Monday, April 02, 2007

Time to Dust Off Huntington Again


I'm a big admirer of Samuel Huntington and his seminal work, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996). I read it when it was first released, and have revisited it a couple of times since. His thesis has been often misunderstood and abused. The catch-phrase of "clash of civilizations" has been much over-used and ill-used. Yet his arguments are standing the test of time, and he appears ever more prescient amidst our continuing foreign policy debacles. In my view, no one sets it out quite like Huntington. In 1993, before the publication of this book, he wrote:

History has not ended. The world is not one. Civilizations unite and divide humankind. The forces making for clashes between civilizations can be contained only if they are recognized.... What ultimately counts for people is not political ideology or economic interest. Faith and family, blood and belief, are what people identify with and what they will fight and die for. And that is why the clash of civilizations is replacing the Cold War as the central phenomenon of global politics, and why a civilizational paradigm provides, better than any alternative, a useful starting point for understanding and coping with the changes going on in the world.

Whether you agree with him or not, an informed citizen should be familiar with Huntington. So, my question is this: Have you re-read Huntington lately?

Rod Dreher has. In a recent article in the Dallas Morning News (01 April 2007) entitled "Not everyone is longing to be an American," (here), Dreher takes another look at Huntington. A few excerpts, to-wit:

Now that dreams of building a neoliberal Arab Utopia are dying in the back alleys of Baghdad, Mr. Huntington's sobering wisdom deserves a serious second look.

Mr. Huntington's thesis has been widely misinterpreted as a theoretical basis justifying a Western crusade against Islam. That's entirely false....Far from being an incitement to conflict, his book warns the West to avoid needlessly provoking war by failing to grasp the critical importance of cultural difference.

The most important factor shaping the post-Cold War world is cultural identity. The idea of universal values is "a distinctive product of Western civilization" and not shared by other civilizations.

The West is also dazzled by its own pre-eminent power and fails to notice its slow but steady decline relative to other world civilizations.

Isn't it true, though, that as the world becomes more technologically modernized and economically connected, other nations will become more like the liberal democratic West? No. Societies worldwide are modernizing without Westernizing.

In the Muslim world, the Islamist resurgence that we in the West would like to think of as a fringe political movement is actually, says Mr. Huntington, a broad and dynamic phenomenon. It is futile to expect liberal democracy to emerge in the Islamic world, because it is a Western concept antithetical to core Islamic values, such as the inseparability of religion from the civil sphere, collectivism and the privileged status of Muslims within a social plurality.

The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture through the world.

Dreher concludes that Americans have a particularly hard time accepting this because (1) "it violates the deeply held belief that inside every human being is an American, waiting to come out" and (2) "it seems to imply that reconciliation across civilizations is impossible." Our presuppositions of American exceptionalism run deep and wide with us.

But as Huntington notes, "our values might be universally true, but they aren't universally shared." Check out Dreher's article, and by all means (re)read Huntington.

2 comments:

D. Ian Dalrymple said...

Sobering stuff. I reviewed the Wikipedia article on Huntington, too. I've not read anything of his before, so I'll have to heed your recommendation.

Steve Hayes said...

I have a half-finished article on Huntington that i started about 5 yearts ago. Perhaps I should finish it.

His mopdeel for interpreting geopolitics in the post cold War era has stood the test of time, yet people still talk in terms of the three worlds model, which fits less and less.

And yes, most people misunderstand him completely, but I doubt that they have read the book.