Is There a ‘Clash of Civilizations’? Revisiting Huntington’s Thesis, Thirty-Years Later
This essay was written for a topic in Culture and Public Policy which I took while studying to complete my Masters of Public Administration in September 2013.
Writing in the midst of the Cold War, the late historian Carroll Quigley described civilizations as dynamic, complicated products of the social sciences containing “subjective elements” that change through time (Quigley 1979 p. 85). Quigley offered this explanation as part of his monumental historical examination of human history titled, “The Evolution of Civilizations” (Quigley 1979). The geopolitical world has evolved considerably since then and new explanations for defining the Post-Cold War world have emerged. Notably, Francis Fukuyama declared the liberal democratic model of governance as triumphant (Fukuyama 1995), while others were not so optimistic. In this regard, Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” (Huntington 1993a 1993b) offered a model for understanding geopolitical developments in the Post-Cold War World through expanding on the concept of civilizations.
Even though nearly thirty years have passed since Huntington’s article (Huntington 1993a) appeared, evidence from the geopolitical environment continues to indicate that a clash is occurring along civilizational lines as Huntington foresaw. Although restricted by various limitations, this essay will nonetheless attempt to argue that a clash of civilizations appears to be occurring along the parameters outlined by Huntington by focusing on three specific aspects of Huntington's thesis. These three aspects include Huntington’s description of fault lines, torn countries, and the borders of the Islamic civilization. This essay will draw from recent geopolitical events to argue that modern conflicts appear to be occurring within the parameters Huntington described, suggesting that Huntington’s thesis remains a useful tool for Western foreign policy advisors in their evaluation of the geopolitical environment. Nevertheless, through acknowledging the subjectivity of civilizations this essay will conclude by considering that a new model for understanding civilizations - expanding on Huntington’s thesis - might be required to more adequately explain events in the modern geopolitical environment.
Samuel Huntington’s article, “The Clash of Civilizations” (1993a), provides a sweeping analysis of culture as represented in broad geopolitical entities defined as civilizations. Huntington’s article goes further than simply analysing events in the Post-Cold War era in that he proposes a model for policymakers to use in their approach to understanding the dynamics of geopolitical events. Huntington uses two articles (and later a book) (Huntington 1993a, 1993b) to argue that in the Post-Cold War era geopolitical conflict will no longer take place along ideological lines. Instead, Huntington argues that conflicts will occur between what he categorizes as civilizations. In his own words, Huntington describes the clash:
“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind 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.” (1993a, p. 22)
According to Huntington, there are approximately eight civilizations which consist of, “…Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization” (Huntington 1993, p. 25). When reviewing Huntington’s argument one is reminded of Quigley’s remarks above, that civilizations contain subjective elements. The nature of this subjectivity was emphasized by Huntington’s second article, an elaboration of his initial depiction of the clash of civilizations, in which he responds to his critics by reiterating the need for a, “…new model that will help us to order and to understand central developments in world politics” (Huntington 1993b 187). And in response to those who questioned the subjectivity of his argument, Huntington simply asks, “If not civilizations, what?” (Huntington 1993b p. 191). It will therefore be the purpose of this essay to test Huntington’s argument with modern geopolitical developments.
Fault Lines, Torn Countries, and Islam’s ‘Bloody Borders’
According to Huntington, future conflict will occur along the fringes of civilizations (Huntington 1993a p. 25). Pivotal to Huntington’s argument is the case he presents that, “The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another” (Huntington 1993a p. 25). When one examines these fault lines in the wake of recent geopolitical events, a trend emerges which further suggests the importance of Huntington’s thesis. Although geopolitical conflicts do occur within civilizations, the most pressing concerns for the Western foreign policy advisor are those which are occurring along the fault lines. This is significant as Huntington warns that, “The interaction among peoples of different civilizations enhance the civilization-consciousness of people that, in turn, invigorates differences and animosities stretching or thought to stretch back deep into history” (Huntington 1993a p. 26). Echoing Huntington’s prediction is the rising tension between Japan and China. While China is frequently disturbed by Japanese politicians’ visiting the controversial Yasukuni War Shrine in Tokyo (Minter 2013), the growing tensions between these Asian economic giants might be in fact the result of growing national (Fisher 2013), or even civilizational, consciousness. Furthermore, recent tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are said to be triggering a “nationalist movement” in each country (Lipin 2012). In 2012 these tensions led many Japanese businesses to reconsider their investments in China (Topham Izumi 2012). The potential for conflict was recorded this year as aerial drones from both nations were set to begin routine patrols over the islands (Kaiman & McCurry 2013). Conflicts have also been rising between India, Huntington’s Hindu civilization, and its neighbour Pakistan which belongs to the Islamic civilization. The tensions between Pakistan and India increased recently as armed conflict erupted along the disputed Kashmir region (Naqash 2013). Tensions have also been rising between Russia, Huntington’s Slavic-Orthodox civilization and the European Union, part of Huntington’s Western civilization, over former Soviet nations gaining membership into the European Union (Balmforth 2013). Russia has been directing particular interest towards preventing Ukraine, a co-Slavic country, from joining the European Union (EU) (Polityuk 2013). Russia as a separate case will be discussed below. Nevertheless, among all the tensions along the fault lines of civilizations, the borders of Huntington’s Islamic civilization are the most contentious.
