By Zachary Keck
September 7, 2013.
Foreign Affairs has published a new ebook to mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” essay.
I have mixed feelings about the Clash of Civilizations. On the one hand, it was an important essay that has helped frame the debate on the post-Cold War era which reflects on the genius and importance of Huntington himself. On the other hand, the popularity of the essay outside of academia has meant that it has come to completely overshadow Huntington’s more impressive works, like The Solider and the State and Political Order in Changing Societies. It’s a shame, in some sense, that Huntington’s legacy won’t be defined by his best works.
Make no mistake, although Clash of Civilizations has been popular, Huntington’s bold thesis has not proven correct. Back in 2010 Richard Betts argued that three books more than any others have shaped the debate about the post-Cold War era: Huntington’sClash of Civilizations, Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man Standing, and John Mearsheimer’s Tragedy of Great Power Politics. It seems indisputable that Huntington’s has been the least accurate, and will be in the decades to come.
No universal ideological challenge has been put forth to challenge liberal democracy, and even the most illiberal states in the world still adopt aspects of liberal democracy like (unfair) elections to enhance their legitimacy. Similarly, while the U.S. has failed to act as an offshore balancer during unipolarity, there are already myriad signs that China’s rise will mark a return to the tragedy of great power politics (Mearsheimer’s updating the book to include a new concluding chapter on China’s rise).
While Huntington’s thesis may have seemed prescient in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, that was an illusion. Al-Qaeda was always more a battle within a civilization than one between them, and the dozen years since 9/11 have made that unmistakably clear. This is not to say that nothing from the “Clash of Civilizations” has come to pass. Recent events in Libya and Syria have demonstrated that the West and the rest often come out on different ends on the question of whether sovereignty is absolute or can be trumped by human rights abuses.
More notably, Huntington’s acknowledgment that none of the conflicts in the post-Cold War era at the time of his writing had constituted a “full-scale war between civilizations, but each involved some elements of civilization rallying,” has often continued to hold true. Still, the clash of civilization has not dominated world politics in the post-Cold War world and the fault lines between civilizations have not been the battle lines of the era, nor do they appear likely to be in the future.
So why was Huntington’s thesis so off-mark? A number of factors had an impact. For instance, the spread of communicative technology has resulted more in the decentralization of power than in the centralization Huntington foresaw, and upon which a theory of civilization required.
But one factor more than any other doomed the clash of civilizations: geopolitics.