From the end of history to a clash of civilizations?

As with all previous perceived or actual turning points in human history, the devastating terrorist blitz in New York and Washington of September 11 has been followed by a period of intellectual ferment. The two most provocative, and widely cited, theories on global politics put forward after the end of the Cold War – raising the question of the philosophy of history or historical determinism – by Francis Fukuyama (the end of history) and Samuel Huntington (the clash of civilizations) have been thrown back into focus. Writing in the year the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War signaled the approaching end of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. We were not experiencing the end of ideology as such, but the triumph of the liberal idea over the others. There is now no ideology with pretensions to universality that is in a position to challenge liberal democracy, Fukuyama wrote. The forces of freedom, the open society, had triumphed over Marxism with its legacy of violent and totalitarian oppression. There would, of course, be some temporary setbacks on the world’s periphery, but the course toward a harmonious liberal global economy was essentially inevitable. The mood in the West at the dawn of the 1990s was so optimistic that Fukuyama went on to define the period with a highly provocative phrase, the end of history. Suddenly history returned with much the same violence and bitterness. Iraq invaded Kuwait, inviting a massive response from the US-led coalition that annihilated the Iraqi army in a high-tech war that was won almost in advance. In Europe, Yugoslavia disintegrated in an atrocious civil war. Acts of genocide took place in the EU’s backyard while the international community stood paralyzed amid slaughter. Huntington then issued a less optimistic forecast. He argued that the end of the Cold War had brought an end to serious competition among nation-states and ushered in an era of conflict between the different civilizations of the world. Religion, ethnicity and cultural values, the theory went, had replaced economics and political ideology as the sources of global conflict. Most important, Huntington wrote, were the efforts of the West to promote its values of democracy and liberalism as universal values, to maintain its military predominance, and to advance its economic interests engender countering responses from other civilizations. So, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and the USA’s military response, has Huntington been vindicated and Fukuyama falsified? The clash of civilizations is, suddenly, back in vogue as it plays skillfully upon the insecurities of the Western public. But although Huntington’s dystopia of global disorder fueled by a clash of incompatible cultures is perfectly attuned to the present mood, it remains seriously flawed for a number of reasons. First, we cannot treat Islam as a nearly monolithic bloc. There are profound differences in language, geography, ethnicity, history and tradition. Islamic teaching and tradition varies dramatically across territories, from its softer interpretation in Indonesia, where it accommodates Hindu elements, to the Taleban’s ultraconservative version. Ethnic and cultural (let alone political and economic) divisions have prevented the Islamic world from sustaining a unified opposition or common front in the past – something it would have done, anyway, during the lengthy Israeli-Palestinian dispute. At the same time no civilization, including the Islamic one, is culturally pure, unique or homogeneous. Religion, language, history overlap and intertwine within and across different civilizations. Huntington divides the world into eight major civilizations: Western (Christian), Eastern Orthodox (Russian), Sinic (Chinese), Japanese, Islamic, Hindu (Indian), Latin American and African. But even if one accepts his somewhat arbitrary categorization, a lot remains to be proved before one can safely explain unrest in the world today as a product of a clash between civilizations. Before one can portray cultural differences as the root cause of conflict, one has to demonstrate which of the constitutive characteristics of each civilization generate the clash and why these particular characteristics surface more strongly at a particular historical moment. Unless these elements are accounted for, the cause of conflict may well not be a cultural one even if the states engaged in it do belong to different civilizations. Indeed, political elites often invoke cultural values when there is a political reason to do so. In fact, their cultural concerns are often sidelined when they come into conflict with more vital political and economic interests. Rather, states tend to invoke cultural differences when the outside enemy represents an alien civilization or when an internal enemy has to be denounced as the expression of such an external threat. A closer examination of the underlying causes of historical conflicts reveals no unbridgeable cultural divides or incompatible cultural characteristics but rather nation-states’ concerns about resources, geopolitical objectives, and zones of influence. This fact also explains why states that share a common culture are often driven into conflict because of political and economic differences, whereas different civilizations do not hesitate to