Samuel Huntington, the Harvard professor and self-styled defender of Western civilisation, has been a dominant voice in American political science for thirty years. Roughly contemporary, as a Harvard graduate student in security studies, with Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Huntington failed to achieve their spectacular level of success in Washington, although he did rise to a second-tier position in the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter. His intellectual achievements, by way of compensation, have far out-stripped those of his peers. His immensely influential Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), in particular, established his reputation as a leading authority on state-building. While he passes as a conservative of sorts, he is anything but a libertarian, and has been an articulate critic of the tendency of Americans, in particular, to underestimate the contribution of political authority to individual liberty. His 1993 Foreign Affairs article, ‘The Clash of Civilisations?’, was something of a departure. It propelled him into even greater international prominence, not only because it provided a simple picture of the dangers of a post-Cold War world, but because he wrote of ethnic hatred and religious intolerance without the usual liberal discomfort, indeed without appearing to make value-judgments of any sort.
This new book is an elaboration of that article and a response to its critics. Dazzling his readers with a masterly tour of world politics and a forecast of ‘tribal conflict on a global scale’, Huntington all the while keeps one eye trained apprehensively on the ‘moral decline’ of the United States. He is distressed at an increasingly materialistic and multiculturalist America, at its ‘relativism, egotism and consumerism’, among other blemishes and failings. Not unlike the writings of Oswald Spengler and other theorists of comparative civilisations, on whom he unapologetically relies, Huntington’s scholarly endeavour is permeated by alarm at the current decay and possible extinction of his own culture and society. ‘The West’s victory in the Cold War has produced not triumph but exhaustion.’ We have lost not only our ‘self-confidence’ but also our ‘will to dominate’. American society is marked by self-indulgence, a wasting work ethic, raging criminality, antisocial behaviour, disrespect for authority, drug use, family breakdown, poor educational performance and a general erosion of personal trust. He naturally asks if anything can be done to reverse these woeful trends.
‘The Nineties,’ he claims, ‘have seen the eruption of a global identity crisis.’ In characteristically different styles, Westerners and non-Westerners alike seek compelling answers to the crucial question: ‘Who are we?’ For many other peoples, this quest for new bearings follows the dismantling of age-old village communities and local traditions. Driving such traumatic transformations are massive rural-urban migrations, the unprecedented demands of modern occupational roles, and the spread of transnational markets and telecommunications. But for the inhabitants of the United States (and of Western Europe), loss of a coherent self-understanding and sense of purpose has a different cause. We are in trouble because, after the flabbergasting disappearance of the Soviet Union, we lack a sustaining and ennobling enmity.
The unexpected implosion of the West’s once-great rival was not an unmixed blessing because we often know who we are ‘only when we know whom we are against’. It is no surprise to hear Huntington, who thrives on controversy, argue that ‘people define their identity by what they are not,’ or that ‘it is human to hate. For self-definition and motivation, people need enemies.’ If having an enemy gives us a reason for getting out of bed in the morning, then the Western, if not the global, identity crisis may be solvable. That is where the ‘clash of civilisations’ comes in. By identifying our enemies, Huntington hopes to re-enchant the post-Cold War world, to restore our sense of purpose, and of course to raise the prestige of the military in Western societies. Dangerous battle-fronts lend clarity, flavour, excitement and meaning to human existence. Frayed solidarities and dissipated virtues can be recouped, but only with the help of a lethally hostile foe.
Superficially, Huntington’s principal thesis, or hypothesis, is a descriptive one. A new age of disharmony is dawning, ‘an era dominated by ethnic conflict and fault-line wars between groups from different civilisations’. The secular optimism of those who believe that mankind is being drawn into peaceful co-existence and mutually beneficial co-operation by the growth of global markets is not only misplaced: it is suicidal. The leading actors in this new era, besides the West, will be China (understood to include the East Asian Chinese diaspora) and Islam, ‘the challenger civilisations’, now resurgent, to our great peril, after centuries of impotence and passivity. (India, Japan and Russia are consigned to supporting roles, South America and Africa have negligible parts.)
China and Islam are not ideological communities, but cultural ones. China is unified by language and tradition as well as race; Islam by religion. They are arrayed against us by ‘blood and belief, faith and family’. Their emergence as major players confirms that ‘Cold War alignments are giving way to civilisational ones’ and that, after the collapse of Communism, ‘culture replaced ideology as the magnet of attraction and repulsion.’ With remorseless logic, cultural affinities are weaving new alliances between countries once at odds, while cultural remoteness is loosening alliances cemented only by ideology and even tearing nations apart. The most obvious example of this massive re-orientation of peoples from doctrine to kinship is Yugoslavia, a society pasted together by Titoism which has now fractured into an array of mutually hostile tribes. To prepare to face our challengers, Americans and Western Europeans must reinforce our own ‘economic and political integration’. This renewed Atlanticism must be based not on universal principles, but on shared cultural roots and Western particularism.
Eccentrically, Huntington interprets the approaching confrontation between the West and its new arch-enemies through the lens of what we might have thought was a superannuated philosophy of history. ‘All civilisations,’ he tells us, ‘go through similar processes of emergence, rise and decline.’ Being at the ‘peak’ of power is unnerving, because it suggests that the United States and Western Europe will soon begin a preordained downward skid. Huntington may not actually believe that analogies with the biological life-cycle help to explain social change, but he writes as if he does. Westerners are now in a ‘golden age’, marked by ‘low birthrates and ageing populations’. Societies such as ours ‘do not have the youthful vigour to be expansionistic and offensively oriented’. By contrast, ‘when civilisations first emerge,’ and apparently when they reemerge, ‘their people are usually vigorous, dynamic, brutal, mobile and expansionist.’ A ‘maturing civilisation’ such as Western Europe is especially vulnerable to ‘surging civilisations’, of the Islamic or Chinese types, full of piety and vinegar.
