Clash of Civilizations?

Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilization was panned in the world of academic political correctness as being full of stereotypes and ethnocentric ideals.   Some thought his book was a rationalization for expansion of American power, others felt he had simplistic taxonomies with insensitivity to internal dynamics, class conflict, and the impact of imperialism.   Yet Huntington, who died Christmas eve in 2008 at the age of 81, may have been one of the most insightful political scientists of the last century.

To be sure, his Harvard style of grand theorizing and limited methodological rigor was a turn off for the new generation of social scientists who became more comfortable with statistical analyses than big ideas.   To them Huntington was engaged in speculative theory, gathering information and organizing it around his own subjective reflection on the world.   That was old fashioned, the new generation thought social science should be truly scientific, dividing problems into smaller themes to investigate with clear methodology.   Not only that, but with the advent of computer technology such “rigor” became easy, especially if you worked at an institution with the resources to buy data bases and sophisticated software.

Yet for all the journal articles published and sophisticated models constructed, the twin problems of complexity and perspective remain vexing.   The problem of complexity means that in a multi-causal reality being able to identify and measure the impact of single factors is almost impossible in most cases.   The problem of perspective means that all aspects of social reality can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the perspective taken.  Moreover, with the world so complex, the choice of what to measure and how to interpret becomes subject to significant bias from the researcher.   The quantitative analysis that yields a statistical result to a test of an hypothesis may be riddled with bias and error, even if it appears rigorous and sound.

Huntington had two ideas that were profound.  Others shared these ideas, but Huntington made them mainstream.  In 1968 in his book Political Order in Changing Societies he argued that the driving theory of US foreign policy in the third world, modernization theory, was wrong.   That theory, attributed primarily to Walt Rustow, was that the problem in the post-colonial world was that societies were still traditional, not having gone through the process of modernization.   Modernization entails having rational thought replace tradition, secular ideas replace religion, and materialism trump symbolic ritual.   Modernism is progressive, while traditionalism is conservative.    Huntington pointed out what was becoming obvious: unless modernization is accompanied by the growth of effective political institutions and rule of law, the result will be corruption, disorder and perhaps violence.    The market alone will not bring stability or prosperity.   Few doubt that now.

In 1993 he published a provocative article in Foreign Affairs called “The Clash of Civilizations?”   He turned this into a book published in 1996.   During that time period, the debate in the US was between those who thought the US should expand and try to shape the post-Cold War world into one conducive to US values against those who thought western imperialism entailed big corporations trying to exploit the third world and dominate.   The former dismissed cultural differences as arbitrary — everyone wants to be free, the West simply discovered the “right” path first.   The latter dismissed cultural differences as secondary to economic exploitation.   Meanwhile the “scientific” study of political science shied away from cultural factors as impossible to measure and compare.   Culture for them seemed a mushy kind of explanation people give when they don’t understand why differences occur.   Their emphasis remained on measurable factors such as economic output, public opinion, and various political variables.

Huntington argued that the great ideological conflict of the 20th century was ending, and ending at a time when a new process, globalization, was progressing.   Similar to an argument put forth in 1994 by Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs. McWorld, Huntington noted that this expansion of the world economy would lead to increasing contacts and interactions across borders that could threaten cultural values and identities in a way not experienced since perhaps the Roman Empire.

Barber saw this a battle between forces defending local custom (jihad) and efforts to centralize and standardize the world economy (McWorld).  As globalization forced standardization — Barber was one of the first to really investigate the role of Hollywood movies to impact other cultures — people would rebel to try to reclaim and protect their traditions and identity.  Balancing a respect for culture and diversity with the demands of an increasingly global economy would be key to avoiding future violence and terrorism.

Huntington took this a step farther and divided the world into different civilizations.   Here is where he got in some trouble.    Dividing the world into clear civilizations is tricky.   Huntington’s civilizations included:  Western,  Latin American, Islamic, Sinic (Chinese), Hindu,  Orthodox, Japanese, and African.   Africa was a later edition; at first Huntington left it out, not being able to point to a clear cultural history as colonialism had wiped out so much of what normally defines a culture.   Yet saying Africa was without a civilization appeared to many as racist and a sign of Huntington’s ethnocentrism.    On top of that, internal differences (e.g., the Arab world vs. Indonesia in the Islamic civilization) and cross-civilizational links (Latin America with Spain and aspects of what is considered the ‘West’) made it easy to take pot shots at Huntington.   He seemed engaged in stereotyping, and worse ignoring the leveling effect of globalization (either for good if you’re Thomas Friedman, or bad if you’re Noam Chomsky) on all cultures.

Yet, while acknowledging the imperfection of such a classification, Huntington persuasively argued that there are distinct cultural values and ideals crafted through history.  It’s an arrogance of the West to assume that we have the “right’ culture and others naturally will drift our way.   That assumption led to failure in Iraq, as the Bush Administration ignored culture in favor of an ideological belief in the universality  of American values.  It’s an arrogance of the Left to label acknowledgment of real cultural differences and distinct civilizations as mere stereotyping and prejudice.    Culture is real, culture matters and in an era of new media and instantaneous global communication, cultural clashes are inevitable.    That is a key factor which motivated the terrorists on 9-11!  Quibble with Huntington’s taxonomy, but his core ideas appear accurate.

So if, as Barber claims, we need to balance the tendencies of  ‘McWorld” vs. “jihad,” and if future conflict will be as much about cultural values colliding as about money, power or ideology, how should the US react?  I think this requires a complete rethinking of our foreign policy and attitude about global affairs.   I also think we need to be ready for the impact of the information revolution on our own society and culture — we’re not immune from dramatic change.  I’ll write more on all this in future posts!

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  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on July 23, 2010 - 15:44

    Personally, I think we need to scale back our foreign ‘intervention’ drastically. Not to the point of isolationism, but I think we do have ourselves overextended quite dramatically, in a military sense at the very least, and in a lot of places where they can handle their own business, and wield a similar influence (i.e. Europe) that is still friendly towards U.S. ambitions overall.

    At the very least this would help us, in the event of what some might consider a ‘Just War’, avoid our overstretched and thinned out nature, which not only distorts our ability to influence events in more localized theaters, but has a chilling effect economically as well as politically.

    Any thoughts on how you might arrange our foreign policy to maximize our influence without overstepping our bounds, or creating more unnnecessary animosity toward American interests in general?

  2. #2 by renaissanceguy on July 23, 2010 - 21:03

    I agree with what Mike wrote.

    I’m afraid that I do not know enough to comment on Huntington’s book.

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