The controversial author of The Clash of Civilizations didn’t get everything wrong. Samuel Huntington gave an early warning to our democracies are now going through.
When the Berlin Wall fell, Francis Fukuyama once again brought up Hegel’s idea of the end of history. Turning Marx’s interpretation on its end – the prediction of the inevitable disappearance of capitalism – he announced the triumph of democracy and the market economy as well as the end of major conflicts, made impossible by globalization. This peace-loving vision of 21st century history collapsed on 11th September 2001 along with the Twin World Trade Towers.
Ideologies did not vanish with the implosion of Sovietism, as is shown in the Maoist trend in Xi Jinping’s China. They are present in the return to strength of deep national and religious feeling. Globalization has broken up the international system and caused the eventual resurgence of major conflicts, e.g. the Cold War between the USA and China that has speeded up the Aukus pact between Washington, London and Canberra. History has not come to an end. It has gathered speed with a succession of wars lost to terrorism, the 2008 crash and the Covid pandemic. 20 years on from the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden has been the overall winner, proving Disraeli wrong when he said, “Assassination has never changed the history of the world”.
The denial of Fukuyama’s thesis has not been credited to his main opponent, Samuel Huntington, who was also his teacher. Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilization considers the history of the 21st century in terms of eight major civilizations, defined by the religions that are their moral and political foundations. They have been destined to come into conflict for reasons of identity – and not politics or economics – ever since the “velvet curtain of culture has replaced the iron curtain of ideology.” The West must also forget its dreams of universalism and unite with the USA in order to safeguard political freedom.
Inspired by Max Weber’s much-loved principle of a “relentless war between the gods”, the pessimistic view of globalization held by Huntington was universally criticized. And it is true that it errs on systemic grounds. The Moslem world is far from unified, being split into Sunnites and Shiites. Conflicts are not only culture-based but also ideological, economic and technological. More than ever before, war is a chameleon with many dimensions, combining ethnic and religious conflicts as well as rivalries between the new empires.
And yet, one has to do justice to Samuel Huntington in that he was the first to have perceived the tragic spirit of the 21st century and to have measured the dangers that hang over democratic nations. Religion does not have monopoly on conflicts, but it is true that it is playing a leading role, both in Jihadism and in the démocratures [= a combination of dictatorship and democracy] that instrumentalize it, as in the case of Russia under Putin or Turkey under Erdogan.
Hatred of the West is the basis of an improbable and disquieting rapprochement between China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan under the Taliban.
As a final point, it has to be noted that Huntington’s warnings against military intervention aimed at exporting the Western model – which differentiates him from the neo-conservatives – have sadly proved valid in the series of disasters in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Mali.
Samuel Huntington was also right about the seriousness of the crisis in democratic nations – unmatched since the 1930s – and the fact that they have been corrupted by internal identity issues, unleashed by social media. Wokism is a lethal weapon against anything that brought success to the West, i.e. knowledge and science – now replaced by activism –, reason and the notion of the common good. Its counterpart is a different sort of feeling of identity: nationalism and xenophobia, brought on by the far right.
Getting violence back under control implies re-establishing a form of international order that can be achieved in three ways. Firstly, imperial domination, which is the objective of Xi Jinping’s China, and which must be fought against by all possible means. Secondly, common law, which is now out of the question because of the intensity of conflicts between values. Thirdly, a balance maintained by force and reason, which has long prevailed in the coming together of European nations, then during the confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union. This third and essential solution presupposes that there has to be an end to denial of the dangers to freedom, that nations must reunite by dismantling the cultural war, that we must invest in security, particularly in Europe, and that we must create a new alliance between democracies that is not simply dependent on the USA. Political freedom as a principle upon which to rebuild democracies and destabilize their enemies is the only effective antidote to the clash of civilizations.
(Article published in Le Point, 23rd September 2021)