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  • The Clash Within Civilizations
  • Carl Gershman (bio)
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. By Samuel P. Huntington. Simon and Schuster, 1996. 367 pp.

In many respects, Samuel P. Huntington’s provocative new book is up to his usual high standards. Demonstrating an unsurpassed breadth of perspective, Huntington integrates political, economic, historical, and cultural analysis into a comprehensive theory of global politics in the aftermath of the Cold War. Whether or not one agrees with everything he says, one cannot fail to be impressed by his intellectual boldness and originality. Moreover, as someone who has been a practitioner as well as a scholar, Huntington believes that theory should be relevant to practice. His purpose—never more so than in his present study—is not merely to understand the world but to change it, or at least to influence government policy. A measure of his success is the immense respect that he is accorded in policy circles throughout the world.

Yet admirers of Huntingon’s scholarly work on democracy, and especially of his classic 1991 study The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, are likely to be puzzled by his new and highly controversial theory that the defining feature of contemporary international politics is “the clash of civilizations.” What is puzzling is the striking inconsistency between this theory and The Third Wave.

An example of this inconsistency is Huntington’s treatment of Confucianism and Islam. In The Third Wave, he rejects the view that these two cultures represent “insuperable obstacles to democratic development.” To be sure, he notes that each has features that are incompatible with liberal democracy: Confucianism emphasizes the group [End Page 165] over the individual and authority over rights, and Islam does not distinguish between the religious community and the political community. But in The Third Wave Huntington remains skeptical of cultural determinism. Cultures are presented as dynamic and complex; over time, cultural features that are compatible with democracy can supersede those that are hostile to it. The view that Catholicism was an insuperable obstacle to democracy did not survive the third wave transitions of many Catholic countries. Similarly, the spectacular economic growth of East Asian societies has already disproven the theory that Confucianism is incompatible with capitalism. Why, he asks, should the thesis that it is also incompatible with democracy be any more viable in the long run? What is true of Confucianism is certainly also true of Islam, which Huntington presents as having even more inherent features—such as egalitarianism and voluntarism—that are congruent with the requirements of democracy.

One can find only faint echoes of these earlier arguments in The Clash of Civilizations. Other than a brief reference to the possibility that economic growth in China might create “a social basis for movement toward political pluralism” (p. 238), Huntington presents a bleak picture of Confucianism and Islam as monolithic civilizations drawn by inexorable cultural and historical forces into a clash with the West. The notion that these civilizations contain cultural attributes potentially congruent with liberal democracy has been dropped. In its place Huntington presents a picture of deeply rooted hostility and cultural incompatibility. A “fundamental cultural gap” (p. 307) separates the United States from Asia. As for the Islamic world, the “problem for the West,” Huntington emphasizes, “is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam” (p. 217). Given the irreconcilability of these differences, the possibility of democracy emphasized in The Third Wave gives way to “the paradox of democracy”—the danger that “democracy” in these and other non-Western civilizations “can bring anti-Western nationalists and fundamentalists to power” (pp. 197–98).

The contrast between The Third Wave and The Clash of Civilizations calls for an explanation. Perhaps the best clue to understanding the inconsistency can be found in the difference between “waves” and “phases,” the two different patterns of historical evolution that respectively underlie the theses of these two books. From the point of view of supporters of democracy, the pattern of “waves” suggests an exceedingly hopeful view of historical development. It vividly captures the gradual advance of democracy in the world—a process initiated over two-hundred years ago by the American experiment in self-government that, despite...

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pp. 165-170
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