This strange argument is made even stranger by Huntington’s tendency to waver perplexingly between voluntarism and determinism. On the one hand, he toys with the philosophy of fate, admitting that, for the West, the bloom is off the rose, and suggesting that we discreetly withdraw into a gated community, like an old man who does not want to share, clamping down on immigration, and perhaps abandoning Asia to Chinese hegemony. This is a plausible strategy, he suggests, because the other great civilisations, too, may be attracted to global apartheid, to a system of mutually respectful spheres of influence in which ‘global power is obsolete.’ The prospect is not very alluring. The decrepit West, he counsels sagely, must ‘learn to navigate the shallows, endure the miseries, moderate its ventures, and safeguard its culture’. In other, feistier passages, however, he insists that ‘nothing is inevitable.’ Under vigorous leadership (meaning under a post-Clinton presidency), the United States could resume its role as ‘the leader of Western civilisation’ and, most wondrously, given the moral deterioration of our maturing societies and the purported obsolescence of global power, the West as a whole could ‘reconfirm its position as the leader whom other civilisations follow and imitate’.
This back-and-forth between hope of revival and fear of decline, between appeals for renewed global leadership and for modest regional retreat, seriously blurs the policy implications of the book. Do dismissive references to ‘the vacuousness of Western universalism’ mean that we should give up on bodies such as the UN? The answer is unclear. His waffling on the most desirable China policy is another case in point. To the question whether the United States should attempt to maintain military superiority in Asia, he answers both yes and no. In a defeatist mood, he suggests that we should sidestep the hurtling train and abandon any attempt to contain China: ‘a major war could occur if the United States challenges China’s rise as the hegemonic power in Asia.’ When spoiling for a Western ‘revival’, by contrast, he urges us ‘to restrain the development of China’s conventional and unconventional military power’. Finally, in a split-the-difference passage, he argues that both allowing China to become the dominant power in Asia and trying to prevent this would involve ‘major costs and risks’ for the United States.
Huntington’s simultaneous embrace of hope and despair, voluntarism and fatalism, prevents the main contours of his argument from coming clearly into focus. Why, for instance, does he allow the blanket category ‘Islam’ to obscure inner divisions between Arabs and non-Arabs, or between Shi’ites and Sunnis? Why does he lump together within a single homogeneous civilisation such disparate societies as, say, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran and Algeria? The answer is that he finds homogeneity because he is looking for homogeneity. He is less interested in describing Islam with fidelity, in short, than in depicting it as a hair-raising, intransigent foe of the West. If he wanted to generalise about the ‘basic attitude’ towards the West detectable in the non-Western world, might he not have mentioned ‘ambivalence’? Isn’t the West hated and admired in much the same measure and for much the same reasons? Isn’t it hated because it is admired? This ambivalence is almost inaudible in The Clash of Civilisations. To bring it up would muffle the clash.
Huntington’s catch-all categories also reflect his garden-variety essentialism. Each great civilisation, he believes or pretends to believe, has an inner nature (Spengler would have called it a ‘soul’) which it is destined to unfold. ‘The essence of Western civilisation is the Magna Carta.’ The essence of Islam, by contrast, is ‘Muslim bellicosity’, apparently hard-wired into Islamic societies by the warrior example of Muhammad and the glorious traditions of conquest and expansion. ‘Wherever one looks along the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbours.’ Similarly: ‘Muslims make up about one-fifth of the world’s population but in the Nineties they have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilisation.’ And: ‘Confucians, Buddhists, Hindus, Western Christians and Orthodox Christians have less difficulty adapting to and living with each other than any one of them has in adapting to and living with Muslims.’ Although he was lambasted for his earlier statement that ‘Islam has bloody borders,’ Huntington remains unrepentant: ‘Islam’s borders are bloody,’ he repeats, adding poetically, ‘and so are its innards.’
The Islamic militants who are said to approve of Huntington’s original article, recognise that this tough talk is not at all an expression of contempt. For he is not particularly squeamish about cut-throat aggression. Indeed, he often seems to admire Islam’s driving-aspiring culture and ‘youthful’ barbarian energy. This is not surprising, since every good soldier desires a worthy foe. When Islamic leaders ‘see Western culture as materialistic, corrupt, decadent and immoral’, Huntington can only nod in approval. Finally, he cannot consistently regret Islam’s hostility towards us if it sharpens the battlefronts that will help us get a grip on ourselves.
The idiosyncrasy of this essentialist approach is most colourful in Huntington’s discussion of ‘torn countries’. The idea of a torn country – a category meant to be simultaneously descriptive and normative – apparently derives from Nikolai Danilevsky and other 19th-century slavophile writers who attacked Westernising tsars for betraying Russia’s soul. Spengler picked up the idea, objecting to the way Weimar’s architects traduced Germany’s soul by trying to anglicise an essentially un-English people. Now Huntington comes along and applies this slavophile perspective to Turkey.
Amazingly, he describes Kemal Atatürk as a betrayer of his country, as a defector and apostate, a Westerniser suffering from false consciousness, who plunged his countrymen into ‘cultural schizophrenia’ by trying to Europeanise an essentially Islamic people. Such attempts to repress one’s own cultural heritage and replace it with Western imports are uniformly ‘destined to fail’. The rhetoric here is remarkably unguarded: ‘At some point, Turkey could be ready to give up its frustrating and humiliating role as a beggar pleading for membership in the West and to resume its much more impressive and elevated historical role as the principal Islamic interlocutor and antagonist of the West.’ A truly great leader, he says, could ‘remake Turkey from a torn country into a core state’ – which ‘might be desirable’.
