Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash Of Civilizations

The Clash Of Civilizations and the Remaking of World OrderIn 1992, Samuel P. Huntington published an article in Foreign Affairs that sparked a national debate. Its title was “The Clash of Civilizations,” and it was largely formulated in response to a thesis put forward by Huntington’s former student, Francis Fukuyama, that we have reached “the end of history,” that liberal democracy had won a fatal victory over its competing ideologies, dividing the world into those nations that had adopted Western values and those that were soon to adopt them. Huntington’s essay, and the subsequent book of the same title, hacked at the root of this optimism. In a post-Cold War world, he argued, nations would not be the primary basis of identity but “civilizations,” and these identities would complicate or even subvert former allegiances. On September 11th, 2001, when an organization with no known national allegiance and a very clear civilizational one weaponized airplanes and brought a nation to its knees, Huntington’s thesis took on lethal importance, and his book, then nearly a decade old, shot up the ranks of the bestseller lists.

Huntington begins by identifying the eight contemporary civilizations: Sinic (Chinese), Japanese, Orthodox (Russian), Western (the United States, Canada, Europe), Hindu, Islamic, African and Buddhist. Each of these civilizations represents an identity – often though not always founded on a religion – in varying degrees of conflict with one another. Here it is necessary to pause: Huntington, as with Isaiah Berlin, believes that, though civilizations may have much in common, they are also often different in fundamental ways, and these different values bring them into conflict in important ways. These differences of identity are often openly acknowledged by leaders of various civilizations, and increasingly trumpeted as reasons for their superiority vis-a-vis the West, but they are frequently denied within the West – a denial that seems to me increasingly untenable.

Continuing to court controversy, Huntington identifies the Sinic and Islamic civilizations as being particularly antagonistic to the West, the former spurred by its economic growth and the latter by its demographic growth. Demography and its role in shaping global politics is too little commented on today. “It is not perhaps entirely coincidental,” writes Huntington, “that the proportion of youth in the Iranian population rose dramatically in the 1970s, reaching 20 percent in the last half of that decade, and that the Iranian Revolution occurred in 1979 or that this benchmark was reached in Algeria in the early 1990s just as the Islamist FIS was winning popular support and scoring electoral victories.” I have argued before that a young population, and in particular a young male population with poor prospects within its own society, is a recipe for revolution, and to examine the average age of the peoples of the various civilizations is to see this incendiary situation writ large: most of the world’s power and wealth is concentrated in Western countries with aging populations.

Another important component to Huntington’s argument, and one that intrigues me particularly, is that the West is in a steady decline. Its power and influence relative to other nations, particularly China, is waning, and concomitant with this decline in power has been a steady social decline. This is a very minor aspect of the book, but Huntington lists a rise in “antisocial behavior” (drinking, drug use, crime) and a decline in marriage and fertility as evidence of a kind of cultural crisis of confidence, one that threatens our ability to promote our values – and properly assimilate immigrants to those values.

Ultimately, despite its reputation, this is not an aggressive or “hawkish” book. Huntington’s central advice to the West is to give up the vanity of believing that Western values are “universal” values, a practice he believes cannot help but lead to imperialism: “In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.” Far from advising we beat our chests and assert our cultural superiority, either militarily or economically, over other nations, he suggests instead we accept that intractable differences separate us from other civilizations. “Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world.” Both the Bush and Obama presidencies seem to provide ample proof of this claim. Whether we can adapt ourselves to a multicivilazational world – and, most importantly, maintain our Western identity – remains to be seen.