This post is part of the “Islam and International Order” symposium.
Two major prophecies about international order emerged as the Cold War ended. One was Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, first outlined in an article in the National Interest in 1989 then elaborated in a book published in 1992. It pronounced total victory for Western capitalism and liberal democracy over all other competing ideologies and even predicted a boring future of peace and tranquility. The other was Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, first presented in a Foreign Affairs article in 1993 and then in a book published in 1996. He was decidedly pessimistic, predicting that the end of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry would be followed by a new wave of conflict fueled by civilizational competition and animosity.
Both Fukuyama and Huntington might claim vindication in the recent turn of events. Many have interpreted the emergence of the Islamic State as evidence of the truth of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. On the other hand, in an article last year in the Wall Street Journal and in his book, “Political Order and Political Decay” Fukuyama who foresaw the end of great power rivalry but continued strife in the Third World, claims that his “end of history” thesis remains “essentially correct” even as he acknowledges that liberal democracies and civil liberties might suffer from “decay,” as may be happening in the United States. In a 2002 op-ed for the International Herald Tribune, now the Global New York Times, I challenged the Fukuyama thesis by arguing that liberal democracy in the United States and the West could be in “retreat” due to the attack on civil liberties in the name of the war on terror.
Despite my respect for the intellect of their protagonists, I argue that the two big ideas of the post-Cold War era have been proven to be not only mostly wrong, but also wrong-headed. Islam and the Islamic world have played a significant role in disproving and discrediting these ideas and not necessarily in the most predictable ways.
Let’s start with Fukuyama. The original end of history article pointed to the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism,” and claimed that the “triumph of the West, of the Western idea is evident in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” This was an ironic claim, since the defeated alternatives to Western liberalism, namely fascism and communism, were still Western ideas. So the end of history was really the victory by one set of Western ideas over another.
Fukuyama also predicted greater geopolitical stability in the world. For him, only “large states still caught in the grip of history” can produce and sustain big ideologies to challenge Western liberalism and thereby cause “large-scale conflict” in the international system. The only candidates for offering such a challenge after the end of the Cold War would be Russia and China, but both were embracing Western-style markets and even, to some degree, political openness, thus moving out of said grips of history.
Yet Russia and China might signal the “return of geopolitics” in the international system. What about the Islamic world? Fukuyama dismissed the potential of Islam to offer a political alternative to either liberalism or communism. Certainly Islam, without a large or great power in its ranks, could pose no traditional Realpolitik challenge to liberalism. Yet history does not begin or end with the big ideas of big powers. The Islamic world is a massive demographic entity. There are 49 Muslim majority countries in the world, about one fourth of the total U.N. membership. The world’s Muslim population, at 1.6 billion, constitutes 23 percent of the total world population, with significant growth among its youth. Indeed, these demographic facts feature prominently in Huntington’s list of reasons for the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. Adding China’s 1.35 billion to the equation means that about a third of the world’s population theoretically remain outside of the West’s triumphant ideology. Even an ardent believer in democracy, such as this author, finds Fukuyama’s claims that there are no “real alternatives” (what constitutes real?) to Western style liberal democracy and that “we should have no doubt as to what kind of society lies at the end of History” too sweeping, arrogant and deterministic.
Did the Arab Spring vindicate the Fukuyama thesis promoted by the neo-con ideologues of the George W. Bush administration, whose invasion of Iraq was legitimized as a means to promote democracy in the Arab world? No. The impetus for the Arab Spring came mainly from within Arab societies and had little to do with Western help. There is no direct link between the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the Arab Spring. By now, it is also clear that the Arab uprisings were more of a protest against corrupt and repressive regimes than a call for the establishment of Western style liberal democratic institutions. If they were, they have certainly failed in most places except Tunisia.