This discussion of Atatürk’s role in Turkish history, flawed by an implausible essentialism, acquires further unfortunate connotations in the context of Huntington’s repeated insistence that those who do not cluster along civilisational lines will be cruelly punished for their trespasses. The failure of current American foreign policy, for instance, is due to Clinton’s inability to recognise ‘cultural and civilisational tides’: ‘those who do not recognise fundamental divides ... are doomed to be frustrated by them.’ The murders of Sadat and Rabin, two crisscrossers of civilisational dividing lines, are invoked in support of this proposition. If Australia gives priority to its trading relations with non-kin, it will suffer the fate of all those who defy the logic of things, becoming, in Lee Kwan Yew’s charming phrase, ‘the new white trash of Asia’. And Huntington has this to say about cosmopolitan writers of non-Western origins who subscribe to the thesis that all the world’s cultures are being gradually amalgamated into a single global super-civilisation:
As is often the case with marginals or converts, among the most enthusiastic proponents of the single civilisation idea are intellectual migrants to the West, such as Naipaul and Fouad Ajami, for whom the concept provides a highly satisfying answer to the central question: Who am I? ‘White man’s nigger,’ however, is the term one Arab intellectual applied to these migrants.
If you are disloyal to your roots, you will pay the price.
Approaching Turkey with this in mind, Huntington lays it down that the European Union is and should be a Christian club, and that Nato ‘should recognise the essential meaninglessness of having as members two states each of which is the other’s worst enemy and both of which lack cultural affinity with the other members’. That Huntington’s maps are somewhat eccentric is already clear from the fact that, following their guidelines, today’s criminalised, anarchical Russia would be made ‘responsible for order’ in Romania and Bulgaria, and perhaps even in Serbia and Greece. More ominous is the suggestion that, to bolster the West’s inward coherence, we need to slam the door in Turkey’s face. Such a rebuff, a matter of choice not of destiny, would have serious consequences, as scores of commentators have protested; responsibility for delivering it should certainly not be hidden behind the search for an interesting new way of looking at international politics.
Thankfully, Huntington’s detailed analyses do not follow the lines laid down by his broad generalisations. For instance, he does not explain Islamic violence, in the manner of Molière’s doctor, by invoking the Islamic tendency to violence. Instead, in a perfectly conventional manner, he adduces a wide array of non-cultural factors, especially ‘the demographic explosion in Muslim societies and the availability of large numbers of often unemployed males between the ages of 15 and 30’. He also stresses, in several engaging chapters, the ways in which modernisation paradoxically reinforces neo-tribalist developments. Economic growth means that local traditions have been sapped at the same time as frustrated young job-seekers, ‘crowded into decaying and often primitive slums’, are being bombarded by ‘cassettes, compact discs and videos glorifying Islamic history’, delivered by an ‘Islamist international’ shamelessly exploiting Western technological advances in communications and transportation. A rise in literacy also increases the susceptibility of the young to social mobilisation. Conscience money paid by oil sheikhs to the Muslim Brotherhood, training offered by Afghan veterans, and the destruction of secular opposition groups by myopic political rulers are also invoked but none of these factors has much to do with the essence, or inner destiny, of Islamic culture.
The only vaguely plausible thing Huntington has to say along essentialist lines concerns the relation between Islamic culture and state weakness. State incapacity, he argues, plays an important role in the spread of fundamentalism because, whenever political incumbents default on their most basic duties, Islamic organisations swoop down to play an active role in a whole range of areas, from education to sanitation, from care of the elderly to emergency relief. He might have added that incumbents who are too disorganised or corrupt to provide rudimentary public services may find it tempting to offer cheap dignity to frustrated citizens by indulging in anti-Western tirades and heaping blame on the Great Satan.
Even if we agree, however, that government incompetence provides fertile soil for fundamentalist militancy, we still need to explain that incompetence, and here Huntington points to the culture of Islam. Islamic nation-states are so consistently weak, he claims, because Islamic peoples are culturally indisposed to honour and obey state authorities. Even if honest and public-spirited leaders emerged, they could not secure mass support simply by providing vital social services, because the ‘loyalty intensity curve’ in Muslim societies is culturally programmed to be ‘U-shaped’. That is to say, Muslims tend to be intensely loyal to family-clan-tribe and to culture-religion-empire, but only weakly attached to their nation-states. One reason for this is the debilitating colonial rule which the West imposed on Islamic lands. But the deeper reason is that ‘the idea of sovereign nation-states is incompatible with belief in the sovereignty of Allah and the primacy of the ummah.’ Such an analysis is erroneous, but it is at least more complicated than the suggestion that Islam is essentially violent and aggressive.
No strand in Huntington’s argument has arched more scholarly eyebrows than his equivocal suggestion that cultural similarities produce co-operation while cultural differences produce conflict. ‘People rally to those with similar ancestry, religion, language, values and institutions, and distance themselves from those with different ones.’ Russia and Ukraine will never fight one another, he predicts, because they are religious and linguistic kin. China-Taiwan trade has been ‘greatly facilitated by “shared Chineseness” and the mutual trust that resulted from it’. Just so, the European Union is economically successful because it is the legitimate heir of Christendom. Birds of a feather flock together, while relations between peoples of different civilisations are bedevilled by missed cues, jarring styles, feelings of superiority, and fear.
This thesis is untenable on theoretical grounds alone. For similarity is not a relationship, and will not spawn a relationship without propinquity, interaction, mutual advantage, shared enemies or a jointly accepted narrative chronicling origins, sufferings or opportunities in common. Likewise, difference alone will not generate hostilities without economic exploitation, territorial rivalry or historical grievances. In addition, similarity and difference are a matter of interpretation and standpoint. Examined microscopically, no two snowflakes are identical while, observed from a distance, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland appear indistinguishable. Thus, it is natural that ‘in the past Christians killed fellow Christians,’ for similarities mutate into differences, and vice versa, depending on shifting points of view.
