Huntington’s thesis is that post-Cold War conflicts will be between civilizations rather than nations or ideologies. He divides the world into “seven or eight” major civilizations, the ambiguity being one of the book’s few charming moments until you learn it’s because he can’t make up his mind whether Africa has any real civilization of its own or is simply half Islamic and half post-colonial. The seven others are Western, Latin American, “Orthodox” (Russian), Islamic, Hindu, “Sinic” (Chinese) and Japanese. Jewish and Buddhist civilization are considered to be separate entities but are dismissed because they don’t control large territories.
It can be illuminating to reexamine political conflicts through the lens of culture and religion, particularly in a changing Eastern Europe. To observers from the Middle East, the breakup of Yugoslavia was a conflict between Christians and Muslims, and Iran and Turkey and others accordingly offered support to the Bosnians. The Russian war in Chechnya can likewise be seen as Christian versus Muslim, though of course there is more to it than that. Similarly during the Cold War, the bulwark against Communism in both Vietnam and Poland was not any primarily capitalist institution but rather the influence of the Catholic Church.
But that’s about as far as it goes. The idea that most conflicts are between different civilizations is absurd and precisely the opposite of the truth; in fact, it is often easier for people of different cultures to get along because they suspend their standards of judgment. It is only too easy to blow holes in Huntington’s theory with endless examples like the Hutus and Tutsis, North and South Korea, China and Taiwan, and reaching farther back, the Falkland Islands crisis, all conflicts between groups Huntington would consider to be from the same civilization. On the opposite side, the success of NAFTA, the U.S. support of Bosnian Muslims and the admission of Russia to NATO are also events which cross “civilizational” lines.
Coupled with the designation of various countries as belonging to different civilizations is a total lack of interest in what precisely those civilizations are. Sifting through his mountain of statistics, Huntington shows little evidence of having opened Confucius or the Koran. He merely repeats the key term “civilizations” over and over until it empties of all meaning and you half-expect to see a trademark symbol follow it. To the policy mentality, civilization is essentially a synonym for region, but one that appropriates the legacies of humanism and multiculturalism to mask its purposes. In his introduction he offers such deadening pseudo-insights as these: “East Asian economic success has its source in East Asian culture… Islamic culture explains in large part the failure of democracy to emerge in much of the Muslim world.” (p. 29) Add the word culture to any stereotype and what you have got is a kind of enlightened racism that can pass inspection.
The lure of racism is cheap knowledge, even for a renowned Harvard professor. Huntington’s “civilizational” theory allows him to explain the present and predict the future. He knows what books are like without opening them, he knows what people are like without meeting them. At times one almost feels one is reading a horoscope: “With the challenger civilizations, Islam and China, the West is likely to have consistently strained and often highly antagonistic relations.” (p. 184) “Relations between groups from different civilizations however will be almost never close, usually cool, and often hostile.” (p. 207)
Huntington might defend himself against the charge by pointing out that some of the civilizations he discusses, like Islam, involve people of many races, in this case not only Arabs but also Turks, Persians, Indonesians and others. In my opinion, the effect is the same. To say as he does that “Sinic” civilization includes not only the Chinese but also Koreans and Vietnamese simply means that he lumps various races together, not that he has found a deeper and more reliable criterion of classification.
In taking identity politics to the global level, Huntington is not above taking a few gratuitous kicks at the West along the way. The book is littered with warnings like this one: “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.” (p. 51) This is wrong in so many ways it’s dizzying. First, all conquest is in the end military, not only that of the West: no one ever surrendered to a painting or a poem, no matter how lovely. Second, speaking of forgetting facts, Huntington seems to temporarily forget the Spanish Inquisition, the forced conversions of Jews, Aztecs, Mayans, American Indians and the continuing work of Christian and Mormon missionaries everywhere, including China. Third, after all that he audaciously tries to tie up his inanity in a neat bow by attributing it to another civilization gap between East and West, thus proving his thesis again in miniature.
Much of the book is spent in hand-wringing over reproductive rates in the Muslim world. The specter of population growth is a time-honored racist fear, because the concern is not simply that there will be more people around but rather that the poor and reckless countries will expand and spill out of control, while the sexually inhibited and fiscally responsible West dies out. Huntington panics over the relative growth of poorer countries without considering that it is precisely because they are so far behind that their coming up to speed produces dramatic numbers. Economists know that as infant mortality goes down and living standards go up, population growth will inevitably slow. This might be no consolation to Huntington, for he suffers from an alarmist and cruel tendency to interpret the improvement of living conditions elsewhere in the world as a decline of the West, a loss of advantage. He sees reduced military spending the same way, as part of our decline. Again his analysis is relative and purely statistical, ignoring the question of our actual defense needs and the effect of excessive militarism on our national pursuit of happiness.
Whoever he can’t convince, he will bury in numbers. His book is heavily padded with reams of brain-glazing stats which make the volume bigger and seemingly more important even as the accumulation of detail inevitably makes clearer and clearer how clumsy his generalizations are. The rope is here to hang him with, if you can stay awake.
Huntington is implicitly of the preventive war school, which advocates early action to prevent conflicts from spreading into world wars. His work is in line with the new Bush mentality of attacking countries that are not currently a threat but could potentially be one in the future. This is the logic of tragedy, in which we create a circumstance thinking to avoid it.
