Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Clash of Civilisations

One of the themes of the reaction to the Paris killings has been the insistence in the mainstream media that this is not a "clash of civilisations", which contrasts with the populist clamour on social media that Muslims must share collective responsibility. While they have not employed the phrase, anti-immigrant political parties clearly think along these lines ("fifth columnists", "Islamists have declared war" etc), with newer pressure groups like Pegida, whose very name embodies the concept ('Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West'), gaining media prominence. Despite their protestations, many liberal commentators have also internalised the trope, with some eager to see parallels elsewhere ("There is no connection, of course, between the Paris tragedy and the conflict in Ukraine ... But there is one common element. It is that the very essence of Europe ... has come under attack") and others dropping the mask altogether.

The clash of civilizations trope originated in an article by Samuel Huntington in Foreign Affairs in 1993. This was essentially a rebuttal of the democratic universalism advanced by Francis Fukuyama in 1989's The End of History? It is politically neoconservative - an essentially pessimistic assessment of geopolitics that advocates confrontation abroad - in contrast to the more optimistic stance of neoliberals centring on the beneficial spread of liberal democracy and markets. In practice, US policy has long been a combination of the two (military force plus the IMF). Huntington's key development was to substitute "civilisations" for the traditional realist model of competing nation states and (after 1945) ideological power blocs: "The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. ... The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."

Huntington's definition of the unit of "civilisation" was both monolithic and vague, which resulted in it being lazily identified with religion and race by sympathisers and debunked by critics like Edward Said. Though foreign policy wonks still occasionally use the term in respect of US-China rivalry, the popular understanding since 2001 is that the clash is between Islam and the West. In Huntington's reading, attempts to export democracy are counter-productive specifically in the Middle East: "In the Arab world, in short, Western democracy strengthens anti-Western political forces". This hints at the Orientalism of neoconservatives, which is contemptuous of the "Arab street" and equates authoritarianism with stability. Though Islam is the particular bete noire, it is easily blended into a non-Occidental stew: "the paramount axis of world politics will be the relations between 'the West and the Rest'". This is a continuation of the anglocentrism and racist paranoia of a century ago. For Huntington, "a central focus of conflict for the immediate future will be between the West and several Islamic-Confucian states". The modern "axis of evil", from Iran to North Korea, is an echo of the Mad Madhi and Fu Manchu.

The basis of the thesis is a number of truisms: there are cultural characteristics that span nation states; there are geopolitical boundaries that have historically witnessed a lot of conflict; and nations are gradually merging sovereignty into supra-national economic blocs. However, it does not follow from this that the dominant geopolitical unit of the future will be a pan-national "civilisation", nor that conflict is inevitable at its edges. Huntington ignores that pan-national characteristics are multiple and overlapping (e.g. language versus religion); that conflict points often have as much to do with geography, technology and social pressures as civilisational friction (e.g. Somalian pirates are the product of shipping lanes, speedboats and a failed state, not the proximity of Kenyan Christians); and that supra-national economic blocs are examples of pragmatic cooperation whose participants usually draw the line at ceding national sovereignty (e.g. the European Union). Huntington's "civilisations" are ideological constructs.

Unsurprisingly, the thesis has been used as an intellectual justification for the rejection of multiculturalism. As Richard Rubinstein & Jarle Crocker noted, Huntington's "Spenglerian pessimism has Social Darwinist as well as realist roots; in the struggle for survival and supremacy, victory belongs to the civilization most culturally unified, most determined, and best adapted to the pursuit of global power. Therefore, Huntington sees multiculturalism - 'the de-Westernization of the United States' - as a grave threat to U.S. and Western interests." Instead of being applied to conflicts in the border-lands that Huntington identified, such as the Balkans and the Caucasus, the "clash of civilisations" trope has tended to be wheeled out in response to jihadi terrorist acts in the West since 9/11. Gradually this has been extended to any behaviour seen as objectionable, subversive or simply too Muslim: Abu Hamza preaching outside Finsbury Park mosque, the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham, the Rotherham sex abuse scandal. The loss of nuance in these situations (Abu Hamza was a known menace, the Rotherham abusers' religion was incidental) means that Islam is treated as suspect by default.

A key premise of Huntington's theory is that globalisation has led to a weakening of nationalism and thus a revival of religion: "the processes of economic modernization and social change throughout the world are separating people from longstanding local identities. They also weaken the nation state as a source of identity. In much of the world religion has moved in to fill this gap, often in the form of movements that are labeled 'fundamentalist' ... The revival of religion ... provides a basis for identity and commitment that transcends national boundaries and unites civilizations." The idea that economic modernisation weakens national identity is dubious. By this logic, the USA, at the bleeding edge of economic modernisation, should have the world's weakest sense of nationhood, rather than being the home of patriotic flag-wavers. This causal relationship makes no better sense in the "civilisational zone" of Islam.