A common culture cannot be the main reason for the relative success of the European Union, moreover, since Europeans shared a common culture when they were stomping each other into paste. Faced with this obvious objection, Huntington rescues the principle that kinship fosters harmony by dusting off his quaint philosophy of history, and explaining that, while all civilisations have a ‘warrior phase’, Europe has already passed through its period of internal strife and has now attained to serenity. Lack of conflict turns out to be produced not by cultural brotherhood but by the ‘maturing’ of Europe and the greying of its populations.
Fortunately, not to say typically, Huntington deals with the many objections to this point by ladling them obligingly into his book. Having first insisted that similarities do engender co-operation, he lurches into reverse, arguing that they do not, any more than differences stir conflicts. The dizzyingly mobile nature of his thought on this matter was already clear in the 1993 essay, where he wrote that ‘differences in culture and religion create differences over policy issues,’ only to add that ‘differences do not necessarily mean conflict.’ Here, the bulk of his analysis – as opposed to his memorable one-liners – follows the second, more plausible assumption, showing that the real sources of conflict lie in the struggle for control over territory, sea lanes, resources, markets and power.
In another incautious generalisation, he declares that today ‘cultural identity is what is most meaningful to most people.’ This statement is worth pondering. Why would he want to specify, in such an undiscriminating way, the one loyalty which he knows in advance will be predominant everywhere, without inserting a qualifying reference to shifting contexts and situations? After all, human beings can easily manage a plurality of loyalties – to family, friends, school, locality, region, profession, class, political party, religion, linguistic community, nation-state and so forth – without melting down psychologically or succumbing to multiple personality disorder. And there is nothing especially natural about sacrificing a plurality of allegiances on the altar of one ultimate identification. Indeed, a singular loyalty is likely to eclipse all others only in situations of crisis or emergency – a war, a natural disaster, a strike, a jihad or an illness.
Huntington knows this perfectly well, which is why he focuses so intently on the clash of civilisations. In an intense confrontation pitting ‘them’ against ‘us’, ‘multiple identities fade and the identity most meaningful in relation to the conflict comes to dominate.’ This is a useful admission. Identity does not give rise to conflict. On the contrary, conflict gives rise to identity. Far from being the natural outgrowths of underlying cultural affinities, friend/enemy relations can be manipulated politically and used to highlight or play down cultural roots, depending on the mobilisational demands of the conflict at hand. The idea that friend/enemy relations are a matter of political choice, not historical destiny, is implicit in Huntington’s hope that civilisational conflict can be harnessed to solve the great identity crisis of our time.
What attitudes towards East Asia does Huntington’s theory of civilisational blocs dictate? Whatever the importance of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea as trading partners, he explains, the inexorable logic of homogeneous groupings requires us to reject ‘the elusive and illusory calls to identify the United States with Asia’. For ‘the fundamental cultural gap between Asian and American societies precludes their joining together in a common home.’ In this context, he warms over a few stereotypes about the Chinese and other Asians being non-moralistic, subtle, indirect and devious. In any face-off with such cold and cunning poker players, Americans will be push-overs: ‘because of the American penchant to identify “good” relations with “friendly” relations, the United States is at a considerable disadvantage in competing with Asian societies who identify “good” relations with ones that produce victories for them. To the Asians, American concessions are not to be reciprocated, they are to be exploited.’ Without scruples or hypocrisy, moreover, ‘China has defined the United States as its principal enemy.’ Huntington is not sure if the United States has what it takes to return the favour.
Yet there is ultimately something discordant about Huntington’s insistence on ‘the fundamental cultural differences between Asian and American civilisations’. What makes it unconvincing, oddly enough, is the approval with which he greets East Asian theories of ‘the decline of the West’. He largely agrees with East Asian assertions that the West ‘is culturally and socially decadent’. Just as he seems to admire Islamic culture for mobilising youthful aggression, Huntington seems to admire Lee Kwan Yew for denouncing Western secularism and egoism. At the very least, he cites Singapore as an exemplar of order, discipline, honour, diligence, sense of mission, abnegation, communitarianism, family responsibility, high savings rates, hard work and group effort – of everything, in short, that America lacks and needs. Long ago, in The Soldier and the State (1957), Huntington extolled West Point as a glorious remnant of Sparta surviving amid the Babylon of petty Yankee commercialism and bourgeois squalor. Forty years later, West Point has been replaced by Singapore, a city-state epitomising the Asian virtues of authority, hierarchy, the supremacy of state over society, and the supremacy of society over the individual. Even those who think of Singapore less as an authentic expression of Asia’s indigenous authoritarian capitalism than as a piece of real estate rented by foreign financial institutions, will be struck by the sincerity of Huntington’s sympathy with Lee Kwan Yew’s theory of Western decline – a sympathy which, by demonstrating the essential porousness of cultural divides, completely counter to Huntington’s theory, vindicates the hope that individuals from one civilisation can understand the underlying philosophies and ways of life of another.
On a less personal level, despite his talk about cultural incommensurabilities between Asian and American civilisations and his repeated suggestion that the distrust they spawn will naturally lead to hostility, Huntington eventually settles down to discussing future relations between the two great powers in utterly conventional terms: ‘the underlying cause of conflict between America and China is their basic difference over what should be the future balance of power in East Asia.’ It may be true that ‘the Asia of economic sunshine will generate an Asia of political shadows, an Asia of instability and conflict,’ but civilisational differences are not decisive here since, whatever their cultural affiliations, ‘the emergence of new great powers is always highly destabilising.’
We also learn, eventually, that even during the coming clash countries will not be slavishly positioned along civilisational lines. Conflicts within civilisations will remain just as common as alliances across civilisations. Drug cartels already routinely co-operate across civilisational lines. For similar reasons, weapons-selling nations and weapons-purchasing ones will continue to stretch out ‘arms across the sea’. Political leaders and military strategists will seldom sacrifice national security to diffuse civilisational identifications felt by subject groups that are easy to manipulate and silence. Foreign policy will not cater to the psychological needs of confused citizens. The great powers, at least, have ‘their own more diversified interests’ to look after and, in forming alliances, will give kinship a backseat to perceived advantage. Islam and China, for instance, have less in common culturally than either has with the West, but they are busy forging a long-term alliance, in Huntington’s view, because ‘in politics a common enemy creates a common interest.’
