Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Clash of Civilizations? by Samuel P. Huntington

“Conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict”

I had often heard of Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations? and wanted to know more about it, so I finally read the initial article, watched a rebuttal lecture and then read the Wikipedia article. My thoughts are below:

Original article
I wasn’t too impressed. This could be because it wasn’t impressive or because the idea was so influential that I already know it (as it was written 15 years ago) and therefore (unfairly) don’t give him much credit.
I tend to think it is more the former though, because the central concept, a civilization, isn’t sufficiently defined. Huntington seems to present a super category of civilization above nationalism, ideology and religion and other factors, but at other times provides anecdotal evidence using nationalism, ideology and religion to support his argument.
To say that people tend to form groups based on various traits, beliefs, and characteristics they share and that they have greater friction and/or disdain for those not in their groups was and is nothing new. To say that the group identify that will be most important is that of a civilization is one that I did not find overtly convincing because I tend to think that is not the main wedge issue. Sure enough, “Western” power/imperialism is often railed against, but I see that more of various actions (military, economic, ideological) that have had impacts on other nations and cultures instead of “Western Civilization.” So, there is some truth to his thesis, but not to the extent that it should have received the high degree of attention that it did. Finally, I kept getting the impression he is saying it is cultural, but then he’ll indicate it is something more than that, and I would be left with uncertainty. Consequently, the concept of ‘civilization’ lacked clarity and utility.

Edward Said presents a severe critique of Huntington, saying his thesis is wrong at best and he is warmongering at worst. Said importantly, noted the diversity that exists within a civilization/culture (political/ideological, various sub- and countercultures) and therefore refuted the simplistic characterization used by Huntington. Said also questions Huntington’s purpose, is he trying to understand and resolve conflicts or to galvanize and defend hegemony against cultures? Said concludes that Huntington is not engaging in a constructive task (and notes that in his subsequent book there is no longer a question mark).
I agreed with much of Said’s lecture (but I also seem to agree with him ideologically, so that is a potential factor in my assessment of his position(s)).

I learned that it was supposedly a response to Fukuyama’s End of History thesis. So perhaps this is a case where an overstatement leads to an opposite overstatement, with reality lying in the middle.
Other useful wiki content:
“The definition, nomenclature, and even the number of civilizations are somewhat ambiguous in Huntington's works.”
“According to Berman, distinct cultural boundaries do not exist in the present day. He argues there is no "Islamic civilization" nor a "Western civilization", and that the evidence for a civilization clash is not convincing, especially when considering relationships such as that between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In addition, he cites the fact that many Islamic extremists spent a significant amount of time living and/or studying in the western world. According to Berman conflict arises because of philosophical beliefs between groups, regardless of cultural or religious identity.”
“Said argues that Huntington's categorization of the world's fixed "civilizations" omits the dynamic interdependency and interaction of culture. All his ideas are based not on harmony but on the clash or conflict between worlds. The theory that each world is “self-enclosed” is applied to the world map, to the structure of civilizations, to the notion that each race has a special destiny and psychology. According to Said, it is an example of an imagined geography, where the presentation of the world in a certain way legitimates certain politics. Interventionist and aggressive, the concept of civilizational clash is aimed at maintaining a war time status in the minds of the Americans. Thus, it continues to expand the Cold War by other means rather than advancing ideas that might help us understand the current scene or that could reconcile the two cultures.”

Finally, although there are many flaws in Huntington’s essay, I did think he provided a concise description of why other groups/culture’s take issue with Western hegemony:
THE WEST IS NOW at an extraordinary peak of power in relation to other civilizations. In superpower opponent has disappeared from the map. Military conflict among Western states is unthinkable, and Western military power is unrivaled. Apart from Japan, the West faces no economic challenge. It dominates international economic institutions. Global political and security issues are effectively settled by a directorate of the United States, Britain and France, world economic issues by a directorate of the United States, Germany and Japan, all of which maintain extraordinarily close relations with each other to the exclusion of lesser and largely non-Western countries. Decisions made at the U.N. Security Council or in the International Monetary Fund that reflect the interests of the West are presented to the world as reflecting the desires of the world community. The very phrase "the world community" has become the euphemistic collective noun (replacing "the Free World") to give global legitimacy to actions reflecting the interests of the United States and other Western powers. Through the IMF and other international economic institutions, the West promotes its economic interests and imposes on other nations the economic policies it thinks appropriate. In any poll of non-Western peoples, the IMF undoubtedly would win the support of finance ministers and a few others, but get an overwhelmingly unfavorable rating from just about everyone else, who would agree with Georgy Arbatov's characterization of IMF officials as "neo-Bolsheviks who love expropriating other people's money, imposing undemocratic and alien rules of economic and political conduct and stifling economic freedom."


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