Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis provokes unreasonable anger

In a perfect world human beings would probably wish for world peace, as they do on the beauty pageants. But the world is not perfect; even the taffeta-wearing beauty contestants know, deep down, that war and conflict are going to be a feature of the real world for a few more years yet.

What then can we hope for? If we cannot stop conflict then we can at least try to understand what causes and sustains it. For this, a culture of intellectual enquiry that promotes open and honest debate would help. Yet on occasions this also seems too much for humanity, even in those places where liberality and toleration of opinion are well established, such as in Britain.

An episode of the BBC Radio 3 Night Waves programme, broadcast on 2 October 2013, illustrates the point. Philip Dodd presented the show and what followed was a lively – and dispiriting – discussion on Samuel Huntington and his thesis, the Clash of Civilizations, between Maria Misra, Gideon Rose and Douglas Murray.

Even the phrase, Clash of Civilizations, is contentious, as is the name of its author; it has the undeserved knack of making people groan with despair, even those with only a passing interest in international relations and history. It is unfortunate, but some topics are just like that: they provoke argument, disagreement and often outright hostility, but in a way that elevates the disputation above the ordinary. It is, however, ironic – though unsurprising – that discussions like this, concerned with global conflict and ways to mitigate and reduce it, so often become belligerent themselves. And so it was in this instance.

Samuel Huntington was a Harvard political scientist, and first published this thesis as an essay in 1993, in Foreign Affairs, the US magazine on international relations. The basic argument was this: in the post-Cold War world, future conflict would be caused more by culture than ideology – religion being a prime example of where cultural identity could create friction points between one broad civilisation-group and another.

The discussion began well enough, with Gideon Rose – current editor of Foreign Affairs, member of the Council on Foreign Relations and former student of Huntington – commenting on the context of this twenty-year-old publication: The old paradigm of the Cold War had gone; the United States of America bestrode the world in what Charles Krauthammer called the ‘uni-polar’ moment; and two explanatory ideas, one optimistic and one pessimistic, were in vogue.

On the one hand, optimists were suggesting that the world had made a breakthrough and liberal democracy, peace and prosperity were in more-or-less permanent ascendancy; and on the other hand, pessimists were suggesting the world was in a temporary phase, soon to be followed by a return to the sort of geopolitical conflict to which the world had become accustomed during the long years of the Cold War. Huntington took a third view.

For Huntington, both the optimists and pessimists were missing an important point. He argued that conflict was sure to return, but that this conflict would occur less along the traditional fault lines of ideology and geopolitics and more along those of cultural identity. The world had, in more recent history, been preoccupied, quite understandably, with Communism, Nazism and traditional power politics as causes of conflict, which had obscured the role of culture. And he chose to express this through the fairly well-understood notion of civilisation because civilisation represented cultural identity at the broadest level.

This is where the debate began to go awry. Douglas Murray – journalist, commentator and Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society – began to say that Huntington had a point. Expressing this view, however, turns out to be a little like expressing the view that Enoch Powell also had a point. But that is another discussion. Huntington’s argument was ‘highly plausible and prophetic’ he said. Then he read a quote: ‘Somewhere in the Middle East the half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking coke, listening to rap, and between their bows to Mecca putting together a bomb to blow up an American airline.’

One can see why this sort of comment might make people uneasy, just as the mention of Enoch Powell makes people uneasy when discussing immigration and national identity. It confronts people with inconvenient images and arguments that are often too much to bear. The idea that young men from such a broad geographical region as the Middle East, who are every bit as easy with the baubles of modernity – jeans, coke and rap music – as their Western counterparts, can then just as easily decide to attack the culture and civilisation which provides them is difficult to process.

But this – or something pretty similar – is what happened on 11 September 2001 when four airliners were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the fourth crashing into a field short of Washington, which is presumed to be its intended target. While few doubt that these attacks took place for a number of reasons, some of which are closer in nature to more traditional explanations for conflict, two things are worth noting: Huntington understood enough of the growing Islamist threat, and its cultural dimension, to include this predictive anecdote; and we see in conflicts across the world, from Sudan to Syria to Iraq, that cultural identity is at the very least a key determiner of the nature of that conflict. Those that recognise this are not taking an unreasonable position. While culture is certainly not the only factor of conflict, it is nevertheless a factor in many instances.

