The politics of war

Print edition : January 19, 2002

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington; Penguin, New Delhi, 1997; pages 367, Rs.295.

OF the many books on the nature of the post-Cold War world, the best known are The End of History by Francis Fukuyama, and this book. At present, the latter is discussed more than the former.

Professor Samuel P. Huntington has remarkable academic credentials and some experience in government. Currently a Professor at Harvard, he is also director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies and chairman of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. Under U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Huntington was director for security planning. He has also been president of the American Political Science Association.

The author's theses could be summed up as follows, in his own words:

* Human history is the history of civilisations. Culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilisational identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world.

* The major contemporary civilisations are Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, and Western. Huntington is not sure whether to classify Latin America as a separate civilisation or only a sub-civilisation within the Western one. The West includes Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

* For the first time in history, global politics is both multipolar and multicivilisational. Modernisation is distinct from Westernisation and is producing neither a universal civilisation in any meaningful sense nor the Westernisation of non-Western societies.

* The balance of power among civilisations is shifting; Western civilisation is declining in terms of relative influence while the non-Western civilisations are reaffirming their own cultures.

* A civilisation-based world order is emerging. Societies sharing cultural affinities cooperate with one another; countries group themselves around the lead or core states of their civilisation. For example, the United States of America is the lead state for Western civilisation. India is the core state for Hindu civilisation, but its ability to provide order in the region is limited because Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka will not accept its leadership. The Islamic civilisation lacks a core state.

* The West's universalist pretensions are increasingly bringing it into conflict with other civilisations, most seriously with the Islamic and Chinese civilisations. At the local level, "fault-line wars", largely between Muslims and non-Muslims, generate "kin country rallying". This raises the threat of a broader escalation of hostilities, and hence efforts have to be made by the core states to halt these wars.

* The survival of the West depends upon the U.S. reaffirming its Western identity and Westerners accepting their civilisation as unique, but not universal, and uniting to renew and preserve it against challenges from non-Western societies.

* Avoidance of a global war of civilisations depends upon world leaders accepting the multicivilisational character of global politics and cooperating to maintain it.

In elaboration of his final point, the author conducts a thought-experiment: In 2020, American troops are out of Korea and China has come to an understanding with Taiwan. A war breaks out between China and Vietnam over oil deposits in the South China Sea. Vietnam asks the U.S. for military assistance as U.S. companies have been drilling for oil in the area that was once controlled by Vietnam, but is now claimed by China. Japan, intimidated by China, prohibits the use of U.S. bases in Japan. Chinese forces enter Hanoi and the U.S. is reluctant to use nuclear weapons against China for fear of reprisal. India, wanting to profit from China's entanglement with the U.S., takes on Pakistan, which in turn appeals successfully to Iran for assistance based on the terms of a trilateral pact between Iran, Pakistan and China. Both India and Pakistan seek support from the Arabs, but given China's initial success against the U.S., the Arab regimes friendly to the U.S. get overthrown one by one. The Arabs take on Israel, which the U.S. is unable to defend. As China appears to stand up to the U.S., Japan joins China. Russia, worried about China's increasing strength, attacks it. In order to prevent Western Europe from aligning with the U.S., China and Iran deploy missiles in Algeria and Bosnia and send a warning to the West Europeans, but the Europeans stick with the U.S. Serbia occupies Bosnia and takes control of its missiles. A missile with a nuclear warhead, launched from Algeria, lands in Marseilles and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) retaliates massively against North Africa. Russia and the West become allies.

WHETHER this global civilisational war leads to mutual devastation, a negotiated halt stemming from exhaustion or an eventual march of Russian forces to Tiananmen Square, Huntington concludes, the broader long-term result would almost inevitably be a drastic decline in the demographic, economic and military power of all the major participants, though India might, comparatively speaking, emerge stronger and attempt to reshape the world along Hindu lines.