While it would be wrong to say that a single or consistent Islamic world view runs through Muslim states and societies, it is equally wrong to assume that they simply identify with or adopt Western liberalism. This should not be confused with an acceptance of the Hungtingtonian clash of civilizations. The vast majority of Muslims and Muslim nations who do not accept Western liberalism similarly have no sympathy for al-Qaeda or the Islamic State or other form of Islamic extremism. In fact, several are themselves targets of the terrorist groups.
Huntington’s clash of civilizations has gained support in recent years as the new paradigm of global conflict replacing the Cold War and identifying the threat against which the US and the West could focus and mobilize its strategic response. It reinforced the fear of Islam and might have offered an implicit justification for the United States invasion of Iraq. However, like Fukuyama’s, Huntington’s thesis has flunked its test in the Islamic world and elsewhere. Much of the Islamic world rallied to the United States after 9/11. Islamic states were far more critical and uncooperative when the United States under the George W. Bush presidency invaded Iraq in 2003, but this was because the invasion flouted international norms and disdained the UN Security Council. Now, some of the most prominent Islamic countries have joined hands with the United State to fight the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. At the very least, as I had argued in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks, Huntington’s thesis underestimated the power of national interest, regime security and resilience of state sovereignty over civilizational affinities.
While some point to the conflicts in Middle East and Ukraine as proof of Huntington’s pessimism—and bearing in mind that Fukuyama too believed that conflicts other than those among the great powers would persist—recent and long-term trends in violence may come as a surprise. The 2013 Human Security Report finds that between the early 1990s (when both ideas emerged) until now, “overall conflict numbers have dropped by some 40 percent, while the deadliest conflicts, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by more than half.” The Armed Conflict Survey conducted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) paints a more negative picture, estimating a rise in the number of fatalities from major conflicts from 56,000 in 2008 to 180,000 in 2014. Interestingly enough, only two countries, Iraq and Syria, take up about half of deaths: approximately 88,000 of 180,000 in 2014. Even if one assumes that these two conflicts are civilizational in nature—rather than social, economic or political causes like repression—the evidence of a world on fire caused by a clash of civilizations is still limited at best. The IISS survey also confirmed that the overall conflict numbers in the world is still going down, from 63 in 2008 to 42 today.
More damning for the Huntington thesis is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the targets and victims of violence perpetrated by Islamic extremist groups are Muslims. According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, between 2004 and 2013, about half of all terrorist attacks and 60 percent of fatalities caused by terrorist attacks took place in just three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, all with Muslim-majority populations and epicenters of the War on Terror. A 2011 report from the U.S. government’s National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) estimates that “in cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism related fatalities over the past five years.” Contrary to Huntington’s thesis, the violence that occurs in the Islamic world is mainly a clash within a civilization. The above also applies to Ukraine. Here is a striking example. Huntington had predicted in his 1996 book, “If civilization is what counts, violence between Ukrainians and Russians is unlikely.” Obviously it does not.
Some of the long-term causes of international stability, according to the Human Security Report, include the end of colonialism and the Cold War, international norms against the use of military force except in self-defense or authorized by the UN, peacekeeping, peacebuilding and “peacemaking” operations to prevent and stop wars, enhanced state capacity in securing resources to promote economic development and address grievances in the Third World, and growing economic interdependence among nations. One other factor identified by the Report is “inclusive democratization” in previously authoritarian countries that contributes to non-violent conflict resolution and hence internal stability within these states.
It is clear that many of these factors, which are unlikely to disappear, cut across civilizational fault lines. They are not uniquely the result of Western ideologies and leadership but are actively supported by both Western and non-Western states and societies. For example, China and other authoritarian nations of East Asia led the way in building state capacity and economic growth and fostering economic interdependence. Countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia are among the world’s largest contributors to UN peacekeeping. Peace in today’s world is possible because civilizations can and do learn from each other and cooperate. This is a lesson of history that will never end. The only history that is rapidly ending is that of the relatively short period of Western dominance in the long march of civilization.
Amitav Acharya is a professor at American University’s School of International Service, the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Chair of the ASEAN Studies Center. He is the author of “The End of American World Order.”