Samuel Huntington:

"The Clash of Civilizations" (1996)

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
This is the book that was born out of his famous 1993 article. His thesis is summarized at the beginning:
  1. For the first time in history global politics is multipolar. This is obviously a controversial statement. There have been many moments in history when a number of great empires ruled different regions of the world and faced each other at their borders, most famously at the peak of the Islamic civilization. On the other hand, one could claim that today, for the first time in history, precisely the opposite is happening: the whole world is moving towards one pole represented by the USA model of economics and lifestyle. It had never happened before in history that all societies dressed the same way and even spoke the same language.
  2. The balance of power is shifting from the West towards Asia. This is true if Huntington is referring only to economics. Militarily, the West has never been so powerful (especially if one adds the European Union to the USA). If one includes Russia in the West (as Huntington does), then the West is super-super-super-powerful. From the point of view of culture and civilization, the domination is even stronger: the whole world is becoming a copy of the USA.
  3. Countries group themselves around the leader in their civilization. Obviously not true in political terms, as alliances show little respect for the religious and ethnic background (Russia, a Christian state, is still hostile to the West, and Japan's main friend is the USA, just like Saudi Arabia is much friendlier to the USA than to, say, Iran).
Basically, Huntington greatly underestimated the power of the USA "civilization" to spread around the world and create imitations even among the people who hate its policies. In Europe in 2003 i noticed that the kids marching in the streets to protest the USA invasion of Iraq were dressed just like the kids in the USA. Many of their slogans were in English. After the march ended, you could see long lines in front of McDonald's: no, they were not protesting globalization, but simply trying to get a meal. These were the so-called "anti-Americans", and they were as "Americans" as it gets.

First of all, Huntington is trying to explain an apparent paradox: when the Soviet Union collapsed, people were expecting the end of wars and a long age of peace. Instead, the wars restarted almost immediately, from Kosovo to Afghanistan. The truth is that the era of peace has indeed come: there is no war among the world powers, for the first time in history; there are no wars in Europe, for the first time in history; there are very few wars left in Latin America, East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. If one excludes the Islamic world, this is by far the most peaceful era of all times. Huntington generalized something that was only true about the Islamic world: the wars of the new age were (almost) all located at the periphery of the Muslim world, from Kosovo to Afghanistan to Iraq to Palestine to Sudan to Indonesia to the Philippines. There is hardly one Islamic country that is not at war with a non-Muslim country or with another Muslim country. And there is hardly any non-Muslim country that doesn't have a problem with its Muslim minority. Huntington's theory of "clash of civilizations" looks a lot more accurate if one focuses on the borders of the Islamic world.

Huntington's theory of "clash of civilizations" seems totally inaccurate if one looks at Japan, India and the USA. Even China, as nationalistic as it may be in tone, is rapidly adopting Western manners and Western economics. In fact the rapid "Americanization" of the world is sometimes more evident in parts of the world that have little in common with the USA. For example, Eritrean children speak English with a USA accent, whereas Italian children don't speak English at all and even later in life their English remains rather tentative.

Huntington keeps underscoring the distinction between West (once dominating powers) and non-West (emerging powers), but perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that the "Western" sphere is expanding, and now is beginning to include India just like in the 1950s it started absorbing Japan, and may soon include China too. The original definition of "West" was really just the Anglosaxon countries (some of which, like Australia, were not Western at all). It later came to firmly include France and Germany, but it took a while to include all of southern Europe (for example, Spain and Greece). Then it kept expanding. After being admitted to the European Union, all of Eastern Europe considers itself as being "Western", and so do many Latin Americans. Except for the language, all of the emerging Southeasian countries belong to the "Western" civilization. One can see this process continuing for the rest of the century, and eventually yielding a "Western" civilization that spreads over most of the planet, in a way not too dissimilar from how the European empires used to own most of the planet.

The notable exception is the Islamic world. One can seriously argue that the Islamic world is the one place where "modernization" (to use a different word for "Westernization") is viewed as a plain evil by a significant share of the population, and therefore the one place that is being left behind and might end up representing the exception to the rule. The "clash of civilizations" might be between a world that is rapidly adopting the USA model (no matter how many "anti-American" protests are held) and an Islamic world that is disgusted by it.

Huntington claims that conflicts will be cultural rather than economic. Recent history has proven the opposite: conflicts amomg the powers are consistently driven by economics and not by ideology, ethnicity or religion. It is not even clear what exactly "Chinese culture" means today, after Mao erased Confucianism and Deng erased Marxism. What is certainly clear is that both the USA and China desperately need mineral resources to fuel their economy and therefore have to compete worldwide. But that's not because of a different cultural ideology: in fact, they share the same capitalist ideology.

