Since at least 1997, every time there is a serious clash between Islam and the West, anxious good-hearted commentators everywhere ask themselves and their readers, "Is this the Clash of Civilizations that Samuel Huntington was talking about?"
This is invariably followed by a long list of reasons why the author doesnt' think so or policy prescriptions that must be followed if we are to have any hope of preventing "the clash."
Of course, what Huntington actually was doing in his famous work was devising a new analytical tool for those interested in foreign affairs; the "clash" of his book's title did not refer to a coming cataclysmic war or an apocalypse but to the quiet normal and routine "clash" of interests and values that is inherent to foreign relations. Seen in that light, the book is much less scary, though I've found that more people think they know what Huntington was writing about than people who actually understand Huntington's hypothesis.
After all, domestic politics, in their own way, are hardly different. One could conceivably craft a book about the legislative process in the U.S. Congress and entitle it "The Clash of American Sub-Cultures" and you'd be just as correct. Politics is all about competing values, and as Isaiah Berlin so helpfully explained to us, many of those competing values can actually all be individually desirable. And, so, the domestic political process provides a forum in which the standard-bearers for different interests stand up and fight their corner, the end result being something close to approximating society's judgment on divvying up the social goods at any given moment. It was this fact--that the legislature in a liberal democratic regime can revisit issues and re-allocate values--that led Berlin to conclude that liberalism was a superior form of government.
What Huntington did was take this rather mundane observation, combined it with an analysis of recent history, and concluded that the near future in international relations could best be conceived as an world-wide competition for one's civilization's values and ideals, but without any mechanism like a domestic parliament able to legitimately ration out such values or resolve matters in dispute. (The U.N. sometimes aspires to this goal, but, in the final analysis, none of the major civilizations Huntington speaks of would ever truly allow its authority to speak for itself to be devolved to an institution dominated by the West).
Of course, as Huntington readily admits, the main value of an ideological map like the Clash of Civilizations is its predictive ability, i.e. does it provide a framework for accurately anticipating likely outcomes of world events? No framework ever does this job to complete satisfaction, even ones that become widely accepted around the globe, like the old Cold War bi-polar paradigm. Of all the schools of foreign policy out there-neo-conservatism, liberal internationalism, realism, Marxism-however, I have yet to find one with greater predictive power than Huntington's. Simply put, when one runs the current issues, crises and flash points around the world through Huntington's predictive construct, one generally finds that Huntington's way of looking at the world is hugely helpful.
Obviously, I can't summarize Huntington's thesis in one paragraph, but I do think some general outlines of what he argues can be set forth in a simple, easy-to-read and easy-to-understand manner.
First, Huntington defines a civilization as the highest order of a social group to which a person will readily identify himself. For example, an Italian man in a cafe in Rome would probably identify himself, in ascending order, as: a Roman, an Italian, a European, a man of the West, while a similar man in a cafe in Cairo would identify himself as a Cairo-ite, an Egyptian, a Muslim. With that definition in hand, Huntington identifies seven major world civilizations active today, with their "core state," that is, the leading state or states that stand for and defend the given civilization:
1) West: Non-orthodox Europe, U.K., Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand (I would add Israel to this list; Huntington does not and, in fact, barely mentions it at all in his book, largely, one suspects, because it is a civilizational unit of its own that would tend to muddy the waters of his high-level overview).
Core States: United States of America, United Kingdom, Germany, France
2) Orthodox: Orthodox Europe and most post-Soviet Asian republics.
Core State: Russia
3) Latin America: Everything south of the Rio Grande. Though closely related to the West, Latin America has evolved its own unique culture throughout the years, in large part due to the indigenous mix and political isolation.
Core State: None. Candidates include Brazil and Mexico, though Mexico is described as a "torn state," i.e. a state with a population of one civilization and a leadership desiring a move to another. In Mexico's case that would be from Latin America to the West. Another classic "torn state" is Turkey, which has been trying to move to the West for decades now.
4) Islam: The entire Muslim world, stretching from Indonesia to Morocco.
Core State: None. Candidates include Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. (Iraq was on this list until...well, you know).
5) Sunic: China, most of Southeast Asia, Korea
Core State: People's Republic of China.
6) Hindic: India, Sri Lanka, other portions of Asia.
Core State: India.
7) Japanese: Japan. The only one-state civilization left in the world.
You can quibble with some of these (where does Cambodia fall in this scheme? How about Ukraine?), but I think overall this "big picture" of the world's major civilizations is largely accurate. The only real problem I have is with Latin America being separated from the West, since I think when push comes to shove there is much more solidarity there than one would normally suppose. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that life is different in Buenos Aires or Bogota in a way that is neither quite Western or quite something else.
Huntington's thesis is that each of these civilizations carry with them an innate sense of superiority, not necessarily in a chauvinistic manner, but that each seeks a way to modernize and flourish within its own context. With the end of the Cold War and a relative decline in the power of the West, other cultures are now more or less free to give their aspirations full expression. In Asia and the Islamic world, especially, there has been a wide-spread and thoroughly predictable rejection of Westernism's universalist presumptions in favor of localized culturally-specific modernizations. It is important, Huntington warns, not to confuse Westernization with modernization; the fact that Islamic fanatics wear Yankee caps doesn't mean they are becoming more Western any more than the fact that you drove your Toyota to work this morning while listening to your Sony radio means you are becoming more Japanese.
As each culture "stretches its legs" so to speak, the resulting clash and fault lines become apparent. Add to that a youth crunch in demography and the West is looking at some serious issues with the Islamic and the Sinic worlds in near term. I'm leaving out a lot here, especially the good stuff about whether or not the West's own attitudes towards itself is effectively dooming it as a competitor, but you get the picture. Nation states are not the central creatures to watch; what you watch is the culture, the underlying civilization.
How best to manage these clashes? Huntington offers a simple set of policy prescriptions for the West for the near future. He says in order to preserve the West and minimize conflict, it is in our interest:
1) to achieve greater political, economic and military integration and to coordinate policies so as to preclude states from other civilizations exploiting differences;
2) to incorporate into the EU and NATO the Western states of Eastern Europe;
3) to encourage the "Westernization" of Latin America and, as far as possible, the close alignment of Latin American countries with the West;
4) to restrain the development of the conventional and unconventional military power of Islamic countries and Sinic countries;
5) to slow the drift of Japan away from the West and toward accommodation with China;
6) to accept Russia as the core state of Orthodoxy and a major regional power with legitimate interests in the security of its southern borders;
7) to maintain Western technological and military superiority over other civilizations; and
8) most important, to recognize that Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multi-civilizational world.
Of these points, the first and the last are the most important. Starting today, and continuing into next week, I will be taking a closer look at these policy prescriptions, what they mean, how they transcend the current and increasingly sterile debate between neo-cons and realists, how they might be implemented and what a United States devoted to a civilizational paradigm in its foreign policy analysis might look like.
Until then, my friends.