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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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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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