Book Review: The Clash of Civilizations

Posted on June 1, 2012 by

Book Review: The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel Huntington, 1996, 321 pages.

Summary: In this 16 year old book, Mr. Huntington divvies up the world into 9 distinct small-c civilizations, each with its own culture, which Huntington defines as blood, language, way of life, and religion:

(1) Western – Christian and post-Christian lands populated by Europeans. The border of Western civilization is marked not by Urals but where Catholicism/Protestantism ends and Eastern Orthodox/Islam begins

(2) Orthodox – Hellenes, Slavs, and other Eurasians influenced by/professing Orthodox Christianity

(3) Islamic

(4) African – Sub-Saharan Africa

(5) Latin American – Mesoamericans professing Catholicism

(6) Sinic – Modern-day China, Korea, Vietnam

(7) Hindu (Indian)

(8) Bhuddist – Modern-day Tibet, Mongolia, Burma, Laos, Thailand

(9) Japanese

Mr. Huntington argues that these civilizational fault lines better explain patterns of conflict and bandwagoning / balancing behaviors in interstate violence, particularly in a post-Westphalian world, than other paradigms. His taxonomy of civilizations tends to pivot around religion, in that he sees religious factors as the primary factor that defines culture, and therefore ‘civilizations’, with race/ethnicity coming in a distant second as key distinguishing factors. Mr. Huntington argues these characteristics to influence how each country within civilizations behave, not only inter-civilizationally with their “kin” countries, but those countries around them which may be members of a different civilization. In addition, civilizations with a “core state”…a state synonymous with that culture as a whole, behave differently (i.e., more stable, less prone to spasms of violent conflict) than those civilizations that lack a core state, such as Islam which lacks an identifiable core state. He also identifies several countries which he characterizes as “cleft” nations, those countries that contain more than one major culture: Ukraine, Sudan, and (possibly in the future if Mexican and Latin American migration continues apace) the United States. For Mr. Huntington asserts that cleft countries are particularly conflict-prone, particularly if they lay astride a civilizational fault line.

Huntingdon’s Civilizations (image via Wikipedia)

One major theme of Huntington’s book is the realignment of the world order from a binary East-vs-West or Cold War model to that where historical and religious roots return to the fore. He documents several ways in which secular Western power is declining, and what this decline means to the prevailing economic and political structure of the world.  This is particularly with respect to the Chinese and Islamic civilizations–both “Eastern” civilizations with traditions oftimes in direct opposition to Western habits–these two civilizations are poised to reshape the world political dynamic in their favor.

Most at risk in this realignment and decline of the West is the notion of cultural universalism centered around Western values. Neither the increasingly assertive Sinic or militantly metastasizing Islamic cultures place anywhere near the same value on the principles of human rights, natural law, and Western-style individual liberty as the West at its apogee once did. Ironically, “democracy”, that form of government inherited by the West through Classical Civilization, improved, and spread around the world by Western Civilization appears to be midwifing what Huntington calls the process of “indigenization”. This term refers to the resurgence of once-marginalized native cultures gaining strength, power, and cultural relevance through the process of democratization to challenge Western hegemony–often by overthrowing Western-backed autocratic regimes.

Another significant theme of Huntington’s book is what he calls the revanche de dieu, or the “revenge of God”. Post-Enlightenment secularism, seemingly the dominant cultural force in the world 100 years ago, has largely reversed. God/gods/Confucianist beliefs, it seems, are making a comeback, and not just among hard core fundies but amongst entire peoples as a whole

“A new religious approach took shape, aimed no longer at adapting to secular values but at recovering a sacred foundation for the organization of society…moving on from a modernism that had failed, attributing its setbacks and dead ends to separation from God. People do not live by reason alone. They cannot calculate and act rationally in pursuit of their self-interest until they define their self, [and] interest politics presupposes identity…for people facing the need to determine ‘who am I?’ [and]’where do I belong?’, religion provides compelling answers, and religious groups provide small social communities to replace those lost through urbanization”

Far from being archaic, religion in Mr. Huntington’s book has re-emerged as a–or maybe even the–dominant force in a society, and Mr. Huntington claims this renewed interest in belief has profound implications for the behaviors of civilizations and their constituent populations.

Other than these two major themes, Mr. Huntington spends the bulk of his book analyzing the implications of a world defined by his taxonomy, and in which the West recedes in the face of a trifecta of re-emerging Asian civilizations: Sinic, Islamic, and Orthodox. He discusses political reconfiguration as a result of this retreating-advancing dynamic, possible consequential “fault line” wars, and the effect that demography, economics, and non-Western civilizational self-valuation on the political order. He closes his book by discussing ways in which the West may arrest, maybe even reverse its decline…but sixteen years on it appears his prescription has yet to be heeded.

