During a visit to Cairo in the late Nineties, I asked a government minister what he thought of the US academic Samuel Huntington’s theory of clashing civilisations. The minister replied without hesitation: “Complete nonsense.” Then he paused. “But it could all very easily happen.”
The subtle Egyptian’s response captured a discomforting truth. It was struggles between states that produced two world wars, and most wars in modern history. Nearly all ethnic-cultural conflicts – in former Yugoslavia, Central Africa and now Nagorno-Karabakh – are waged in the shadow of great-power rivalries. Saudi Arabia and Iran – both supposedly part of “Islamic civilisation” – are contending for regional hegemony in a ferocious war in Yemen. The idea that wars happen because of cultural differences is a myth conjured up in a professor’s study.
[See also: Progressives dream of tyranny]
Yet in a manner Huntington, the Harvard sage, could not have foreseen, geopolitical rivalries are spilling over into civilisational strife. The West is retreating because divisions within its societies make sustaining a consistent strategy against its enemies impossible. In an international order that is descending into anarchy, liberal democracies are too internally fragmented to be able to defend themselves effectively.
In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), his colliding civilisations are never clearly identified. It seems odd to lump together the sub-Saharan peoples, so various in their languages and customs, into a single “African civilisation”, as Huntington does. What distinguishes civilisations from each other? How many are there? He never properly tells us.
In fact his true subject was the failings of American multiculturalism. His civilisations were American minorities, whose assertion of themselves as distinct communities he believed undermined national unity. As with many American thinkers, his view of the world’s ills was shaped by singular American pathologies.
Multiculturalism plays a part in the disunity of democracies today, though not in the way Huntington supposed. The fatal conceit of the progressive mind is the belief that once the influence of repressive traditions is removed, all of humankind will share its values. If so, the assimilation of people from non-liberal societies should be a more or less automatic process. But why should immigrants leave behind their histories and identities? Or their enmities?
The huge demonstrations of recent weeks against the Israel-Hamas war show a different dynamic at work. The antagonisms of the Middle East are reconfiguring British politics. Keir Starmer has doubled down on his refusal to call for a ceasefire, and as a consequence looks more like a prime minister than a mere party manager. But he will find his pro-Israel stance difficult and costly to maintain. It is not only that many of his MPs face intense protests from their Muslim voters. His position runs counter to the progressivist ideology that pervades the party as a whole. (Scottish Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats will add to the pressure.) In the US, more than 500 political appointees and staff members of government agencies have signed a letter demanding an immediate ceasefire, which could alleviate hideous civilian suffering in Gaza. That it would also give Hamas the chance to recoup its forces and mount further attacks was not considered relevant.
[See also: The return of the “longest hatred”]
There is a certain logic in progressives allying themselves with Islamist movements. In their support for universal human rights they are prototypical liberals; but since they believe Western power lies behind injustice everywhere they feel bound to overlook atrocities committed by Islamists, who reject human rights tout court. The West is not killing itself, as conservatives sometimes say. That would require a degree of self-awareness of which there is no sign. As in the fable of the scorpion and the frog, Western progressives cannot help poisoning their host.
There may be a saving grace in this unhappy predicament. Contrary to alarmist commentary, the conflict detonated by Hamas is unlikely to trigger a third world war. Ruling out accidental escalation would be the height of folly, but a catastrophic conflagration is not the most plausible scenario. None of the states implicated in the war has an interest in unleashing Armageddon.
Joe Biden’s administration has vowed unwavering support for Israel, but may be warning privately that it could be withdrawn if Benjamin Netanyahu threatens to expand the war into Lebanon: the last thing Biden wants is to be embroiled with Hezbollah as the presidential election approaches. Iran has celebrated Hamas’s attack, but signalled that the Palestinian group is on its own. The war benefits Russia by draining Western resources away from Ukraine; but if it spirals out of control a rise in oil prices would hit China’s already sickly economy, and damage Russian military assets in Syria. And nothing pleases the Gulf monarchies more than Hamas’s destruction. While its supporters are cheering it on in the streets of London, it is being demolished and discarded in accordance with the imperatives of geopolitics.
Driven by the interests of their ruling elites, the primary goals of states are survival and an increase in their power relative to other states. Wars will be fought without end, but not between civilisations. If you want to understand the present, put Huntington back on the shelf.
[See also: The great unravelling]
This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style