The Huntington Thesis and Turkey's New Role

Ankara as a possible force for stability in the eastern Mediterranean.

It has been eighteen years since Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington published his famous essay “The Clash of Civilizations’’ in Foreign Affairs, later expanded into a book. Although the man was widely praised for the provocative thrust of his thinking, the thesis has been roundly attacked or blithely ignored over the past two decades. This is remarkable because world history has unfolded over those eighteen years in ways that have bolstered the Huntington thesis, the essence of which was that with the end of the Cold War, cultural impulses and feelings would rise to the surface and drive global events to a much greater extent than before.

But Americans collectively didn’t want to confront the idea that civilizational clashes—which implied ethnic and religious frictions—would become a fundamental reality of international relations, even as civilizational sensibilities were defining much of what was happening in the world. And so the intellectual discourse has sought some other framework—almost any framework—for understanding the course of global events. And Huntington found himself widely mischaracterized by commentators wishing to blunt his impact on public discourse.

Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times, for example, characterized the Huntington thesis as saying that “with the Cold War over, we won’t have the Soviets to kick around any more, so we will naturally go back to kicking the Hindus and Muslims around and them kicking us around.’’ The most charitable thing to be said about this (leaving aside the syntax) is that Friedman never read Huntington’s article or book before issuing his critique.

That’s unfortunate because the Huntington framework offers the best guidance in how America should project itself in a world aflame with cultural passions—and in how America should treat with countries of other civilizations. Exhibit A is Turkey.

Turkey gets under the skin of a lot of American commentators these days. They find it irritating that this Muslim nation, once so friendly toward the West and committed to secular rule, should embrace a governing party, the AKP, that wishes to pull away from the West and orient the government more toward its Islamic heritage. This can’t be good, caution the commentators, issuing dire warnings about Turkey plunging itself into Islamist radicalism.

In fact, there is little danger that Turkey, a relatively stable democracy for nearly a century, will turn into an Islamist dictatorship. And the country’s recent moves away from the strong secularism of its modern founder, Kemal Ataturk, far from a cause of concern, should be greeted in the West as a healthy development. And Huntington explains why, although he died in 2008 and wrote before the emergence of Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, architect of the strategic changes in Turkish policy that so rankle some Americans.

Those who have actually read Huntington know that he never evinced any pleasure in the prospect of civilizational clash or advocated bold initiatives against countries of other civilizations in order for America to gain an upper hand in this new era. To the contrary, he warned that this era would be particularly unstable because cultural conflicts, centering on how different peoples define themselves, are so difficult to adjudicate—far more difficult, for example, than land disputes or conflicts over competing geopolitical claims. Therefore, said Huntington, the new era called for an American foreign policy based on respect for countries of other civilizations and an appreciation for their particular cultural sensibilities.

That’s why he opposed the Iraq war. He didn’t think America should go traipsing into the heartland of Islam, first of all, and he also saw the U.S. resolve to foster Western-style democracy in Iraq as insulting to the Iraqi people, who had their own cultural heritage to guide them in ordering their government.

In this new era of cultural sensibility, said Huntington, a large burden for ensuring peace falls to the civilizational “core states’’—America for the West; Russia for the Orthodox civilization; China for the Sinic; India for the Hindu. Unfortunately, said Huntington, Islam had no core state, which he saw as problematic. “The core states of civilizations,’’ he wrote, “are sources of order within civilizations and, through negotiations with other core states, between civilizations.’’

The Ottomans, of course, were the core of Islam for centuries prior to World War I. But then Turkey became what Huntington called a “torn country’’—a nation with a single predominant culture that places it in one civilization while its leaders seek to shift it to another civilization. That is the legacy of Ataturk, and Turkey is thus “the classic torn country’’ because its leaders since the 1920s have wanted Turkey to look West and become more Western in outlook and sensibility. It worked for a time, particularly during the Cold War, when Turkey’s interest in keeping Soviet Russia out of its sphere of influence converged nicely with the West’s interest in stymying Soviet advancement everywhere.

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