After posting eye-catching but implausible headlines, in short, Huntington introduces his reasonable and even uncontentious arguments in smaller typeface. But his repeated stand-downs make his book difficult to criticise by obscuring its principal claims. Seldom has so much old wine been poured into a new paradigm. We can nonetheless pursue his argument a step further if we examine how badly he stumbles when trying to identify the moral foundation of a renewed Atlantic alliance. Since the age of ideology is over, the West must re-create its coherence on the basis of its shared cultural heritage. But what is the civilisational core on which Huntington pins his hopes? One thing is sure, it cannot be an ideology. He mentions Christianity in passing, but quickly drops the subject, perhaps because secular Europeans and religious Americans are not likely to be united by faith. He also mentions some secular residues of Christianity. But when he inventories them in detail they turn out to be none other than liberty, democracy, individualism, equality before the law, constitutionalism and private property. What this amounts to, of course, is liberalism, a thin creed not a thick culture – the same old ideology, plucked inexplicably from the waste-bin of history, that once united the West against Soviet Communism.
Huntington’s identification of liberalism and democracy as the core of Western culture is implausible for many reasons. His claim that ‘the West was the West long before it was modern,’ for instance, also implies that the West was the West long before it was liberal. Thus, even if the West has an essence, it makes no sense to identify that essence with ‘Western concepts of human rights, liberalism and democracy’ or, for that matter, with Magna Carta. Historically, there is nothing remotely non-Western about religious intolerance or depriving racial minorities of basic rights, though these practices are blatantly illiberal. The preliberal West and the non-liberal West are still Western. The culture of the ante-bellum South was perfectly Western, while in good measure illiberal; the same can be said about important strands of German culture before 1945. Fascism is no less European than liberal democracy. Not only Savonarola and Torquemada, but Hitler and Mussolini were Western.
Now this is elementary stuff and it would be preposterous to suppose that Huntington is unaware of it. But his scholarly caution apparently yields to his political passion. He is looking for some basis on which the West can forge a unity as intense as that created by (what he sees as) the homogeneous monoculturalism of China or Islam. But the United States, at least, does not have the faintest chance of developing political unity on anything but an ideological basis. At this point, therefore, darkness descends:
In an era in which peoples everywhere define themselves in cultural terms, what place is there for a society without a cultural core and defined only by a political creed? Political principles are a fickle base on which to build a lasting community. In a multicivilisational world where culture counts, the United States could be simply the last anomalous holdover from a fading Western world where ideology counted.
The United States is not a nation-state. Its unity is creedal and only weakly cultural. Indeed, it is a cultural hybrid or perhaps a mishmash, unified only by abstract principles acceptable to people who have come from round the world.
As a struggle between ‘two superpowers, each of which defined its identity by its ideology and neither of which was a nation-state in the traditional European sense’, the Cold War gave the United States an honourable role. As a struggle between two ideologically unified multicultural states, the Cold War played to America’s strengths. But the United States is not sufficiently tribal to deal in an appropriate style with the coming geotribalism, just as the West as a whole has become too multicultural to confront successfully such monocultural powerhouses as China and Islam. So how does Huntington deal with this situation? What alternative does he offer to pessimism and despair?
His initial proposal is first broached in a remarkable passage at the beginning of the book which cites Herodotus to the effect that Athenians and Spartans, bound by ‘blood, language, religion, way of life’, will never turn against one another. Read ironically (and how else are we expected to read it?), this passage implies that kin groups, whatever their boasts on ceremonial occasions, will co-operate with each other only so long as terrifying enemies, such as the Persians, are bearing down on them. So Huntington, rather than throwing up his hands, toys with the idea that he can help solidify the Western alliance, however culturally heterogeneous. Western societies have now become domestically, by painting Islamic and Chinese threats in lurid colours.
While not accounting for every oddity in Huntington’s analysis, his failed quest for a saving enmity helps to bring a bit of order into the confusion. The book would have been easier to follow, however, if not only this idea but two others had been more openly and critically assessed. First, the disproportional birthrate among Western and non-Western societies and, second, the weakening of nationalism and the nation-state.