Thirty years ago Huntington commented on how the borders of the Islamic civilization were “bloody” (Huntington 1993 p. 35), and this blood continues to spill without end in sight. Whereas Edward W. Said criticized Huntington’s analysis (Huntington 1993a) for relying too much on issues within the Muslim world (Said 2001), it is Huntington’s Islamic Civilization which continues to spiral in violent conflict. Although the War on Terrorism has been used as a foundation of either proving or disproving Huntington’s thesis (Hunt 2002), violence continues to flourish within the Islamic civilization. It was Bernard Lewis who, in 1990, warned of the impending conflict between 'The West' and 'the Islamic World' (Lewis 1990 pp. 17-26). Lewis offered a cautious warning to his readers, emphasizing how the Islamic culture conflicted with Western culture especially over Islam’s refusal to appreciate the West’s recognition of the separation between organized religion and civil government, the separation between “Church and State” (Lewis 1990 p. 24). Three years before Huntington applied the phrase to his thesis, Lewis was warning of the impending, “clash of civilizations” (Lewis 1990 pp. 24-26).
“It should now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the wholewide expansion of both” (Lewis 1990 p. 26).
More than thirty years have passed since Lewis offered these words of caution, and more than ten years have passed since the events of 9/11 and the subsequent American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, yet violent conflict continues to spread throughout the Islamic world. The events recently began in 2011 with the so-called Arab Spring, where revolutionary movements overtook the governments of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt almost simultaneously leaving many puzzled with what they were witnessing (Anderson 2011 p.3). The events were initially perceived with optimism, as the countries in Huntington’s Islamic Civilization were seen to have been earning the respect of The West (Khalidi 2011) as a growing sense of democratic euphoria swept through much of the Islamic world. Was the civilization which earned the greatest deal of Huntington’s caution transforming into something altogether unexpected – was the Arab Spring proving Huntington’s thesis wrong?
In 1993 Huntington wrote, “In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once again aflame. This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations from the bulge of Africa to central Asia” (Huntington 1993a pp. 34-35). This great fault line is currently imploding in Syria. According to a recent Reuters report, regardless of whether one calls the Syrian Crisis a civil war or a revolution, The United Nations refers to the Syrian crisis as a “catastrophe” (Nichols 2013). Arguably, Huntington’s clash of civilizations is being waged within the borders of Syria. In the midst of the Syrian conflict the forces of the Assad government are being supported by Russia and in particular Iran (Filkins 2013), while the rebels fighting against Assad are being supported by the United States and other Western governments (Lynch 2013 & Filkins 2013). Some have described the Syrian conflict as a proxy war (Lynch 2013), where the Western Civilization is fighting, via proxies, the Islamic Civilization as represented by Iran, and the Orthodox-Slavic Civilization led by Russia. Tensions rose to a climax recently when chemical weapons were used in the suburbs near Damascus (Roberts & Ackerman 2013). Almost in an instant, reactionary lines dividing the Syrian conflict were drawn along civilizational lines just as Huntington had predicted. Russia declared Assad was innocent while the West, represented primarily by The United States, declared Assad guilty of using chemical weapons (Roberts & Ackerman 2013). These tensions rose to the point that America threatened direct military involvement and began relocating significant naval forces within striking range of Syria, just as Russia began repositioning naval units of its own towards the waters of Syria (Roberts & Ackerman 2013 and Entous, Hook & Lee 2013). While the American military has not (at the time of this writing) invaded Syria, Western Civilization has clearly drawn a line dividing itself opposite of Iran and Russia. Consequently, the two representatives of their respective civilizations, Iran and Russia, are following through with Huntington’s prediction by allying their interests in opposition of The West.
In combination with Huntington’s fault lines premise is his concept of torn countries. Torn countries are those located between two civilizations, or along what Huntington described as the fault lines above (Huntington 1993a pp. 42-44). Mexico, Turkey, and Russia are emphasized by Huntington as the most significant torn countries (Huntington 1993a p. 42). While Mexico is finding new economic strength as a member of the NAFTA economic community (Kotkin 2013), whether it allies itself with The West's geopolitical concerns remains to be seen. Interestingly, Turkey has been reasserting itself in the modern world not only with its desire to join the EU (Guney 2005), yet also in its strong stance against the Assad Regime (Fahim 2013). In this regard, while Turkey is seen as asserting its interest within the Syrian conflict in accordance with Western interests, Turkey remains torn between its Western allegiances (via NATO and the EU), and its association within the Islamic Civilization (Gartenstein-Ross & Schanzer 2013). Arguably however, Russia is the most significant torn country as it asserts itself under the Putin regime. This assertion has been described in two aspects: by opposing The EU and through supporting Assad’s regime within the Syrian conflict. Russia has also been asserting itself directly against The West, where the Russian President Vladimir Putin once criticized the “uni-polar world”, led by the United States representing the West (Watson 2007). In contrast to The West’s unipolar world, at the recent G20 Summit in St. Petersburg Putin emphasized the emergence of a “multipolar world order”: a geopolitical environment no longer dominated by America and The West (Sonne & Ostroukh 2013). Russia’s assertion in geopolitics transformed further when the Russian President retaliated against a speech made by American President Obama. In a speech rallying American popular support towards a potential American intervention in Syria, Obama referred to America’s “exceptionalism” (Inglehart 2013). In response, Putin took to the New York Times to verbally spar with Obama in an unexpected move to communicate directly with the American people (Putin 2013). In a peculiar attempt to affect American public opinion towards potential intervention in Syria, Putin responded to Obama’s speech warning against American “exceptionalism” (Putin 2013). While both Turkey and Mexico appear to be heading towards a positive relationship with The West, Russia appears to be reasserting itself as the leader of the Orthodox-Slavic Civilization, creating new policy risks for The West.
