In Search of New Enemies

Stephen Holmes

  • The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel Huntington
    Simon and Schuster, 370 pp, £16.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 684 81164 2

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’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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