Maria Misra, Lecturer in Modern History and Fellow of Keble College Oxford, was then invited to join the discussion. She did not agree. ‘I don’t think that the concept of civilisations clashing has any explanatory or analytical power whatsoever,’ she said, followed by the obvious comment that ‘six young men does not constitute Muslim civilisation.’

People, in the sort of intellectually free society we value in the West, are free to choose their analytical method; and if Maria Misra doesn’t think the idea of civilisations clashing can help her historical studies, then that is her affair. But to reduce Huntington’s arguments to the title of his essay alone, and to ignore the thousands of words he has written expounding the matter, is not helpful and it is certainly not respectful.

As Douglas Murray pointed out, the proposition is not that the six men of this predictive anecdote, let alone the nineteen people who actually committed the atrocities of 9/11, ‘constitute Muslim civilisation.’ And neither does anyone – except opponents of this thesis, perhaps – restrict the concept of civilisation to something hovering loftily in the clouds far above the messy ground-truth of cultural identity, which is porous, multifarious and understood in an infinite number of ways according to personal perspective.

However, if it is unhelpful to reduce Huntington’s argument to the point where all nuance is excluded, then it is also unhelpful to do the same to Maria Misra’s argument. But it is strange. While she then concedes that ‘culture is very important,’ she simultaneously dismisses the way Huntington has chosen to articulate culture through the notion of civilisation. It is as if she agrees with the nuance of Huntington’s thesis, that culture is a crucial factor in understanding conflict, while at the same time arguing that this is not in fact Huntington’s thesis at all. His thesis, rather, is that ‘civilisations clash’ like pre-programmed automatons with a single purpose to their senseless existence – namely, the creation and maintenance of conflict. This, need it be said, is not the argument. Douglas Murray quotes him again: ‘A major war involving the West and the core states of other civilisations is not inevitable.’

The discussion continued in the recognised manner of debate: a point was made, a point was refuted, a point was accepted. It is worth listening to the whole episode. Conflict, after all, is an important subject. But the debate was characterised by something dispiriting. Vociferous voices have rejected Huntington’s thesis for years now, and it would seem one of Philip Dodd’s guests is among their number. Yet one cannot help wondering why they do this when it seems so clear that Huntington is articulating an indisputable truth – that civilisation, culture and collective identity is at times a cause and at times a feature of conflict in so many instances.

One can debate Huntington’s thesis. Indeed, that is what academic study is all about. But it is worrying when that debate becomes absolutist in nature. It is also worrying that a thesis can be reduced to little more than its title, with the effect of obliterating its nuance. Indeed, Clash of Civilizations implies something nearing apocalyptic proportions, which, if this is the point Huntington was trying to make, deserves a strong challenge. But it’s just a title, similar to a news headline crafted to encapsulate an argument and attract attention. The value of Huntington’s thesis lies in the words underneath that title. And it’s not as one-dimensional as some would have us believe.

Is intervention in Syria really an option? If so, what prospect success?

If you remember when Gorbachev called time on the Soviet Union, you might also remember thinking a new era of peace and harmony was just beginning. Not only were we not going to have nuclear bombs dropped on our heads, but we were also not going to have to spend so much of our money on armies. In other words, a reduction in the threat would enable a reduction in defence spending, otherwise known as the peace dividend. Do you remember?

I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. Our record since then hasn’t been that great. There’s been the Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Macedonia, Afghanistan and Iraq; and more recently Libya and Mali. Our proclivity for war – or its various manifestations: conflict, intervention, counter-insurgency, anti-terror, humanitarian assistance, international justice and more – far from abating, seems as strong as ever.

As it turned out, only half of the peace-dividend bargain was true: governments found ways to reduce defence spending. The other half, the idea that the threat of conflict had also reduced, was not true. And we – by that I mean the West – seem as ready as ever to opt for the military solution.

And now Syria. The rhetoric is hotting up, albeit gradually. It really should not surprise us if we ended up intervening in some way there, too – notwithstanding the very real likelihood that clandestine activity is already well underway. France, citing the use of chemical weapons, has called for international action, though it’s not entirely clear what that should be; Israel has already bombed a convoy thought to be carrying surface-to-air missiles; the USA has mentioned something about red lines; and the FCO has welcomed the lifting of the EU arms embargo on the Syrian opposition.

