Samuel Huntington is now unfashionable on both Left and Right. But his global predictions look more accurate with every passing year
Samuel Huntington: Argued that Islam was destined to clash with the West (WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM CC BY-SA 2.0)
It is time to put the United Nations out of its misery. Created in 1945 to prevent conflicts between almost 200 nation states, it has passed its sell-by date. Such conflicts are no longer the global priority. The new menace — horrific clashes between the world’s nine historic civilisations — demands the creation of a new body. The United Civilisations, perhaps?
That is the radical message implicit in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, published in this country exactly 20 years ago. The author was the Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington, an adviser to successive US Presidents and probably the finest political scientist of his generation. He was certainly the most contentious. By the 1990s most American policymakers had simply lost patience with him.
Yet the book remains, I would argue, the most prescient (and certainly the most provocative) work of American political science since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the apparent end of ideological Communism. Its relevance has increased along with growing global chaos and, in particular, the rapid expansion of aggressive, fundamentalist versions of Islam (one of those civilisations into which Huntington divided the globe), and concomitant Islamist terror. Huntington suggests that American foreign policy since the early 1990s has been largely responsible for the mess. This, he says, is because it is based on two false premises: first, the belief, that Western civilisation (Judaeo-Christian America with Western Europe in tow) is the one genuine global superpower, and as such is free to throw its weight about. The second is the belief that global “modernisation” means that the other eight civilisations are evolving, inevitably and happily, into imitations of America.
Given the unhappy state of the world, Huntington’s thesis demands serious examination by America’s presidential hopefuls. Instead, it is ignored by, or receives knee-jerk accusations of racism and Islamophobia from America’s Democratic Left. And it is dismissed as lacking muscle-flexing patriotism by much of the Republican Right.
Moreover, the author was, and is, generally regarded by liberal academics with self-righteous distaste. Huntington, a Democrat, had form. He supported an ever more ruthless Vietnam War right to the end. He then applied tick-box political science measures to apartheid South Africa. Compared to other African states, South Africa came out well: a relatively independent judiciary, no military coups, a relatively high standard of living for blacks as well as whites. He decided that apartheid South Africa was worth supporting — and said so. When The Clash of Civilizations was published, many liberal intellectuals got their own back by attacking the man but not seriously examining his thesis. You can see why. When the book appeared in 1996 the Cold War had recently ended. “We” had won and were in triumphalist mode. In its most extreme form that triumphalism was expressed by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama — surprisingly an ex-student of Huntington — in his now notorious “end of history” thesis.
To widespread acclaim, Fukuyama announced that we were living at “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution, and of the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. The peoples of the world were “yearning to breathe free”, and freedom meant liberal democracy, free markets, freedom of expression, meritocracy and rationalism, plus a stiff dose of social liberalism, including racial equality, feminism and gay rights. There might, just, be room for a little religion, but only of the tolerant, inclusive, all-you-need-is-love variety. So we were all going to live in a globalised, idealised, dream version of the US. And it was all going to happen without effort, as a result of what Marxists once called historical inevitability.
To Huntington this was dangerous nonsense. But, for a while, Fukuyama provided a moral and intellectual underpinning for the popular feeling that we were indeed living in a post-Soviet, unipolar world. Both liberals and neoconservatives seized on Fukuyama’s triumphalist thesis. However, it soon became apparent that historical inevitability was taking its time. Meanwhile history, unpleasant and often bloody, was still being made. So America’s policymakers decided to help the end of history along. After 9/11, the Fukuyama thesis morphed into the Bush/Blair doctrine of benign interventionism by America and its allies, who militarily could, and morally should, liberate a thankful world. We know where that has got us.
In contrast, Huntington had taken off in the opposite direction. First he argued that, after the collapse of the USSR, the world had become genuinely multi-polar. Moreover, “in the post-Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples were not ideological, political or economic” — nor indeed national. He claimed that “for the first time in history, politics is global; both multi-polar and multi-civilisational”. It was, in particular, conflict between these ancient civilisations — with the West (in relative decline) versus the rest (on the up and up) — which would provide the next generation of highly dangerous military flashpoints.
Huntington also made a second, crucial point: the West has completely misunderstood the meaning of global modernisation. “Modernisation is distinct from Westernisation and is producing neither a universal civilisation in any meaningful sense, nor the Westernisation of non-Western societies.” He was surely right. Think IS broadcasting slick videos of ghastly atrocities for the delectation of radicalised teenagers at their computers in Tower Hamlets or Bradford. Think sophisticated Asian families condoning so-called honour killings, the caste system or FGM. Think modern African Christians tearing the Anglican Communion apart over cultural abhorrence of homosexuality and feminism.
