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Mugged by Machiavelli?
on 21 March 2014
Samuel P Huntington's dark classic “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order”, first published in 1996, comes with positive blurbs from Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, hardly lightweights on the darker side of things. The 2003 edition spouts a cover showing a Muslim flag alongside the star spangled banner, to boost sales, no doubt. Huntington's work is controversial, both among the official optimists á la Fukuyama, Clinton and Dubya who believe that America-with-a-capital-A will spread “liberal democracy” and “free market” economy all around the world, and those who prefer a dialogue between civilizations to a clash (or support one of the non-Western civilizations).
However, Huntington's work is actually *less* bellicose than I expected. Somewhat surprisingly, the author calls for a multi-polar world! Of course, it's a multi-polar world of a more “realist” kind than the harmonious co-existence most of us would have preferred. In Huntington's version, “fault line wars” between countries of different civilizations are never far away, and in a worst case scenario they may even lead to a new world war. The solution is a new balance of power between “core states” (the regional great powers of each civilization), the most important of which are the United States, Russia, China, India and Japan. The “core states” are also responsible for policing the rogues and rednecks of their respective civilizations, to make sure that “fault line wars” are kept to a minimum. Thus, the Russians should police the Serbs, India should police the Tamils, and (I suppose) the West should cool down the Croats or the Ukrainians. (Are we?) While this may sound like a constructive proposal, Huntington believes that the scheme will work only if Western civilization becomes less multi-culturalist and more centralized around the United States, the core state par excellence. Otherwise, the West will be eaten by its competitors. While talking about Western “democracy”, “individualism” and even “pluralism”, Huntington presumably wants less of each, i.e. a return to the good ol' days of the Cold War at its coldest. Huntington also sees Latin America as an appendage to Western civilization, which is – of course – ridiculous, until you realize that it's probably code for Latin America remaining within the U.S. sphere of influence (i.e. on its “back yard”).
One reason why Huntington considers Islam threatening, is that the Muslim world lacks a stabilizing core state, making it potentially more chaotic and dangerous than, say, Orthodox civilization (which is dominated by the stern hand of Mother Russia). The author discusses four possible claimants to the throne of a Muslim core state: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and Turkey. He reaches the interesting conclusion that Turkey is the most serious contender for the role. Saudi Arabia, while economically strong, is militarily weak and too dependent on U.S. support for its national security. Egypt has an enormous population and the necessary religious clout (the Al-Azhar University, the closest thing the Sunni Muslim world has to a “general synod”, is situated in Cairo), but it's too dependent on both U.S. and Saudi economic aid. Iran is Shia Muslim, and hence a problematic choice of core state for the dominant Sunni Muslims. Thus, from the viewpoint of Realpolitik, the United States should presumably attempt to promote Turkey to a role similar to that of China, India, Russia or the U.S. itself. It's interesting to note that Huntington mentions Jewish civilization only in a footnote, and discusses the Israel-Palestine conflict mostly in passing…
Otherwise, Huntington's book is marred by an annoying Islamophobia (I don't usually use that term, but here is feels apt – see further below). In a section on “Islam's bloody borders”, the author claims that since 1928, the United States resorted to violence in only 17,9% of its conflicts, while Muslim states employed violence in 76,9% of the cases. This is, of course, pure poppycock. I wonder whether the Vietnam War and the Korean War are included in the 17,9% figure? Weren't those wars more important than, say, the Sand War between Algeria and Morocco in October 1963 or the Libyan-Egyptian War in July 1977? I also wonder whether the high Muslim percentage includes the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Armed Forces, the Somali invasion of Ethiopia or the Iraqi invasion of Iran, which were all aided and abetted by the United States? This brings me to my next point: as a superpower during the Cold War, the United States *didn't need* to respond by violence in most cases *since it had vassals who did it for them*. As an old Cold Warrior, Huntington constantly covers up the American tracks before 1989-91. Thus, the Indonesian attack on East Timor becomes a “Muslim” war against “Christians”, when in reality it was an American-supported attack on a leftist government. Huntington also cites a source which blames the war deaths in Bosnia on the Bosniak Muslims!