As ‘a war of civilisations’, the war in Bosnia is, for Huntington, a symbol of the coming age, just as the Spanish Civil War, a battle of ideologies, was a symbol of the great age of ideological conflict between Liberalism, Fascism and Communism. But what is Bosnia for Huntington? We can grasp what he has in mind only when we recall his explanation of the breakdown of Yugoslavia. Its principal cause was not the end of ideology, but something more down-to-earth. Although the intercivilisational wars in the former Yugoslavia had many causes, ‘probably the single most important factor leading to these conflicts ... was the demographic shift that occurred in Kosovo’: that is, the drop in the Serbian and the rise in the Albanian proportion of the population. This inversion was not limited to Kosovo, but took place in Bosnia as well. In 1961, according to Huntington’s statistics, the Bosnian population was 43 per cent Serb and 26 per cent Muslim, while by 1991 it had become 31 per cent Serb and 44 per cent Muslim. What was going on, to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing by procreation. When two ethnic groups share a single territory, a high birthrate in one group ‘induces countervailing responses’ in the other. To the slow-motion ethnicide committed against them, he adds less euphemistically, the Serbs responded in kind, not by having babies of their own, but by murdering the babies of their enemies: ‘Ethnic expansion by one group led to ethnic cleansing by the other. “Why do we kill children?” one Serb fighter asked in 1992 and answered: “Because some day they will grow up and we will have to kill them then.” ’
Huntington’s model ‘does not sacrifice parsimony to reality’, but the opposite. When human beings do not behave as his theory predicts they will, instead of modifying his ideas, he demands that people modify their behaviour. Or rather, he warns them of dire consequences if they fail to. An egregious example of this keep-the-theory-and-change-the-facts approach is his claim that ‘Western sympathy’ for the Bosnian Muslims was a mistake. It was ‘a noncivilisational anomaly in the otherwise universal pattern of kin backing kin’. Like the American decision to help the Israeli Jews, whom Huntington also labels as non-Westerners, the decision to help the Bosnian Muslims violated the most basic precept of the New World Order: blood and treasure should be expended only for civilisational kin. It also revealed that the Americans were dupes. By ‘wrapping themselves in the victim guise’, the Bosnian Muslims were ‘able to promote an image of themselves as helpless victims’. But America’s knee-jerk response to ‘the alleged genocide’ was not only a sign of gullibility, it was also a strategic folly, since the Iranians correctly see Bosnia as ‘the soft underbelly of Europe’. Huntington summarises his complaints: ‘Pursuing the chimera of a multi-civilisational country, the Clinton Administration denied self-determination to the Serbian and Croatian minorities’ – that is, curtailed their campaigns of ethnic cleansing – ‘and helped to bring into being a Balkan one-party Islamist partner of Iran.’ What Clinton’s foreign policy team failed to grasp was that ‘the fires of communal identity and hatred are rarely totally extinguished except through genocide’ and that ‘fault-line wars are interminable’ unless ‘one group exterminates the other’. No surprise, therefore, that in Bosnia, ‘the peace process was also helped by the ethnic cleansing which occurred.’
To understand Huntington’s unusual approach to Bosnian-style ethnic cleansing, it helps to consider his discussion of Western colonialism. When the West was still young and vital, not to mention psychologically willing to exploit the Industrial Revolution for military gain, it conquered the globe by ‘applying organised violence’. Europe was so successful in this bloody business that ‘for four hundred years intercivilisational relations consisted of the subordination of other societies to Western civilisation.’ Indeed, ‘in 1920, the West directly ruled about 25.5 million square miles or close to half the Earth’s earth.’ Western expansion came in two basic forms. Non-Western peoples ‘were either subjected to rule from Europe or, except in South Africa, were virtually decimated by Western settlers’. The second form of colonialism recalls the Serb fighter’s attitude towards Bosnian Muslim children. In colonised lands, such as the United States, where they ‘obliterated other peoples’, Westerners are still today in proud command. Decolonisation was not an option because the indigenous were almost all wiped out. By contrast, wherever they tried to dominate native peoples, while allowing them physically to survive, the descendants of Europeans have been humiliated, marginalised or tossed out on their ear.
This contrast between two styles of European colonialism – between successful ethnic cleansing and failed ethnocracy – remains shadowy and unelaborated in the book. Indeed, it has to be pieced together from scattered asides. But bringing it into focus helps us penetrate one of the book’s great mysteries – namely, what Huntington means by ‘cultural competition’. The struggle to control territory is understandable. But what is a struggle over values? What will winners win and losers lose in such a contest? Huntington refers repeatedly to half-hearted Western attempts to ‘impose’ human rights on various corrupt, insolvent, incompetent, indifferent and abusive regimes around the world. But while it generates an impressive flow of words, transnational human rights enforcement is not exactly a preponderant factor in global politics. Cultural competition might also conceivably involve Hollywood, McDonald’s, rap music, Disneyland and so forth. But Huntington loftily dismisses ‘Westoxification’, the global metastasis of American popular culture, as of negligible importance. So what will the cultural competition he anticipates be about?
When applying the life-cycle metaphor to entire civilisations, remember, Huntington distinguishes between high-birthrate and low-birthrate societies. The former are ‘young’; the latter are ‘mature’. Thus, even though ‘the West is overwhelmingly dominant now and will remain number one in terms of power and influence well into the 21st century,’ it has to fear the challenger civilisations. China and Islam pose such lethal threats because of the West’s ‘stagnating populations’. Without saying that unchecked population growth is a sign of social vibrancy, Huntington certainly implies that, so far as cultural competition is concerned, an oversupply of the young is better than an abundance of the old.
The West now accounts for 13 per cent of the world’s population, 24 per cent of its territory and 50 per cent of ‘world gross economic product’. This might seem like a favourable ratio (especially in an age of high-tech weaponry, when mass armies no longer give an overwhelming military advantage), but Huntington appears not to think so. In a curiously worded passage, suggesting that overpopulation in the non-Western world is an arrow aimed at the heart of the West, he delivers the following bad news: in 2020, ‘the West will probably control about ... 10 percent of the total world population (down from 48 per cent).’ Even a casual perusal of demographic trends, in short, reveals the insidious way in which the West is being besieged.
Intensified interaction with non-Europeans, Huntington adds, has caused Frenchmen, Italians and Germans increasingly to see themselves as cultural kin. To say that European identity has recently been heightened is to say that Arab and African immigration has loosed racism on Europe and fuelled the rise of anti-immigrant parties. Faced with unsavoury alternatives, the French have come to look with welcoming eyes on white and Catholic immigrants from Poland, who earlier seemed like aliens. Huntington also suggests that the 13 million Muslims who live in Western Europe today constitute an unwelcome shadow member of the EU, impossible to integrate into the host cultures. It is totally unclear if, faced with such alien floods, Western societies will be able to maintain their ‘cultural, social and ethnic integrity’. And uneven population growth is a factor globally as well as domestically. Although Christians make up 30 per cent of the world’s population today and Muslims make up 20 per cent, the percentages will be reversed by the year 2025. In the contest between the world’s two proselytising religions, ‘Muhammad wins out.’ This is because ‘Christianity spreads primarily by conversion,’ while Islam spreads ‘by conversion and reproduction’. Spain’s Maghrebi neighbours breed ten times faster than the Spanish and have one-tenth their per capita GNP. Fifty per cent of births in Brussels are to Arabs. And don’t even mention the Chinese.