In the Middle East, nationalism grew in tandem with, and was strengthened by, economic modernisation during the 50s and 60s. It was the stagnation of the latter, in no small part due to the "resource curse" of oil in the 70s, that provided the fertile soil for the growth of political Islam, not a decline in nationalism. Iran, the only Islamic theocracy (i.e. where the head of state is a cleric), is a nation state with a long history of antipathy towards Arab states. More recently, Turkey's aspirations as a national power have been fuelled by economic growth, while the ruling AKP party is fundamentally conservative rather than Islamist. The idea that religion unites civilisations is easily disproved, both by the centuries-old Sunni-Shia schism and the more recent objection of UKIP voters to Christian Poles. There is also the small matter of religious belief, which, after the recalibration in the early 90s, has continued its long-term global decline. Religiosity is inversely correlated with living standards, hence the antipathy of religious authorities to secular modernity in the West as elsewhere.

Huntington subsequently claimed that he was talking in terms of cultural legacy rather than actual religious affiliation, but many of the footsoldiers of the "clash" ideology see it in Manichean and religious terms (from Anders Breivik to online trolls), while those neoliberals and secularists (like Richard Dawkins) who frame the clash as being between the Enlightenment and "Medievalism" are guilty of the soft bigotry of Orientalism. In practice, religion remains the opiate of the (poorer) people and a minor concern for sophisticated political realists. The USA has no difficulty maintaining a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite the latter's Wahhabism and sponsorship of Salafism abroad, and it should hardly need stating that the growth of jihadi terrorism owes as much to American instrumentalism in Afghanistan in the 1980s as it does to a revival of religious feeling.

Huntington also pointed to a change in elite behaviour: "In the past, the elites of non-Western societies were usually the people who were most involved with the West, had been educated at Oxford, the Sorbonne or Sandhurst, and had absorbed Western attitudes and values. At the same time, the populace in non-Western countries often remained deeply imbued with the indigenous culture. Now, however, these relationships are being reversed. A de-Westernization and indigenization of elites is occurring in many non-Western countries at the same time that Western, usually American, cultures, styles and habits become more popular among the mass of the people." If local elites are playing up religion or other indigenous allegiances, this is because the advance of democracy has required them to secure popular support (e.g. Imran Khan in Pakistan and Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan). London is currently thriving in no small part due to its role servicing the educational and cultural needs of elites from other "civilisations", including new customers such as the Chinese.

As well as the power of religion, Huntington suggested that civilisational homogeneity underpinned the growth of regional economic blocs: "On the one hand, successful economic regionalism will reinforce civilization-consciousness. On the other hand, economic regionalism may succeed only when it is rooted in a common civilization. The European Community rests on the shared foundation of European culture and Western Christianity. The success of the North American Free Trade Area depends on the convergence now underway of Mexican, Canadian and American cultures." The irrelevance of religion can be seen both in the current friction between Germany and Greece, which has nothing to do with Orthodoxy, and in Bulgaria's determination to cleave to the EU rather than a Russian-led Orthodox bloc. Far from Mexico (a "torn country" in Huntington's analysis) becoming more Western, the USA is demographically and culturally becoming more Latino, hence the increase in xenophobic protests in Texas and Arizona.

Though Huntington saw the border between the West and the Orthodox East running down the middle of Ukraine, he also saw that country as firmly within the Russian civilisational zone, much as it had been under the Soviet Union: "In 1991 and 1992 many people were alarmed by the possibility of violent conflict between Russia and Ukraine over territory, particularly Crimea, the Black Sea fleet, nuclear weapons and economic issues. If civilization is what counts, however, the likelihood of violence between Ukrainians and Russians should be low." Huntington died in 2008, so he didn't live to see the Russian annexation of Crimea. He might have claimed that the fissure in Ukraine is civilisational - between the Catholic West and Orthodox East - but this doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Kiev is historically Orthodox and the Catholic population, at about 6% of the total, is both physically and demographically marginal.

The break up of the Cold War blocs, and the peripheral conflicts this gave rise to, led Huntington to assume that the edges of his conceptual civilisations would be the key friction points in future: "In the coming years, the local conflicts most likely to escalate into major wars will be those, as in Bosnia and the Caucasus, along the fault lines between civilizations. The next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations." It is worth recalling the lessons of the earlier world wars. The Great War started as a fault line conflict between Catholic Austria-Hungary and Orthodox Serbia. Though this appears to support Huntington's thesis, it ignores the fact that there were repeated Balkan wars over the preceding 40 years, also involving the Islamic Ottomans, that did not escalate. The reason why Sarajevo in 1914 led to a world war was the antagonistic alliance system within the Western bloc. Indeed, both world wars could be considered essentially civil wars if we think in Huntington's civilisational terms (the mid-century war against Japan fits Huntington's scheme better, but without the conflict in Western Europe and North Africa it is unlikely that this would have been seen as a "world" war).

