Clash of Civilizations?

In 1993 Samuel Huntington published his famous article, The Clash of Civilizations?, followed by a 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Obviously, the world has changed a lot since; but many would say Huntington was prescient, and today’s world does seem dominated by clashes among civilizations: most notably between the West and China (with its authoritarian “Asian values”), and between Islam and the West, the latter being arguably outright war.

Huntington’s viewpoint echoes the old time construct of nations akin to billiard balls in their interplay; with today’s game involving seven or eight discrete billiard-ball civilizations. Thus he fixates on the differentness among civilizations, as though talking about Earthlings versus Martians, while dismissing the commonalities.

No one can deny cultural differences, some important. Exiting a Hong Kong ferry on a recent Sunday afternoon, into a long covered walkway, I saw legions of people camped out on mats and blankets along its walls. At first glance they might have been homeless. But, overwhelmingly women, they were well dressed, many working smart-phones and computers, gabbing cheerfully, playing cards, relaxing, and picnicking. This scene was obviously a distinctive local cultural idiosyncrasy quite foreign to the West. And yet not incomprehensible. The human characteristics on display were readily recognizable. These were no Martians.

The same was true throughout my recent tour of China – plenty of differentness, yes, yet nothing fundamentally alien. Always one could easily relate to the humanness. Huntington is wrong to stoutly deride the notion of a universal civilization. To me, the commonalities are vastly more significant than the differences among peoples. Human civilization is global – with local variations. (And people act accordingly – why else would Americans contribute to relief of natural disasters half a world away?)

Moreover, while Huntington consistently talks as though the differences constitute irreconcilable “conflicts,” it’s actually hard to see why. America is not going to invade Hong Kong to stop women picnicking in walkways. By no means are differences necessarily “conflicts.” The overwhelming majority of differences among civilizations are ones they can live with in equanimity. That, indeed, is part of what it means to be civilized.

To be clear, I am not trivializing differences or denying that nations, or groupings of them, have interests that sometimes clash, or that they jockey for relative power, influence, and economic advantage. Of course they do. That’s life; we see it within nations as well as between them. But that doesn’t mean nations or civilizations need be at each other’s throats. Just as such jockeying for advantage among individuals doesn’t generally disturb the peace within societies, so too with nations and civilizations: as long as disagreements, rivalries, and even “conflicts” are handled through peaceable means, then the “clash of civilizations,” such as it may be, is quite simply not a problem.

By analogy, though my wife and I were reared in the same civilization, our personalities and psychologies differ greatly. John Gray wrote Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus; I sometimes feel my wife is not from another planet, but another dimension. Yet we live together in harmony, respecting and accommodating our differences, virtually without strife.

Is it naively simplistic to imagine this model applying among human civilizations? Not at all. In fact, historically, that has been the reality of civilizational relations for the most part. There has been far more getting along than warring. For example, India’s culture is about as different from ours as could be; but we’ve never fought India; we get along fine with India.

Such amity has been increasing in recent times. While many people have the feeling that warfare has been on the upsurge, it simply isn’t so; worldwide per capita death rates from war have been declining sharply, over past centuries, as well as over past decades. Wars among advanced nations today are pretty much inconceivable; and more and more nations are entering those ranks.

A key factor here has been another powerful trend: increasing democratization. So many commentators on issues of war and peace still harp on nation state conflict as an enduring verity, as though they didn’t get the memo that the world has evolved. It’s a cliché that democracies don’t fight each other, but it’s true. I recall one essay by journalist Jonathan Chait denying this, claiming a “whole list” of wars between democracies. To make his list he counted Nazi Germany as a democracy; likewise Serbia under dictator Milosevic; he included a border skirmish between Peru and Ecuador; and Athens fighting Syracuse in 415 BC. That was his “whole list!”

By democracies I mean nations with a democratic culture, including not just elections but government accountability, pluralism, free expression, and rule of law. Such nations do not war upon each other because they resolve disagreements by peaceable means; they don’t give each other reasons for war. Virtually all wars are caused by the actions of non-democracies. And the broad trend is that non-democracies are decreasing.

Huntington, throughout his book, disregards whether nations are democratic, again treating them all as billiard balls behaving alike. It’s a profound error.