Running like a red thread through The Clash of Civilisations, in other words, is demographic anxiety or birthrate envy. Every time we look in the mirror, we have shrunk. This is the Kosovo syndrome on a global scale. It is what Huntington’s cultural competition is ultimately about and, in this race, the ‘maturing’ civilisations are limping hopelessly behind. To prove that ‘the gap is narrowing’ between the West and the Rest, he notes that infant mortality continues to fall in non-Western societies. As an aspect of cultural competition, the comparative survival rate of newborns, too, is a zero-sum game. For the population of the West now comes in a global fourth – ranked below the Chinese, the Hindus and the Muslims. (The ranking here would have come out differently, incidentally, if he had included Latin America as part of the West.)
Just as Europe has an Islamic fifth column, so America has a Hispanic one. As a result, America is now risking ‘cultural suicide’. Its door swung open to non-European ethnicities in 1965 when traditional barriers to Asian and Latin American immigration were removed. In the Fifties, two-thirds of immigrants into the US were white Europeans, while now only 15 per cent are white Europeans. This is why the US risks becoming ‘a cleft country’. A cleft country is any nation containing sizeable populations from different civilisational families. The concept itself, which is again both descriptive and normative, implies that countries of this unfortunate sort are schizophrenic and their situation unnatural as well as inherently unstable. Cultural heterogeneity may even put a nation’s territorial integrity at risk, especially if the country sits astride a fault-line separating one major civilisation from another. Infiltrated by non-Westerners, the now multicultural United States may be about to lose its identity. The ‘continuous Mexican society stretching from Yucatan to Colorado’ poses the ultimate threat. If its Hispanic inhabitants ‘continue to adhere to and propagate the values, customs, and cultures of their home societies’ revanchist sentiments may eventually arise, and Mexico may reclaim the lands the US seized by organised violence in the 19th century. Huntington takes the cultural category, ‘Hispanic’, and colours it racially. During the next half-century, he informs us, the US population will become ‘almost 50 per cent white and 25 per cent Hispanic’, as if ‘white’, too, were a civilisational term. This slip of the pen recalls a phrase that Huntington cites from Lee Kwan Yew: ‘people feel a natural empathy for those who share their physical attributes.’ In that spirit, he introduces a stunning map on page 205, labelled ‘The United States: A Cleft Country?’ which vividly illustrates alien encroachment and the shrinking hegemony of Western culture across the country. Without a word of commentary, this map classifies black Americans among non-Western peoples.
The American sin is the sin of hybridity. Go to California or to New York City, and what you find is astounding ethnic co-existence and intermingling. The Americans supported the Bosnian Muslims, defying Huntington’s consanguinity principle, because America is palpably a multicultural country and its policy-makers believe that a country can be both culturally heterogeneous and politically well-organised. This is a naive assumption, says Huntington, for ‘history shows that no country so constituted can long endure as a coherent society.’ Countries with large numbers of peoples of different civilisations are candidates for dismemberment. So what is in store for the United States?
On the one hand, Huntington urges us to reaffirm the basic values of Western civilisation. On the other, he urges us to abandon our universalism and settle comfortably into amoral familialism, elevating kinship above principle. These two bits of advice are not consistent. For how can the United States reaffirm its identity as a liberal country if it jettisons the principle of tolerance for diversity and openness to strangers? In any case, there is no realistic alternative. It is far too late. America cannot now be reconstituted on the basis of common ancestry and a shared cultural heritage, no matter how cleverly it manages immigration and assimilation. Multiculturalism cannot be kept at arm’s length.
The alternative to a universal world civilisation, which Huntington mocks, is not a neat division of the planet into homogeneous cultural groupings – spoons and forks in separate drawers – but interminglings and syncretisms and lively diasporas which, thanks to technology, keep in constant touch with their countries of origin. Western societies are magnets for members of all the world’s civilisations not because their guard is down or because they are too debilitated by the ideology of ‘the open society’ to protect themselves from infiltration. Immigrants flow westwards because the West is rich and offers jobs.
Here we encounter another latent theme, and a source of Huntington’s pessimism: the increasing weakness of nationalism and the nation-state. The best way to approach this subject is through the wholly unexpected concluding section, where The Clash of Civilisations begins to sound like a Unicef brochure. In the last few pages, Huntington pleads for ‘understanding and co-operation among the political, spiritual and intellectual leaders of the world’s major civilisations’. This could be read simply as an elaboration of the idea that ‘the world will be ordered on the basis of civilisations or not at all.’ While no common or universal civilisation seems likely to emerge, a modus vivendi can be worked out among the great civilisations, the planet can be partitioned into territorially demarcated spheres of influence. An ‘international order based on civilisations’ would, on this understanding, require various forms of co-operation, especially border management and the disciplining of border states, since the great civilisational precincts would no doubt flare dangerously at the edges.
Huntington’s final pages are much more dramatic than this, for they are motivated by the view that Civilisation itself is in jeopardy: ‘On a worldwide basis Civilisation seems in many respects to be yielding to barbarism, generating the image of an unprecedented phenomenon, a global Dark Ages, possibly descending on humanity.’ At such a juncture, we must surely do something more radical than establishing a modus vivendi and superintending hot frontiers between rival civilisations? Instead, ‘peoples in all civilisations should search for and attempt to expand the values, institutions and practices they have in common with peoples of other civilisations.’ After three hundred pages of confrontationalism, this call for reconciliation and harmony comes from out of the blue.