Huntington goes on to argue that the root cause of the global war was the ill-judged intervention by the core state of one civilisation (the U.S.) in a dispute between the core state of another civilisation (China) and a member-state of that civilisation (Vietnam). In his book (first published in 1996) he concedes that the U.S. would find it difficult to accept his prescription. "The abstention rule that core states abstain from intervention in conflicts in other civilisations is the first requirement of peace in a multicivilisational, multipolar world. The second requirement is the joint mediation rule that core states negotiate with each other to contain or to halt fault-line wars between states or groups from their civilisations." Incidentally, nowhere does he say that, according to his own rule, the U.S. should not have intervened when Iraq occupied Kuwait.

The thought-experiment is based on the author's thesis that the Sinic and the Islamic civilisations are potential adversaries to the Western civilisation. "Inter-civilisational conflict takes two forms: At the local or micro level, fault-line conflicts occur between neighbouring states from different civilisations, between groups of different civilisations within a state, and between groups which, as in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, are attempting to create new states out of the wreckage of the old. Fault-line conflicts are particularly prevalent between Muslims and non-Muslims."

Huntington claims to have provided a new paradigm to help us understand the world, and he frankly admits that his aim is to formulate a plan of action to protect his own civilisation.

LET us look at the theses one by one. "Human history is the history of civilisations. It is impossible to think of development of humanity in any other terms. The story stretches through generations of civilisations from ancient Sumerian and Egyptian to Classical and Mesoamerican to Christian and Islamic civilisations and through successive manifestations of Sinic and Hindu civilisations." It was Arnold Toynbee who pointed out that civilisations provided the intelligent units of study for the historian. If you study the history of England, for example, you will have to refer to its interaction with France sooner or later; hence England is not an independent unit of historical study, whereas Western Europe, which includes both England and France, is.

Going beyond Toynbee, Huntington asserts that "culture and cultural identities are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world". Is he right, and if so to what extent? Huntington has argued that the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989 and the Gulf War following Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait are civilisation wars. In the first case because "Muslims everywhere saw it as such and rallied against the Soviet Union". Is it enough if Muslims everywhere saw it as such? While the statement is a valid description of the course of events, does it explain the genesis, course and end of the war? A sizable section of the Afghan population wanted to get rid of the Soviet-supported regime. Influenced by the Cold War, the U.S. decided to support these Afghans. For a variety of reasons, including religion, Saudi Arabia decided to support the anti-Soviet Afghans and religion was used to mobilise support within and outside Afghanistan. It was perhaps the first major war in recent times during which a deliberate effort was made by one side to use religion as a rallying point against 'godless communism'. For the Soviets it was not a war against Islam or the Islamic civilisation. And since the Soviet Union did not represent any civilisation, it was not a war between civilisations either. In brief, Huntington's account provides neither an adequate description nor a cogent explanation.

In the case of the Gulf War too, the description is wrong. Huntington calls it "the first post-Cold War resource war between civilisations". True, it was partly a war for resources, but was it between two civilisations? While the U.S. did get support from the rest of the Western civilisation, and as such represented that civilisation's interest, it actually got more support than Iraq did from the Islamic world. Did Iraq represent the interest of the Islamic civilisation? Did it get support from the rest of the Islamic civilisation, or the Islamic umma? Huntington has referred to the division within the Islamic world and also to the support given to Iraq by sections of the population even in countries whose governments had joined the U.S.-led coalition. But the fact is that, by and large, the enormous resources of the Islamic world were with the U.S.

HUNTINGTON identifies the major existing civilisations as Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic and Western. Is there an Islamic civilisation in the sense in which there is a Western civilisation, to be treated as a single geopolitical factor? Huntington admits that as opposed to Western civilisation Islamic civilisation lacks a core state. The feeble reaction from the Organisation of Islamic Conference, claiming to represent the 1.2-billion strong Islamic umma to Israel's military attacks on the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the well-known divisions within the umma make it clear that Islamic civilisation is not a single, united geopolitical actor.

