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Aug 1, 2011

Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations: A review

After reading Francis Fukuyama's “The end of history and the last man” , I went through a couple of reviews before posting my own review. Almost every review had a mentioning of Samuel P. Huntington's “The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order” which enticed me to seek the book and read it. I found “Clash of the civilizations” a brilliant and insightful read. These two books  are said to have had a huge impact in shaping up USA's foreign policy after the collapse of USSR in 1991.

Unlike Fukuyama, Huntington doesn't find the post-cold war world unifying into a single type of government system- liberal democracy and finally achieving lost lasting peace. Instead he sees the post cold war world as a chaotic world where the conflict between ideologies and economic systems have been replaced by more vicious and dangerous conflicts between civilizations. According to Huntington, the West rather than rejoicing its victory over communism should start preparing itself for a more complicated world order where at least 7 superpowers based on different civilizations will exist and will continuously be conflicting with each other although not necessarily militarily. Rather than trying to impose Western lifestyle and Western style of governments on the rest of the world, the West should realize that the Judeo Christian values, liberalism as form of governance and capitalism as economic system  are purely western products and hence are far from being universally applicable around the world. In his 1992 article on which the book is based ,Huntington wrote:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. 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.

The post-cold war world will have more than 7 major civilizations namely Western Civilization which encompasses North America and Europe and is led by United States of America, Orthodox Civilization which encompasses the world of the former Soviet Union (excluding the Baltic states, most of Central Asia and Azerbaijan), the former Yugoslavia (excluding Slovenia and Croatia), Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, and Romania and is led by Russia, Sinic civilization which encompasses East Asian countries and is led by China, Hindu Civilization which encompasses some countries of South Asia and is led by India, Japanese civilization with Japan as the only member state, Muslim civilization which encompasses all the Muslim dominated countries around the world and doesn't have a clear leader yet, African civilization which encompasses all the sub-Saharan African countries and will most likely be led by South Africa and Latin American civilization which has a possibility of merging into Western Civilization. With these civilizations conflicting with each other in culture, tradition, social values and religion, the world will be a complex system with a delicate balance of powers. The civilizational conflicts are "particularly prevalent between Muslims and non-Muslims", in the "bloody borders" between Islamic and non-Islamic civilizations. The problems of future world will mostly derive from "West's arrogance, Islam's intolerance and Asia's assertiveness", says Mr. Huntington.

Although in the initial pages I was quite skeptic about Huntington's thesis of the clash of the civilizations, towards the end of the book I was fairly convinced with his ideas. Yep, it looks likely that the future world will be characterized by the inter-civilizational conflicts. However, I disagree with the author on the extent of such conflicts. I don't quite subscribe to the author's version of a more chaotic and always-on-a-brink-of-a-war world. However, my most severe disagreements with the author is that I don't believe liberalism, free market capitalism, rule of law are entirely western concepts. The way Huntington has presented these ideas as alien to every other society except the Western societies seriously undermines the universal appeal and applicability of liberal ideas. The concepts of free market capitalism, rule of law, parliamentary democracy may be somewhat hard for non western societies to grasp but if historical trends are any guide to us then, we can be fairly sure that eventually these concepts will be integrated to all societies around the world. Muslm societies may be the last ones to fully accommodate liberal values but they can't be forever immune.

Huntington thesis fails to account for the fact that the trend of economic freedom (free market capitalism) is spreading all over the world although with varying paces. It is a folly on authors part to believe liberal values are not native to other societies. Hindu societies, at least Nepalese society has remained pretty much liberal in terms of social issues and in most part so is Indian society. Besides, these concepts are relative , you can't either have liberalism or non-liberalism. There are degrees of liberalism. Asian societies under the Sinic civilization may have less degree of liberalism prevalent but if one notices the trend towards which they are moving one can be sure of the universal appeal of liberalism. The current trend of Western societies moving away from free market capitalism (especially the USA) and Asian societies (namely India , South Korea and China) moving towards more free market economy repudiates his hypothesis that free market economy is purely a western concept and is unlikely to be adopted by non-western societies.

Although Huntington's seminal work helps us to have a clearer and deeper understanding of post cold-war world and in many ways may guide the global leaders of powerful countries to shape up the future, it makes too many naïve and premature assumptions especially with the concepts of liberalism, parliamentary democracy, free market capitalism with regards to non-western societies and hence fails to capture the true essence of the dynamics of the rapidly growing societies of non-western world. But overall, a very highly recommended reading from my side. Anyone wishing to get a better understanding of world affairs and relations between countries in today's world must read the book!

-Surath Giri 

Book: The Clash of Civilizations (1996)
Author: Samuel P. Huntington
Length: 367 pp.
In Nepal, available in : American Library, Maharajgunj