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  • Remaking the World Order: Reflections on Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations
  • Sandra Buckley (bio)

I was having a great deal of trouble trying to identify for myself what I wanted to say in this essay and in frustration I took a day off and went to visit the Monterey Aquarium with my family and there I found the answer to my dilemma. I walked from octopus to sea otter and on to reef life where I found my answer. A small child overcome with the excitement and potential of an exhibit that read “Please Touch Me” reached into a glass container of assembled reef life, grabbed onto a sea cucumber and, holding it tightly, held it up to view. What followed was a level of chaos and misunderstanding that could only be resolved with the intervention of aquarium guards, two marine biologists on-call and a public relations officer. The sea cucumber, sensing a threat, did what any self-respecting sea cucumber would do and disgorged itself of its innards, leaving the child holding an empty, slimy sac and covered in a noxiously smelly, exceedingly sticky substance that it was soon explained to his mother would be best rapidly removed at the local emergency room. What the young boy did not know when he grabbed onto the sea cucumber was that when exposed to pressure or stress this creature discharges its inner form, almost explosively, layering anyone/thing close enough with a mean and tenacious residue. Once released, the outer form of the cucumber proceeds to regrow its inner form.

I cannot think of a better matched metaphor for Samuel Huntington’s project in Clash of Civilizations, which it is worthwhile remembering at this point is in fact entitled Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. From beginning to end Huntington repeatedly contrasts the Cold War and post-Cold War as he weaves his predictions and prescriptions for the continued viability of the West in the face of the transformations of the post-period. In fact his entire narrative is predicated on this periodization and the assertion that we are now outside the dynamics of the Cold-War. Both the clash of civilizations and the need for a remaking of world order are for him the direct consequences of the end of the Cold War. However, for this reader Huntington’s book never exits the dynamics of that world order. Like the sea cucumber under too much pressure and threatened, the skin has simply disgorged its old inner form and is in the process of remaking itself. It is ironically the half of his title that is most often elided that best describes Huntington’s project — the remaking of world order.

A major proportion of the volume is dedicated to the explication of the break up of the “union” that was once the USSR, the continuing uncertainty at the “outer” limits of influence of Cold War Russia, and the war in Bosnia. The constant drive to retroactively order the short and long term events of the “break up” and to predict future conflicts and alliances could be interpreted as indicative of Huntington’s level of investment in the now defunct or redundant narratives. For Huntington the fall of the Berlin Wall is not only a symbolic marker of the end of the Cold War but perhaps even more importantly it continues to represent the end of a perception of certainty and predictability in the realm of international diplomacy. If it is in the nature of politics that we cannot know in advance the consequences of our decisions and must accept this condition of unpredictability if we are to avoid paralysis, then it could be said that it is in the nature of contemporary diplomacy to create quarantined spaces of procedures and protocols aimed at affecting a temporary condition of predictability. However, as soon as these words are written they beg qualification. Diplomacy, as we know it today, is always a public performance that marks the “coming out” of a usually long, complex and non-public set of processes. The conditions of this public performative climax are the political equivalent of a magician’s sleight of hand. The promise...

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