Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations hypothesis has attracted both appreciation and criticism. Considered to be a seminal social science work of recent times, Huntington’s theory places international conflicts at the level of civilizations as opposed to smaller identifiers like nation-states, religions, ethnicity, linguistic differences, etc. Huntington reckons that the qualifier of civilization is the broadest and most dominant feature in an individual’s personal identity, thereby making it the primary factor in geo-political events. There is much credence to this thesis, as a quick glance at history of last millennia will reveal. During ancient times, the chief source of identification came from the tribe or clan to which an individual belonged. Since life was harsh, brutal and short, there was no scope for identification beyond this narrow realm. But as civilization progressed our societies got organized in terms of kingdoms and other smaller autocratic domains. Conflict between two groups could still arise on the basis of differences in cultures or religions or languages, etc, but limitations of geography, locomotive technology and lack of sophisticated organization meant that instances of clashes between civilizations was not frequent. But in the modern world, especially since the industrial revolution, technological advancement (especially in areas of transportation, telecommunication) alongside global economic integration has shrunk the distance between civilizations, making them prone to friction and conflict.
Of the seven major civilizations that Huntington identifies in his essay, the one between Islam and the West has taken center-stage in contemporary world. Even as recently as the 1980s, the source of conflict was not so much civilization as it was ideology (Communism versus Democracy in the case of the Cold War theatre). As Huntington clearly explains, even such fundamental differences in ideology could be mutated and dissipated, as was witnessed during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the uni-polar world. But the Clash of Civilizations is a much more primal force not subject to extraneous factors and practical geo-political considerations, making them a big challenge for policymakers and civilians alike.
Despite many factual accuracies presented by Huntington, his theory fails to answer some crucial questions about humanity. While Huntington’s thesis plays upon sharp differences between civilizations, it seems to underplay major areas of agreement between them. As Wendell Bell correctly points out, human beings are still one single species. And what is universally common to people of all civilizations are things such as love, compassion, a sense of justice, the inclination toward spirituality, etc. And by focusing on what is common to us all would greatly help resolving brewing or persisting conflicts in the political realm. Wendell Bell seems to suggest that Huntington’s thesis is deficient in its treatment of human universalities.
The best manifestation of common human values is seen in the globalization process of today, where indigenous cultures confront, reconcile or assimilate the dominant Western civilization (represented by such corporate symbols as the McDonald and WalMart). The result of this process is the emergence of a truly global culture, which highlights the best and universal in human beings while also providing a space for history and tradition to find expression. If peace and harmony are to be lasting features of our world, then solutions are to be found in Wendell Bell’s view of civilizations as opposed to Huntington’s.
Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations?, Chapter 5, The State, p.203-209. Originally from Foreign Affairs, 72, no.3 (summer 1993): 22-49.
Wendell Bell, Humanity’s Common Values: Seeking a Positive Future, Originally published in the September-October 2004 issue of THE FUTURIST.