Thoughts on Samuel Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilizations

I should have picked up Huntingdon’s work earlier. It is awesome. He argues (or at least the structure of his thought necessarily suggests such) that the utopian vision of liberal democracy (whether right or left-wing) has failed miserably and that societies will revert back to their original civilizational paradigms.

By that he doesn’t mean that societies will simply turn back the clock. Rather, the civilizations from which nation-states emerged have a stronger pull upon the states that some post-Enlightenment view of “democratic capitalism.” In short, “people and culture” trump artificial ideology.

Huntingdon lists several civilizations:

  • Sinic/Hindu: China, Southeast Asia, and India. I realize that India could legitimately be a separate civilization (and I believe it is), but I’m listing it under China for several reasons: to keep the list from multiplying unnecessarily and because India will probably ally itself with China in the near future.
  • Islamic: Most of the Middle East and all of northern Africa. Malaysia and Indonesia are also Islamic, but they will be subsumed under China in terms of influence. One caveat: I do not believe the Islamic civilization can be delineated the way Huntingdon portrays it.
  • African: Subcontinent; northern Africa is distinct from area below Sudan.
  • Western: originating from Western Christendom (post AD 800-1204), but largely trashing that heritage today. Nevertheless, maintains the skeleton of Charlemagne and Christendom, especially seen in the form of the European Union and NATO.
  • Orthodox/Slavic: Russia is the de facto leader of this civilization, given her wealth, size, and influence. Includes eastern Ukraine, Belarus, most of the Balkans. Interestingly, I would identify much of Western Europe pre 600 AD as “Orthodox.” Inheritor of Byzantium. Religious differences notwithstanding, this civilization is able to make strong ties/alliances with Middle East. Syria is 30% Orthodox anyway. Likely to form some kind of coalition with Middle Eastern countries and China to offset NATO/EU’s march of mutual destruction.
  • Latin America

However, I disagree with Huntingdon on the Middle East. I think the Middle East is in an identity crisis between Fundamentalism and Nationalism. Islamic countries like Syria and Turkey, for all of their problems, lean closer to nationalism than “jihadism.” Likewise, I maintain that Iran is more nationalist than fundamentalist, though it is very much the latter, too.

Post Script:

untingdon is too pro-D.C. and very naive concerning the purity of NATO’s motives, but other than that he is prescient on about every major issue (He wrote this book in 1996). Here is the skeleton of the review, along with some tentative conclusions of my own:

  • Civilizations assume the reality of objective cultures, but they are not identical to culture(s). I can’t remember exactly how SH defines civilization. There is an extended discussion on pp. 40-44. Frankly, I don’t think his definition, if any, is really that important. His book deals more with the empirical identity and clash of civilizations, rather than objectively defining them.
  • Civilizations have core states: states that have at least de facto leadership over smaller states in the civilization. For example, Russia is the core state of the Orthodox civilization (which includes Ukraine, Belarus, and the Balkans, though the latter are compromised by their membership in NATO; likewise, China is the core st ate of the East Asian civilization, excluding Japan).
  • Wars between actual core states of civilizations are quite rare. However, fault line wars are quite common. These are wars/battles/century-long skirmishes between two smaller states of two different civilizations that border each other. The obvious example is the Balkans: Orthodox Serbia fought Muslim Bosnia, both of whom were at war with Catholic Croatia
  • While ideologies (Marxism, democratic capitalism) are nice and make academics and news pundits feel good, civilization/culture has a more primal claim upon people groups/ethnicities/states and in the absence of one ideology (say, Marxism) a nation will more likely identify with prior civilizational loyalties rather than the opposing ideology. For example, an old joke in former Soviet Union: our leaders lied to us about communism, but they told us the truth about capitalism.

Pros of the book:

His analysis is top-notch. We are reading a world-class scholar. Unlike 99% of elites in America, he knows that simply waving the magic wand of democratic capitalism will not make the nations swoon and willing become colonies of New York–and Huntingdon was actually attacked for making this obvious point!

He calls the Islamic threat for what it is. He is notorious for his famous “The borders of Islam are bloody.” I don’t really know how people can objectively respond to this claim. Yeah, it might be mean and bigoted, but look at the major hot spots of the world today–what religion is causing most of the trouble? In 1996 (at the time of the writing) 49 of the world’s 58 current conflicts had Islam involved. If it looks like a duck…

He gives an accurate (though extremely dated) analysis of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Of course, a lot of his musings are moot considering NATO’s bombing of civilians in Belgrade in 1999. Still, per his thesis on civilizational clash on fault lines, he does a stellar performance. Catholic Germany supported Croatia, the entire Muslim world–along with Hillary Clinton and Sean Hannity–supported the Muslim Bosniaks, and Russia supported Serbia. (he also documents American double-standards and calls them for what they are: when Muslims massacre a village and kidnap teenage girls it is because they are noble freedom fighters w. When Serbs execute 8,000 men in the 28th Bosnian Muslim infantry, it is because they are evil and genocidal. Even more strange, American conservatives who are almost 100% anti-Islam never challenge this fact and actually support Muslims).

Along similar lines is the Turko-Armenian-Azeri wars of the 1990s. Armenia was an Orthodox state who was beset by Muslim Turkey and Muslim Azeribaijan. During the Cold War the Soviet leadership had Armenians serving in high-rank positions and being trained by elite special forces. When the USSR fell, the Armenian military, keeping the Motorized Rifle divisions of that region, had a fairly impressive, if small, military. Russian intervention in the 1990s kept her smaller sister Armenia from being overrun by Muslims.

And these are just two examples. Huntingdon ends with a fairly interesting scenario on what WW3 will look like and how it will start. A few qualms with the book: he actually thinks NATO is preserving Western civilization and evidently he ignores the fact that his best friend, Zbignew Brzezinski advocates using the War on Terror as a way to surround Russia with missiles and bases. Ironically, Huntingdon had argued that doing so would actually make America lose the next world war, which will be a clash between a Chinese or Islamic (or both) civilization.

Huntingdon didn’t write many more books after this. He had a high standard of writing and actually threw away many top-notch manuscripts because they weren’t good enough. Too bad, for he is definitely worth reading.


2 comments on “Thoughts on Samuel Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilizations

  1. […] opposition to “The West.”  Other scholarly reviewers criticized the Gerrards for adopting a “Huntingdonian” view of East-West differences.  Perhaps Huntingdon’s thesis is overdrawn, but I don’t see […]

  2. […] For more on the “East vs. West” conflict, see Samuel Huntingdon’s rightly famous The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,  New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, […]

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