Twenty-six years later, what can we learn from Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations?

A “clash of civilisations” will occur not because of Islamic rage, Russian revanchism or China’s rise, but because the West arrogantly believes it must spread its culture across the globe. Western cultural expansion invariably triggers a backlash in non-Western societies.

Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” sits in the naughty corner of most academic bookshelves. Huntington’s insistence that global politics will be oriented around cultural differences is discomforting for liberals and misleading for Marxists. It is tempting to dismiss his argument as racist rather than deal with it substantively. This is a mistake. Aside from some rather unfortunate phrasing – such as describing African immigration as “hordes” – the core of Huntington’s argument is deeply un-racist. Progressives confused about why the world doesn’t yet resemble Denmark would do well to revisit Clash of Civilizations.

Modernisation is not synonymous with Westernisation. Conflating technological and economic development with the simultaneous adoption of liberal values is typical Western hubris. Individualism, secularism, pluralism and parliamentary democracy – these ideas arose out of a specific, uniquely European historical context. To deny their uniqueness and assert the universality of Western values is a form of cultural imperialism, which very often serves to justify military and or economic imperialism. Readers will be surprised to learn that this is the nub of Huntington’s thesis. A “clash of civilisations” will not occur because of Islamic rage, Russian revanchism or China’s rise, but because the West arrogantly believes it must spread its culture across the globe. Western cultural expansion invariably triggers a backlash in non-Western societies. “What is universalism in the West is imperialism to the rest”, writes Huntington.

To avoid another world war, the West must abstain from militarily intervening abroad, especially when conflict occurs inside another major power’s sphere of influence. Strategic moderation is the path to peace. Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists find this argument unpalatable at the best of times. Today, with Russia bombing civilians in Ukraine and China menacing Taiwan, those who argue for strategic restraint are maligned as authoritarian apologists. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The best way to protect the values that progressive liberals care about – human rights, individualism, parliamentary democracy, etc. – is to strengthen them at home, not promote them abroad. The greatest threat to Western liberalism doesn’t come from Islamic extremists or Chinese communists, it comes from liberals themselves who complacently assume that history is on their side. The overturning of Roe v. Wade is a perfect example. Despite fighting in Afghanistan for twenty years to (apparently) protect women’s rights, the United States failed to protect its own citizens from domestic religious extremism. Forget the Taliban, Western women have more to fear from right-wing Christians.

Ignorance of differing worldviews can easily cause unnecessary conflict. Against the dogmas of realism, Huntington reminds us that state interests are perceived, not objectively given. Countries respond to perceived threats rather than actual threats. Perception is always subjective. Culture, values, and institutions – these things determine who and what a state finds threatening.

Does China objectively threaten Australia, or are we simply scared of a country we don’t understand becoming the world’s largest economy? Ensconced in our antiquated European identity, Australia is frightened of anything which reminds us that London and Washington D.C. are no longer the centres of world power. This is as much about cultural identity as it is “objective” interests. Rather than responding to China’s rise by engaging with Asian powers – finding our security in Asia, rather than from Asia, as Paul Keating used to say – Australia has invited back its two historic “great and powerful” friends, the United Kingdom and the United States, to jointly assist Australia in acquiring nuclear submarines; an arrangement awkwardly known as “AUKUS”. The rise of Asia prompts Australia to cling even tighter to an increasingly irrelevant Anglo identity.

How might all this be perceived by Beijing, Jakarta, or Hanoi? Despite choosing to act with two countries it culturally identifies with, Australia expects the rest of the region to view AUKUS in purely rational terms. We are simply acting in our “interests” the government declares. This raises the question: are we interested in security, or maintaining a strong Anglo-American presence in the region? The sad truth is, many Australians view these as the same thing.

All of this is to remind us not to discount the importance of culture in global politics. Western hubris aside, however, it is difficult to see why relations between different cultures are necessarily conflictual. Huntington is unduly pessimistic. Good relationships across so-called civilisational lines can and do develop. Just look at Australia’s increasingly friendly relations with India and Japan, or even South Korea for that matter. Under the Trump administration, relations frayed between the United States and European Union, the two pillars of Western civilisation according to Huntington. The world is heading towards a multi-civilisational order, to be sure. But a clash of civilisations is far from inevitable.

To be fair, some space in the final chapter is devoted towards promoting inter-cultural understanding. “The surest safeguard against world war”, writes Huntington, is for civilisations to learn from each other, to study one another’s culture, philosophy and art, mutually enriching the human experience. Huntington calls this the commonalities rule: “peoples in all civilisations should search for and attempt to expand the values, institutions, and practices they have in common with peoples of other civilisations.” To date, this effort has been rather one-sided. Take the study of philosophy, to give just one example. A PhD program in philosophy at any Chinese university will require familiarity with both Chinese and Western canons. No such requirement exists at Western universities (the University of Hawaii being a notable exception). Indeed, Eastern philosophers are usually relegated to the quaint “spirituality” section of libraries. While a Chinese student will read both Kant and Confucius, a Westerner will only read Kant. If we don’t understand the ideas that have shaped the world’s emerging superpower, how can we possibly hope to have peaceful relations with them? Drop the guns and pick up the books. That is the best thing we can learn from Clash of Civilizations today.

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