- The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
Four years ago, Samuel Huntington’s article “The Clash of Civilizations?” caused a furor. Supporters hailed it as visionary; detractors slated it as xenophobic. The article has been transformed into a book, and the question mark dropped from the title, while the thesis remains largely intact. It is an audacious work—ambitious in its scope, confident in its reasoning, and unequivocal in its conclusions. Unfortunately, these conclusions are predicated upon flawed scholarship, and the book fails to convince.
The Clash of Civilizations is a theoretical hybrid, assimilating realist, nationalist, and metahistorical elements. Its analysis is based upon the realist conceptualization of the international system as driven by power and zero-sum decision-making. However, Huntington distances himself from realism in proposing that the autonomy of states is diminishing as states increasingly take their cue from civilization’s dictates. Furthermore Huntington is concerned with nationalism less as a historical phenomenon than as the defining element of future conflicts. Finally, Huntington’s intention to provide “a more meaningful and useful lens through which to view international developments than any alternative paradigm”, aspires to a type of grand synthesis theory which [End Page 208] is termed “metahistory” by George Liska. However, The Clash of Civilizations lacks the scrupulous dedication to historical detail which would otherwise make the above scholar’s work exceptional.
Samuel Huntington’s original thesis, that “the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future,” has not changed fundamentally. According to him, civilization remains “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of which distinguishes humans from other species.” His world is still comprised of a neat patchwork of identities which are represented by Western, Sinic/Confucian, Islamic, Japanese, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, and possibly Latin American and African civilizations.
Huntington introduces some nuances into this patchwork by further dissecting the concept of “civilization.” He does so by exploring the phenomenon of states “torn” between identities, probing the relationships between core and peripheral states, and acknowledging a measure of intra-civilization pluralism. In addition, the book contains a cogent rebuke of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis by offering a persuasive argument on the moral bankruptcy of western universalism.
Unfortunately, these nuances fall short of the mark. The acknowledgment of systemic pluralism fails to dispel the monolithic appearance of Huntington’s civilizations, even while providing them with some much needed texture. Furthermore, Huntington’s rebuke of Fukuyama rings hollow when juxtaposed with erroneous characterizations of non-Western cultures. The book’s formulation of pan-Confucianism ignores, for example, the historical enmity between the Vietnamese and the Chinese. Furthermore, Huntington’s characterization of Islam as having “bloody borders” and being intrinsically intolerant is inconsistent with important historical contributions to the international institutional corpus as the Ottoman millet system, an experiment in multi-cultural administration contemporaneous with Western anti-Semitic purges and Counter-Reformation warfare.
In the end however Huntington’s generalizations in The Clash of Civilizations are as infuriating as they are frequent. Samuel Huntington’s argument is short on substance. He debunks the “End of History” thesis, but replaces it with a paradigm no less flawed. Huntington’s artfully formulated thesis is as seductive as it is dangerous in a post-Cold War world that is devoid of a dominant paradigm. In aspiring “to present a framework, a paradigm, for viewing global politics that [End Page 209] will be meaningful to scholars and useful to policymakers,” Huntington has made a pitch to the ears of the powerful. However, this pitch should be worrisome to conscientious scholars because of its xenophobic and self-fulfilling prophecy. The “clash of civilization” thesis should not guide 21st century policymaking and begs forceful and public denunciation.
Reviewed by Robin O’Brien, M.A. candidate, SAIS.