Regarding Islamic civilization in particular, it’s true that hatred toward the West is wide and deep, due to historical resentments; a (distorted) negative perception of Western culture; and some muddled paranoia. Further, to call Islam a “religion of peace” is overly indulgent. And as Huntington says, Muslims seem to have problems living peaceably with neighbors; a significantly disproportionate share of modern violent conflicts involve Muslims. Huntington advances various theories to explain this, but once more overlooks perhaps the most obvious: that a disproportionate share of the world’s non-democracies are Muslim. So perhaps the problem is not so much Islam as non-democracy.

But, be that all as it may, let’s get a grip. Muslim hatred toward the West is not – despite all the provocations – much reciprocated. We, at least, don’t see ourselves as being at war with Islamic civilization. While many Muslims might disagree, still for the vast majority of them the state of war is merely metaphoric. Those we are actually fighting constitute a very narrow segment of Islam.

Apart from those fanatics, Islam does not threaten our interests, nor is there anything about Western civilization that any longer necessarily threatens Islamic societies. Most are themselves at war with the same extremists bedeviling the West.

Huntington, however, portrays Islamic civilization as indeed seeing itself threatened by Western civilization. There is the cultural aspect – “McDonaldization” if you will – but obviously such aspects of Western culture spread because of attractiveness to a great many people. Some decry it, but they don’t have any right to squelch it for others. The bigger issue, in Huntington’s view, concerns fundamental values of democracy, human rights, respect for individuals, free expression, and rule of law. These “Western values,” he says are rejected by not only Islamic civilization but others too, such as China’s, which resist the West’s proselytizing these values. In opposition to them, says Huntington, are value systems like Confucianism stressing authority, hierarchy, and subordination of the individual to society.

Now, you might say Christianity is a Western religion, and efforts to Christianize Asia are the kind of thing Huntington talks about. But the same does not apply to values regarding democracy and human rights. That they happened to come alive first in the West does not make them “Western” values in any sense other than semantic shorthand. They speak to universal human concerns.

Values like the Confucian ones cited above, and likewise the supposed Islamic notion that man-made (i.e., democratically made) laws are in opposition to God’s law, speak instead to the concerns of ruling elites. They are pretexts for enforcing the submission of the masses. Most people in those societies, in fact, do not oppose having a say in governance or their human dignity respected. To the extent such “Western” values are resisted, it’s primarily by the privileged elites, seeking to protect their position. Populations at large do not resist such values, but thirst for them.

The truth of this is playing out right now in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. As for other non-democratic regimes wrapping themselves in non-“Western” values – like China’s – we shall see.

2 Responses to “Clash of Civilizations?”

  1. Lee Says:

    Nice article.

    By way of agreeing with you (I think), I take exception to the characterization that the wars are between Islam and the West. Although Al Qaeda and the like exploit faith in Islam, I venture that most Muslims are on the side of “the West”. Also, although, the attacks of September 11 were in the West, the targets were the symbols of our financial and military might, not our culture. Exploiting some legitimate grievances about our use of our financial and military might, Al Qaeda’s leaders garner power and use it for nefarious purposes. Exploiting some legitimate grievances about our need for security, our military-industrial complex garners power. The rest of us, the real Islam and the real West, are the bystanders and victims, but not the perpetrators.

    Yes, I agree that more democracy is the solution. It wipes out tyrannical leaders and the tyrannical aspects of financial and military might. Yes, yes, I am not trying to imply an exact symmetry; we want to remove tyrannical leaders from power 100%, but the need for tempering of our financial and military systems is much more subtle (though still quite important).

  2. “On The Muslim Question” – Or Avoiding It | The Rational Optimist Says:

    […] Then Norton has a chapter boldly titled “There Is No Clash Of Civilizations,” referring to historian Samuel Huntington’s famous thesis. Her entire argument here is that Muslims and non-Muslims actually get along fine in non-Muslim societies. But Huntington was talking about relations among societies. Moreover, Muslims do not get along fine with non-Muslims in Muslim countries – about which Norton is silent. (Huntington was all wet, but for different reasons – see my review of his book.) […]

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