Huntington points out that global trade peaked in 1910. But that's not really true: it is peaking as we type, and will keep peaking for the foreseeable future. There has not been a regression, but a mere pause due to three world wars (none of which was caused by a "clash of civilization" since all three pinned Christians against Christians, and two pinned Christian Europeans against Christian Europeans). At best the wars of the 20th century were wars among Western ideologies (liberalism, fascism, communism). Now that one ideology won, that ideology (liberal democracy) is spreading throughout the world at the expense of the other two (the number of dictatorships has declined sharply, and there are only two countries left that practice true communism). Each country, starting with France and Italy, has implemented Anglosaxon liberal democracy is in its own personal manner. It is not only Asia, Africa and Latin America that have adopted their own ways to democracy. Democracy has always been a vague term. The British system is wildly different from the USA system, and they are both different from the systems of the various European countries, which are different from the systems of the Asian democracies. This only proves that there are local variations in socio-economic conditions, often due more to natural resources and even climate than to ethnic or religious identity.

When China demanded that the dollar be replaced by another currency for international transactions, it was not asking for the abolition of Western capitalistic world trade: it was just trying to make it more lucrative for itself. The Islamic world is the only place where Western customs (from attire to cinema) is sometimes illegal. In the rest of the world it is encouraged at all social levels (government, intellectuals, businessmen, young generations) except by those (typically of the older generation) who decry the sellout to Western values.

The multiplicity of the modern world (there are about 200 countries in 2009) is an illusion: there used to be dozens in Europe until not long ago (Italy and Germany were unified only at the end of the 19th century). The fragmented world that we have today is geographically bigger, but the complexity has perhaps shrunk. More importantly, the contact among countries has become a lot closer. It used to be that speaking a different dialect of Italian meant that some issues were irreconciliable. Now people from different countries travel and interact more, a fact that has helped shatter many stereotypes. Last but not least, English is becoming a universal language, that allows everybody to have a discussion with everybody else instead of simply shooting at each other. One reason why we are less likely to have a world war today than back then is that today fewer people would be willing to kill a foreigner just because he's a foreigner. And the reason we are less willing to do so is simple: we are less and less "foreigners" in other people's countries. Lifestyles have become more homogeneous than ever, particularly in big cities.

In fact, Huntington probably missed the one phenomenon that will reduce the effects of "civilizations": urbanization. Urbanization has consistently helped the Western lifestyle at the expense of the traditional lifestle. The urban population now accounts for more than 50% of the world's population, and is growing by the day. This is the West's most powerful ally: as long as cities keep growing, the shift towards Western values and away from traditional values (which includes religious faith and ethnic allegiance) is likely to continue.

Huntington devotes the third chapter to refuting everything i have written above, the whole idea of a "universal civilization". One argument is that cross-pollination of ideas does not equate cultural assimilation. He argues that the West has absorbed many aspects of "exotic" societies without becoming one of them. The weakness of the argument seems so obvious to me: the West has absorbed elements from ALL societies of the world, and will keep doing it. Most societies in the world (over the last few centuries) have absorbed virtually NO elements of other societies until they started absorbing massive doses of Western lifestyle (very recently). They now absorb elements of only one society: Western society. The Chinese are not absorbing Indian elements and the Japanese are not absorbing Chinese elements: all of them, on the other hand, are absorbing Western elements. Secondly, elements that are "fads" don't count. But some elements are not fads: traditional Chinese and Japanese clothes have disappeared, and sales of saris are declining in India. These are irreversible processes, a bit different from the vogues of salsa dance or Eastern spirituality in the West. What is permanent in the West is the passion for discovering other cultures. That propensity is very much a Western element, that didn't exist in China, India, Japan and Africa until they became Westernized.

Huntington childishly argues that the USA consumes millions of goods manufactured in Asia without becoming "Asianized": those are Western inventions. Asia is exporting to the USA not chopsticks or samurai costumes but electronics, cars and even Western-style clothes. They are manufacturing what they learned from the West. They are not exporting their culture: they are importing the USA culture and turning it into the pillar of their economies. Quite the opposite of Huntington's argument.

When he mentions that 88 of the 100 most viewed films of the year around the world were made in the USA, he is not just proving how influential the Western media are, but, more importantly, how pervasive Western culture is: it means that people all over the world are watching films, a very Western form of entertainment, as opposed to their traditional forms of entertainment (whether Chinese opera or puppets).

When Huntington claims that USA films are popular around the world because they exploit the universal passion for sex, love, violence and wealth, he confuses cause and effect: it is precisely Hollywood movies that created the "universal" passion for those topics. There might be some genetic predisposition, but the literatures of Asia and Islam never had a tradition of sex and violence until they started watching Hollywood movies. Now they share the same passions. And now the same themes are emerging in their own cinemas. The one rallying cry of conservatives in all developing countries is that Western films are "corrupting" their youth with Western values that are wildly different from the indigenous ones.