Huntington's tour d'horizon came at a time when the USA (which he routinely conflated with "the West") was top dog: "Military conflict among Western states is unthinkable, and Western military power is unrivalled. Apart from Japan, the West faces no economic challenge." The purpose of this statement (which 20 years later looks quaint given the rise of China and the stagnation of Japan) was not to crow, but to warn the West that its then-current supremacy was already in jeopardy as non-Western civilisations started to flex their muscles in the post-Cold War environment. As ever when the rise and fall of civilisations is evoked, the tone is a mixture of the bitter and the elegiac, a style traceable back via Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee to Edward Gibbon. Though Johnny Foreigner may be the ostensible target, Huntington's real regret is for a mythical past when the common people and minorities knew their place, and when the brightest and the best ran the show.

Huntington mostly keeps his reactionary nostalgia in check, but his worldview is inescapably anglocentric, snobbish and implicitly racist. While the West includes Australia and New Zealand, it does not (yet) include Mexico or the Caribbean. It's goal should be "to incorporate into the West societies in Eastern Europe and Latin America whose cultures are close to those of the West". This is realpolitik peeping through, as Huntington envisages a Western bloc that includes some Latin Americans (Mexico and perhaps a rehabilitated Cuba) and some Eastern Europeans (the Baltic states), yet manages to retain its civilisational identity.To suggest that there is a common culture and set of values that unites Tallinn and Tijuana, but which is simultaneously alien to St Petersburg and Istanbul, is absurd.

Just as he merges the non-West civilisations into the hostile blob of "the rest", so Huntington happily absorbs subaltern cultures into a WASP-dominated "us", which indicates the all-too traditional imperial thinking at the heart of his thesis. His original article proposed 7 or 8 civilisations: "Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African". The afterthought is telling, echoing the condescension towards African culture that has been an imperial commonplace since the nineteenth century. These old prejudices continue to bubble up. For example, Nigel Farage's "fifth column" comment was widely criticised for unreasonably tarring all Muslims with the same terrorist brush, but the underlying message of the term is that foreigners are untrustworthy: a commonplace of xenophobic propaganda.

Perhaps the worst effect of Huntington's clash of civilisations thesis has been to surface these prejudices. While traditional realpolitik's pride in its objectivity and dispassion was ideological, it did operationally assume that the West was confronting rational actors and that the external constraints on these actors, such as geography and resources, were comprehensible. The shift to a geopolitics based on culture created opponents who were potentially incomprehensible and unpredictable. The result was that US strategic thinking on deterrence shifted in turn to a conscious employment of irrationality in the 1990s. In The Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence, the Department of Defense was quite open about this: "That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries", and "the penalty for using Weapons of Mass Destruction should not just be military defeat, but the threat of even worse consequences". This suggests that the trashing of Iraq after 2003, and the use of exemplary torture, was not some emotional over-reaction or miscalculation but conscious policy, rooted in an unwillingness to engage or understand. So much for the advance of civilisation.


  1. "and possibly African" is glorious (I've never read Huntington).

    Re the US being possibly vindictive and irrational, isn't that standard game theory? Not much point having nukes unless you are (possibly or at least credibly) mad enough to use them.

    1. Au contraire, game theory presumes rational players, otherwise it is impossible to mathematically model. MAD depends on having more than enough nukes to fry the planet - i.e. it transforms a win/lose outcome into a lose/lose. This means it is irrrational for either party to launch a nuclear strike, making non-use the Nash equilibrium (i.e. best strategy for both parties).

      The shift to an irrational policy has occured only in asymmetric conflicts (i.e. the US versus anyone other than Russia or China) where the other side does not have the capability to threaten mutual annihilation. This obviously narrows the range of target "civilisations" down somewhat, and explains why Muslim states like Iran and Pakistan have a fractious relationship with the US over nukes.

    2. Herbie Destroys the Environment15 January 2015 at 18:12

      "game theory presumes rational players"

      As if defining what is rational isn't problematical! A Mathematical model always falls down around its assumptions!

      Huntington's vision seems rather peaceful, I think civilization was also built at the point of a bayonet! Arab nationalism was also defeated by imperialism, which has aided and abetted the growth the political Islam. Every progressive development in the Middle East has been stunted by imperialism.

      Under imperialism, the further you move out from the imperialist core the more economic uncertainty there is (the imperialist nations help ensure this is the case) and the more is the demand for authoritarian governments to provide 'security'. Obviously this is an ever changing world but my concern is that we are heading to a point where an authoritarian state becomes an actual necessity in the core.

      So I still maintain it is socialism or barbarism. Or maybe even social democracy or barbarism.

  2. I think the thing among the European far-right is that they have such a strange combination of prejudices that it is difficult to see a 'Western Civilisationist' position emerging. As you point out, UKIP are anti-European immigrants as much as those from the wider world, yet are quite indulgent towards the US. I'm presuming the FN has preserved its anti-American heritage as well as its anti-immigrant and anti-Europe positions, while the right in Germany seems to have adopted a very pro-Russian stance over Ukraine. At the moment the only common sentiment seems to be anti-Muslim.