The point here, however, is not to argue we should never intervene. Rather, it’s to question the manner of our intervention. Those examples I listed above all had their justifications, most of them extremely good: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was unacceptable; the humanitarian descent in the Former Yugoslavia was real; the UN was on the verge of defeat in Sierra Leone, or had it already been routed, I can’t quite remember; terrorists really were prepping themselves for Jihad in Afghanistan; and weapons of mass destruction in… Well, that’s a little more complex!

Anyway, by my crude reckoning, less than fifty percent of those interventions proved a long-term success. Not a very good return. The Gulf War was only the first episode in the longer-running Saddam show. What future problems might have been avoided if we had removed him from power in 1991, as was justified by his unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state? There’s something for the counter-factual historians to consider. Afghanistan is still unresolved after more than a decade, and we really don’t know what will happen when we leave. And the so-called Arab Spring is not really my idea of spring.

Most people understand the imperfection of military intervention: that results cannot be guaranteed, and that military activity is a messy business. Indeed, these facts, proven time and time again throughout history, bring to mind one of the key conditions we use for justifying military intervention: that ‘there must be serious prospect of success.’

Well, that’s obvious, you say. But it’s worth asking what this actually means and why this condition is thought to be so important in Just War doctrine. Full deconstruction of the point probably deserves a thesis of its own, but the gist is this: war always causes suffering, so if you must go to war then make sure you know what success looks like and how you are going to get there; anything else leads to protracted conflict, which in turn leads to more suffering.

States entering into war must therefore make every preparation for success. Which means not stinting on either the capability of the force being deployed or the determination with which operations are conducted. The Gulf War is an exemplar of proper preparation. General Schwatzkopf pushed the ‘overwhelming force’ approach, having learnt the lesson from Vietnam. American involvement in South East Asia was too incremental; not enough decisive action. The planners did not really know what success looked like, and they certainly did not know how to get there. The result we all know.

At first, General Schwartzkopf was criticised for being over-cautious, profligate with military force (money) and perhaps too aggressive. But he was vindicated. The war was decisive and it was short, the ground campaign lasting only four days. Suffering was loaded mostly onto the aggressor, and the innocent were spared as much as possible.

Where criticism is, however, justified is in what followed. After the Gulf War we immediately entered a new conflict centred on containment, no-fly zones, sanctions and a massive US military footprint in the region. There was justification behind this new engagement, but there was no clear understanding of what success looked like. The spectacle was not unlike a lumbering giant poking a massive wasps nest with a stick. Conditions were perfect for those naturally hostile to the West to portray foreign forces in the Middle East as imperialist aggressors. Although Islamist hostility existed before, and would have existed had western troops not been in the Middle East, their presence, with no end in sight, made it much easier for extremists to whip up hatred.

Overwhelming force does, of course, sound unsophisticated to some ears – mainly ears that will be nowhere near the action. But war is a binary business: life and death, victory and defeat. The more time spent in between these two states, the more suffering there will be. That is the reason why prospect of success is so important: it reduces the likelihood of a long, drawn-out conflict, thus minimising long, drawn-out suffering.

And what is happening in Syria? At first, analysts thought the conflict could last weeks or perhaps months. But we are now about two years in, and the suffering has become long and drawn out, and neither is there much indication that the end is in sight. UN figures indicate 80,000 deaths so far, and over a million refugees displaced from Syria; and many more internally displaced within the country.  Conflict with no serious prospect of success is every bit as terrible as short and sharp conflict, and in many respects far worse. The refugee crisis and the storing up of generational grievances will scar the region for decades to come.

Any intervention we might make in the crisis, other than genuine humanitarian aid, must be set against an identifiable measure of success. Doing something because, well, we’ve got to do something, is not really good enough. Prolonging a civil war, no matter how brutal it might be, with half-hearted intervention merely prolongs the suffering.

