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Vol. 5, No. 4, 2006
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Robert J. Lewis
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Although Professor Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations? was published in 1993 and his follow-up, Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, was published a decade ago, these writings may be more relevant now in the context of the war on terror than they were in the aftermath of the collapse of communism. This could explain why the editors of Foreign Affairs continue to market Huntington's 1993 classic, comparing it with George Kennan's famous Soviet containment article, The Sources of Soviet Conduct.

At the beginning of his 1993 article, Huntington observed that he was not alone among "intellectuals [who] have not hesitated to proliferate visions of what [the new phase of world politics] will be -- the end of history, the return of traditional rivalries between nation states, and the decline of the nation state from the conflicting pulls of tribalism and globalism." It is clear that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of European communism created a huge opening for students and scholars of international relations to project their favourite hypotheses about how the new world order would look. In fact, the opening is still huge, and intellectuals are still trying to fill it.

So far, so good. It sounds like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' metaphor of truth in the marketplace of ideas. However, the search for truth may not be as simple as the metaphor suggests. The hypothesis that emerges as dominant may not be the best hypothesis, but it corresponds best to the predisposition of the government of the day. On one hand, this does not seem inappropriate in a representative democracy where it is the responsibility and prerogative of the government to act (as trustees) on behalf of the majority (their wards). On the other hand, American history is filled with examples -- and the Bush Administration has provided its share of them - where democratically elected governments have clearly acted wrongly and in violation of the spirit and letter of the American constitutional system.

It is this latter, more sinister use of ideas by power that seems to characterize the relationship between Huntington's hypothesis and the Bush Administration's war on terror. In other words, the clash of civilizations thesis appears to be a unifying principle for much of the Bush Administration's war on terror. If we create an enemy in Islam, then it seems likely that policies designed around that conclusion will improve the chances of proving the clash of civilizations hypothesis.

The second Iraq War -- this one clearly fabricated even in the eyes of many in the West as well as in the view of the Islamic world -- certainly gives the appearance of a clash of civilizations where the rhetoric and reality of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, oil and democracy often get confused. The illegal and the extralegal treatment of detainees from the war on terror has further undermined the notion of the universal application of the rule of law (e.g., Magna Carta-based habeas corpus). This is regarded as an abandonment of Western principles in defense of Western principles. And then, the arbitrary and extra-judicial suspension of free speech and privacy protections -- by means of administrative subpoenas, gag orders, domestic surveillance and eavesdropping -- has further provoked suspicion that government secrecy and deception have been turned against the American people ostensibly to preempt anti-American terrorism by effectively fostering a domestic climate that encourages thinking in terms of the clash of civilizations.

The Clash of Civilizations? predicted that in the post-Cold War international relations, the fault lines would run along cultural and civilizational lines instead of political and economic lines. According to Huntington, since civilization represents the highest level of human community and is, therefore, a fundamental social grouping -- even more fundamental than ideological, political or economic groupings -- the clash of civilizations promises continuing geopolitical tension and conflict for the foreseeable future. The West, as the dominant civilization, can expect to have its global political, economic and military reach challenged and must therefore be prepared with a hard-headed, pragmatic foreign policy in anticipation of the potential threats originating from Islamic and Confucian (e.g., China) countries.

The Cold War provided a geopolitical equilibrium between the two post-World War II superpowers, but this equilibrium was upset by the fall of East European communism and the break up of the Soviet Union. In Huntington's view, that equilibrium can be restored in the short term either by a reassertion of Western hegemony or by striking a new balance of power among conflicting civilizations. Over the longer term though, the West must be prepared to strike a balance of power with civilizations whose political, economic and military influence increasingly constrain Western-based unilateralist foreign policies.

In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Huntington elaborates on his 1993 essay. Against the optimistic arrogance that predicts in the post-Cold War world the universality of Western civilization will unite mankind, Huntington offers a bleaker outlook of perpetual conflict originating from the fundamental incompatibility of the world's civilizations, in particular those of the West and Islam.

He describes the principal assumptions that have been used to defend the notion of the superiority and universality of Western civilization. First, the end of history thesis, popularized by Francis Fukuyama, sees the failure of communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR as a necessary stage in the dialectic of history that inevitably gives way to the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy as the highest form of political economy. Second, globalization provides the confidence that commerce -- economic integration, free trade and market systems -- will overcome cultural and civilizational differences. Third, universal progress into modernity -- industrialization, urbanization, education, living standards -- will unite humanity across all cultural and civilizational divides.

For Huntington, conflict is fundamental to human politics. In fact in the chapter entitled The West and the Rest, Huntington could be interpreted as invoking, as opposed to describing, a new political rivalry to fill the void created by the fall of East European communism. And for Huntington, the post-Cold War conflict is not abstract. Acknowledging what he considers the most contentious statement from his 1993 article, "Islam has bloody borders," Huntington goes even further in arguing that Islam creates a propensity to violence.

In 1990 before the first Iraq War and before American soldiers were stationed in Saudi Arabia, Bernard Lewis, the highly acclaimed Western scholar of Islam, observed, in The Roots of Muslim Rage, that Muslim rage is seen by many to be traceable to provocative Western, especially American foreign policy, e.g., support for Israel, support for repressive and corrupt Middle Eastern governments and the imperialist subjugation of Muslim peoples by Christian civilization.

So why -- 13 years after the fact -- target Huntington's clash of civilizations hypothesis? First, the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential foreign policy think tank and publisher of Foreign Affairs, seems intent to keep the hypothesis relevant through its marketing of Huntington's original statement of the clash of civilizations.

Second, there appears to be a strong correlation between Huntington's hypothetical new world order and that imagined by the Bush Administration with its war on terror at home and abroad.

Third, in retrospect, Kennan's 1947 assessment of Soviet communism appears to have been uncannily prophetic. But could this have been partly because subsequent American foreign policy made it so? Was the containment approach really the best of all possible foreign policy frameworks? Might there have been some set of policy options in between the extremes of appeasement at one end and nuclear confrontation on the other end? The clash of civilizations as public policy must face these same questions. Fourth, bearing in mind the uncertainty of the future including the prospect of getting it wrong, is some sort of clash of civilizations approach the doctrine that Americans want to be remembered by 50 years from now?

Finally, might there be hidden agendas behind the clash of civilizations hypothesis, which make it more appealing than it should be? For example, a familiar and easily marketed 'us versus them' worldview would be an effective diversion from divisive domestic policy debates, e.g., those pertaining to the increasing asymmetries in political as well as in economic power among America's socio-economic classes. = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting
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