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A Look Back At A Predicted 'Clash Of Civilizations'


Twenty years ago this summer, the journal Foreign Affairs published what proved to be a very controversial article. The political scientist Samuel Huntington declared a new phase to world politics. The fundamental source of conflict in this new world, he wrote, will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was finished. As Huntington put it to Charlie Rose...

SAMUEL HUNTINGTON: The big question is what will be the patterns of association and of conflict among nations in the post-Cold War world. And if one looked at the evidence, it seems to me that it is overwhelming that nations are going to be aligning themselves along cultural lines.

SIEGEL: There would be a "Clash of Civilizations." That was the title of the Foreign Affairs article, which grew into a book.

Samuel Huntington died five years ago, but the often furious arguments that his thesis inspired can still be heard now and again. And this summer, Foreign Affairs, which is published by the Council on Foreign Relations, marked the 20th anniversary with an issue that collected many of the writings - pro and con - that have clashed over the "Clash of Civilization."

And joining us today is the editor of the Foreign Affairs, Gideon Rose. Welcome to the program once again.

GIDEON ROSE: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: On Huntington's map of the world's civilizations, there was: Western, Latin American, African, Eastern Orthodox, Islamic, Confucian, Hindu and Japanese. Is it fair to say that elite opinion scoffed at this schematic of the world civilizations?

ROSE: They did. On the other hand, it's also fair to say that many of the individual arguments about the specifics didn't get at the larger point, which is really about how much culture matters as opposed to broad, impersonal structural forces like geopolitics or economics or ideology.

SIEGEL: For some context here, in the early 1990s, European communism had imploded. But in Yugoslavia, there was a war that had Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims at one another's throats. That, I think, influenced Huntington a great deal, didn't it?

ROSE: Yeah, I think what also influenced Sam was the fact that there was a feeling out there, after the end of the Cold War, either that the world would go peacefully towards democracy and international harmony - which he didn't believe - or that the kinds of patterns that we see the past of conflict, conflict over ideologies, like the Cold War; conflicts over geopolitics, like the modern European history with nations jockeying for power like billiard balls, that those would replay themselves.

And what he felt was that cultural differences among nations and among peoples would reassert themselves over some of these other factors. And that the largest variable you can think of, culturally, was civilization and that that would therefore be a kind of dividing line that people hadn't paid enough attention to.

SIEGEL: An interesting commentator on the Huntington article was the writer Fouad Ajami, who both criticized it severely in his first review and then, years later, rethought his criticism of Huntington. Tell us about Ajami's writings.

ROSE: Well, one of the points that Ajami made in his additional attack on, or response to the "Clash" article, which we've included in the collection, was that states are pretty wily and they can sort of maneuver themselves and be trickier than the civilizations they're supposedly part of. And that Huntington had sort of under estimated the extent to which states make their own destinies, rather than being trapped in a civilizational mode.

But after 9/11 and the war on terror, when it seemed like there were these broad drivers in world politics in which radical Islam had come to play such a role and the West had come into conflict with Islam in various ways, Fouad argued that Huntington had a point about the extent to which some other factors managed to override normal geopolitics in many respects, or could do so. And that maybe the thesis had more staying power and validity than he had given it credit for.

SIEGEL: In his original review though, Ajami made another point. It was that while nationalist leaders in Yugoslavia managed to emphasize the civilizational differences between being Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim, these groups in most times were remarkably similar in terms of language and custom. And the lines between civilizations are a lot more fluid and porous than they might be made out to be.

ROSE: I think that's absolutely true. And the best arguments, it seems to me, against Huntington's thesis are that it's very hard to pin down exactly what the civilizations are, that the borders are fuzzy, and that people can be many things simultaneously, and that the specifics of the argument - when it tries to become predictive - quickly get very either fuzzy or inaccurate.

SIEGEL: As you said, Huntington fared better after 9/11, or his ideas did. Twenty years after he wrote, having failed to mediate a Mid-East peace or normalize relations with Iran, after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, a civil war in Syria, the very fitful revolution in Egypt, does the Mid-East start to look like it's vindicating Samuel Huntington, that their problems are cultural, civilizational?

ROSE: Well, you know, there's fascinating things going on here. The problems that the Arab Spring has run into suggests that it's actually difficult to get things off the ground, that it's going to be a long time before what you might consider normal patterns of development assert themselves.

And I think the way to think about this is we know that modernization makes countries somewhat similar. But we also know that it doesn't make them exactly alike and that it can in many respects bring out their differences. And that modernization is not the same thing as Westernization. When you've come into the modern world, when you've gotten liberalism, when you've gotten democracy, when you've gotten an advanced level economic development, will you still end up having dramatic cultural differences that will keep people thinking and perhaps acting differently from each other?

SIEGEL: Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, thanks for talking with us today.

ROSE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: We were discussing the 20th anniversary of the publication of the article "Clash of Civilizations" by political scientist Samuel Huntington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.