Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Clash of Civilisations

It was as long ago as November 2006 that I purchased Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (my blog entry of 5 November 2006 refers) and I've only just started reading it! As I mentioned then this was a book that was mentioned along with Francis Fukuyama's The End of History thesis in the OU course I did on the United States. Huntington and Fukuyama to a lesser extent are both referenced in my current course and I thought now was an opportune moment to get to grips with the former.

Okay, so I haven't read all of this as yet and my comments here are abridged and condensed and my interpretation, so don't take what I say as the gospel on Huntington! Essentially Huntington's argument is that with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism, the world moved into a multi-polar, multi-civilisational age. By multi-polar he means the end of the dichotomy of two superpowers vying for hegemony and thus the dispersal of power amongst many. However, it could be argued that the United States as the sole remaining superpower is pre-eminent and with its imperial ambitions, is without equal. The general point though is that US power, whether it be political, military or economic is in decline. The second point Huntington is making is that the post-Cold War world consists of broadly nine civilisations - Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist and Japanese. Whereas during the Cold War nations were roughly polarised between East and West or non-aligned, with the fall of Communism, old identities and groupings are re-emerging.

So, he says that the major conflicts of the twenty-first century will be along the fault-lines between civilisations. This we have certainly seen with the Al-Qaeda attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 and also the break-up of Yugoslavia and the divisions there along largely cultural lines.

What Huntington is doing in this book is presenting a new paradigm - a framework or lens - through which the modern world and international relations can be understood. In doing so he is dismissing theories which were dominant throughout the Cold War such as realism and roundly dismisses Fukuyama's End of History thesis - what Fukuyama was advocating was that Western liberal democracy (and capitalism) had triumphed and would be the dominant political system. This, Huntington concludes, is false and he presents a view that the Western civilization is in decline, having reached its peak somewhere around the 1920s. The reasons for this are complex and also interesting. I don't think I can do full justice to Huntington's arguments but I will do my best to tackle them here.

Essentially, if I have understood Huntington correctly, what he is saying is that modernisation (which is a product of the West) in non-Western societies leads to 'de-westernisation' and the promotion of the indigenous culture. The reasons for this are variously:

1. Modernisation leads to dislocated and alienated peoples - traditional bonds and social relations are broken down. Thus the peoples turn principally to religion to fulfil the void. Religion is key to cultural identity

2. In addition modernisation tends to empower these societies - their populations become better educated, socially mobile and increasingly urbanised. In turn this leads to a greater pride and 'belief' in their culture, which is then reasserted

3. Rapid population growth is typical in non-Western societies with large populations of young people (15-24), who Huntington cites as the motors of political change. With an empowered society and an articulate population, it is only a matter of time before the civilisation comes to believe itself separate and distinct from others including Western civilisation

Thus there is then this challenge between this new civilisation and others because it has become culturally, economically and politically distinct, whilst absorbing into it the benefits and attributes of other cultures, particularly modernisation. So what Huntington is saying is that the world is becoming more 'modern' and less 'Western' hence his theory that the power of the West is in decline and that of other non-Western civilisations is on the rise.

I hope I've made a reasonable job of explaining Huntington's points so far. I won't go into his comments and analysis of the Islamic Resurgence because I am not sure that I fully understand it yet!


jamie said...


Carla said...

Do you think that religion is key to cultural identity? If so, is that why we in England seem to lack a cultural identity? But then, from what I've read, the English have not historically been very religious.

Your review does sound as if you are still early in the book. I would like to hear more about this, particularly the Muslim question.

Joe said...

Interesting book Mark, and probably rather more accurate about world development than some of the others you've been reading. From what you've said, I don't get all of it either, but it *seems* to ring true.

jamie said...