The Power and Limits of Civilizational Analysis

To use the word “civilization” at a time in which critical race theory, identity politics, and wokeness hold sway throughout many Western societies is a hazardous exercise, particularly if you refuse to be intimidated by those who insist you are racist if you disagree with them. Such hazards, however, don’t diminish the saliency of the concept of civilization and the reality of civilizational differences for international relations. The answer that nations give to the question “Who are you?” matters.

That at least is one of the key themes underscored by Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). Yet there is an undeniable indeterminacy about the meaning of civilization and the extent to which it can be operationalized to grasp existing and changing realities.

Is there a meaningful difference between civilization and culture? If so, how does this affect the way that we understand the behavior of, say, India and Turkey vis-à-vis the rest of the world, or the relationships between Bosnians, Serbians, and Croats? And how might civilizational questions relate to other major determinates of foreign relations like trade, or the outsized role played at key historical turning-points by individuals like Otto von Bismarck, Napoleon, Hernán Cortés, or Caesar Augustus? Can we even separate such things out in a meaningful way?

Corrective and Ambiguity

Such were the types of questions generated by Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations 25 years ago, but which also link the responses of Theodore Dalrymple, Luma Simms, and Emina Melonic to my assessment of the book and its significance for our time. On the one hand, there is a consensus that Huntington provided an important corrective to intellectual trends such as the neo-Hegelian end-of-history thesis, which became popular following Communism’s fall in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe, as well as the economic deterministic arguments that gained traction at the time. These positions may look far less convincing today than in Huntington’s time, but we should not underplay how influential they were in shaping Western foreign policy in the 1990s and 2000s.

At the same time, all three of my respondents underscore significant ambiguities which mark Huntington’s analysis. Is cultural identity the same thing as civilizational distinctiveness? Just how monolithic is any civilization? Plainly not all Muslims think, as Melonic notes, the same way about many topics, any more than a conservative Pole who loathes Bolsheviks is on the same cultural page as the Marxist Spaniard determined to refight the Spanish Civil War through government historical commissions. Or consider the following scenario: Who is more Western? Is it the presumably Hindu or Muslim Indian doctors living in England with whom Dalrymple enjoys chatting at the pub? Or is it the regulars at the establishment where, Dalrymple says, “young people congregate and deal in drugs?”

Huntington observed that there was a concerted effort afoot to unravel the distinctiveness of Western culture, especially in America.

Huntington didn’t deny the fact of such complexities. As I noted in my discussion of his book, Huntington spoke of levels of identity and made a point of carefully disassociating modernization from Westernization. About a decade after his Clash of Civilizations appeared, Huntington acknowledged that a large breach had opened up in the West between liberal transnational types with a taste for supranational technocracy, and those whose locus of loyalties remained the nation-state. Simms points out, however, that Huntington didn’t appear to notice another division that increasingly marks Western nations: the yawning gap “between all those who espouse a metaphysically informed view of the world and those who don’t.”

This particular fissure, I would caution, doesn’t necessarily break down along pre-Enlightenment versus post-Enlightenment lines. Skepticism flourished in the Greco-Roman world, nominalism was becoming extremely influential in Western Europe at the same time that Thomas Aquinas was penning his Summa Theologiae, and there were plenty of Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Reid who challenged the empiricism and utilitarianism undergirding some of their colleagues’ positions. That said, there is a profound chasm in the West between those who insist, for instance, that natural law is real, knowable, and has implications for political, legal, and economic order, and those who are less confident in (or outright hostile to) such claims. If anything, these types of divisions have grown since Huntington’s time and show no signs of abating.

A Divided House

To be fair to Huntington, he did recognize that the broad civilization he called the West—and all the cultural, ethnic, national, religious, and legal formations which he corralled under that expression—confronted some tremendous internal problems beyond the transnational-nationalist division. In the concluding chapter to the Clash of Civilizations, entitled “The West, Civilizations, and Civilization,” Huntington pointed to worrying signs of internal decay and asked questions for what this meant for the West vis-à-vis other civilizations.

The evidence noted by Huntington was generally of the type that social scientists tend to notice. They included falling economic growth and declines in savings and investment rates; increases in anti-social behavior (crime, drug abuse, etc.); growing family fragility as divorce and illegitimacy rates soared; the sheer number of people (especially in Western Europe) who were economically dependent upon the state in major ways; and a precipitous decline in social capital, interpersonal trust, and participation in voluntary associations—and not just in Europe but America as well.