cooperate in order to promote their common political and economic interests. Hence conflicts between states or groups belonging to the same civilization (N. Ireland, the Basques in Spain) as well as coalitions between different civilizations (Israel-Turkey) are no exceptions in a world swept by civilizational conflicts. They merely confirm that history is driven, more than anything else, by the economic and political interests of the stronger countries. Besides, if there are so many exceptions to the rule, there must be something wrong with the rule. In other words, the civilizational paradigm seems to interpret the results as the root causes of the circumstances. It is no surprise that even though Huntington’s use of historical evidence is selective, his conclusions are largely ungrounded. Limited examples The Bosnia war – Huntington’s primary example – did not give rise to extensive solidarity among culturally kindred states. Bosnia’s Muslims did welcome the sympathies and the inflow of weapons from Islamic countries, but the Bos- nian government had its eyes fixed on the West for its salvation. Russia’s support to Serbia was meager and Moscow, finally, also contributed forces to a Western-led peacekeeping mission. Also, the Western public and press sympathized with the Muslims rather than Christian Serbs or Croats. Similarly, during the Gulf War, the majority of the Arab world fell in behind the US-led campaign to expel Iraq troops from Kuwait. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s calls for a massive Islamic response to the West fell largely on deaf ears. In addition, the USA and Western European countries have long been the main suppliers of weapons to various Islamic countries. Similarly, it would be absurd to claim that Chinese-Iranian arms sales agreement constitutes a Sinic-Islamic alignment against the West when Pakistan has long been a close client of the USA. China’s growing ties with the Middle East are less due to a common antipathy toward the West and more due to China’s escalating need for foreign oil imports from the Mideast. Finally, a mobilization of states according to their cultural characteristics would have led to a decisive Western intervention in the Turkish-occupied northern part of Cyprus, but this never occurred. Broad alliance The US-led military campaign against the Taleban regime has also not generated an extensive civilization-rallying among Afghanistan’s kindred states. Calls by Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden and the Taleban for a holy war (jihad) against the USA have been largely ignored by governments of Muslim states. With the exceptions of Iran and Iraq, the majority of Muslim states have consented to the US-led campaign. Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim country – Morocco, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt all expressed their support for US action. In Europe, Bosnia and Albania also embraced the campaign. Orthodox Russia praised the response to evil and China voiced understanding too. Above all, all states have sought to maximize the rewards for their consent or contribution to the effort, and thereby to increase their leverage in the nascent world order. Turkey, which hosts a US base in Incirlik (which was also used as a staging ground for US aerial assaults during Operation Desert Storm), anticipates economic aid for its ailing economy and hopes that the West will, at least temporarily, turn a blind eye to Turkish intransigence on the Cyprus issue, its struggle against the Kurdish rebels and human rights violations. Non-Islamic countries have also sought to reap some fruit from their stance. Orthodox Russia’s support for the US operation came with Western understanding over its war against the Chechen rebels – a war that has been fiercely criticized in the West. Overall, pragmatism has sidelined sympathies nourished by a sense of common cultural identity. Besides, the USA is a vital market for Arab oil exports and a major recipient of investments by the world’s leading oil producers – the Arab states. The US, for its part, has been careful not to trigger a violent backlash among the world’s Muslim population. It managed to build a broad alliance which is politically and religiously heterogeneous and did not succumb to calls for immediate, blind retaliation, which would have played into the hands of the terrorists whose strategy – as echoed in bin Laden’s calls for jihad – is to instigate a holy war between Muslims and the West. US President George W. Bush’s rhetoric was closely scrutinized. Early references to a crusade against terrorism – a word with controversial religious undertones – were removed from later statements. The White House’s angry rejection recently of the remarks by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel – America’s major ally in the region – who warned against what he called appeasing the Arabs in response to talk about potential US recognition of a Palestinian state, may signal a major shift in American Mideast policy. Despite the current highly unfavorable global juncture, the recent and current trends in the international system are a far cry from the civilizational paradigm. Perceptions, however, do matter. If political elites base their forecasts and policymaking on the aforementioned model, Huntington’s dire outlook could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.