Huntington argues that states belonging to a civilisation group around the core state. But the only example he gives is that of the U.S. as the core state of the Western civilisation. For the Japanese civilisation, there is only one state. The Hindu civilisation has "a core state" in India but its core status, as pointed out by Huntington himself, is not accepted by other states in the Hindu civilisation. To what extent is China's core status accepted by other states in the same civilisation? In the case of the U.S., it is not only the states within the same civilisation that have accepted its leadership role. Therefore, what is the explanatory value of the concept of the core state?

Huntington identifies the Sinic and Islamic civilisations as potential adversaries of the West and states that "by the early 1990s a 'Confucian-Islamic connection' was in place between China and North Korea on the one hand, and in varying degrees among Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Algeria on the other, to confront the West" on issues such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The "connection" identified by Huntington has, however disappeared into thin air.

China may turn out to be the U.S.' adversary in the years to come. But what is the explanatory value of Huntington's thesis of a civilisational conflict in understanding the reasons for it? In what way is his explanation more satisfying than the standard explanation of China's ambition and potential, and the U.S.' perceived need for a major adversary after the disappearance of the Soviet Union? Is he implying that Washington and Beijing are going to clash because they belong to two different civilisations? If so, then what prevents a clash between Tokyo and Washington? Obviously, there are non-civilisational factors at play.

Huntington has obtained data from three different sources on intra-civilisational and inter-civilisational conflicts and has concluded that "in the early 1990s Muslims were engaged in more inter-group violence than non-Muslims, and that two-thirds to three-quarters of inter-civilisational wars were between Muslims and non-Muslims. Islam's borders are bloody, and so are its innards." He has been rather harshly criticised by many scholars, including Muslims, for his conclusion.

There are problems with the data as presented. There were a total of 20 inter-civilisational conflicts. In 15 of these, Muslims and non-Muslims were in conflict and in the other five some non-Muslims were in conflict with other non-Muslims. In short, "Others" were in conflict with Muslims on 15 occasions and among themselves five times. Obviously, "Others" were involved in conflict on 20 occasions and not five. The same error is seen in the other tables too in his theses.

The value of any theory lies in its ability to give us an adequate description of, and a cogent explanation for, the facts. Huntington fails on both accounts. Then, how does one account for the popularity of the book among the non-specialists and the unprecedented attention it has received from the specialists?

Huntington's thesis is a simple, uncomplicated one and that accounts for its popularity. Further, we are living in an age of "globalisation" where interest in and knowledge of other people's history and culture is undervalued. The president of the United States in a recent speech meant to mobilise support for the war against the Taliban, asked the rest of the world to join him in a "crusade" - forgetting the roots of the term, and the fact that he wanted support from Muslims too.

As far as the specialists are concerned, Huntington has provided an answer, a deceptively simple one at that, to the substantive question facing the U.S. in the post-Cold War world: What is to be done with the U.S.' overwhelming power, military, economic, technological and cultural?

Had the Soviet Union existed as a superpower, it would not have permitted the disintegration of Yugoslavia and would have contained the inter-ethnic tensions by force or otherwise. In post-Soviet Europe, Austria and Germany and the Holy See were able to lend support to one side, the other and promote the disintegration of what Tito had built up in the aftermath of the Second World War. The full explanation of the disintegration of Yugoslavia would have to include not only the ethnic and civilisational factors mentioned by Huntington but also the actions of the spheres-of-influence seeking outside powers such as Austria and Germany. Huntington's explanation that Austria and Germany came to the support of Croatia only because of the pull of the Catholic religion is not adequate.

Anyone who is interested in following the academic debate on the reasons for the growing disorder in our times, even as some pundits confidently speak of the "order" imposed by the only superpower, should read Huntington in a critical spirit. He is a guru for many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. As I completed Huntington I recalled the words of Thucydides to the effect that it was Sparta's fear of the growing power and ambition of Athens that caused the Peloponnesian War. Generations of historians have criticised Thucydides for not going into the social and economic causes. Yet, Thucydides made a significant statement of explanatory value.

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