Analysis and Critique

Christianity and Western Civilization. One of the maddening things about Mr.Huntington’s description of the West is his over-identification of the West as Christian. For certain, Christianity, and the Roman Catholic Scholastics in particular, ensured the lessons of Classical Civilization did not fade into the dark mist of history past. Mr. Huntington argues, and I agree, that Christianity has played the decisive role in the shape, tenor, the “look and feel” of Western Civ. But, unlike Mr. Huntingdon, I contend that Western Civ is no longer Christian in any culturally significant sense. It may still retain some Christian cultural residue, to be sure, and large minorities of its peoples claim the Christian mantle, but the culture itself is thoroughly steeped in a secular quasi-religion that, like any other religion, marginalizes its competitors. Thus Christianity is increasingly cast aside as irrelevant, and the the values that Christianity impressed upon Western Civilization: the inherent dignity of men, the equivalent value of both sexes, individual rights, and individual responsibility, have started to retreat in the West (and worldwide) as a result.

The paradox of democracy, the interaction of power and democratization, and ‘Universalism’. I found Mr. Huntington’s discussion of democracy, particularly how it is being used usher in new eras of indigenization, to be quite interesting. Acolytes of democracy were fond of fantasizing that democratic governments were, by definition, Western-friendly. But as we can plainly see by events such as the “Islamist Spring”, democratization does not necessarily imply a particular country will align with the West in a climate in which the West has little power and influence.  Showing his realist side, Mr. Huntington writes:

“…culture almost always follows power. Throughout history, the expansion of the power of a civilization has usually occurred simultaneously with the flowering of its culture and has almost always involved its using that power to extend its values, practices, and institutions to other societies. American hegemony is receding…the erosion of Western culture follows, as indigenous, historically rooted mores, languages, beliefs, and institutions reassert themselves. As Western power declines, the ability of the West to impose Western concepts of human rights, liberalism, and democracy on other civilizations also declines and so does the attractiveness of those values to other civilizations.”

Now that Western power is on the wane, other cultures find much less utility in being Western-oriented, and nowadays we find numerous examples of democratically elected governments being less disposed toward the West, Western policies, and indeed the entire Western-constructed economic edifice. “Electoral competition instead stimulates them to fashion what they believe will be the most popular appeals, and those are usually ethnic, nationalist, and religious in character”, not necessarily secular or Western-friendly.

This leads me to a discussion about ‘Universalism’, a concept that Mr. Huntingdon defines thusly:

[T]he Western universalist belief posits that people throughout the world should embrace Western values, institutions and culture because [Western culture embodies] the highest,most enlightened, most liberal, most rational, most modern, and most civilized thinking of mankind

Mr. Huntington discussed the very human tendency–seems that it is now the West’s turn to fall victim to this folly–to assume that its culture is superior, that its way of life and way of doing things represent the apex of human development, and is therefore their culture is rightfully pre-eminent. As such, Western culture more or less takes it as a given, without much thought to the contrary, that everyone worldwide should naturally agree with the Western conventional wisdom regarding human rights, individual freedom, economic principles, Western-style democratic government, nuclear non-proliferation, and arms control. Naturally, Eastern civilizations, with their differing cultural traditions and experiences, and with their increasing power, chafe at Western Universalism. This is particularly true with Islam and China, two civilizations who regularly flout Western cultural conventions (as in, for example, questions of human rights, of individual liberty, and of nuclear non-proliferation). And why shouldn’t they? They themselves have millennia of cultural tradition upon which to draw from, traditions frankly different from the West. In addition, in their eyes, their culture is infinitely superior, if for no other reason than the decline of the West fuels and reinforces their chauvinism. Particularly if one believes, as Huntington hints he may, that Western culture didn’t become dominant because it was intrinsically so much better, but because it made war that much more effectively than competitor civilizations:

The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.

Apart from undermining Western claims to universalism, this is an interesting statement, especially when viewed in light of 2GW and 3GW warfare (which the West used to significant effect) and the back-to-the-future rise of 4GW and 5GW warfare. These ‘new’ ways of making war tend to neutralize, even sidestep, Western strengths while simultaneously exploiting Western weaknesses (e.g., media, diversity, democratic governance, etc).  Moreover, 4/5GW seems to favor Eastern-style warfare…the sort that Westerners would find barbaric…and enables Asian cultures more naturally inclined to 4/5 GW to rise to the fore once more. But what disturbs Mr.Huntingdon the most about ‘false, immoral, and…dangerous’ Universalism is what he sees as the inherently destabilizing influence of the notion of a messianic ‘Universalist Prerogative’ with inter-state and inter-civilizational violence. The logic train for Huntingon goes like this: Universalism, spread by power, foments empire. Empires are maintained by violence, if not legal and economic, than of the political/physical sort. Eventually, dissimilar civilizations will rise to challenge the dominance of a foreign culture and alien people, and the reigning imperial power will attempt to stop the shift in power toward their adversaries. These challenges will eventually involve the use of arms…and there resides the danger of Universalism to the international community. Thus does universalism necessarily imply empire and imperialism, on the way to open warfare. Mr. Huntington, unsurprisingly, attempts to disabuse the reader of any favorable impressions of such a fashionable conceit.

Islam’s “bloody borders“. After having first introduced this term in a 1993 article [link opens PDF] for the publication Foreign Affairs, Mr. Huntington writes:

Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbors. Muslims make up one-fifth of the world’s population but in the 1990s they have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization. The evidence is overwhelming.

