Far West, Far East, far fetched?

The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order
February 14, 1997

Samuel Huntington is one of the most provocative policy gurus in the United States, combining an unusually direct writing style with a biting aversion to cant, especially the cant of liberal ideologues. He may in the past have been on the receiving end of some of Noam Chomsky's bitterest polemics but he reserves his own polemics for the delusions of liberals. Huntington's obsession is not freedom, but order. The word appeared before in the title of a book of his Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) which expressed admiration for the Soviet system ("which governs") in contrast to the US system (which does not): already then he lamented the moral and cultural decay which continues to distress him in the 1990s, when the agitators of Berkeley have been replaced in his sights by postmodern denigrators of the western tradition and the apologists of multiculturalism. In the present book his self-indulgence is a nightmarish evocation/fantasy, worthy of the cheapest science fiction, of how a future war between the US and China might break out and then spread across the globe. There is a nostalgia here for the orderly equilibrium of the cold war, and Huntington's sketch of how to avoid this unthinkable, but not unimaginable scenario can be interpreted as a plea to reconstruct the "order" of that period, replacing Russia with China as the West's partner/rival.

For Huntington the cold war was a brief moment of order in a long history characterised by endless unstable rivalries and confrontations between civilisations. The subsequent years have reminded us that within these entities, based on shared cultural and above all religious foundations, states tend to form more or less stable coalitions against other civilisations, and that they are particularly successful in establishing or preserving their dominance over regions of the globe if they have a "core state" - such as China or the US - an element notably, and by implication regrettably, missing in Islam. These clashes are irredeemable: far from attenuating them, modernisation, and the globalisation of cultural habits that accompanies it, sets in motion forces which may well sharpen them, for it undermines established social orders and leaves people alienated from their origins and desperately searching for an identity. Using a mountain of newspaper cuttings and of policy documents from the intelligence and defence bureaucracies of Washington DC - but no anthropological or sociological sources - Huntington documents the upsurge of anti-western sentiment and political intention in most Islamic and Asian countries and rejects the argument that because the elites of these countries speak English or do business with international companies they are somehow likely to be sympathetic to the West. His bitterest and most sardonic attacks are reserved for self-defeating US attempts to export western values to places like Bosnia, where in his view western liberal concern for the fate of the Bosnian Muslims opened the door to an Islamic influence we will live to regret.

Just as modernisation does not bring westernisation, so also it is a profoundly serious mistake to claim that western values are universal. That view leads directly to imperialism, and thus to enduring resentment and conflict. An equally profound but very American mistake is to confuse "good" with "friendly" relations. By trying to make friends in hostile cultures the West (ie the US) has shown weakness or else has provoked mass popular resentment. With his fondness for terse gobbets of homespun philosophy Huntington simply says: "It is human to hate". The West, above all the United States, must learn to cope with being hated.

Huntington's inclination is towards insights rather than systematic analytical exposition, and he declares at the start that this is not a contribution to social science. He likes to assert his view, and then pile on stories to illustrate it. His accounts of China and Islam show that he has grasped some central issues - the enormous importance of the overseas Chinese in China's economy and indeed in its political projection, the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism to modern middle classes. But he also has massive, though far from unintentional blind spots: he disdains economics, and pays little attention to the future role of Western Europe, noting simply that "without the United States the West becomes a minuscule and declining part of the world's population on a small and inconsequential peninsula at the extremity of the Eurasian land mass".

The most striking, and disturbing, blind spot, concerns his own country. Huntington sees the massive influx of Hispanics into the US and their apparently greater resistance to cultural assimilation than previous immigrant generations as a serious threat to the country's core values. What he does not see behind the doubts and regrets over the North American Free Trade Agreement is a process which, because it is two-way, differs significantly in its effects from other large-scale migratory movements: the growing integration of the western hemisphere as a whole in a vast Anglo-Hispanic cultural complex. Latin America is characterised by some French and Spanish speakers as the Extreme Occident - which unfortunately translates as the Far West - and this expresses well Huntington's own classification of the region as an occasionally wayward, but broadly reliable, appendage of the West. But the region is undergoing a series of profound changes: new business elites, imploding middle classes, widening social inequality, mushrooming postmodern megalopolitan cities, multicultural constitutions, exploding charismatic Protestantism, in addition to multi-faceted hemispheric integration. If properly handled, these changes could strengthen it and the US. They probably will not be properly handled: the US thinks of the region's problems as related exclusively to economic management and drugs trafficking. In this particular, Huntington reflects Washington's inability ever to think shrewdly or analytically about its own hemisphere.

Huntington's predictions may be right or wrong - and in any case he is too intelligent to have his book stand or fall by them. His plea for the West to hold together militarily, to renew its cultural values, and to construct solid, rather than friendly relationships with other civilisations may or may not be ill-conceived or unrealistic. But he has placed culture and religion firmly on the agenda of international relations, which does not seem to be a discipline for which he has a very high regard: he barely quotes any major US authority in the subject.

Although Huntington is careful to insist that in his view the Islamic threat to the West comes from Islam as a whole, and not from fundamentalism, we still need to put together the rise of fundamentalist movements in three major world religions with the globalisation process; we also must come to terms with the reality of postmodernism as an intellectual force, and recognise that the reflexive projection of authenticity across cultural frontiers has now become part and parcel of the work of international institutions, both official and nongovernmental, as the "West" seeks to preserve in aspic the traditions of far-flung cultures threatened by "development". The entanglement of the West in the creation and recreation of ethnic and religious identities throughout the world is inextricable and is not easily encapsulated in a concept of clash of civilisations derived from the past 2,000 years' history. More than any other social science discipline, international relations is a product of the cold war: Huntington may not be one of nature's more sophisticated theorists, but his unique combination of the talents of the pundit with the voice of the prophet should lead others to work out how the questions he raises can be analytically integrated into the discipline.

David Lehmann is director, Centre of Latin American Studies, University of Cambridge.

The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order

Author - Samuel P.Huntington
ISBN - 0 684 81164 2
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Price - $26.00
Pages - 367

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