Sunday, January 18, 2015

How long will the "Clash of Civilizations" last?

My main reason for re-visiting Samuel Huntington’s article, “The Clash of Civilizations?” published in 1993, was to see how Huntington’s thesis is faring these days, in the light of the increasing threat of Islamic terrorism and the rise of Islamic state.

Is such violence attributable to an ongoing clash of values that will always make followers of Islam hostile to Western culture, or is a temporary phenomenon that is likely to gradually diminish as economic opportunities expand in Islamic countries?

In his Foreign Affairs, Huntington “set forth the hypotheses that”:
  • “differences  between civilizations are real and important”;
  • “civilization-consciousness is increasing”;
  • “conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict”;
  • “international relations … will increasingly … become a game in which non-Western civilizations are actors and not simply objects”;
  • “successful political, security and economic international institutions are more likely to develop within civilizations than across civilizations”;
  • “conflicts between groups in different civilizations will become more frequent, more sustained, and more violent than conflicts between groups in the same civilization”;
  • “violent conflicts between groups in different civilizations are the most likely and most dangerous source of escalation that could lead to global wars;
  • “the paramount axis of world politics will be the relations between ‘the West and the Rest’;
  • “the elites in some torn non-Western countries will try to make their countries part of the West, but in most cases face major obstacles to accomplishing this; and
  • “a central focus of conflict for the immediate future will be between the West and several Islamic-Confucian states”.

As far as I can remember I was not particularly impressed by Huntington’s thesis at the time it was published. I am still not over-impressed. His labelling of cultures as “civilizations” seems to exaggerate the differences between cultures. I disagree with his view that the “notion that there could be a ‘universal civilization’ is a Western idea, directly at odds with the particularism of most Asian societies”. As I have explained on this blog, it seems to me that there would be widespread agreement among people from different cultural backgrounds about the characteristics of a good society.

However, I have to admit that many of Huntington’s hypotheses look as though they are standing up fairly well in terms of the experience of the last couple of decades. He was spot-on target in pointing out that Western intervention in particular Islamic countries, such as Iraq, would unite other Islamic countries in opposition to the West, even though he did under-estimate the importance of conflict between nations/groups within broad cultural groupings. It is now obvious that he was correct in claiming: “The Velvet Curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology as the most significant dividing line in Europe”.

Huntington’s also made some accurate predictions about developments in Russia. His prediction that conditions did not exist for Russia to join the West was accurate. The people in Russia were divided on the issue and the West was wary of embracing Russia. Similarly, he was correct in predicting that relations between Russia and the West “could again become distant and conflictual”, if Russians rejected liberal democracy and began behaving like authoritarian traditionalists.

Huntington was wrong in his prediction that the cultural similarities between Russia and Ukraine would enable those countries to avoid violent conflict over territory, but that error could be attributed to a faulty application of his theory.  His discussion of how Russia was torn between the West and traditional Russian cultural influences can also be applied to Ukraine. The difference is that favourable conditions exist for Ukraine to join the West, even though it is being badly torn in the process.

The main problem I have with Huntington’s thesis is that it pays too little attention to the processes of social change. It seems to imply that countries like Turkey will always be torn between Western influences and traditional cultural influences. It largely overlooks the cultural changes (discussed here) that have occurred in the West, and increasingly in other parts of the world, as economic development has led to the growth of emancipative values such as those supporting freedom of speech.

Most people in the West seem to be able to manage to support emancipative values these days, despite the fact that only a few generations ago many of their religious leaders were violently opposed to such values. It seems reasonable to expect that a similar transition toward adoption of emancipative values will occur in Islamic countries during this century. It is difficult to predict exactly how this might happen, except that it is unlikely to be assisted by Western intervention. 

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