Mr. Huntington lists a few factors that contribute to this pattern of aggressive behavior:  (1) the degree to which Muslim societies are militarized–it is hard to conceive of a single major Moslem country which is not heavily militarized, (2) proximity to non-Moslem peoples and states, (3) absence of core state(s) which could otherwise retrain and/or dominate wayward countries, and (4) the “pig in a python” effect of a high percentage of unmarried, unattached males with low/no prospects of marriage.  A fifth factor, which Mr. Huntington calls “indigestibility”, is explained as follows:

Muslim countries have problems with non-Muslim minorities comparable to those which non-Muslim countries have with Muslim minorities. Even more than Christianity, Islam is an absolutist faith. It merges religion and politics and draws a sharp line between the dar-al-Islam and the dar-al-harb. As a result, Confucians, Buddhists, Hindus, Western Christians, and Orthodox Christians have less difficulty adapting to and living with each other than any one of them has adapting to and living with Muslims.

Mr. Huntington suspects that as Moslem societies age, the pig-in-the-python effect will recede. But indigestibility remains, as does Islam’s inferiority complex and, increasingly, the West’s desperate grasping at the levers of global power that erstwhile empire once manipulated so easily:

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. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or US Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining power, imposes upon then the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world. These are the basic ingredients that fuel conflict between Islam and the West

Note that the assertion “…imposes upon them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world…” eerily prefigures the late 20th-century “Neocon Wars of Coerced Democratization” (my term), first in the Balkans, then in Iraq and in Afghanistan after 9/11.

The Future of the USA, and the West.  In the final chapters of his book, Mr. Huntington narrows his scope   and addresses the cultural war underway in the United States, the heart of Western Civilization.  Specifically, he details the efforts of elites to deny the uniqueness of Western culture, if not destroy Western culture outright, in an effort to replace Western Civilization with no civilization at all. To wit:

Historically, American national identity has been defined culturally by the heritage of Western civilization, and politically by the principles of the American Creed on which Americans overwhelmingly agree: liberty, democracy, individualism,equality before the law, Constitutionalism, private property. In the late twentieth century, both components of American identity have come under concentrated and sustained onslaught from a small but influential number of intellectuals and publicists. In the name of multiculturalism they have attacked the identification of the United States with Western Civilization, denied the existence of a common American culture, and promoted radical, ethnic, and other subnational cultural identities and groupings. They have denounced…’the systematic bias toward European culture and its derivatives’ in education and ‘the dominance of the European-American monocultural perspective’. The multiculturists are,as Arthur M. Schlesinger said, ‘very often ethnocentric separatists who see little in the Western heritage other than Western crimes’. Their “mood is one of divesting Americans of the sinful European inheritance and seeking redemptive infusion from non-Western cultures”. The American multiculturists similarly reject their country’s cultural heritage. Instead of attempting to identify the United States with another civilization, they wish to create a country of many civilizations…a country not belonging to any civilization and lacking a cultural core. The mutliculturalists also challenged a central element of the American Creed by substituting for the rights of individuals the rights of groups, defined largely in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, and sexual preference.

If this were not bad enough, Mr. Huntington invokes the experience of another country that was also organized around ideological precepts rather than a common, shared culture…the Soviet Union. He thinks that counting on loyalty to an ideology, as do those who assert that to be American means only that one have an affinity for a set of principles, is, in the absence of a unifying common culture, foolhardy:

“[T]he total failure of Marxism…and the dramatic breakup of the Soviet Union”, the Japanese philosopher Takeshi Umehara has suggested, “are on the precursors to the collapse of Western liberalism, the main current of modernity. Far from being the alternative to Marxism and the reigning ideology at the end of history, liberalism will be the next domino to fall.’ In an era in which peoples everywhere define themselves in cultural terms, what place is there for a society without a cultural core and defined only by a political creed? In a multi-civilizational world where culture counts, the United States could be simply the last anomalous holdover from a fading Western world where ideology counted. Rejection of the Creed and of Western Civilization means the end of the United States of America as we have known it. It also means effectively the end of Western Civilization. The clash between the multi-culturalists and the defenders of Western civilization and the American Creed is, in James Kurth’s phrase, ‘the real clash’.

Mr. Huntington paints a bleak picture indeed for America, foreseeing the United States becoming a cleft country as a result of this deadly embrace of multiculturalism. America, in Huntington’s view, may very well split linguistically and culturally along Western and Latin civilizational lines; separate, alientated, and suspicious of the other. In other words, the United States will reconfigure to be Anglophone America vs. the Mexifornicated rump state of what was formerly the American southwest. But while we’re a lot further down this dystopian road that we were 16 years ago, Huntington hadn’t yet written off America’s chances at self-recovery. For America–and therefore Western Civilization–to survive, Huntington claims that both must reject the fashionable cancer of multiculturalism and embrace their common European (and, unsaid by Huntingdon, Christian) heritage. To live, America must ask herself the following question, and answer it in the affirmative: Is America a Western country? To answer “yes” means to embrace its roots, to look east to Europe, and not west to Asia. To answer “no” means to die a self-inflicted death.

Posted in: Book Review