The Real Clash

September 1, 1994 Topic: Society Tags: Islamism

The Real Clash


What will be the central conflicts of world politics in our future? That is the question that dominates the current debates about international affairs. The most comprehensive, and most controversial, answer has been given by Samuel Huntington, whose concept of "the clash of civilizations" has provoked its own major clash of authors.

I intend to engage in this clashing. I will first review the current clash of definitions over the nature of the new era in international affairs. I will then review Huntington's central argument bearing on potential conflicts between Western civilization and other ones, particularly between the West and a grand alliance of the Islamic and the Confucian civilizations. I will conclude, however, by arguing that the real clash of civilizations, the one most pregnant with significance, will not be between the West and the rest, but one that is already underway within the West itself, particularly within its central power, the United States. This is a clash between Western civilization and a different grand alliance, one composed of the multicultural and the feminist movements. It is, in short, a clash between Western and post-Western civilizations.

The Clash of Definitions

In the first few years after the Second World War, it was common for people to refer to the time that they were living through as the post-war period. But a post-war or post-anything period cannot last long, and eventually an era will assume a characteristic name of its own. This began to happen as early as 1947 and was largely completed by 1949. The post-war period had become the Cold War era.

There has been no such development yet in our time of transition. Until recently, it was common to speak of the post-Cold-War era, but to continue to refer to the current period in this way--fully five years after the end of the Cold War--does seem to be stretching things a bit. To speak of the current period as the post-post-Cold-War era, however, clearly would sound ridiculous. And yet there is just as clearly no commonly accepted designation for this indisputably new era that we are now in. The lack of a common term for the era is an outer manifestation of the lack of a common interpretation of the international situation and a common basis for foreign policies, as is every day illustrated by the vacillating and reckless foreign policies of the Clinton administration, the first completely post-post-Cold-War presidency.

The problem is not that there are no reasonable contending definitions of the new era but rather that there are too many of them. Indeed, by 1993, there had developed at least four major candidates for the definition of the post-Cold War central axis of international conflict. Analogous to the war-centered definitions of past eras, these were: (1) trade wars, particularly between the United States, Japan, and Western Europe; (2) religious wars, particularly involving Islam; (3) ethnic wars, particularly within the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, and the "failed states" of Africa; and (4) renewed cold wars, particularly involving Russia or China. And then along came Samuel Huntington, who published a now-famous article, which in large measure subsumed the four different kinds of wars into "the clash of civilizations."

Trade wars: In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communism, it was natural for some analysts to focus on the triumph of liberal capitalism and the spread of the global economy as the central features of the new era. But it was also natural to think, in continuity or analogy with past eras, that the major actors in international politics would be the great powers, except that they would now be what Richard Rosecrance has christened "trading states" rather than "military-political states." The great powers would be the great economies, i.e., the United States, Japan, and Western Europe, led by newly-united Germany. International conflict within the world would principally take the form of economic conflict or trade wars.

Religious wars: Other analysts found a different dimension of continuity or analogy with past eras, that of ideologies or world-views. With the collapse of communism, it was reasonable to think that there would be a new conflict with another radical ideology, or at least theology, that would take its place, i.e., Islamic fundamentalism. (The term Islamism is a better one, connoting the distinctive combination of traditional Islam and modern ideology.)

To become truly powerful in international politics, an ideology or world-view needs its "defender of the faith," an "idea-bearing state" that serves as its core country. For communism, that role had been performed principally by the Soviet Union. So too, for Islamism, the role of the core country or idea-bearing state would be taken, albeit imperfectly, by Iran. As it happened, however, it was Iran's much more secular adversary, Iraq, that stepped forward to briefly fill this role in 1990. Subsequently, however, Iran has again appeared as the core country of Islamism. With the growing strength of the Islamist movement in the Sudan, Algeria, and even Egypt, there appear to be good reasons to argue that conflicts involving Islamism will be the defining feature of the new era.

Ethnic wars: Some analysts focused upon the incidence of actual war itself, particularly on those associated with the resurgence of nationalist rivalries characteristic of pre-Cold War eras. The collapse of the Soviet Union was also the collapse of a multinational empire. The same was true of the collapse of Yugoslavia, which was in some ways a smaller version of the Soviet Union. The old communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia expired with remarkably little effort at violent repression. Once they were gone, however, there was violence aplenty among the ethnic groups left among the ruins of the multinational empires of communist parties, just as there had been at the end of the multinational empires of traditional dynasties, such as the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. The Yugoslav conflicts in particular have seemed to many to define the nature of the new era.

Renewed cold wars: Other analysts have found a dimension of continuity or analogy in the military capabilities and political systems that had characterized the Cold War. The Soviet Union had been a threat because of its vast size, its military power, and its authoritarian regime. When the dust settled after the end of the Cold War, Russia was left with a population that was only half that of the former Soviet Union but that still made it the largest nation in Europe. It was also left with a territory that was three-fourths that of the Soviet Union and that still made it the largest country in the world. Most significantly, Russia was also left with twenty thousand nuclear warheads, that still made it the only state in the world that could destroy the United States. A renewed Cold War between Russia and the United States is a plausible prospect.

A variation on this theme of a renewed Cold War is represented by China. With its vast population and territory, its large army and nuclear weapons, its booming economy, and its still-communist regime, it has many capabilities that could be combined into a threat to the United States.

Thus, by 1993, there were four major contending definitions of the new era in international politics. Each was grounded, by continuity and analogy, in past concepts and experiences and each seemed to be supported by major events that had recently occurred in 1990-93. With so many reasonable contenders, there was no consensus on the nature of the new era or the focus for foreign policies. The Clinton Administration, in particular, has been torn between these contenders and has been unable to construct a coherent foreign policy.

Enter Huntington

It was in this complex context that Samuel Huntington entered the debate. With his customary genius at discerning a common underlying pattern in a mass, and a mess, of disparate phenomena, Huntington argues that the central axis of conflict in the new era will be between cultures or civilizations. Although he does not directly address the four contending definitions that we have identified, his concept of civilizations deals with them all.

In regard to trade wars, Huntington implies that these might occur but that they will not be central. The United States and Western Europe are parts of the same Western civilization, and conflicts between them will be marginal and manageable. Japan is another matter, however, because, according to Huntington, Japan is its own distinct civilization. This is why, he observes, the economic conflict between the United States and Japan has been more acrimonious than that between the U.S. and Europe. Overall, however, Huntington sees Japan to be close enough in interests to the West to also make conflicts between them manageable.

Conversely, the conflict between the United States and Islamism becomes central and perennial in Huntington's view. It is the perfect example of a clash of civilizations.

Ethnic wars are also central in Huntington's scheme. He notes that the most prominent of these conflicts have occurred on the "fault lines" of civilizations. The most obvious is the conflict between Muslims, Serbs, and Croats in Yugoslavia, which represents a conflict between Islamic, Orthodox, and Western civilizations. Similarly, the conflicts within and among the successor states of the former Soviet Union have been not just between different ethnic groups but between different civilization groups, e.g., the Muslim Azeris and the Orthodox Armenians. Conversely, there has been almost no violence at all between different groups within the same Slavic-Orthodox civilization, e.g., Russians and Ukrainians.

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