To what extent is there a clash of civilisations?

In 1993 Samuel Huntington wrote an article titled “Is there a clash of civilisations” in which he disputed Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that the end of the Cold War would not herald the end of conflict but rather a conflict that would revert to cultural or “civilizational” lines. Huntingdon furthermore argued that the world was split into 9 different civilizational orders, and the West would clash with all of them, but in particular it would clash with the Islamic world, Japan and Russia. Many attempts to refute Huntingtons thesis have been made but none stand up to scrutiny, and there is very much a clash of civilisations.

When Huntington’s view that the West would clash with the Islamic world was vindicated after the September 11th terrorist attacks, neoconservatives looking for a response distanced themselves from Huntington’s rhetoric. Neoconservative George W Bush was keen to emphasise that not all Muslims were to blame for 9/11, and indeed it was just a tiny minority of extremists holding the Islamic world back. Whereas Huntington had argued that the Islamic world was hostile to western ideas of liberal democracy, George W Bush ignored this insight and fought two wars to try and bring democracy to the Middle East, ignoring Huntington’s claim that there would be a backlash if Western values were spread through force. Thus the neoconservatives would view the war on Terror not as a cultural war, as Huntington and most other commentators saw it, but rather an ideological war, “Islamic fascism vs liberal democracy” as George W Bush put it.

However it is clear in the failure of these attempts to bring democracy to the Middle East that the neoconservatives were wrong and Huntingdon was right. Huntington predicted in his article that western liberal democracy could not be bought to the Middle East with force, and attempts to do so would provoke backlash. In 2016 it seems he was right, with a resurgent Taliban controlling nearly all of Afghanistan and ISIS controlling most of Iraq. Though of course only a small minority of Muslims engage in actual acts of terrorism, ideas that western liberals would find repugnant permeate across the Muslim world which make suppressing extremism and spreading western liberalism difficult. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Pew research indicates that roughly 70% of Muslims find honour killing acceptable, and in the moderate country of Turkey this figure is 32%. It is clear that spreading democracy to Muslim countries is impossible due to the cultural views of Muslim countries being hostile to these ideas. So the neoconservative rebuttal of Huntington’s thesis does not stand up to scrutiny, and the War on Terror that they started has very much turned into a cultural conflict whether they acknowledge it or not.

Another source of conflict Huntington predicted would be the tensions in Ukraine between the Orthodox civilisation and the Western civilisation.  Huntington predicted that the mostly Orthodox east of Ukraine and the mostly pro-Western west side of the country would inevitably conflict with each other. This situation is currently taking place after the events of 2014 in Ukraine. When a largely pro-Western demonstration forced the largely pro-eastern government out of power, replacing it with a pro-western coup government the Russian east of Ukraine rose up and in the Crimea (where the vast majority of people are ethnically Russian) over 90% of residents voted to rejoin with Russia after 60 years of Ukrainian rule. In the Donbass and other eastern parts of Ukraine, nationalists are bitterly resisting the coup-government in Kiev’s ongoing attempt to join NATO and the EU. Unlike the civil war in Ukraine of 1917-1921, which was an ideological civil war between communists and conservatives, the present civil war is a cultural one between two groups of people fighting over what identity, what civilisation, they want to identify Ukraine with,whether it be the West or whether it be the Orthodox East.

As realists deny that the culture of a government has any role in it’s decision making, a realist would dismiss the case of Ukraine as an example of the clash of civilisation, rather saying that the crisis is an ongoing game of realpolitik between Russia and the United States, with both sides funding and aiding militants in order to hold their control over their respective portion of the government, the coup government of Poroshenko in the West and the Russian nationalists in the East. Realists would point out the 2014 sovereignty referendum was held while Russian troops were occupying the country. Offensive realist John Mearsheimer would see Ukraine as nothing more than a proxy-war between these two bigger powers, both aiming to gain regional hegemony in Europe. Mearsheimer thinks that state’s bid for regional hegemony in order to gain their own security, and it is certainly the case that a pro-West Ukraine would be very insecure for Russia, and a pro-Russia Ukraine would be very insecure for the EU and by-extension the USA.  While this realist critique is, to a certain extent accurate, the passion with which the conflict has torn Ukraine apart indicates that culture does play a role in the ongoing conflict.

Another critique of the clash of civilisations thesis comes from commercial liberals. Commercial liberals argue free trade between countries will reduce incentives for conflict, since conflict would be expensive in terms of lost trade for both sides. Thomas Friedman, famously argued in 1999 that “no two countries that both have a Mcdonald’s will go to war”. Though the absolutism of this position is false, there is empirical evidence to back this up, a study by Eric Gartzke finding that countries which trade with each other are 14 times less likely to go to war. Though, when polled, Pakistan has one of the world’s most anti-American population, Pizza Hut Pakistan is one of the most profitable branches of Pizza Hut in the world, meaning conflict between the Muslim Pakistan and the USA is less likely. Commercial liberals would argue there is not a clash of civilisations since free trade has reduced incentives for conflict between the West and different cultures, forcing them into an interdependent relationship with each other.

(For more on commercial liberal criticisms of Huntington see this http://alevelpolitics.com/audio-the-fusion-of-civilisations-not-a-clash-of-civilisations/)

However in his 1993 article Huntington points out that inter-civilisational trade is much more difficult than trade within civilisations. He uses Japan as a case study. In the 1970’s, American free trade with Japan led to an overwhelming number of Japanese goods supplanting American ones, leading many to fear there would be no jobs for Americans. Huntington points out that free trade with Japan was no different than free-trade with Europe, but the differences in culture between the USA and Japan far supplanted the cultural differences between the USA and Europe, leading to a greater fear of the East than a fear of Europe. Huntington argued free trade and economic integration only really worked in cultural blocs of similarity, pointing to the EU as an example. This difficulty in trading with other civilisations is further evidenced today by the differing American reactions to the TPP free trade deal with Japan and other Asian countries and the TTIP between the EU and the US. In the US TPP has garnered far more attention, with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders placing opposition to this deal as the key part of their manifesto. Thus, in a catch-22 type situation, free trade deals between different civilisations which could mitigate cultural animosity,  are hard to bring about precisely because of the problem that free-trade deals solve: cultural animosity. Thus the commercial liberal critique of Huntington does not quite stand up to scrutiny.

In conclusion, while many attempts to refute Huntington’s thesis have been made, the ongoing Western conflict in the Islamic world, the US-Russo proxy-war in Ukraine and economic tensions with Japan all prove that Huntington is correct and there is indeed a clash of civilisations.

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