The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order
Samuel P. Huntington
367 ppg., Simon & Schuster (1996)
Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations is an ambitious and controversial look at the rise and fall of civilizations, including today’s competing civilizations.
In a 1993 Foreign Affairs essay, Huntington, then a Harvard professor, argues two crucial points:
The first is that the U.S. is already in decline (in 1993), and that would be especially apparent relative to the coming rise of Asian, namely Chinese, power.
And the second is that post-Cold War conflict would be shaped by culture and religion, as opposed to nation-state rivalries. That would be apparent as non-Western powers exerted increasing influence on the West, as well as on the world.
“World politics is entering a new phase… The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of [future] conflict will be cultural.” He continues: “The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another.”
Civilizations are bound by “common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people.” And due to geography, competition for resources, and other factors, these civilizations regularly come into conflict.
Huntington predicted that contemporary conflict among the world’s civilizations would be inevitable for six reasons:
- Differences among civilizations are real and basic, and are the result of centuries of development. While these differences don’t necessarily lead to conflict, “differences among civilizations have generated the most prolonged and the most violent conflicts.”
- Due to technology, the world is becoming smaller. Through travel, communication, and trade, these civilizations are not only coming into increasing contact with each other, but these “interactions intensify civilization consciousness.”
- Modernization and social change “weaken the nation state as a source of identity.” Religion increasingly fills the void of national identity, and leads to religious fundamentalism.
- The West is confronted with growing non-Western power that seeks to reshape the world against its Western image. The world will be increasingly “de-Westernized.”
- Cultural and ethnic identity is uncompromising. Changing sides, such as political party or social class, is simple, but “Russians cannot become Estonians and Azeris cannot become Armenians.” You can change which side you’re on, but you cannot change “what” you are. You cannot change your ethnicity.
- The development and success of economic regionalism (i.e., NAFTA or the European Union) depends on similar culture and shared identity, which reinforces “civilization-consciousness.”
From this essay and these central arguments come the 1996 book Clash of Civilizations. Huntington spends a lot of time exploring historical and contemporary civilizations, including those in competition today.
Perhaps the most intriguing argument is what happens to a civilization, in this case the West, after the period of moral decline and cultural decay. Citing Caroll Quigley, Huntington writes that decay occurs “when the civilization, no longer able to defend itself because it is no longer willing to defend itself, lies wide open to ‘barbarian invaders.'” In many ways, this research mirrors that of Sir John Glubb’s Fate of Empires.
More importantly, Huntington questions whether or not the West would remain viable, or if it could ever been renewed in the face of its decaying national identities.
There’s a lot to unpack in this book, as Huntington’s clash of civilizations also gives food for thought regarding the U.S. domestic situation.
In June, we’re re-launching our online intelligence and security training platform, Forward Observer Pipeline. We’ll offer four learning tracks; one of which is a series of my notes and lessons learned from the books I read. June’s book is The Clash of Civilizations, and I’ll be exploring its domestic implications on security and conflict in America.
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