Huntington's take on the Balkan Wars is particularly galling. The Bosnian Muslims were probably the most secularized Muslims in the world. The remaining multi-ethnic communities in Bosnia supported the Muslim-dominated government in Sarajevo. Their Serb and Croat adversaries were essentially fascist. No multi-ethnic community supported Republika Srpska or Herzeg-Bosna. Despite this, Huntington complains about Bosnian Muslims buying arms from Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and clearly regards U.S. support for Sarajevo as a bizarre, “liberal” mistake. The Bosnian Muslims, after all, aren't part of “our” civilization. Essentially, he supports the Croats and (perhaps) even the Serbs! Here we see Islamophobia at its worst: apparently, not even secularized, Western-oriented Muslims have the right to defend themselves against genocide… To Huntington, Muslim Bosnia is really a new Iran in the middle of Europe! The Balkan Wars also *disprove* Huntington's main thesis about the post-Cold War reality being a clash of civilizations. He tries to cover up the salient fact that the Western powers originally preferred the *Serbs* to both Croats and Muslims, while his theory predicts the opposite (at least in the Croat case). (That the Western powers originally abetted the Serbs might sound counter-intuitive, but it's nevertheless true. However, a detailed discussion about this lay outside the scope of this review.)
Events after the book was published hasn't been very kind to Huntington's main thesis either. While a “clash of civilization” undoubtedly does exist, it's often trumped by fissiparous nationalism or purely Machiavellian considerations. Huntington himself mentions a number of anomalies: Orthodox Georgia being anti-Russian, Sinic or Confucian Vietnam being anti-Chinese, and U.S. support for the Bosnian Muslims. A few others relevant in 1996 would have been Catholic Slovakia's support for the Orthodox Serbs rather than the Catholic Croats, or Orthodox Romania and Bulgaria's support for NATO and the EU. Since then, we could mention: American support for Muslim Kosovo, American support for Muslim rebels in Libya and Syria, Iranian support for the secular regime of Syria (which is dominated backstage by a “Shia” sect even Iran considers heretical), Sunni Kurds and Shia Arabs cooperating with Western troops in Iraq against Sunni Arabs, and a closer alliance between the United States and Vietnam against China. There are even a few conflicts were ideology still play a certain role, such as the Latin American “pink tide” versus U.S. interests, and (of course) the Cuban-American stand off. Perhaps North versus South Korea could also be put in this category. Ironically, the more obvious “clashes of civilization” are usually other ones than those predicted by Huntington. He treats the Muslim world as one civilization, but today, it increasingly looks divided into two distinct civilizations: the Sunni and the Shia. A prediction: when the U.S. finally leaves Iraq, Iran will take over most of that Shia-dominated country. The worst gaffe is Huntington's firm belief that the Ukraine will remain a united country! Here, clearly, we are dealing with an almost paradigmatic case where the author's thesis is proven correct: a conflict exactly following the Orthodox-Western divide. Two other predictions: Catholic Europe will enter a period of more intense conflicts with secular/ex-Protestant Europe (creating problems for a Catholic West Ukraine); non-Arab Sunni Muslim states will react against Wahhabi “Arab cultural imperialism” (creating *openings* for the West to ally itself with the non-Arab Muslims).
Of course, it's uncharitable to expect a book written in 1996 to correctly predict every detail, so my main objection is really the one mentioned further above: it seems that the “clash of civilizations” haven't become the main trend, but is rather just one of several different trends, each about as strong as the other. To crack a joke: Huntington has been “mugged by Machiavelli”.
Does this mean that “The Clash of Civilizations” is not worth reading? No, I wouldn't go that far. In fact, the book contains a lot of interesting material which is even more relevant today, in the aftermath of the Arab spring and its spectacular failure, than it was in 1996. Here, Huntington's observations are often prescient. Thus, he points out that fundamentalism and modernism are *related* phenomena in the Muslim world, with fundamentalism being a peculiar form of Muslim “modernization”. Democratization in the Muslim world leads to the strengthening of fundamentalism, just as democratization in other non-Western societies strengthen nationalism, not the pro-Western liberals. Modernization, democratization and Westernizations don't always go hand in hand. Usually, the opposite is the case, as non-Western civilizations feel less dependent on Western cultural models, after having successfully assimilated Western technology (China, Japan and Iran are good examples). There is more than one path to modernization, with the Western path (while desirable from Huntington's perspective) being only one of several possibilities. Changing the culture of a civilization, while possible, is nevertheless extremely difficult: witness the failure of Turkish secularism or Soviet Communism. The author is also right that political ideology (in the narrow Western sense of that term, at least) plays a far less significant role in today's conflicts than during the Cold War, which was cast as a conflict between American capitalism/democracy/liberalism and Soviet or Chinese Communism, itself a Western ideology. Instead, religious and cultural traditions come to the fore. (Of course, this could conceivably change in the future. Apart from the “pink tide”, I note that the main insurgent movement in India is Maoist, not Muslim! It's not small, either.)
“The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” might be immensely problematic in many ways, and it's obviously written by a man whose political affinities I hardly share, but it's nevertheless interesting and well worth reading. OK, kids, don't use this review for your college exams…