The Clash of Civilizations: Samuel Huntington a Prophet?

This article originally appeared in the September-October 1993 issue of the Public Justice Report.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The lead article in the Summer issue of Foreign Affairs is titled "The Clash of Civilizations?" The author is Harvard government professor Samuel P. Huntington who writes: "It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new [post-Cold-War] 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."

Huntington's essay of 27 pages is highly provocative, and we encourage our readers to examine it carefully. Both to introduce it and to begin a process of critical reflection, the Public Justice Report asked six commentators with expertise in international politics to react to Huntington' essay.

Original But Too Fearful

By Donald A. Kruse

According to Huntington, Westerners think of nation states as the chief players in international relations, but this phenomenon has been true only for the past few centuries. "The broader reaches of human history," he explains, "have been the history of civilizations." Now with the end of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, Huntington believes that the future will be shaped largely by interactions among the seven or eight major civilizations now extant—Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and possibly African. We have come to the end of the bipolar world, he argues, and consequently previously descriptive labels such as the "free world," "communist world," and "third world" are now completely obsolete.

Huntington has, in my view, written the most original and provocative piece to appear in the American media since the end of the Cold War. However, there is much that can be argued against certain points of his analysis. Economic issues, for example, are important; bitter intra-civilizational (and not just inter-civilizational) economic disputes will no doubt erupt in the future as they have in the past. Further, Huntington seems to have too little hope that international institutions such as the UN will be able to play a determining role in mediating and preventing future conflicts. Finally, based on my own experience living in the Arab and Moslem world, I do not share his fear of Islam, which I believe is seeking desperately to come to terms with the West and the modern world.

[Mr. Kruse is a retired U.S. foreign service officer who lives in Vienna, Virginia.]

A Secularist Appreciation of Religion?

By Justin Cooper

In Huntington's terms, "the revival of religion" or "the unsecularization of the world" shows that secularization may be a passing historical phase unique to the West rather than a permanent (higher) stage of historical development that is gradually spreading throughout the world. By challenging the myopic progressivist assumption that Western secular humanism will gradually but inevitably triumph as the universal civilization, Huntington helps us see again that being modern and being Western are not inextricably linked: it is possible to be both modern and non-Western.

But Huntington himself seems to work within a Western secular framework, which is prejudiced against religion or at least casts religion in a negative light. He suggests that religions (cultural beliefs) tend to be exclusivist and less mutable and are therefore more likely to produce conflict and lead to violence. He says nothing about the potential for Judeo-Christian beliefs to yield a vision of societal pluralism and tolerance.

[Dr. Cooper teaches political science at Redeemer College, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada.]

A "Western" Civilization?

By Luis E. Lugo

I greatly appreciate much of what Huntington says in this essay, but it also has some serious problems. Among the most troublesome is the rather simplistic way in which he carves up the world. The fact is, there is no neat correspondence between national, even regional, boundaries and civilizations. The overlap is such as to render his identification of cultural and political conflict highly suspect. And that is assuming that civilizations are as monolithic as Huntington makes them out to be. The problem for him, of course, is that they are not.

Take for instance the civilization which he labels "Western." As we all know, this civilization is by no means homogeneous and by his own reckoning incorporates a variety of worldviews. Is there such a thing then as a "Western culture" which invests both a devout Christian (or devout Muslim or Jew, for that matter) and a thoroughly secular person with a basic, common identification? To be sure, one can speak of a shared history in which various religious traditions forge civic and other communities, but are these the most basic determinants of people's identities?

If these profound cleavages characterize life in the West, why should we think that other parts of the world are any more uniform? I find it curious, for example, that Huntington does not classify Latin America as Western. It is certainly as Christian and as European as the northern part of the Americas. Does he perhaps mean that an Enlightenment, secular worldview is what ultimately defines Western civilization? If so, where does that leave Western Christians, including millions of citizens of these United States, who clearly do not share the worldview assumptions of our secularized cultural elites?

