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There are still Civilisations to clash ?

An short analysis of Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisation” argument about global chaos, 20 years since the publication.

In this article I write about one of the most cited and a highly influential article in the fields of politics and international relations. “Clash of Civilizations?” by Samuel P. Huntington was published in the summer of 1993 in the Foreign Affairs magazine. Since then it has been subjected to great acknowledgment, criticism and admiration for the hypothesis it contains.

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

He states that the nation state would still be the principle actor in global politics but the cultural fault lines would act as the battle lines of the future. History is packed with other reasons for conflicts such as rivalries between princes and emperors, expanding monarchs and regional boundaries, economic gain, mercantilism and ideological gains. However Huntington makes a bold statement that this trend would shift towards ‘tradition and culture’ being the primal source of conflict in the years to come.

“The wars of kings were over; the wars of people had begun”, these are words of R.R. Palmer who was a distinguished American historian. He focused on conflicts such as the French revolution which started in 1789 and went on till the late 1790s. The French revolution is a landmark in European history where civilians stood up against their monarchs. This trend carried on till the World Wars. Nazism, Fascism, Communism and Capitalism have been the causes of the two World Wars and later the Cold war. These conflicts were labeled as “western civil wars” by William Lind because their roots were based on western ideologies and political agenda. With the end of the Cold War, as Huntington states, the western ideology finally met with the” non-western” part of the world. Hence began the politics on civilizations.

The world was divided to first, second and third worlds during the Cold war. Later the categorization became “developed” and “developing” countries. This was mainly based on income levels of each country and other development indicators. As argued in the original article, the more evident distinction among countries could be the various civilizations they represent. A civilization is a cultural entity. It can be argued that the concept of a ‘civilization’ is a social construct but I personally believe that the differences in languages, traditions, religions, and simply how things are done in different parts of the world make the concept of ‘civilization’ a more explanatory tool.

Cultures around the world are far from being homogenous. On a micro level two areas of the same country can have varying traditions, but on a macro scale both these areas together build up the culture of the country. This distinguishes them from another country. For example, the European culture has traits that stand out from the Arab or the Chinese culture.  The western cultures have broader common traits which makes it a civilization. “Civilization is thus the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity…” So what they hold in common could vary from religion, language, institutions or history.

Civilizations can vary in size, and can contain many nation states (such as the European civilization), and even have subdivisions (Islam has its Arab, Turkic, and Malay subdivisions). With factors such as technology and economics today there can even be sub-civilizations where traits of two different cultures have blended. Anyone who has studies history would know that civilizations can rise and fall, and in fact completely disappear. Arnold Toynbee identified 21 major civilizations in his book A Study of History; only 6 exist in the contemporary world.

Huntington states that the world could be divided into roughly 8 civilizations; Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possible African. So the lines that separate these civilizations from one another would act as the reason for conflict, how? Let me tell you a summary of his arguments.

  1. The differences between civilizations range from how they view God, their views on social relations liberty and authority, their histories, traditions and most importantly religion. These views are solidified by centuries of dynamic change within civilizations, hence are not prone to change in expense of another culture. Even though differences due not necessarily mean violence, history supports otherwise.
  2. The world becomes smaller with modern phenomena making interactions between civilizations more frequent. This highlights the differences between each civilization and results in an increased ‘civilization consciousness’. This result in preferences further resulting in unequal standards of measure for various civilizations.
  3. Cultural and economic globalization results in national identities becoming less relevant by the day. This gap then is filled by religion. With the ‘revival’ of religion as the main source of identity, it both unites a single civilization and also spreads “fundamentalism”. Such fundamental movements are common in Western Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and even Islam.
  4. Civilization consciousness is enhanced by the “dual role of the west”. The west is in the peak of power and influence; this as a result is pushing the non-western civilizations towards their “roots”. So the cultural confrontation is between the west which is at the peak of power and the rest who are equipped and capable and have the desire to shape the world in their respective non-western ways. Times have changed since the time when only the non-western elites had the western influence through education and exposure. The exposure to mostly the American culture is felt by a mass of the people now.
  5. Cultural characteristics and differences are harder to be traded off and compromised. Especially in exchange for another civilization’s tradition. A communist can become a democrat, but can a Russian become American? Well it’s clearly much harder. The question is “Who are you?” when it comes to civilization based conflicts. The wrong answer can cost you your life. Religion acts as the main factor of discrimination. You can be half Arab and half British. It is harder to be half catholic and half Muslim.
  6. The final point is based around economic regionalism facilitated by common cultural traits. Regionalism has increased dramatically over time since the late 20th century, and as Huntington argues this increases civilization consciousness. The Economic Community will be based upon shared foundations of European culture. This is true everywhere, we see China being able to connect many countries in Asia, especially Hong Kong and Taiwan based on cultural factors. These are effectively converted into economic gains at a regional level.

A religion and ethnic based identity will result in an “us” verses “them” scenario played out in a global scale. This difference would then be converted into differences in policies (in areas such as human rights, immigration, environment and security). Upon analyzing today’s global politics we see that this hypothesis is in motion, especially with the west attempting to promote democracy and liberalism as universal values.

I conclude this first section of a two article series based on Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of civilizations?” with two questions, how do you perceive this hypothesis? Is it accurate in capturing today’s global conflicts?

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