This is one of the many dilemmas politicians are facing over Syria. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s almost impossible, which goes a long way to explain why many people do not want to start arming the opposition. The fear is not just that weapons might end up in the hands of Islamists, but that the conflict will simply be prolonged. But grappling with such dilemmas is why we have politicians.

Perhaps, all things considered, the thing to do here is to follow the old maxim: that sometimes the best course of action is to take no action at all. If not, and we decide to intervene, then the implication is clear: to achieve success, we must pick a side and prosecute the war with everything we have so as to achieve success. The only question remaining is: which side to pick.

Four More Years for Barack Obama

So, the Obama wobble was just a ploy to raise interest in the US elections.

For a moment, during those early presidential debates, it looked as though he’d lost his mojo for power and decided law seminars at the University of Chicago were a more appealing way to spend his time. But then he went and won the election. Perhaps he knew his ground campaign, during which he targeted marginal voters in swing states, had already sewn up the electoral college, and that it didn’t really matter how much effort he put into debating Romney on TV.

But he won the election, and the 70 percent of Britons who wanted him to beat Romney, Chicago style, could go back to feeling just a little bit smug. It was almost as if their pleading for America to see sense and do the right thing had levitated across the ocean, saving those ever-so-slightly backward Yanks from themselves and the myriad sins of Republican extremism.  Vindication is sweet, and Twitter was awash with celebrities and non-celebrities declaring that the world could now heave a collective sigh of relief, as if a Romney victory would have been a victory for Sauron or Pol Pot or someone else as heinously conservative.

Not that I mind Barack Obama being elected for four more years. For now, I’m non-partisan. He, like Cameron, received a hospital pass from his presidential predecessor – debt, debt and more debt, and a broken monetary system throttling the economy after years of excess. They both deserve time, and anyone who argues that they’ve had time to turn things around is mistaken; it takes years to correct an error that was years in the making. And, more to the point for presidential elections, when looking presidential is the main thing, Obama looks the part, and nice; he has funny ears, too, like Will Smith, and when you add in the family it all seems like a pretty presidential kind of package, a bit West Wing.

It’s also worth remembering this side of the Atlantic that the Presidency is a lot different to the office of Prime Minister. One is the head of state and government, the other just the head of government. But the PM has greater power. Under normal non-coalition circumstances, the PM controls not only the executive but also the legislature, and can make laws a whole lot easier than the President. For example, he can sign staggeringly consequential treaties with organisations beyond the reach of the British electorate just because he feels like it. Can you imagine the fuss Congress, not to mention the States, would make if the President tried something like that? Quite.

If we want to know what’s going to happen next in America, we should probably ask someone who knows something about US politics, but in the meantime I have two thoughts:

First, Obama will come up against the fact that he does not control the House of Representatives. The Republicans won the House 233 to 193. That’s like Number 10 being in the hands of one party while Parliament is in the hands of the other. What gridlock; like Trafalgar Square in 2005 after the Ashes. And that’s what Obama faces in the coming weeks and months. He has a budget to get through, and if he wants to do things his way he needs the House to agree with him. How the Republicans react to not getting back into the White House will be critical. They played hardball with the 2011 federal budget, and could do so again.

Second, Obama is going to have to deal with the national debt, assuming he doesn’t find a way to keep America stumbling along until he leaves office and hands the problem to his successor. Apparently it’s now over $16,000,000,000,000. Like them zeroes? A lot, aren’t there. Per Capita that works out at about $51,000, which now I look at it doesn’t seem so bad. But I think it is bad, and that it matters, a lot. Sure, borrowing money enables investment, but keep borrowing and the markets begin to wonder if you’re good for it. It pushes up the price of that debt, which forces government to do things like suppress interest rates, which encourages malinvestment, or conjure new money from the magic money-box. And then the debt brings stagnation to the economy. Japan knows this well, and it is thought that unemployment will spike and that the stock market and asset prices will fall when the final correction takes place.

But we return to the point about the Presidency being different, and in a sense less powerful than Number 10, allowing for the relative power of the US verses little old UK. The President doesn’t say how much the Federal government spends, Congress decides that. His job is to be the Commander-in-Chief and go about looking presidential, making hopeful but ultimately empty speeches, and bringing dignity to his office and consequently to the United States. And for this, Barack Obama is admirably well suited.