Originally published in 1996, years before the tragedies of 9/11, Huntington’s civilizational theory of international politics became quickly controversial for stark contrasts and incompatibilities he suggested between the West and the Islamic worlds. Before sharing my commentary on this theory, I should try to give a summary of Huntington’s theory.
Written in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Huntington was worried about the potential global instabilities that may result. Though the chances of a full out, global thermonuclear war had significantly deteriorated after the USSR’s collapse, Huntington saw the relationship between the West and Moscow as providing a degree of global political stability. When that relationship ended on January 3, 1992, writes Huntington,
“Global politics began to be reconfigured along cultural lines. Upside-down flags were a sign of the transition, but more and more flags are flying high and true, and Russians and other peoples are mobilizing and marching behind these and other symbols of their new cultural identities.”
While before the collapse, global politics were bipolar (the West vs. the USSR). Following that collapse, global politics suddenly became, for the first time (according to Huntington), multipolar. Political lines were developing across civilizational lines. These disparate and distinct civilizations have in common a shared ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. According to Huntington, the most fundamental of these is religion (which often encapsulates and influences the other factors). In outlining his theory, Huntington identifies nine modern world civilizations: Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist, and Japanese.
Each of these civilizations have a primary, leading nation that, either through cultural/political, economic, or military influence, provides the distillation of that civilization’s values. For the West, this has become the United States following World War II. For the Orthodox world, this is Russia. For the Islamic world, it is bimodal due to the rift within Islam itself among the Shiites and Sunnis and, therefore, the two major loci for power and influence are Saudi Arabia and Iran. Huntington does not believe the Islamic civilization can be split along these lines since, ultimately, Muslims have a larger cultural and religious connection than their sectarian differences despite the recurring violence between them.
Huntington does not mince words here and does not invite ambiguity into his theory. In fact, the lines of civilizations are tectonic fault lines — vast, momentous, and implacable. (The analogies to plate tectonics do not end there — Huntington later implies subduction-like characteristics where cultural assimilation occurs.) As he demonstrates throughout his book, all the major political, cultural, and violent conflicts over the past century and a half have occurred along these fault lines. Huntington gives an especially deep treatment to the conflict in Kosovo in the 90’s. As he points out, this is precisely the point where the West, the Orthodox, and the Islamic civilizations collide. The result was a particularly brutal and complicated conflict.
While I do not agree with all his assertions, Huntington did prove to be prescient in his belief that the Ukraine would be under continuous cultural and political strain due to spanning the civilization fault line that divides the West from the Orthodox worlds. If you have been reading about the recent events in Ukraine (see: HERE, HERE, or HERE), you can quickly agree Huntington’s civilizational fault lines aptly describes the ongoing situation.
Beyond just the explanatory power of Huntington’s theory, he provides strategies to help diffuse violent cross-civilization conflicts. Along with his marked criticism of the Islamic civilization, Huntington also treads into controversial territory on this topic. He emphasizes the importance that the leading nations have in resolving issues and strongly advocates for a key and principled role of US foreign policy in shaping world affairs. In the event of civilizational conflicts, the key nations have a role in coaxing the combatants into peace talks. In fact, he believes the involvement of key nations is indispensable to resolving crises of this nature. In particular, he uses Kosovo as an example where the US and Moscow were crucial mediators necessary to end the genocide.