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A Clash of Civilizations?

Gary Schmitt responds to Hirsi Ali.

1:44 PM, Aug 19, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The controversy over the Ground Zero mosque has breathed new life into Samuel P. Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" thesis. In the early 1990s, Huntington argued that:

The essential building block of the post-Cold War world ... are seven or eight historical civilizations of which the Western, the Muslim and the Confucian are the most important.

The balance of power among these civilizations ... is shifting. The West is declining in relative power, Islam is exploding demographically, and Asian civilizations—especially China—are economically ascendant. Huntington also said that a civilization-based world order is emerging in which states that share cultural affinities will cooperate with each other and group themselves around the leading states of their civilization.

The West's universalist pretensions are increasingly bringing it into conflict with the other civilizations, most seriously with Islam and China. Thus the survival of the West depends on Americans, Europeans and other Westerners reaffirming their shared civilization as unique—and uniting to defend it against challenges from non-Western civilizations.

That description comes from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch exile, who wrote an important Wall Street Journal op-ed yesterday updating Huntington's argument.

Hirsi Ali's colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Gary Schmitt, has an equally important response that critiques the "clash of civilizations" thesis. Here's a taste:

Hirsi Ali appears to repeat Huntington’s overly broad brush about civilizations in general. First, China is not a civilization. It’s a nation governed by one party for 60 years and whose one-time dominant ethical regime was Confucian. But also part of this Confucian world were South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan—each now firmly part of the liberal and democratic West. Our problem with China is not one of civilization but the fact that it’s ruled by an increasingly nationalistic and ambitious despotic elite.

As for the Muslim world, yes, progress has been much slower. But then again, so too have been the West’s efforts in pushing reform. Even so, the Balkan Muslims of democratic Albania and Kosovo show little sign of wanting to adopt sharia. And, yes, Hirsi Ali is right when she notes that “Islamist movements are demanding the expansion” of sharia in Indonesia. But that is not the same as saying they will have their way. To the contrary, it’s striking how Indonesia’s experiment in liberal democracy has held so far. Of course, one wishes more effort was made by the United States and others to help democrats there consolidate the gains that have been made but, nevertheless, there is no reason to believe that Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, will inevitably slide into some form of Islamic despotic rule.

"Culture does matter—but so do politics and statecraft," concludes Schmitt. "If anything, the remarkable increase around the world in the number of liberal democratic states over recent decades suggest that the latter matter more."

All this reminded me of Robert Kagan's critique of Huntington, which appeared in The Weekly Standard in December 1996:

Huntington's argument is based on sleight of hand. He takes a simple and commonly observed fact, exaggerates both its novelty and its significance, and hopes no one notices the resulting distortion of reality upon which his extravagant theory rests. Or, as a historian once wrote of Marx, what Huntington says that is true is not new, and what he says that is new is not true.

Consider Huntington's assertion that his "civilizational paradigm" describes a new force in the post-Cold War world. How new is it? The end of the conflict between the Communist dictatorships and the capitalist democracies has led to an increase in the importance of "civilizational" issues as a force in international relations. World attention has turned toward problems like African tribal conflicts that had been festering all along but had seemed insignificant during the Cold War.

But "civilizational" influences were certainly at work before and during the Cold War. The Balkans was a case study of the clash of civilizations at the turn of the century, when the Russians feared a "Teutonic drive" to the south spearheaded by Austria even as the Austrians feared a Slavic drive spearheaded by Serbia. It is true that during the Cold War such concerns usually took a back seat, but they remained important -- think of the way Richard Pipes sought to explain Soviet imperial behavior by describing Soviet foreign policy not as a new phenomenon, but as a continuation of strains in the Russian character hundreds of years in the making. Huntington himself approvingly quotes Fernand Braudel's assertion that for anyone who seeks to be an actor on the international scene, "it 'pays' to know how to make out, on a map of the world, which civilizations exist today, to be able to define their borders, their centers and peripheries, their provinces and the air one breathes there." But Braudel made that point in 1980 -- at a time when, according to Huntington, the "civilizational paradigm" was not yet appropriate for understanding international behavior.

The new salience of "civilizational" issues in the post-Cold War era was really more a matter of perceptions than a colossal shift in the priorities of nations and individuals. And the new attention paid to such issues was also a bit of an intellectual fad. With the bipolar world de-poled and the strategic-studies industry in decline, many intellectuals shifted to the study of "tribalism" instead. In his Foreign Affairs essay, Huntington simply posited nine giant tribes, called them civilizations, and declared his new paradigm. (The nine "civilizations" he identifies in the book are " Western," "Latin American," "African," "Islamic," "Sinic," "Hindu," "Orthodox, " "Buddhist," and "Japanese.")

Please forgive the block quotes -- this is an important debate! Perhaps unsurprisingly, I side with Schmitt / Kagan over Hirsi Ali / Huntington. But as always, all sides are worth reading and all hold important truths.

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