True, Huntington does not abandon his psychological premise that solidarity presupposes enmity. Humanity as a whole has an enemy of sorts – namely, ‘transnational criminal mafias, drug cartels and terrorist gangs violently assaulting civilisation’. Even so, his plea for discovering commonalities across cultures throws the reader off balance. Why such a dramatic volte face? Has Huntington concluded that an international order based on civilisations, which the bulk of the book presents as a solution to the world’s woes, will not only fail to protect us from a new barbarism but will actually deepen the darkness descending on mankind? It is the only plausible explanation.
A global identity crisis might conceivably be solved by homogeneous groupings. But such an arrangement will not solve a further problem, the ‘global crisis of governance’. Huntington’s earlier statement that we are ‘moving into an era in which multiple and diverse civilisations will interact, compete and accommodate each other’ implies that civilisations are capable of action. Needless to say, this is a dubious proposition. A decent life for individual human beings and their families depends, first of all, on legitimate political authority. Only states, not civilisations, can govern human societies effectively. Only states, not civilisations, can govern societies decently. But for Huntington the same economic forces which have gradually eroded loyalty to locality are now eroding loyalty to the nation-state. The identification of individuals with their nation-state, the allegiance of citizens to their political rulers, is everywhere weakening. While not always made explicit, this is one of the basic premises of The Clash of Civilisations. Like demographic anxiety, it provokes Huntington’s unrelieved gloom.
In the West ‘the nation-state has been the apex of political loyalty,’ eclipsing narrower and broader loyalties. Not surprisingly, the end of the age of Western domination is accompanied by the rise of regionalism and the enfeebling of the nation-state. Reflecting on this theme, Huntington remarks that ‘state governments have in considerable measure lost the ability to control the flow of money in and out of their country and are having increasing difficulty controlling the flow of ideas, technology, goods and people.’ One cause or consequence of this weakening is the growing rootlessness of political élites, symbolised by devernacularisation, or the tendency of indigenous governing classes to speak English, even when it is unintelligible to their constituents. Rulers around the world apparently identify and socialise increasingly with a tiny international peer group while losing contact with the people they are supposed to govern: ‘élites of non-Western societies are often better able to communicate with Westerners and each other than with the people of their own society.’
Growing popular distrust in government is not unrelated to the identification of peoples with transnational religions, on which Huntington lays such stress. Today’s ‘global revival of religion’ is the flipside of a global retreat of citizenship. The fading of national identification is reflected in the fact that, today, the dominant identity of most people in the world ‘almost always is defined by religion’ – that is, by a diffuse cultural group that does not coincide with any politically organised community. When Huntington says that ‘in the modern world, religion is a central, perhaps the central, force that motivates and mobilises people,’ he implies that national loyalty is on the wane. Again: ‘As the world moves out of its Western phase, the ideologies which typified late Western civilisation decline, and their place is taken by religions and other culturally based forms of identity and commitment.’ Among the now obsolete ideologies once typical of the West is nationalism. Islam is so virulently anti-Western, and so inhospitable to Western values, because it inclines believers to a powerful ‘rejection of the powers that be and the nation-state’.
But the decline of nationalism and the nation-state will spell the end of Civilisation tout court. That, it seems to me, is Huntington’s real, but only vaguely adumbrated, claim. How else explain his incongruous concluding paragraphs urging, hope against hope, the very sort of intercivilisational solidarity that he has repeatedly ruled out? Today’s world can be stably governed on the basis of religions or not at all. But today’s world cannot be stably organised, or well-governed, on the basis of religions, because religion is an inherently fissile and self-replicating force, that splits internally, leaps anarchically across boundaries, does not submit willingly to discipline and eschews strategic caution. Global ungovernability lies ahead. In such a hopeless situation, there is nothing left to do but pray.
One feature of the coming Dark Ages is worth singling out. ‘Islam is a source of instability in the world because it lacks a dominant centre.’ The basic reason ‘the absence of one or more core states in Islam’ is such a problem is that ‘the Confucian-Islamic connection’ may eventually put a nuclear device at the disposal of fanatics devoted to inflicting harm on the West. ‘At some point, a few terrorists will be able to produce massive violence and massive destruction.’ Weapons of mass destruction can be safely placed in the hands of national leaders, presumably, because they can be deterred from using them by a threat of retaliation against their home territory. In the clutches of self-appointed representatives of diffuse cultural entities, nuclear weapons are much more dangerous, because an appropriate formula for deterrence does not exist. Thus, fear of a Confucian-Islamic bomb is one factor driving Huntington to see an ‘international order based on civilisations’ not as the last best hope of, but as a lethal threat to, Civilisation itself. The concluding somersault, otherwise inexplicable, registers his belated understanding of this fatal dynamic.
However vacillating his arguments, let it be said in conclusion, Huntington is unwaveringly consistent about his ideals. He admires, without regard to culture, well-disciplined and orderly societies, full of combative energy and proud of their uniqueness. But in seeking to deepen and reinvigorate the Atlantic alliance, he comes up empty-handed. Neither race nor religion nor the essence of the West can provide a reliable basis for the social cohesion of Western societies. What then remains is his proposal to re-establish clear battlefronts against dangerous rivals. If this programme were convincing, civilians, whether culturally similar or different, would be reminded of how they depend on each other in matters of life and death, not to mention how beholden they are to the discipline, pride and devotion of military men. But this argument, too, peters out in self-refutation and hopelessness because, among other reasons, the new battlefronts he envisages run between diffuse civilisational groupings, incapable of enlisting masses of individuals, in a disciplined fashion, in sharply focused common projects.
If cultures have no essences to which, in a crisis, they can naturally revert, and if cultural disentangling is beyond our powers, are we simply destined to collapse into barbarism and incivility? Huntington thinks so because he implicitly rules out the possibility of effective state-building in conditions of cultural pluralism. The rest is a counsel of despair. But neither civilisational homogeneity nor civilisational confrontation are as attractive as he sometimes makes them seem. That they are also plainly unrealistic is the basic flaw, if not the secret confession, of this distressed and disturbing book.
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