Huntington began his thinking by surveying the diverse theories about the nature of global politics in the post-Cold War period. Some theorists and writers argued that liberal democracy and Western values had become the only remaining ideological alternative for nations in the post-Cold War world. Specifically, Francis Fukuyama argued that the world had reached the ‘end of history’ in a Hegelian sense.
Huntington believed that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had only reverted to a normal state of affairs characterized by cultural conflict. In his thesis, he argued that the primary axis of conflict in the future would be along cultural and religious lines. As an extension, he posits that the concept of different civilizations, as the highest rank of cultural identity, will become increasingly useful in analyzing the potential for conflict. In the 1993 Foreign Affairs article, Huntington writes:
It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. 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 civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.
Huntington seems to fall in the primordialist school, believing that culturally defined groups are ancient and natural, however his early work would suggest he is a Structural Functionalist. His view that nation states would remain the most powerful actors is in line with realism. Finally, his warning that the Western civilization may decline is inspired by Arnold J. Toynbee and Oswald Spengler.
Due to an enormous response and the solidification of his views, Huntington later expanded the thesis in his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
Huntington’s thesis of civilizational clash
Huntington argues that the trends of global conflict after the end of the Cold War are increasingly appearing at these civilizational divisions. Wars such as those following the break up of Yugoslavia, in Chechnya, and between India and Pakistan were cited as evidence of inter-civilizational conflict. The War on Terror is seen as its largest manifestation.
Huntington also argues that the widespread Western belief in the universality of the West’s values and political systems is naive and that continued insistence on democratization and such “universal” norms will only further antagonize other civilizations. Huntington sees the West as reluctant to accept this because it built the international system, wrote its laws, and gave it substance in the form of the United Nations. Huntington identifies a major shift of economic, military, and political power from the West to the other civilizations of the world, most significantly to what he identifies as the two “challenger civilizations”, Sinic and Islam.
In Huntington’s view, East Asian Sinic civilization is culturally asserting itself and its values relative to the West due to its rapid economic growth. Specifically, he believes that China’s goals are to reassert itself as the regional hegemon, and that other countries in the region will ‘bandwagon’ with China due to the history of hierarchical command structures implicit in the Confucian Sinic civilization, as opposed to the individualism and pluralism valued in the West. In other words, regional powers such as the two Koreas and Vietnam will acquiesce to Chinese demands and become more supportive of China rather than attempting to oppose it. Huntington therefore believes that the rise of China poses one of the most significant problems and the most powerful long-term threat to the West, as Chinese cultural assertion clashes with the American desire for the lack of a regional hegemony in East Asia.
Huntington argues that the Islamic civilization has experienced a massive population explosion which is fueling instability both on the borders of Islam and in its interior, where fundamentalist movements are becoming increasingly popular. Manifestations of what he terms the “Islamic Resurgence” include the 1979 Iranian revolution, the War on Terror, and extremely widespread Islamic opposition to the United States during both Gulf Wars. Perhaps the most controversial statement Huntington made in the Foreign Affairs article was that “Islam has bloody borders”. Huntington believes this to be a real consequence of several factors, including the previously mentioned Muslim youth bulge and population growth and Islamic proximity to many civilizations including Sinic, Orthodox, Western, and African.
Huntington sees Islamic civilization as a potential ally to China, both having more revisionist goals and sharing common conflicts with other civilizations, especially the West. Specifically, he identifies common Chinese and Islamic interests in the areas of weapons proliferation, human rights, and democracy that conflict with those of the West, and feels that these are areas in which the two civilizations will cooperate. Russia, Japan, and India are what Huntington terms ‘swing civilizations’ and may favor either side. Russia, for example, clashes with the many Muslim ethnic groups on its southern border (such as Chechnya) but cooperates with Iran in order to avoid further Muslim-Orthodox violence in Southern Russia and in an attempt to continue the flow of oil. Huntington argues that a “Sino-Islamic connection” is emerging in which China will cooperate more closely with Iran, Pakistan, and other states to augment its international position.
Huntington also argues that civilizational conflicts are “particularly prevalent between Muslims and non-Muslims”, identifying the “bloody borders” between Islamic and non-Islamic civilizations. He believes that the current global war on terror between the West and Islam is not a modern consequence of a few crazed radicals, but rather reflects a millennium-plus history of conflict between the two civilizations. This conflict dates back as far as the initial thrust of Islam into Europe, its eventual expulsion in the Spanish reconquest, the attacks of the Ottoman Turks on Eastern Europe and Vienna, and the European imperial division of the Islamic nations in the 1800s and 1900s. He believes that some of the factors contributing to this conflict are that both Christianity (upon which Western civilization is based) and Islam are:
Missionary religions, seeking conversion by others
Universal, “all-or-nothing” religions, in the sense that it is believed by both sides that only their faith is the correct one;
Teleological religions, that is, that their values and beliefs represent the goals of existence and purpose in human existence
More recent factors contributing to a Western-Islamic clash, Huntington wrote, are the Islamic Resurgence and demographic explosion in Islam, coupled with the values of Western universalism – that is, the view that all civilizations should adopt Western values – that infuriate Islamic fundamentalists.
All these historical and modern factors combined, Huntington wrote briefly in his Foreign Affairs article and in much more detail in his 1996 book, would lead to a bloody clash between the Islamic and Western civilizations. Along with Sinic-Western conflict, he believed, the Western-Islamic clash would represent the bloodiest conflicts of the early 21st century. Thus, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and subsequent events including the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have been widely viewed as a vindication of the Clash theory.
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