Samuel P. Huntington’s seminal book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, is a foundational text for any student of international relations, globalization, and contemporary history. I have the fortune of hindsight and I have to say – this book might in fact be my favorite book I’ve ever read. It’s certainly one of the most important I’ve ever read re: my field of study, political science. It’s not that often that a book stands up like this one does. It’s not only useful as a period piece or a “hot take” but rather as a paradigm piece. My opinion is certainly twenty years late and most students do consider this a paradigm book; I’m simply expressing my gratitude that I experienced this read for myself. I can concur what others have said before.
Honestly, I can’t think of a more magisterial IR text that explains the current zeitgeist than this one. Jihad vs McWorld does a good job; not an IR text but Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature is great too; Joseph S. Nye’s work is, of course, canonical as well. For what it’s worth, however, this text is paradigm-capturing and worthy of Kissinger calling it “one of the most important books to have emerged since the end of the Cold War.” This is my favorite.
I will try and capture just why I think it predicted so much of what we are living through right now. Counting the essay, Huntington conceived of this understanding more than 23 years ago. It was the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama thought it was “The End of History”, and 9/11 and the Arab Spring were a decade, and two decades away, respectively. Yet, if I would have read this book before the turn of the century, I would have had a framework to understand it quicker than it has taken me.
Huntington Predicted the Russian annexation of Crimea
Just shortly into the first chapter and I was already enraptured by his definition of civilizations, for example, and then s.m.a.c.k – I thought, “what?! He basically just predicted Putin’s capture of Crimea. Damn.” In a paragraph where Huntington is testing the validity of statism, or neorealism, such as that exposed by John Mearsheimer, who foresaw a Russia-Ukraine “security competition,” he lays out precisely what happened 18 years later. “A civilizational approach emphasizes the close cultural, personal, and historical links between Russia and Ukraine and the intermingling of Russians and Ukrainians in both countries, and focuses instead of the civilizational fault line that divides Orthodox eastern Ukraine from Uniate western Ukraine, a central historical fact of long standing which, in keeping with the “realist” concept of states as unified and self-identified entities, Meirsheimer totally ignores.” He continues: “While a statist approach minimizes that and instead highlights the possibility of Ukraine splitting in half, a separation which cultural factors would lead one to predict might be more violent than that of Czechoslovakia but far less bloody than that of Yugoslavia.”
Huntington was sage-like here. Not only did he foreshadow the Russian annexation of Crimea, but he was correct regarding the comparisons as well. Casualties from the Ukrainian crisis are more than 9,000. The “Velvet Divorce” in 1993 of Czechoslovakia was bloodless; Slovakia has since become a quiet success of Europe. The breakup up of Yugoslavia was protracted, genocidal, and devastating. Huntington was right: what was to transpire in Ukraine was somewhere in the middle, and it was about identity and culture, or to use his parlance, “civilizations.”
His framework based on understanding that culture is Real and that culture is tremendously powerful and binding, especially in a modernizing world that is cold, fast, and spiraling out of control, has predictive power. No good theory leaves home without predictive power. Ukraine effectively split, with 65% of Crimean’s being ethnically Russian. Under the civilizational paradigm, this break up makes since and those who studied this work, should have anticipated this. Huntington even argued that “contingency planning for the possible breakup of Ukraine,” should have been in the works.
“In the long run, Muhammed wins out”: Religious revivalism and Islamic Renewal
For those like myself who read science websites, and who know the ins-and-outs of and have read all of the New Atheist tracts published early in this new century, it’s easy to think that, or hope for depending on your worldview, religion is on the ropes. That, in fact, would be horribly wrong. Religion, a steady and reliable form of culture/identity like no other, is on the rise. Huntington really hammers the point home that the future of conflict will be about culture. And when wars are fought over cultures, culture loses. Huntington, again, was correct. “The Cold war division of humanity is over. The more fundamental divisions of humanity in terms of ethnicity, religions, and civilizations remain and spawn new conflicts. There is a subsection titled La Revanche De Dieu, or “The revenge of God” that I am jealous of. Great analysis with zero fluff or wasted words. If you have the book, this section starts at the middle of p.95 and ends at the end of p.97.
The Rise of the East, Latin America and Africa(?)
“The West is overwhelmingly dominant now and will remain number one in terms of power and influence well into the twenty-first century,” asserts the author. Although one can (and often does) split hairs regarding this statement, as of Dec. 2016 this is still true. In the context of this book, where Huntington paints the rise of the East, it’s particularly still relevant because he did predict what was on the horizon. This entire section is less spectacular than, in my opinion, his analysis about culture being central to our identities and the Islamic Resurgence, for example, this still is worth mentioning.
Latin America and Africa – sub-Saharan Africa – lack a “core” state that would allow them to rise to the level of say, the West (America is the core state), or the Sinic world (China, core), or the Orthodox world (Russia). The consequence isn’t necessarily given much thought but the analysis and prediction is true. Huntington puts a question mark after Africa (like he did at the end of the title when this was first published as an essay, which most people seemed to forget; “The Clash of Civilizations?,” is was the title of the essay iteration.) in this book since it was hard to envision a core emerging African power. The contenders were South Africa and Nigeria. Interesting. Latin America, Brazil and Argentina, and Mexico, also don’t seem to be likely leaders of a civilizational world. Mexico, has one foot in the West and one foot in Latin America. The future is up in the air and going to be determined by much contingency in the future. The reason: “Throughout history the expansion of the power of a civilization has usually occurred simultaneously with the flowering of its culture and has almost always involved its using that power to extend its values, practices, and institutions to other societies.” Pan-Africanism is a fiction that never materialized. Latin America is very diverse and just in the split of languages alone, makes it hard to foresee any one country becoming the “core” state of Latin America.
The rise of Asia, including India as the “core” state of the Hindu world, Japan (Japanese is a civilization on it’s own according to Huntington’s paradigm), and China (the Sinic core) is an unstoppable historical force. The “blip” of Western dominance of 200 years will come to an end, and China, once again will be the leading power of the world by the middle of the next century. I can’t recall where I learned or who I learned this from, but a scholar has mapped the trend line of power and it is now sitting in Persia, working it’s way towards the East. 3 billion people all industrializing and modernizing is unstoppable. Well, at least by other people. Mother nature is a force to be reckoned with.
All-but-predicting the Crimea annexation by Russia; the rise of cultural and identity politics and the antidote of religion and community; and the likely power-shift from the West to Asia has come to pass, make The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of Global Order a must read. Impossibly relevant. Satisfying. Groundbreaking. The book, itself, is a paradigm. Huntington, in the last sentence, argues that a global order must be based on civilizations – regionalism (though he wouldn’t use that word), and bi- and tri-lateral regimes; globalization is only for the Davos World and global government seems like a 22-century utopian idea that we have yet to figure out. Until then: we must understand that culture and meaning and metaphysics matter tremendously.
Everyone should go out and pick up, and highlight, and annotate and devour this book. Certainly one of the best books I’ve ever read regarding international relations and the future of the global order.
*Bonus: Here’s a link to me reading this essay, basically, on my Foran Policy: Book Reviews & Miscellany podcast.*