Criticisms of Huntington’s Thesis
Trends in geopolitics continue to unfold in a dynamic fashion, and so too are the explanations as to what is occurring, and why. Of particular interest for the policy analyst are the implications these geopolitical trends will have on governments and society in the future. Huntington’s thesis, “The Clash of Civilizations”, has been discussed in this essay as a useful model for analysing the current trends in geopolitics, especially given recent events surrounding the conflict in Syria, however Huntington's vision of the world has not been without criticism. While Edward W. Said has been mentioned above as an outspoken critic of Huntington, and Said is not alone. Others criticized Huntington’s thesis by suggesting that perhaps geopolitical conflict is occurring along ethnic and cultural lines instead of civilizational (Fox 2001 & 2002). Writing in the early 1990s, Francis Fukuyama looked to the future optimistically where he prophesized an era dominated by liberal democracy (Fukuyama 1991). Others have voiced direct criticism against Huntington and have attempted to disprove his thesis altogether (Henderson & Tucker 2001, Chiozza 2002 & Russett, O’Neal & Cox 2000). While others have claimed Huntington’s thesis represents a “self-fulfilling prophecy” (Bottici & Challand 2006 p. 322). Stephen Gill on the other hand provides an entirely different approach to understanding events in geopolitics. Gill argues that the political-economic world is evolving under a tide of free trade agreements that are redefining nation-states entirely (Gill 2002). Unlike Fukuyama, Gill looks despairingly towards the growth of liberal democracy. Gill’s thesis depicts an era of “new constitutionalism”, where nation-states are evolving under the guise of a “Clash of Globalizations”, where constitutions are being altered to make way for freer markets, and greater socioeconomic inequality (Gill 2002). In all of these cases a dynamic world contained in a geopolitical flux is articulated. Contrary to these criticisms it has been the purpose of this essay to argue, albeit briefly, that Huntington’s thesis maintains some legitimacy thirty years since its introduction, while offering policy makers a degree of substance when attempting to make sense of dynamic geopolitical events.
Conclusion: The Need to Redevelop the Civilizational Model
This essay began with a quote from the late historian Carroll Quigley, who emphasized that the study of civilizations lends itself to a great deal of subjectivity. Perhaps this is why Huntington’s thesis has not only received so much attention, yet also a great deal of criticism. After all, it was Huntington himself who asked his audience to offer a better explanation than the one he put forward. If the world is not dominated by civilizations, then what are the great forces moving humanity in some respects towards social progress, and in other respects towards conflict? At the time of this writing, the civilizations Huntington described are continuing their path towards greater self-awareness (Huntington 1993 p.25). While the historic Asian civilizations of Japan and China continue to test one another, the great Hindu civilization of India continues with its suspicious gaze towards its Islamic neighbour, Pakistan. And similar to when Huntington was writing thirty years ago, the Islamic civilization remains the most unstable. Whether this is viewed through the lens of the Arab-Spring, or the events unfolding in the Syria Crisis, there is little reason to be optimistic that peace is on the horizon for those who live within 'Islam’s bloody borders' (Huntington 1993 29-35). For it is along these fault lines that The West is once again finding itself confronted with its Islamic neighbour, bringing one to appreciate the accuracy of Lewis’s cautionary warning (Lewis 1990) that a clash of civilizations is occurring. In this regard, most relevant today from Huntington’s thesis is his notion of fault lines (Huntington 1993 29-35). Interestingly, a resurgent Russia emphasizes that these fault lines represent real dangers as it continues to reposition itself as an independent civilization, the leader of the Orthodox-Slavic Civilization, defiant of The West’s unipolar world. While this essay has argued that Huntington’s thesis remains relevant to those trying to make sense of the dynamism occurring within the modern geopolitical environment, a redevelopment of the model might be necessary. In the modern globalized era where borders continue to erode, governments are increasingly realizing that isolationism is no longer an option. While some might argue otherwise, different civilizations do exist and these differences transcend national, racial, and ethnic lines. Yet as Quigley noted, civilizations are not abstract – they do change. With this in mind, while geopolitical tensions worldwide appear to threaten large-scale conflict, maybe it is time to not only redevelop the model used to analyse the clash of civilizations – perhaps it’s time to re-examine how civilizations are defined in general.
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