[Dr. Lugo teaches political science at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.]

Of Two Minds

By Alice-Catherine Carls

Spinning the globe under our eyes, Prof. Huntington evokes a historical panorama the way a maestro conducts an orchestra. We can see and hear the "New World Order" unfolding. At the same time, his discourse evokes the voices of Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and Morgenthau all wrapped in one, and his vision for the future is neither novel nor reassuring.

Reading "The Clash of Civilizations" makes me feel uneasy, in part because Huntington speaks in two voices that do not quite blend: that of the historian and that of the national security specialist. While the historian looks at human history over the past millennium, the national security specialist remains obsessed by the Cold War and Western/American security.

His analysis in the latter mode is that of a realist, and realists are impatient people who advocate short-term, radical solutions. For American policymakers to listen to Huntington's policy recommendations would be to fall back into the post-World War II mentality of containment with Islam replacing the Soviet Union as the great threat to the West.

As Huntington so justly points out, the non-Western world asks to be recognized as an equal partner. Let such equality not be measured solely in terms of nuclear hardware or the size of armies. Let us as Christians treat our neighbors as real equals by studying their religions, their laws, their customs, and their values. Only when that work is done, can the "fault lines of civilizations" be bridged.

[Dr. Carls teaches political science at the University of Tennessee in Martin.]

Diagnosis Without Remedy

By John A. Bernbaum

Each section of Huntington's essay offers profound, and in some cases startling insights into developments now occurring in world politics. However, his diagnosis of this "new phase" of world politics does not produce an equally profound remedy. The last section, "Implications for the West," is very disappointing.

One major implication that I draw from Huntington's essay has to do with the new, increasingly important role of private actors in world politics. The days in which government officials were the primary players on the world scene is over; now they are simply one among many key groups. Private organizations are already building bridges, establishing people-to-people exchanges, distributing humanitarian aid, and assisting in the transfer of appropriate technology.

I believe that an even more radical step is also necessary in this new phase of world politics, a step proposed 20 years ago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. There is a need for repentance and reform in world politics. Solzhenitsyn argued that "repentance opens up the path to a new relationship." If "in private life what has been done must be put right by deeds, not words, this is all the more true in the life of a nation." The challenges of the future suggest that Christianity has several important roles to play. One of them is to offer a perspective on politics grounded in biblical justice.

[Dr. Bernbaum is Vice President of the Christian College Coalition in Washington, D.C. and the director of its Russian Initiative.]

Civilizations in Crisis

By James W. Skillen

Samuel Huntington is correct to point to the enduring, religiously deep significance of ancient civilizations for the future of international politics. But I think he has underestimated the extent to which all contemporary civilizations are in crisis. After all, the modern ideologies that he now plays down, such as Marxism and nationalism, have been able to penetrate many of the world's civilizations precisely because those civilizations faced (and continue to face) internal problems. Western civilization, for example, does not exist as a single, coherent entity, driven by one dominant religious force or cultural spirit. Instead it is the arena of conflicting religions, including the modern religious drive toward human self-sufficiency.

Further, it seems to me, Huntington's focus on civilizations leads him to underestimate the significance of institutions. The economic, political, military, informational, and ecclesiastical institutions in different civilizational contexts are changing rapidly, and many of those institutions transcend and connect civilizations around the globe. They have been and will continue to be shaped simultaneously by many civilizations at the same time. Or to say it another way, the conflicting (and sometimes cooperating) drives of different peoples around the globe will exert themselves in the actual shaping of trans-civilizational institutions. A key question then concerns the dominant influences that will shape these institutions in the future. The world's future will be shaped in part by claims of truth and justice and by the influence of constructive hope and models of human well-being. Our challenge as Christians, then, is to contend for the biblical truth about this world and its history, working for justice and exhibiting both hope and thankful anticipation in every social institution of which we are a part, whether in the decaying West or in other parts of the world.

[Dr. Skillen directs the Center for Public justice.]