Global Context (International): The Clash of Civilizations

This series of posts deals with the global context in its historical, social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, and religious dimensions in particular. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in an increasingly complex and hyper-connected world.

Here’s a tip: If you care anything at all about global issues, and you haven’t read Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, put it on your wish list at it and read it. In this controversial and highly influential text on contemporary global politics, Huntington manages to raise the important questions of post-Cold War international affairs and to make a robust attempt at answering those same questions.

The Clash of Civilizations is a thinly veiled attack on Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama’s thesis is that the end of the Cold War signaled the rise of “a form of society that satisfied its deepest and most fundamental longings.” All of the really big questions will have been settled; hence there will be no further progress in principles and institutions. For him, Western values would triumph. In particular, democratic capitalism would have no competitor; it would be the final form of society. Even religious ideologies would not overturn this. Fukuyama’s is a Hegelian view of history, utopian and at times wildly optimistic. (It does, however, have some dark strains, such as his focus on the Nietzschean concept of The Last Man.)

Huntington, by way of contrast, argues that there will be no world-wide embrace of democratic capitalism and Western values. Instead, there will be increasingly deep-seated conflict between the world’s various civilizations and that furthermore the West will be at a distinct disadvantage. For him, religion and culture matter. Indeed, civilizations and their cultures will cause fights that make past controversies look like trivial spats.

Huntington’s thesis is that the most basic units of the global political order are not superpowers, alliances, or nation states, but civilizations. And these civilizations are pulling apart from one another rather than coming together. In an earlier article, Huntington put it like this: “Conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict; international relations, historically a game played out within Western civilization, will increasingly be de-Westernized and become a game in which non-Western civilization are actors and not simply objects.” And again: “What ultimately counts for people is not political ideology or economic interest. Faith and family, blood and belief, are what people identify with and what they will fight and die for.

For Huntington, the primary reason that civilizations will clash is that the differences among civilizations are “basic” types of differences-they are differentiated not merely by contemporary political theory or governments but by such things as history, language, culture, and religion. These differences are not likely to disappear and they will be exacerbated by the fact that the world is becoming increasingly hyper-connected.

Islam, China, and the West will likely be the most important players. “[The] most dangerous clashes of the future,” writes Huntington, are “likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness. The world resents the fact that the West sets the rules of the game for the rest of the world, and furthermore that the rules of the game are decidedly in favor of the West. The bad news for the West is that it will no longer be able to enforce its ambitions as well as it has in the past. Chinese civilization is on the rise and will continue to grow. It will be an economic, political and military power. Islamic civilization is full of young people who resent the West: “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.” This conflict is not likely to decline and, as Huntington reminds us, “Islam has bloody borders.

What is Huntington’s prescription? He advises that the United States stop trying to set the agenda for the globe, and stick with leading its own sphere of influence-Western civilization. Precisely because the United States has neglected its own culture, it is rotting from the inside out. Over and against the multiculturalists, the USA must preserve and defend its own culture while fostering greater unity between Europe, North America and Latin America.

There are many criticisms of Huntington’s thesis. Fouad Ajami has argued that the global situation is more messy than Huntington allows: “Huntingdon has found his civilizations whole and intact, watertight under an eternal sky….For [me], civilizations have always seemed messy creatures.” Jeane Kirkpatrick has argued that Huntington’s classification of seven or eight civilizations is questionable. Several critics have argued that nation states are more important than civilizations. Ajami, for example, argues that he “misses the slyness of states, the unsentimental and cold-blooded nature of so much of what they do as they pick their way through chaos….States are written off, their place given over to clashing civilizations.” Liu Binyan and others have countered Huntington by arguing that we should interact and gain consensus, seeking to merge civilization and break the present vicious cycles.

Yet another criticism is that this book underestimates the tenacity of the secular modern project, and its ability to overcome civilizational differences. But a stronger criticism, and the more relevant one for this essay, is that Huntington underestimates the power of religion to cross over civilizational boundaries. Much attention has been paid to Islam’s advances in the Western world (mostly through immigration and birth rate) but only now is the world beginning to pay attention to the fact that Christianity is a truly global phenomenon. As Andrew Bacevich puts it, Christianity is an intercivilizational phenomenon. Not only does it transcend culture, but “In the end, to listen to the believers among us, it will transcend history itself.

Perhaps the strongest criticism relates to Huntington’s assumptions about history. While he rightly rejects Fukuyama’s Hegelian method and utopian aspirations, Huntington himself fares no better by rejecting all “universal” history and leaving himself with only the particulars. For those of us who are believers, there is a master narrative that interprets for us the universal and the particulars. In four plot moves-Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation-we learn in broad stroke form both the direction in which history is moving (the universal) and the framework for interpreting the particulars. God through Christ is redeeming for himself a people and one day will restore even creation itself. Moreover, the people he redeems for himself will consist of worshipers from among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation-a phenomenon that transcends not only cultures and civilizations, but even history itself.

The Clash of Civilizations is strongly recommended for those who are interested in international affairs. In spite of the fact that we do not share some of Huntington’s presuppositions or conclusions, this book is worth reading because of (1) its towering stature among texts in global affairs at the turn of the century, (2) its ability to raise significant questions about the world in which we live, and (3) its inability to answer some of those same questions precisely because it is not informed by the master narrative provided by the Scriptures.

Book: The Clash of Civilizations (1996)
Author: Samuel P. Huntington
Region: Global
Length: 367 pp.
Difficulty: Intermediate Advanced