how states exercise power in pursuit of interests, but it doesn’t account for differences in how different states determine what their interests are or determine priorities among interests. He believes civilizational contrasts accounts for these differences. This may or may not be true, but he simply asserts that ‘states increasingly define their interests in civilizational terms’ (34) without much more explanation. He then goes on to argue that international institutions have eroded state authority, that there is a trend toward secessionism and devolution of power to local governments and that globalisation and the internet have reduced states’ ability to control ‘the flows of ideas, technology, goods, and people.’ (35)

Huntington gives international institutions more authority than they actually have. The UN does carry much weight in the world today, but despite this, states continue to do what they consider in their interest and the UN, lacking autonomous enforcement mechanisms, must rely on states to enforce its collective will. Much like civilisations, international institutions only work when states play along. Institutions such as NATO and the World Bank, though international, fall under the sway of their dominant member states, such as the United States. Most devolved governments are still dependent upon national governments for revenue, law and order and security. These institutions don’t have a will of their own; rather they represent the will of their dominant state member(s). Many secessionist movements are in fact proxy conflicts between states. States such as China and North Korea show states are still able to control the flow of goods and ideas within their borders if they decide it is in their interest to do so. Most states have decided open minds and borders are in their interest and haven’t simply lost the ability to control their borders as Huntington argues. State behaviour can be changed and controlled, whereas the character of civilisations cannot be. A ‘clash of civilisations’ is not inevitable.

A major criticism of Huntington’s theory is that it is all about ‘clash’ and says very little about the positive aspects of what happens when civilisations meet. Huntington only explores the negative security dimensions of his theory. The success of Huntington’s Clash may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with those in government who take up the theory seeing only clashes . If the West were to follow Huntington’s prescription, it would retreat into its core, focus on intra-civilisational interaction and pursue isolationist foreign policy. The world has benefitted greatly from the open exchange of people, ideas, culture and technology between civilisations. For example, Huntington goes on in sections entitled ‘Islam and the West’ (207-217) and ‘Incidence: Islam’s Bloody Borders’ (254-258) to discuss at length conflicts between Islam and other civilisations it comes into contact with, but wholly ignores the historically positive benefits of trade, scientific exchange and political cross-pollination between them, for example, between the Ottoman Empire and Western or Orthodox states on the Black and Mediterranean Seas. Huntington’s theory would be much more acceptable if it balanced the ‘clash of civilisations’ with ‘cooperation of civilisations’. There is an argument to be made that even if civilisations clash at times, the benefits of cooperation and interaction outweigh the drawbacks.

In conclusion, Huntington’s theory seems at the surface to explain the perceived intractable differences between the West and the Islamic world and between other civilisations, but, in depth, the picture drawn is an inaccurate representation of how these ‘clashes’ occur. Huntington’s prescriptions for the ‘clash’ are also questionable. He additionally fails to explore any positive aspects of the meeting of civilisations which could bring balance to his theory. However, the theory is not wholly without merit and deserves more in depth articulation and exploration.

1. Booth, K. (1997) “Huntington’s Homespun Grandeur.” The Political Quarterly 68 (4): pp. 425–428.