Huntington was also willing, however, to look beyond empirical data. He observed, for instance, that there was a concerted effort afoot to unravel the distinctiveness of Western culture, especially in America. This agenda, he claimed, involved promoting “racial, ethnic, and other subnational cultural identities and groupings” in the name of a new deity called “Diversity” over and against the sense of belonging to a specific nation that was in turn rooted in Western culture.

All countries contain groups and constituencies which have been shaped by different traditions. Huntington never argued that there was something inherently problematic with such differences, or that acknowledging them was an error. For Huntington, the point was that diversity was increasingly being used as a battering ram to stigmatize or destroy particular commitments (liberty, rule of law, constitutionalism, private property, free economies, etc.) that had achieved mature form in the Western tradition, received a kind of codification in the American Experiment, and which bound together different individuals and communities in a given civilizational setting. This weaponization of diversity went together, Huntington added, with a systematic attempt to shift domestic politics away from an emphasis upon the rights of individuals towards an insistence upon the priority of group identity, defined, Huntington stated, “largely in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, and sexual preference.” A quarter-century after Huntington penned these words, I’d suggest that American and Western politics have sunk into the diversity-identity quagmire to a depth that not even Huntington perhaps imagined would be possible.

The promotion of such trends, Huntington argued, was especially evident in the United States. That mattered because Huntington believed that the West’s epicenter had long ago passed from Europe to America. It followed that if the United States succumbed to a type of internal political Balkanization mixed with self-loathing and contempt for its Western roots, it would be a less reliable bulwark against pressures brought to bear on the West by other civilizations. Given where the United States finds itself today, both domestically and internationally, it’s reasonable to suggest that Huntington was onto something here.

Does Civilization Matter at all?

Notwithstanding Huntington’s prescience about these developments, the question remains: is the idea of civilization and the significance of civilizational differences a useful lens for understanding international relations? Is it consequently something that Western policymakers should consider when addressing questions like how to deal with China or the place being assumed by India in global politics?

Dalrymple, Simms, and Melonic rightly highlight some of the limitations associated with a civilizational analysis, not least of which is the conceptual haziness often associated with the term. Yet there is an important way in which attention to civilizational context has significance for foreign relations. Put simply, attention to questions of what values and commitments help define a given civilization may help us to grasp some of the reasons why many countries’ policies reflect a certain consistency over extended time periods.

Obviously, this is not an exact science. When Vladimir Putin decides to up the ante with Ukraine, or Xi Jinping terrorizes Uighur Muslims, or Britain and Australia support another U.S. intervention somewhere in the world, many strategic, political, and economic calculations drive such decisions. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to discount the deeper civilizational background to such actions.

Russia’s behavior since Peter the Great’s time, for instance, has been influenced by the idea (one, interestingly, embraced by both Slavophiles and Westernizers) developed in Russian political, literary, and even religious culture that Russia has a special civilizational mission. Part of this, so the narrative goes, is expressed through Russia exercising a natural sway over the Slavic and predominately Orthodox countries on its western borders because they are in some way part of “Greater Russia,” or Moscow’s “little brothers.” Likewise, Xi’s crackdown on particular ethnic and religious minorities reflects Beijing’s millennia-old practice of using centralized bureaucratic control to maintain what is, after all, an empire made up of 90 major ethnicities and at least 200 language groups.

This is not to downplay the fact that such civilizational motifs are often operationalized by regimes to rationalize particular actions to domestic and foreign audiences. People like Putin and Xi—not to mention other civilization-state proponents like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and India’s Narendra Modi—are consummate politicians who will instrumentalize anyone or anything to get their way. Similarly, national self-interest helps to explain why the United States, Britain, and Australia act in a fairly harmonized way in global politics. But would anyone claim that the civilizational background shared by these countries—one that reflects basic staples of Western culture but also specific emphases derived from a common Anglosphere heritage—has little or no influence in determining the relative ease of their coordinated action?

Neither civilizational alignment nor cultural affinity explain everything about global politics. But despite all the limitations identified by Dalrymple, Simms, Melonic and myself, Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations reminds us that viewing foreign affairs predominately through the lens of economic self-interest, or realpolitik, or Hegelian ideology, or some combination of these elements risks blinding us to how certain shared cultural commitments, however intangible, influence countries’ behavior over time. On that basis alone, I suspect that much of Huntington’s argument will outlast many of those made by its critics and competitors.