Huntington’s legacy: Conflict is here to stay, change is impossible
Over the Christmas holidays, Samuel Huntington died at the age of 81. Huntington, political scientist and US foreign policy advisor, became widely popular with his “clash of civilizations’ thesis. Time to look at the influence Huntington had with his writing, 15 years after the publication of ‘The Clash of Civilizations’.
In a Foreign Affairs article in 1993 and in a subsequent book three years later, Huntington developed the idea that in the post-Cold War world, conflicts will be based on cultural and religious difference. The end of political ideology will not lead to the ‘end of history’, he believed, but rather to a return of age-old ethno-religious conflict. He wrote that:
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.
Especially after the 9/11 attacks on the US, Huntington was quoted time and again by political analysts, while some critics also regarded it as self-fulfilling prophecy. American neoconservatives as well as many radical Islamists quoted the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis at the time.
It is hard to judge what extent Huntington’s ideas predicted or influenced events like 9/11 or the Iraq war. Yet to me it seems undeniable that the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ subtly changed the way we perceive culture and the role it plays in world politics and conflict.
In the early 1990s, the time of ‘Great Power’ war was over at last. The idea that powerful states wage war with each other had dominated (Western) perspectives on international relations since since the Thirty Years War. In 1989, there was suddenly but one great power left. At the same time, civil wars plagued societies where post-colonial structures left a power vacuum.
It was tempting to believe in culture and religion to be the determinant of conflicts in the post-Cold War world. But what Huntington made of this idea was a more than questionable primordial view of culture and religion.
Huntington believed in culture and religion as something age-old and fixed. This primordial view stood against most analyses of ethnicity, culture and nationalism. It rejected the possibility that cultures and ‘civilizations’ are constructed by societies in the pursuit of unity, and it denies the option that certain aspects of individuals’ identities – be it religious, cultural, or other – can be emphasized or denied by leaders to rally people behind them or to exclude others.
Civilisations as depicted in Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’:
“The Clash of Civilizations” has entered popular wisdom and with it the belief that cultures and civilizations are static and it that sense irreconcilable. This belief led US neoconservatives into a war in Iraq, it guides Islamic fundamentalist and it informs what most white Europeans believe about Muslim immigrants: that they do not fit in because they are different and will always be.
Edward Said has formulated the most eloquent critique to Huntington in this regard in his essay “Clash of Definitions”. Here is a citation of parts of Said’s original text. It’s worth looking at it if you want to understand what Huntington is missing:
I would go so far as to say that what we today call the rhetoric of identity, by which a member of one ethnic or religious or national or cultural group puts that group at the centre of the world, derived from [ the] period of imperial competition at the end of the nineteenth century. And this in turn provokes the concept of “worlds at war” that quite obviously is at the heart of Huntington’s article. […]
In the related fields of political economy, geography, anthropology, and historiography, the theory that each “world” is self-enclosed, has its own boundaries and special territory, is applied to the world map, to the structure of civilizations, to the notion that each race has a special destiny, psychology, ethos, and so on. All these ideas, almost without exception, are based not on the harmony but on the conflict, or clash, between worlds. […]
At precisely the moment in the nineteenth century that a rhetoric of civilizational self-justification began to be widespread among the European and American powers, a responding rhetoric among the colonized peoples develops, one that speaks in terms of African or Asian unity, independence, self-determination. […]
In both the colonial and post-colonial context, therefore, […] civilizations are basically separated from each other. […] People like Huntington are products of that history, and are shaped in their writing by it. […]
Thus to build a conceptual framework around the notion of us-versus-them is in effect to pretend that the principal consideration is epistemological and natural – our civilization is known and accepted, theirs is different and strange – whereas in fact the framework separating us from them is belligerent, constructed and situational.
Said goes on describing how culture is defined within societies in a contest between authority and dissenting voices:
Defining a culture, saying what it is for members of the culture, is always a major, and even in undemocratic societies, a democratic contest. […] The official culture is that of priests, academics, and the state. It provides the definitions of patriotism, loyalty, boundaries, and what I have called belonging. […] In addition to the mainstream, official, or canonical culture, there are dissenting or alternative unorthodox, heterodox cultures that contain many anti-authoritarian strains that compete with the official culture. […] From the counter-culture comes the critique of authority and attacks on what is official and orthodox. […] No culture is understandable without some sense of this ever-present source of creative provocation from the unofficial to the official; to disregard this sense of restlessness within each culture, and to assume that there is complete homogeneity between culture and identity, is to miss what is vital and fecund.
In this light it becomes evident what really is the legacy of the “Clash of Civilizations” and how it has shaped our view of culture in the last decade: it leads us to believe in fault lines and values as essential, and makes us think that changing these fault lines is impossible. Dissent to established authority is no option, if we believe Huntington.