Monday, October 01, 2001

In the wake of the suicide bombing and obliteration of the World Trade Center in New York City, and the Pentagon in Virginia, Samuel P. Huntington's 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations: The Remaking of World Order has suddenly taken on a new relevance. Decried by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times for focusing on intercivilizational order rather than "globalization" (his preferred method of analyzing post-communist world order) the structure of the book seems to be something of a war manual for George W. Bush post-911. Ideologists of the American empire, like Henry Kissinger and Francis Fukuyama praised the book enthusiastically.

Huntington, a former Carter administration National Security Council spook, argues that coming global conflict will not be based on the nation-state, as in World War I, or on ideology, as in World War II, but would instead be a clash of civilizations: essentially a return to the "medieval." He also downplays the importance of economics in global relations, viewing culture as the dominant force at play. Though there are serious flaws, his view is not the typically simplistic dichotomy of East vs. West or North vs. South (they would of course, seem to cancel each other out) but rather it is one of competing civilizations guided by lead states. In the Western world, that is the United States. In the Islamic world it is Saudi Arabia. In the Orthodox world it is Russia. In the Hindu world, it is India. In the African world, it is Nigeria. In the Latin American world it is Brazil. And then there are those countries that are civilizations unto themselves: Sinic (China), and Japanese. Out of these, the West, China and Islam are put forth as the main contenders in global politics today.

In many ways the civilizational approach makes sense; it seems very much to be what is taking place at this moment in global conflict. But that it is taking place is more a matter of the meddling of the West amongt the resources of what Huntington calls "the Rest" than it is some sort of ancient, deep-rooted civilizational conflict. In his defense, Huntington does enlist the opinions of the always keen World Systems Theory crowd: Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein make dozens of cameos throughout the book. But as an indication of his tragically flawed logic, he only half-uses their wisdom and discards that which makes World System Theory of such relevance. While embracing the WST concept of core and peripheral states - and of the civilizational fault lines that surround this system, Huntington ironically argues that this arrangement is the result of over-traditionalism. If Islam, Africa, Latin America, China, and Japan would just open their economies to the "invisible fist" of the corporate West, then civilizational conflict would be reduced. Somehow, Hungtington argues that this is not "Westernization" but is merely modernization.

The problem, as Huntington sees it, is that increased global interdependence has brought liberal democracy to the non-Western civilizations, thus increasing the ability of traditionalists, indigenous peoples, Muslims, Confucianists and others to exercise power in favor of their own civilizations rather than Western civilization. This logic strangely seems like a U.S. foreign policy logic that would justify supporting dictatorships such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, so long as they open their economies to Western intervention rather than supporting democracy, which would likely lead to Arabic oil resources being used for Arabic interests.

He does criticize Western universalism - even calling it imperialism at one point. And he points out that the Islamic and Sinic civilizations are rising in influence compared to the West. Certainly, it is true that Islam is now the fastest growing religion in the world: if current growth rates continue there will soon be more Muslims in the United States than Jews. And as he postulates "The twentieth-century conflict between liberal democracy and Marxist-Leninism," he says, "is only a fleeting and superficial historical phenomenon compared to the continuing and deeply conflictual relation between Islam and Christianity." According to Huntington, the threat faced by the West is not from Islamic Fundamentalism, but from mainstream Islamic civilization. This is a view far more racist than anything George W. Bush could muster in the first week following 911 - yet it rings a bell too. Though Bush called for an end to the attacks on Muslims in the United States (probably because some of our most important resource colonies are predominantly Muslim) the other side of his mouth seemed to be parroting Huntington's thesis exactly: fanning the flames of religious and racial hatred.

Surprisingly, Huntington's reccomendation is that the West learn to live in a multipolar world and steer away from it's longstanding attitude of universalism (read, imperialism). However the other side of this is that there be a recognition within the U.S. that as he puts it "those societies that have culture in common are coming together, and those societies that have cultural difference are coming apart." In other words, he flatly opposes the basis of multiculturalism: that it is desireable to live in a society that supports the autonomy and development, and interdependence of different cultures. The goal of national policy should be "not to attempt to reshape other civilizations in the image of the West, . . . but to preserve, protect, and renew the unique qualities of Western civilization." Huntington points to the moves in the Islamic world to "purify" and to unite as Muslims; if we are to compete we must do the same. This embraces the idea that the West should unify as a civilization in order to secure it's global influence, yet it denies that the non-Western civilizations have greatly influenced the West and will continue to do so, save sort of massive ethnic cleansing.

This is a major oversight in his analysis: no civilization on the face of the earth remains culturally "pure" in the 21st century - especially not the West. To suggest that what is needed is an assault on multiculturalism and a push for greater assimilation (that is to the expectations of the Western elites) amounts to nothing less than white supremacy. If Huntington's reccomendations are the basis for the course the West is charting post-911, we can expect a global race war. Given that the United States is so diverse, we can also expect a race war at home - glimpses of which we have already seen in the wave of racial attacks in the past weeks. What is needed is thoughtful analysis of books such as these, which seem to be the foreign policy bibles of people like Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and then a massive national discussion amongst the citizenry, lest their grim outlook become a self-fulfilling prophecy.