Huntington claims that the central elements of a civilization are language and religion. Let's assume the definition is correct. He claims that English is not becoming the universal language. If he had been traveling for 30 years around the world, he would realize how pointless his argument is. The number of people who speak English in non-English countries has multiplied by at least 10 if not 100. In countries like China where nobody used to know English now most children speak fluent English. Fewer and fewer businessmen, engineers and sales people need an interpreter to conduct their meetings, because everybody speaks English.

He then discusses religions, but makes a mistake in framing the issue: the religion of the universal civilization is not Christianity. The universal civilization is largely indifferent to religion: that's its religion. If he counted the number of people who don't believe in any organized religion, he would have realized that their number is increasing dramatically everywhere in the world except in the Islamic world. That "is" the new universal religion: the religion of not believing that any of the organized religions is true. Therefore there is a universal language and there is a universal religion.

When Huntington tries to prove that there has been a resurgence of religion around the world, his numbers are based almost exclusively on the fact that religious people living in former communist countries are now free to practice their religion. The truth is exactly the opposite: in former communist countries the number of religious people is declining rapidly, just like in the rest of the world. There are fewer and fewer people who practice Christianity in Europe, Buddhism in Asia, Hinduism in India, Shinto in Japan. The new universal religion is greed. Writing in 1993, Huntington thought that the ideological vacuum left by the fall of communism was being filled by religion. Today we know that it was being filled by capitalism. The notable exception, again, is the Islamic world, that has indeed witnessed a religious revival.

Huntington opens Chapter 5 with the sentence "Indigenization and the revival of religion are global phenomena". But the truth is that globalization and the decline of religion are the global phenomena, and their relatively easy to verify. The same souvenirs (typically catering to the Western taste) can be found in different continents. Churches and temples around the world are half empty.

Huntington's objections to the emergence of a "universal civilization" are only valid within the Islamic world. There all of his arguments are still true. The Islamic world does not manufacture electronics or cars. Western-style clothes are not spreading much. The family still obeys the old rules (e.g., women don't date). Arabic (at least the written form) is their universal language and the traditional religion (Islam) is still the real religion. When he mentions the "assertiveness" of non-Western regions, he correctly points out that in East Asia this is due to the economic boom whereas in the Islamic world is due to a religious revival, but then somehow doesn't see the colossal difference between these two trends (one is of Westernization while the other one is of anti-Westernization). The Germans, the Japanese and now the Chinese have "asserted" themselves economically against the USA, that used to be the sole economic superpower. They have done so, at different times, by adopting the USA model. The Islamic world, instead, is asserting itself against the whole non-Islamic world (including Europe, Russia, China, India and any other country where Muslims are a significant minority). In chapter 11 Huntington surveys the "fault-line wars" but somehow misses the one element they have in common: they all include at least one Islamic country.

Chapter four is devoted to the decline of the West. It's a popular topic, but, yet again, one must define "West" before deciding what is happening to it. At the very beginning Huntington lists the attributes that make the West what it is, and one of them is "provides the majority of the world's finished goods". By this definition, one would assume that Japan is part of the West (when Huntington wrote his article, Japan was the the first or second exporter of finished goods in the world). And the Soviet Union should also be part of the West. However, it is obvious by the tone of the chapter that Huntington still uses the West-East division of the Cold War, not the West-East division of the planet, except for Japan that is nonetheless assigned to the East not because of politics but because of geography. In other words, Huntington's definition of "West" is based on the Cold War when it comes to the Soviet Union (despite the fact that its regime was founded in London and inspired by German philosophy) but it is based on geography when it comes to Japan (although Japan was certainly a USA ally and de facto a USA colony). This definition clearly twists the facts in a manner that gets difficult to control. When Huntington has to calculate the decline in manufacturing output of the West, that used to be 84% in 1928, he mentions that in 1980 it had declined to 57.8% of world's total but omits that the decline of Western Europe and the USA had been mostly made up by the Soviet Union (21.1%) and its European allies (their % is not mentioned at all), and that USA-controlled Japan accounted for 9.1%, for a grand total of almost 90%. Nor does he include obvious USA satellites such as Taiwan and South Korea in the "West". In 2009 his definition of "West" just does not work. Is the European Union part of the "West" or not? Or is only half part of it? The European Union keeps expanding, and it is not clear how this fits with Huntington's definition of "West". Anyway: the GDP of the USA is about 14 trillion dollars; the European Union's GDP is about 18 trillion; the world's GDP is 54 trillion. Huntington calculates that in 1980 the West had 49% of the world's GDP. If that is correct, then today the West has increased its share, even without counting Russia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, etc.

