This is a wonderful book, but Huntington puts too little stock in the role of globalization as a tempering force. The result is a gloomier picture than justified. Reading this in conjunction with Friedman's THE WORLD IS FLAT provides a more realistic view of the world today....Continua
I heeded my friend's advice to study the criticisms of this book before actually venturing into its pages. That was good advice.
Nonetheless, if you want to learn of the ongoing conservative American mindset, the book embodies the simplistic way that America legitimizes its aggression against the Islamic and Sinic cultures....Continua
Culture is a broad concept with no monolithic definition. It is usually described in terms of the context in which it is examined. Nevertheless, even if it is possible to find agreement on the context, there might still be divergence on the choice of the cultural entity involved. In the field of international relations Samuel Huntington identifies 'civilisations' as the cultural units necessary to understand the global system, however different approaches put either religion, or ethnicity, or nationalities, at the basis of the cultural dialogue. These different interpretations of what it must be taken as a culture show the great scope available to see culture as a source of conflict. Perception is the key to understand cultural relationships and conflicts. What matters as a source of conflict is not whether someone is objectively part of a culture, what is relevant is whether he sees himself as its member.
Conflict emerges not where cultural differences actually exist, but where they are perceived to exist and be mutually exclusive. Dialectic and confrontation can weaken or strengthen the perception of difference. However the awareness of diversity is not in itself the cause of conflict, what leads to hostility is the perception that the choice is dilemmatic: "either my culture or you culture". This is why a rhetoric which focuses on a clash of civilisation is not just explanatory, but it is also somehow prescriptive: there is no possibility neither for integration nor for co-existence. Huntington prophesises an aut aut in which it is to be chosen between one civilisation or another. He offers a dangerous simplification with well-picked evidence. As much as it is easy to find examples of clashes of civilisations, it is also easy to find examples which run against his claim. Culture can be used as a mean to create conflict, but this happens when a rhetoric of polarisation and catastrophe has overcome the others. Liberalism, even if faced with difficult tasks, will still prove to be the best antidote to these challenges.
Samuel Huntington in a popular article describes the shape of things to come as a conflict between civilisations: "the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilization" . He identifies civilisation as the highest cultural grouping defined both by common objective elements and by subjective self-identification of the people. Only six main civilisations exist according to Huntington's perspective and these will tend to clash for a number of reasons. Firstly because the differences between civilisations are real and basic; secondly the world is becoming a smaller place and this creates greater awareness of the mentioned differences; thirdly the process of economic modernisation is weakening the nation state as a source of identity and it is therefore leading to a revival of religious; fourthly, being the west in its maximum position of power it prompts the reaction of non-western entities: a "west against the rest" situation; fifthly cultural differences do not change as fast as modernisation and there is therefore an instable equilibrium between progress and identity. Huntington is the most prominent proponent of culture as an element of conflict and it is therefore worth analyse his position in detail.
The first flaw of Huntington's thesis is the absolute arbitrariness in the choice of his civilisations. If these are the units of his system, they should be described and analysed in detail. However he is both brief and categorical in asserting his six different civilisations which are nothing I think but the product of intuition: "for Huntington a community or a culture qualifies as a civilisation if it has established itself as an American minority. Otherwise it does not" . This simplistic criticism underlines the lack of an analytical foundation in Huntington's hypothesis.
The second major flaw is the stress on the diverging elements of the post Cold-War situation. The revival of religion, the greater scope for self-determination, the greater amount of interactions between peoples are reasons which he thinks raise awareness on the differences between civilisations. However he does not underline that many of the elements he uses in order to sustain the arguments for clash of civilisations could be used in the opposite way. The fact that the world has become smaller does not imply that it has become more prone to conflicts. Interactions do cause awareness of differences, but they cause also an awareness of similarities.
Religious differences appear as one of the strongest factual elements to support Huntington, but once more his analysis is simplistic and biased. He just focuses on the elements which oppose one religion to another without noticing the movement toward convergence. The thorough analysis of Esposito and Watson stresses how both in the West and Islam there is a consistency in asking the state not to ignore "its long-run ecological, cosmic basis and to take this successfully on board more than techno-scientific and economic rationality" . Ecumenism is an example that dialogue between religions is possible and shows that the adoption of different religions as the basis of conflicting civilisations might not be the answer.
