Samuel Huntington – The Clash of Civilizations

There are few political scientists who command the influence of Samuel P. Huntington. His 1968 publication of Political Order in Changing Societies transformed every discussion of political modernization. His work Clash of Civilizations began as a response to Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama made an enormous impact on political scholarship. He made the case for the eventual triumph of liberal democracy throughout the world. Moreover, he saw no long-term threats to its supremacy.

Huntington published a response as a 1993 article in Foreign Affairs. The entire issue became preoccupied with Huntington’s thesis which he called The Clash of Civilizations. His ideas were expanded within a book published in 1996. This post focuses on the book rather than the original article. He sees Fukuyama’s work as establishing a new global paradigm. The perpetuation of democracy has implied the perpetuation of peace based on an essay of Immanuel Kant. This idea has become reconfirmed within the modern era as democracy has proliferated. Democracies do not declare war upon one another. So, Fukuyama’s thesis implies not just an end to history but an end to war and global conflict.

Huntington saw a different global paradigm emerging. The Cold War had established a paradigm largely based on two ideologies. The United States represented capitalism and democracy while the Soviet Union represented communism. But the collapse of the Soviet Union represented the emergence of a new global paradigm. This is all quite similar to Fukuyama’s analysis. But Huntington focused on its affect on international relations rather than the internal ideology of governance. He believes different cultures or civilizations had already begun to reassert their importance. This new paradigm establishes a multipolar world where civilizational anchors have tremendous influence within a regional context. For example, China will become the natural force within Asia while Russia has accepted a diminished role within a Slavic sphere.

This theory has tremendous importance because it has either influenced or given intellectual credibility to suspicions about different cultures. The book was published five years before the 9/11 tragedy but foreshadows the historical moment. Huntington has great suspicion about Islamic culture. Among his concerns is the lack of a civilizational anchor who has the legitimacy to keep rogue actors in line. The deep divisions among Islamic states has made it impossible for a nation like Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia to have credibility within the entire civilization. Instead, the United States has acted as both arbitrator and disciplinarian with questionable legitimacy within the Islamic community.

But a deep reading will lead the reader to many unanswered questions. Huntington gives no explanation for the genesis of different civilizations. His approach is largely conservative. He accepts the world as it is delivered. But does not consider how it is likely to change or evolve. Civilizations emerge as different cultures share traits through political, economic and social interactions. Globalization may put different cultures into conflict, but it also merges different cultures together. A cosmopolitan culture has emerged within the urban elites of diverse cultures. In ways it reflects Western Values yet the disconnect between rural and urban interests in the West have shown there is a divergence from the Western culture within the cosmopolitan worldview.

Within Huntington’s analysis is a critique on democratization. He notes globalization has provided a paradox of democracy: The democratization of nonwestern cultures has reinforced parochial values and becomes an obstacle to westernization. But his paradox is relevant only as long as democratization is used as a tool of westernization. There is a cultural arrogance within this assessment. It fails to recognize the limitations of Western democracy. The emphasis on electoral competition conflicts with the democratic ideal of inclusion. Perhaps, the culmination of democracy will become possible as different cultures resolve their differences and begin to learn from one another.

Huntington is recognized as a giant of political science. Anyone well versed in political science or political theory knows the name. This is a classic of political science and international relations. The book is written in clear and concise language that is easy to understand. So, those who struggle to read complex works may find this an easier read. It is available as an audiobook so there is no excuse for political science students not to add this to their reading list!

jmk, carmel, indiana,

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