(Translated from my Hebrew blog)
I’ve finally read Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations recently – better late than never. The presence of this book in popular culture is so strong that I generally assumed I know what it was about already without reading it, but it turned out to be better than I expected. It analyzes global politics so well that you can almost be tempted to think he’s just stating the obvious, not saying anything interesting; That is, until you remember he wrote it in 1996, when many of these things were much less obvious. And this deserves a blog post.
People often speak about civilizational conflicts these days, sometimes up to quoting Huntington himself. Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict an inevitable result of religious or cultural differences? Are the relations of Europe and the Muslim world today an inevitable continuation of more than 1000 years or East-West conflict? Will East Asia forever remain foreign and hostile towards the West, are democracy and human rights inherently “Western” concepts? These claims are quite common, but in my opinion are mostly evidence of the short memories of the people who make them. And Huntington, allegedly the ultimate source for such claims, actually says the same thing.
And here, in my opinion, lies the most interesting and important point of the book – the limitations placed by Huntington himself on his own thesis. From other people’s references to the book, you can easily get the impression that Huntington describes how the world fundamentally works, and understand that all civilizational conflicts are eternal, all that matters is where we are in the global civilizational map, and prepare for another millenium of conflict with other civilizations. But that is absolutely not what Huntington says. The book does not claim to be a general description of the world – it is a description of the world in the post Cold War era. And not only that, but a very limited time period after the cold war. He does not know how long it would last, but he knows it’s a limited time period. So when we read the book today, it seems almost trivial; but that is exactly the lesson we can learn from it. What seems trivial now, twenty years ago was new and controversial; That should remind us that just like these things haven’t been with us forever in the past, they will not stay forever in the future. We need to be prepared for the next change to go over global politics. We still don’t know what these changes will be and when they will come, but they will come.
I would not be exaggerating if I said that I believe one of the biggest cultural problems of the world today is lack of understanding and appreciation for the Cold War. When people speak of events from the middle or late 20th century, they often ignore the context to an amazing level – speaking of the Vietnam War, for example, as if it was some weird and pointless project (maybe even colonialist) of the United States. Speaking of the American support for the Afghan Mujahideen as if it was the strategic blunder of the century. Speaking of the massacre of millions in Cambodia as if it was a sudden madness of a dictator. It is very rare to hear these things described in their context – the fact that at that time, an existential conflict was going on not just between two ideologies, but between two military alliances, and it was not at all obvious which one of them would win. People now mock the American support for the Mujahideen as an example of the arrogance or stupidity of government or intelligence agencies, trying to solve one problem by creating a bigger one. But only the slightest understanding of the Cold War should be enough to realize that the threat of Islamic terrorism, as dangerous as it is, is nothing compared to the threat faced by the free world at that time. Or we can remember that American and Western involvments in wars at that time, wether or not we accept them and without excusing the war crimes done during them, were part of a war for survival of the free world. And remember that countless wars and failed states, from Cambodia to almost every other non-Western country in the world, were a major part of that war and the scars they received during it still shape them to this day.
And this forgetfulness of the Cold War is what lets people imagine that the “clash of civilizations” is some sort of eternal phenomenon that cannot be doubted. Today we see civil wars in multinational states and say it’s obvious; “who thought you could bring people of different religions and ethnic groups together in one country and imagine that would go well? Obviously it would end in failure. People must maintain their identity, protect their kin, and so on”. But Huntington reminds us it’s not obvious at all; in his time is was so not obvious that he had to write this entire book to explain why he thought this is what the world is starting to look like. Because until then, the world was very different. There was no clash of civilizations in the war between communist Vietnamese and Repuclican Vietnamese, between communist China and Nationalist China, between the Mujahideen and the Afghan government, or in countless other wars in the world of up to thirty years ago. Today we can look back at David Ben-Gurion with his plans of uniting the Hebrew and Arab worker together to overthrow the corrupt “effendi”, and think how naive he was; but hindsight is easy, and Ben-Gurion was nowhere close to naive. We live in a world of after almost thirty years of the era of clash of civilizations, and it’s easy to forget that there was still history before that; but there was, and there will also be history after it.
So what will replace the era of clash of civilizations? Still too early to say. More than twenty years after the book, Huntington’s thesis is still strong, to the point where he can still predict current events – reading him now seems almost prophetic around issues like Ukraine or Turkey, for example. But I think we’re already starting to see the end, and the signs are especiallly strong in the West. The West now shows fault lines that no longer match Huntington’s thesis; the differences between Geert Wilders and Matteo Salvini on one side, and Jeremy Corbin and Guy Verhofstadtd on the other are not civilizational differences, they are ideological differences. And the hatred between the camps they represent seems so strong, it can become the basis for the next conflicts of the West, rather than the civilizational conflicts against Russia, China, or the Muslim world that most people expect. But other than that, it is still difficult to predict where we’re going. For now, the most important thing we can learn from Huntington, is that even if we don’t know when and how the end of the era of clash of civilizations will come, it will indeed come. And we would be wise to prepare for it.