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By Samuel P. Huntington
Simon & Schuster. 367 pp. $26

Read the first chapter of "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order."

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When Cultures Collide

By Michael Elliott
Sunday, December 1, 1996

In 1993, Samuel P. Huntington, director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard, published an article in Foreign Affairs on a coming "clash of civilizations" that will dominate the future of global politics. His new book, eagerly awaited by many who read the article -- whether or not they agreed with its thesis -- expands on the original idea. The book is studded with insights, flashes of rare brilliance, great learning, and, in particular, an ability to see the familiar in a new and provocative way. Yet, in the end, it doesn't convince. One might venture to think that there will be few books published this year which are, at one and the same time, so stimulating and yet so maddening.

Huntington states his argument plainly. "World politics," he writes, "is being reconfigured along cultural and civilizational lines. In this world the most pervasive, important and dangerous conflicts will not be between social classes, rich and poor, or other economically defined groups, but between peoples belonging to different cultural entities." Instinctively one knows what he means. It was Panglossian to think that the end of the Cold War -- that peculiar, because ideologically charged, worldwide contest -- would usher in a time free of conflict.

It is not hard to believe, as Huntington seems to believe, that the wars in ex-Yugoslavia or the Caucasus or Kashmir have their roots in culture or that they could all become bigger. Nor is it difficult to identify at least some of the major contemporary civilizations or their wellsprings, such as religion. Huntington's taxonomy encompasses seven main civilizations: Sinic (in effect, Greater Chinese); Japanese; Hindu; Islamic; Western; Latin-American (which has, supposedly, evolved in its own way from shared roots in the Western model); and "possibly" African. With the exception of some provocative comments on Mexico, the book hardly discusses the Latin-American case, and the African one even less so. In very large measure Huntington is concerned with the way in which Islamic, Western and Asian cultures may be expected to interrelate with one another.

Huntington is surely right to argue that the world cannot be seen solely through Western eyes and to suggest that the "triumph of the West" is neither complete nor uncontroversial. On the contrary, it is very often resented both in the Islamic nations and in Asian ones. The world, Huntington says, is not becoming homogeneous; English is not a lingua franca nor likely to be one any time soon; the sort of capitalism preached in the halls of the IMF and World Bank in Washington, or celebrated each winter at the World Economic Forum in Davos, is not sweeping all before it. All this is a useful corrective to one-world dreaminess. As it happens, I read this book during a 12-day trip around the world, on Western-built planes, owned by Western companies, staying in hotels which were full of Western beds, Western drinks, Western newspapers and TV channels. And yet people in Hong Kong told me that the accurate use of English was in decline there, while any bounce between Southeast Asia and midwestern Europe is enough to convince even the unobservant that, of the two, the area that's booming economically isn't the "Western" one.

So far so good. And yet the book begs so many questions that its central tenet must be in doubt. Here are three of them. First, are civilizations as cohesive as Huntington seems to think? On my little trip I visited Singapore and Bangkok. Both Asian, both cities in "miracle" economies, a short hop from each other; but in their social arrangements, their culture, their attitude (say) to sex, they are on different planets. More pertinent, why does Huntington think, without ever examining the proposition, that western Europe and the United States have civilizational ties so strong that they will never be rivals? Does he not know how resentful many Western Europeans now are about American political and cultural hegemony?

Second, if culture is such a strong determinant of social behavior, why is Huntington so dead set against multiculturalism within a society (say, the United States)? If transnational efforts to impose one culture on another invite strife, as Huntington contends, why should such efforts have harmonious results if attempted within a single nation-state? In fact, Huntington almost certainly overstates the degree of cultural Balkanization in the United States. In a passage without footnotes (this in an impressively documented book) he asserts that there is "some evidence" that "resistance to assimilation is stronger among Mexican migrants" than it was with other immigrants to the United States. There is plenty of non-anecdotal evidence the other way.

Third: Accept, for the sake of argument, that civilizations can cohere and can be rivals. Is it not still possible for countries to have allies across the civilizational divide? "In the coming era," says Huntington, "the avoidance of major civilizational wars requires core states to refrain from intervening in conflicts in other civilizations." Taken literally, that means that the Gulf War of 1990-91 was a terrible mistake. But for the United States to have abstained from the war would have meant that it was prepared to leave an ally -- Saudi Arabia -- to its fate. Apart from a neat lesson in civilizational politics, what would have been gained?

Actually, I doubt if Huntington would press his argument as far as he implies, because, in what is almost a coda to the book, he casts doubt on his whole thesis. All civilizations, he argues, are threatened by barbarism -- drug smugglers, international criminals, you name it. So challenged, the "great civilizations" must "hang together or hang separately." Bit of a stretch, that, at the end of a book which has sought to convince the reader that those civilizations are bound soon to clash. So enjoy this book for all the wonderful stuff in it: Treat its Big Idea with the skepticism with which, at the end, its creator invests his own progeny.

Michael Elliott is the editor of Newsweek International and the author of "The Day Before Yesterday."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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