Huntington mentions that new "emerging" countries are challenging the "West": but that's precisely what Germany and Japan did in the 1950s, when their "emerging" economies started challenging the economies of Britain and the USA. Germany and Japan are now very much part of the very "West" that they "challenged" when their economic growth began. Given that Germany and Japan have never accounted for such a big share of world output before in history, Huntington's "decline of the West" really seems to be about the decline of Britain and the USA within the West.

A realistic and more accurate definition of "West" is that it is a shifting target. In ancient times it comprised whatever was occupied by Greeks and/or Romans. In more recent times it referred to the European empires. Today it is more appropriately applied to all the countries that adopt the Anglosaxon model of capitalism and democracy. In that sense, most of the world is becoming "West". What is correct is that the importance of the USA or Britain within the West is being eroded. That's a process that started when Germany and Japan recovered from World War II. As more and more countries adopt the USA and British model (i.e., become "Westernized"), the importance of the USA and Britain within the "West" decreases.

What recent history has proven (and we'll see if the future will confirm it) is that countries that adopt the capitalist model erode the economic power of the capitalist countries. The rest of the world will continue to erode the economic power of the "West" as long as it continues to adopt the Western model. Thus the emergence of China, India, Brazil, Russia, etc: these are all countries that have adopted a model of advanced (and sometimes unbridled) capitalism. In fact, judging from the wealth gap within each society, some of these non-Western countries might be more capitalistic than the West itself. It's hard to view this continuous shift towards the Western model as a decline of Western influence.

Clearly the opposite is happening: Western civilization is obliterating Japanese, Chinese, Indian and all other civilizations in their own countries. The price that these emerging powers had to pay was precisely the demise of their traditional values. Even the communist powers that Huntington, writing in 1993, still considers as "anti-Western" owed their state to a Western ideology (Marxism) that required them to abjure their traditional societies. Huntington lists seven attributes of Western civilization: religion, language, separation of church and state, social pluralism, representative bodies, individualism. He lists "religion" first because he thinks it's the strongest argument he has, but, again, the new religion of the West is the demise of organized religion. He lists language second because he thinks it's another strong point, but, again, English has become the universal language. The others are increasingly notable everywhere: the young Chinese are a good example of neo-individualism outside the West (assuming that individualism was truly a "Western" attribute and not just an Anglosaxon one, as neither Spaniards nor Italians are very individualistic). Thus those seven attributes are on the rise in every region of the world, except for the Islamic world. (And even within the Islamic world one could argue that Turkey applying for membership in the European Union after having been a faithful NATO member, and Malaysia and Indonesia founding ASEAN with Buddhist and Christian countries, represent a clear revision of traditional values).

Huntington failed to see a trend that was developing all over the world: Muslim minorities (from France to Thailand) had not quite integrated in the countries where they emigrated, whereas other minorities did. This led to separatist and/or "terrorist" movements just about everywhere there were Muslims. This is not true of Sub-Saharan immigrants (who neither want their own country in England nor become suicide bombers), despite the fact that they have been traditionally discriminated. It is not true of the many Hindu immigrants of Europe and the USA: neither do they ask to create their own country nor do they engage in suicide bombing. Muslim minorities from the Philippines to Thailand, from Eastern China to India, from Russia to Yugoslavia, from Nigeria to France demand autonomy or independence and some of them join the international jihad. This is not true of Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Christian or animist minorities. It is fairly unique of Muslims to maintain an antagonistic Muslim identity. The clash of civilization exists but it is specific to one civilization versus all the others. The others are indeed moving towards a univeral civilization.

Whether "globalization" is good or bad is another story.

The book also suffers from the usual "apocalyptic" predictions that are needed to sell copies. For example, Huntington writes that the "Chinese economy will become the world's largest early in the 21st century". In 2009 China's GDP is still only one third of the USA's GDP. If China maintains the same growth rate for the next twenty years, it should pass the USA in 2030. Huntington predicted that the Islamic world would assemble around a core state, but the opposite has happened: Turkey (the most Westernized country), Egypt (the cultural cradle), Saudi Arabia (the religious and oil center), Iran (the main supporters of anti-Israeli groups) and Pakistan (the only Islamic country with nuclear weapons) are hardly good candidates, for one reason or another. There is no Islamic country that is emerging as a unifier of the Islamic world. His prediction that Russia would become the core state for the "Orthodox" civilization is also in danger, as two revolutions (Ukraine and Georgia) brought to power anti-Russian elites, and Romania joined the European Union (Ukraine and Georgia even want to join NATO). Huntington's prediction that India would become more and more attached to Russia was grossly wrong: India signed a nuclear treaty with the USA and its population is becoming Westernized at a rate unmatched anywhere else in the world.

Huntington wrote his article in 1993. Much of what he wrote was ahead of its time.

See also: Decolonization and the Islamic civil war