Huntington's theory nonetheless possesses an important function: it shows how culture can actually be a cause of conflicts, not because the explanations he suggested, but because of the implications of these explications. Huntington brings cultural differences from the social to the political level, underlining the necessity of one culture to actively defend itself against another. The perception that this necessity exists makes conflict more likely. The danger emerges because the cultural dialogue becomes dilemmatic, and it is to everyone's relative advantage to enforce a vision of the opponent as evil and trying the other's annihilation. In this way it is easier to identify an antagonist and encapsulate the hatred, no matter whether differences are real or perceived. There is great similarity in the life-style of Lebanese Islamic and Christian peoples, nevertheless there is a growing perception that one wants the limitation of the other side. Balkan Christians are in linguistic, historical, ethnic respect much more similar to their Islamic counterpart than to other western or orthodox countries, nevertheless this cultural similarity was downplayed through a masterful work of deception. In short, cultures become a source of conflict when perceptions of differences are created and emphasised and therefore brought to a political level in the attempt to safeguard normatively the existence of one group in the face of the other.
There is a great quantity of evidence available to support the idea that civilisations are clashing and the recent present seems to confirm this. The hard-line followed by Iran in relation to everything which is Western and against Israel, the rebellion of Islamic people against cartoons depicting Mohamed as a terrorist, the protracted situation of instability in Kashmir between Hindu and Islamic people, the tensions between China and Japan, these are events which can easily be used to sustain the view that a clash of civilisations is the first source of conflicts. Nevertheless taking all these tensions in account and analysing them all under the same light is erroneous. Historical and economical reasons play important parts in forming the position of different countries and the rhetoric of the clash of civilisation is only part of the issue. How is it possible to justify the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in terms of clash of civilisations, or the struggles within Islam between Sunni and Shiites, or the emergence of more moderate democratic norms in Saudi Arabia (rather than a trend toward extremism)? What I argue is that it is the clash of civilisation rhetoric that is itself a reason for conflict and not the fact that cultures are different.
Liberalism seems to provide the best framework to accommodate conflicting cultures, because, by identifying its principles in terms of rights, it does not enforce a conception of the good, but simply leaves it to the individual person to be developed. With its focus on rights it seems to provide the basis for rational non-cultural basis for co-existence. At this point two criticisms can be moved to liberalism: one from within, the other from without. Some of those who live in liberal states feel that their culture is endangered because liberal norms do not positively protect their own culture. They feel it is their priority to defend their own culture even at the cost of leaving aside liberal norms and rights. These are nationalist or religious extremist groups within liberal states. Liberalism is criticised from without on the basis that it is itself a form of culture, with its history, literature, philosophy and also with its own theology (atheism). Liberalism, product of the renaissance and of the enlightenment, aims to put religion in a secondary position, being rights -not faith- the axioms on which it is built. Both the two criticisms are important and put great pressure on the doctrinal definition of liberalism. Liberal countries often have to face dilemmatic choices because the priority of their liberal status might clash with the demand of religious groups. An example is offered by liberal France which banned the use of the veil for women in public places. This decision was the result of mixing liberalism with secularisation, not just for the institutions, but of the whole society. The solution is not forceful secularism, but intercultural dialogue. Nevertheless in the case of France the issue at stake was not a clash of civilisations, but the presence of multiculturalism in one country. The two criticisms put pressure on liberalism and it must struggle to show that it possesses the means to allow one culture to be preserved en face of another and it must also prove that it is not a culture in itself, but simply a political theory with limited scope and that does not mean to secularise society, but simply institutions. John Gray clearly sets the framework for the problem: "cultural variations in political values do not generate the most serious of the ethical dilemmas that arise in international relations. The hardest question in the ethics of international relations is how to resolve conflicts among goods and bads that are indisputably universal" .
Culture is a key element in explaining behaviours of actors in international relations, but it cannot be analysed systematically. Its impact must always be investigated contextually and functionally. When there is an issue at stake, the actors must be identified and the cultures of the two actors must be assessed. Treating the two actors as the representatives of two broader entities can create centrifugal effects difficult to contain. When a journal produces cartoons which are irrespective of Islamic culture, it must not be assumed that the ideals of that extremist journal are representative of western culture and civilisation, as much as it must not be thought that the reaction of a minority of fanatics represent Islamic culture.
Perception can be misconceiving and the rhetoric of the clash of civilisation is inappropriate and counter-productive. It neglects the possibilities of interactions between states which have different cultural heritages, over-emphasises cultural affiliations in the behaviour of states, limits the expectations of success in international organisations, favours a polarisation of international society and weakens liberal theories as the basis for peaceful co-existence. Civilisations are not clashing, as long as those who compose them are convinced of this.
Thought-provoking but controversial as, for some, Huntington's arguments can be and have been manipulated as one of the major contributing factors to all the brutal clashes among nations, religions and ethnicities.