The first warning about the growth of the U.S. “military-industrial complex” actually came from Eisenhower as he left office in 1961, which should not be so surprising, since generals never love war as much as politicians do. For a politician it solves all their problems; for a soldier it is the problem. It is not by chance that the strongest advocate of diplomacy in the Bush administration is General Powell.
War is for lunatics, and we live in the hope that only a minority of the world is insane. But one of the confusing paradoxes of war and peace is that a credible threat really may be the most effective deterrent, though I shudder whenever I hear one official say of another that force is the only language they understand. For this reason, there will always be apologists who tell themselves that in their hearts they only want peace, right up to the moment they start a war and even years after it is over. Today men make war talking of peace; more’s the pity if they believe it.
To be fair, Huntington’s thorough efforts to defend his thesis against all comers sometimes results in a balanced summary of opposing views, delivered in a readable, pre-chewed, S.A.T. prose, making his book potentially useful even for people who disagree with him. His clip file rehash drawn from newspapers and policy journals is particularly good on Russia’s long-standing ambivalence towards Europe and on the Islamic revival of the past thirty years. One can only hope this is why grad schools are assigning it, as a spark to discussion or a straw dummy to tear apart.
Furthermore, Huntington is insightful on the dynamics of social change, the way democratization and a rise in status directly produces a second-generation deassimilation and a rediscovery of ethnic identity and pride. Even where it is effective, Westernization empowers the broader population in a way that paradoxically produces an anti-Western feeling in them: they use their freedom to recover their own roots, rejecting those who helped them. (He refrains from using the word “ungrateful.”)
Enemies can be more useful rhetorically than allies. Islamic fundamentalists wage war on the U.S. not in the hopes of actually destroying it but in order to prevent the spread of Western freedoms among their people. War is a means of controlling your own population, as is a cult of martyrs and heroes. This cuts both ways. There are undeniably fanatics who may kill you for no greater purpose than insulting your leaders, but following those leaders might not go very far towards saving you.
It’s odd that such a heavily researched policy work is at heart dumber than the administration in office, but Huntington overlooks what Bush’s team knows by instinct, that their enemies are not united and can be bought off and played against each other. Even Bush knows there is no real axis of evil, he is merely fishing for an “evil empire” catchphrase. Bush knows that the U.S.’s war is not against Islam but against terrorism; Huntington for all his efforts at scholarship does not.
Huntington is not a historian or an economist: he traffics in buzzwords and speaking engagements, the Washington equivalent of a corporate motivational speaker, a Tony Robbins of political power. He offers not a narrative or a specific analysis but a paradigm, a deliberate oversimplification, an effort to find some facts to fit a pattern rather than finding the patterns in a wider range of facts. The problem is even with a decent paradigm, you wouldn’t know when it applies and when it doesn’t. His work’s success is partly owed to being a book of fancy-talk that has the virtue of telling the hardheaded what they think they already know; it gains much by not being read. His secret seems to be that he predicts things that are already happening: warning about a conflict with China, for example, which is hardly a replacement for the Cold War mentality; it is nothing more than an extension of it. Essentially Huntington has written another perennially disposable policy book about the coming war with the East, a work of fortune-telling that will seem prescient at times depending on how things turn out and is pernicious to the extent that it can blind us or limit our expectations.
Perhaps what is most offensive about Huntington is the pseudo-liberal notes he occasionally sounds in his ultra-conservative symphony. For much of the book he could pass for a multiculturalist with his talk of “multicivilizationalism,” a confusion which is cleared up in the last chapter when he explains the internal threat the U.S. faces from Hispanics. He criticizes the West often in a way that sounds almost leftist, but what he turns out to be criticizing them for is their advocacy of individualism and freedom.
By dividing humanity into separate regional civilizations, Huntington does a signal disservice to the Western tradition’s greatest contribution to the world, the idea of popular rule. To Huntington’s modish way of thinking, it would be arrogant universalism to advocate democracy or to argue that we are all the same under the skin. “Imperialism is the necessary logical consequence of universalism,” he writes (p. 310). But if our democracy is worth defending by war, then why isn’t it worth celebrating as a universal good? I suspect there is a secret contempt for other races in the condescending acceptance of their non-democratic governments under the pretext of respect for their civilization, as if they don’t really deserve freedom or probably couldn’t handle it. Perhaps it is worse, an unacknowledged admiration for social conformity. (I will refrain from using the word “fascism.”)
Individual freedom is not merely a Western value, it is a universal good, like peace and general prosperity. If ordinary people in other countries did not want it, there would not be so much effort required to deny it to them, and if any of them sincerely wish to decline it, let them do so person by person. Let no visitor mistake a silent population for a happy one, no matter how good the quarterly numbers are. The right to complain is our best guarantee of freedom.
The logic of cultural otherness can be reverent and it can be deadly. It is only a few steps from where Huntington leaves us to saying that other civilizations are so different that we need not try to understand them because a priori we can not understand them; instead we would do better to spend our time preparing for the inevitable “clash” or “conflict.” This would mean if they move we should shoot them, since we can’t figure them out.
Islam and China are your new enemies, if you believe it. As the Clash put it, their blood ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice.