The Real Clash

September 1, 1994 Topic: Society Tags: Islamism

The Real Clash


Finally, from the Huntington perspective, one would expect renewed conflict between the United States and Russia or between the United States and China. The United States represents Western civilization, Russia represents Orthodox civilization, and China represents Confucian civilization. The conflict will take different forms than it did during the Cold War, when the language was ideological. The language of the new conflicts will instead be cultural. But they will still be conflicts between great powers, and nuclear powers at that, who represent different world-views and different ways of life. And although Huntington does not himself say so, they conceivably would take the form of a cold war, complete with those old and familiar features of nuclear deterrence and military alliances.

The Huntington vision not only subsumes each of the contending definitions of international conflict, it also orders the relations and the priorities between them. Given a civilizational perspective, one could see the axis of conflict to be between Western civilization, which is now dominant, and all the others, which are now subordinate--"the West and the Rest," as the title of Kishore Mahbubani's article had it (The National Interest, Summer 1992). Huntington, however, does not see it this way but rather sees the central conflict to be between the West and a sort of grand alliance between the Confucian and the Islamic civilizations, with the Confucian civilization strong in industrial power and military weaponry, and the Islamic civilization strong in oil reserves and geographical proximity to the West. Given a civilizational perspective, the long (really more than thirteen centuries) conflict between Islam and the West would indicate continuing conflict for a long time to come. On the other hand, although the conflict between the West and Confucian civilization is not long (really less than two centuries, or since the Opium War of 1840-42), it has frequently been extremely bitter. Furthermore, the booming economies of Confucian countries now give them the power to think about redressing the old and unequal balance between them and the West.

Conversely, Huntington does not see a central conflict between the West and the Orthodox civilization. He does not make an extended argument as to why not, but he does observe that Russia is a "torn country," the most important torn country in the world (others are Turkey and Mexico). Such a country is torn between two civilizations, perhaps with the elite and its policy drawn toward one, and the mass and its history drawn toward the other. Russia has been a torn country in this sense since Peter the Great or for almost three centuries--torn between "Westernizers and Slavophils," between Europe and Eurasia, between the Western and the Orthodox civilizations. Huntington seems to think that because there is so much of the West within Russia that a civilizational conflict will not develop between the two. One could just as easily conclude, however, that a civilizational conflict will develop within Russia itself and that the torn country will become a traumatized country, with a resulting rigidity and hostility in its relations with its repressed other self, the West.

Perhaps Huntington also found weighty two historical legacies. First, Orthodox civilization's most enduring and profound adversary has been Islamic civilization. Second, Russia's most traumatic sufferings were under the "Tartar yoke" of Genghis Khan and his successors--hardly Confucian "civilization" but, from a Russian perspective, much the same thing. If so, Huntington probably thinks that it would be a foolish West indeed that allowed its differences with Orthodox civilization to drive Russia into the arms of its most ancient adversaries. Rather, Russia should be a natural ally of the West against the grand alliance of Islamic and Confucian civilizations.

Similarly, but more simply, Huntington does not see a central conflict between the West and Japanese civilization. He explicitly states that the differences are largely economic and could be sensibly negotiated. It is also likely that he sees Japanese civilization as an isolated civilization, caught between Western and Confucian civilizations, and that a wise Western leadership can readily keep Japan as an ally rather than drive it into alliance with Confucian civilization. Indeed, a number of Huntington's critics in East Asia think that is precisely his purpose, to construct a way by which the West could once again divide and rule East Asia, this time by setting off an isolated and vulnerable Japanese civilization against a rising and threatening Confucian one. After all, on the face of it, there are good reasons and historical precedent to conclude that Japan is a part of Confucian civilization (or more accurately, that Confucian civilization is a part of Japan).

Huntington versus Huntington

Huntington has had a long and exceptionally distinguished career as a political scientist. His distinctive contributions to political science have focused on political institutions, in particular the state, military organizations, and political parties. His books on these topics are seminal works that have made him one of the most read and respected political scientists in the world. Yet political institutions are virtually absent from his essay on the clash of civilizations. In fact, however, the origins, spread, and persistence of civilizations have been intrinsically linked with political institutions, such as traditional dynastic empires and modern nation states, and with the power that they have wielded. But different civilizations have produced different kinds of political institutions, and this will make for different kinds of clashes and conflicts. A Huntingtonian attention to political institutions will cause us to amend the Huntingtonian analysis of civilizational clashes.

Islamic civilization: A legacy of weak states: Islamic civilization was created and spread by military prowess and political power. There were times when there was a leading Islamic power, most prominently the Ottoman empire (sometimes known as "the Ottoman Ruling Institution"). The Ottoman empire was a true civilization-bearing state. However, there was never a time when there was only one strong Islamic power. Even the Ottoman empire had to deal with other Islamic empires in Persia and in India. Since the Ottomans' collapse at the end of the First World War, the Islamic civilization has been fragmented into many conflicting states.

The closest approximation today to a core state for the Islamic civilization is Iran, but it is largely isolated from the rest of the Islamic world by either its Shi'ite theology or its Persian ethnicity (and, temporarily at least, also its dismal economy). It is virtually impossible for Iran to become the core state for the Islamic civilization; it is, however, also virtually impossible for any other state to become so. The other large states who might seem to be potential leaders (Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia) are so different from, and so contemptuous of, each other that no concerted policy toward the West or toward the rest (e.g., Orthodox, Hindu, or Confucian civilizations) is possible. Islam will remain a civilization without an empire or even a core state to carry out a civilizational foreign policy. This means that the clash between the West and Islam is not likely to take place at the level of conventional or even nuclear wars between Western states and Islamic states. (The Gulf War is the exception that proves--and strengthens--the rule.) Rather, it will more likely take place between Western societies and Islamic groups, as a long series of terrorist actions, border skirmishes, and ethnic wars.

Confucian civilization--A legacy of a strong state: The story of Confucian civilization is precisely the opposite of that of Islam. Confucian civilization has been centered upon a core state for 2200 years, ever since the time of the Han dynasty. Whereas the history of Islamic civilization has been marked by long periods of fragmentation, punctuated by brief periods of unity, the history of Confucian civilization has been marked by long periods of unity (or at least deference to an imperial center), punctuated by brief periods of fragmentation.

Today, as in the past, Confucian civilization has only one contender for the role of core state, i.e., China. (Huntington may be wrong in holding that Japan is not Confucian enough to be a member of Confucian civilization, but he is right that it is not Confucian enough to be the leader of that civilization.) All of the other Confucian countries (and they are few and mostly small--Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) can be expected to revolve around, or at least defer to, China. The clash between Confucian civilization and the West (or the rest--i.e., Orthodox or Hindu civilizations) will really take the form of a clash between China and some other state (or states). This means that what happens to the Chinese state will be crucial to the direction, and the timing, of a clash of civilizations.

Two generations ago, almost no one thought that the Confucian form of statecraft had any value in the modern world. For all the differences between Western liberals and Chinese communists, they both agreed about this. For the past decade or more, however, there has been a broad consensus that the Confucian societies have created states that are outstanding at industrial development. These are South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and (insofar as Confucianism rather than Shintoism or Buddhism should get the credit) Japan. They are the most successful trading states in the world.

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