Huntington had identified nine civilisations. They are: Western (Judaeo-Christian Western Europe and North America, plus Australasia), Islamic, Sinic (Chinese of assorted ethnicities), Orthodox (Russia plus other Orthodox or Slavic peoples), Japanese, Buddhist, Hindu, African, Latin American. But he concentrated on three — Islamic, Sinic and Orthodox — as the ones most likely to clash — possibly accompanied by extreme violence — with a fourth: the West.
It looks as if Huntington is being proved right about the Orthodox civilisation, in the shape of Putin’s Russia. It has reverted to its own culture and religion, and it measures itself against the West: in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, the Baltic, Syria and increasingly in Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Cyprus. Domestically it runs on Tsarist principles, fuelled by a gangster-dominated, crony capitalism. He was right, too, about China. Maoism has morphed into rule by an imperial president and his clique, while rapid economic development has been driven by state directives, corruption and patronage capitalism. Now China is attempting to establish its regional dominance and to drive America from “its” Sinic seas.
But Huntington foresaw the Islamic clash with the West as by far the most dangerous. Mainstream Western leaders and opinion-formers still regard his analysis as provocative, divisive and even Islamophobic. He states flatly that “for the West, the fundamental problem . . . is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam.” He defines Islam is a resurgent militant civilisation which is convinced of its cultural and religious superiority and of its global mission. Yet from an Islamic perspective, he admits, the problem is the reverse — a Judaeo-Christian West, convinced of its superiority, and with a universalist mission to impose its culture and where possible its rule on the rest of the world. It is an explosive mix.
Add to this toxic stew, mass Islamic immigration into the West — more than 12 million Muslims have arrived in the two decades since Huntington wrote. He asserts that most Muslims in the West probably cannot and do not want to abandon their civilisation — their religion and culture — in order to assimilate. Every word in the Koran is directly dictated by God and therefore is true and immutable. That is why in much of the Islamic diaspora, women remain second-class citizens, gays are abhorred and there is widespread sympathy for the view that practitioners should be flogged, stoned or thrown from cliffs. And of course Jews are just plain evil. Moreover, Islam advocates God-given sharia law. Good Muslims are, by definition, enemies of the very concept of democracy, which is central to Western civilisation. If Huntington is right, the West may have to live as best it can with a large, alien, often self-ghettoised minority, whose loyalties are to their alien Islamic civilisation and not their hosts’ Western civilisation. I hope he is wrong, but fear he is right. Either way, what is intolerable is the mealy-mouthed taboo among politicians and religious leaders here and abroad against discussion of the nature of mainstream Islam. We are simply told that Islamist terrorists and “fighters” are mad or drugged and certainly not “real” Muslims.
Shortly after a Catholic priest was murdered in his Normandy church by two Muslims shouting “Allahu Akbar”, Pope Francis commented that we are at war, but added that the war was “political and economic”, not “religious”. With all due respect to the Pontiff, jihadists do not yell “Nationalise the banks” or “All power to the Soviets”. These jihadists in their tens of thousands believe they are Muslims, and are prepared to die to demonstrate their belief. And hundreds of thousands — maybe millions — of Muslims around the world agree with them.
Finally there is Israel: to most Muslims, an oppressive colony, plonked down by the West in the very heart of their civilisation. Of course most readers would reject this description. But even the strongest supporters of Israel — of whom I am one — must surely accept that Israel is, thank goodness, subsidised and protected by the West. Again Huntington offers, by implication, only an endless grief.
So Israel exists, mass Islamic immigration into Western civilisation has happened, and Huntington has naught for our comfort on either front. But he does make one staggering suggestion. The final sentence of Huntington’s book calls upon America to stand its foreign policy on its head. It reads: “Clashes of civilisation are the greatest threat to world peace, and international order based on civilisations is the surest safeguard against world war.” To put it more crudely: it is time America recognised the reality — and the moral legitimacy — of a multi-civilisational world by abandoning its belief in universal values and its own universalist mission. Instead, America and the rest of Western civilisation should come to terms with the often very alien, though increasingly powerful and rapidly modernising, civilisations whose values and beliefs will often be utterly obnoxious to us. We are not the world’s morality police.
That is why I assert that the logic of Huntington’s position is that the next US President should call for the abolition of the UN and its replacement with a new body, the United Civilisations. And that of course would involve America recognising all nine civilisations and their absolute right to their places at the international top table. It would also mean ditching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its noble but unreal belief that we are — all round the world — driven by identical (i.e. Western) desires, needs, values . . . and so are yearning for identical rights. It is not, alas, a message which will be considered by that quintessential Beltway politician, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And, alas, it will only resonate in a grotesquely distorted form in the baiting of Muslim immigrants by Donald Trump, and in his incoherent flirtation with Putin. Perhaps there will be more appetite for change after another 20 years of horrific clashes between civilisations.