Vinod's Blog
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Sunday, September 29, 2002 - 05:25 PM Permanent link for Clash of Civilizations
Clash of Civilizations

(a book I read a some time ago;  I'm republishing the email that I sent around trying to cajole my friends/co-workers into reading it)

Hey guys,
I read a great book titled Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington.  This is probably the best book I read in 2001 (better than Mystery of Capital).   I read it a few months ago and wanted to send out my review / summary but never got around to it.... BUT... now I'm trapped in a standards body meeting and have a lot of time to write  ;-)
If you want a crash course on current global affairs (which I was sort of looking for after 9/11) that has both pretty in-depth analysis + a very wide reaching survey from across the world, this book serves it up.  20-25% of the book gives a very good analysis of the roots of the Islamic vs. the West conflict -- part of it cross-derived / cross-inspired by recent writings from Fareed Zakaria (a Newsweek columnist a bunch of us have been reading religiously -- no pun intended ;-).   Eerily, the cover of the book is a stylized picture of the World Trade Center (the book + its cover were published in the late '90s; it was a national bestseller back then)
Huntington's core thesis is that global affairs in the upcoming decades are no longer dominated interactions of individual nation-states vs. other nations but rather by "civilizations" vs. other civilizations.   A civilization is often a group of nations that share similar cultures / values / economics and operate -- either explicitly or implicitly -- essentially as a single unit on the international scene.  2 of the classic examples are "the West"  (N. America + Western / Central Europe) and "Islamic states" (broadly the Middle East).
Some of the core civilizations identified by Huntington are:
- West (N America + Western / Central Euro)
- Orthodox (E Euro, former soviet states)
- Sub-saharan Africa
- Islamic states (Mid East + North Africa;  some central asia)
- Sinic (China, Taiwan, SE Asia)
- Hindu (India)
- Japan
- Latin America
Several of the insights (mixed with my commentary ;-)  :
  • until recently the bulk of the conflicts in most parts of the world -- particularly in the West -- happened within civilization boundaries (for ex., france vs. germany...  N. vs. S. Vietnam...  US vs. Canada -- just kidding)
  • however, within the past few decades, most conflicts are now inter-civilizational (Islam vs. the West;  Hindu vs. Islam; Sinic vs. West)
  • the notable exception to this trend has been the Islamic world where both intra-civilizational conflicts (e.g. Iran vs. Iraq;  Sunni vs. Shiite; everyone vs. the Kurds) and inter-civilizational conflicts have exploded in the past 20-odd years;    something like 50% of all world armed conflicts since WWII have involved at least one islamic state.  
    • very interesting point -- handoff from "pax brittainica" to "pax americana" after WWII was comparatively conflict free b/t US and UK b/c both parties were the same civilization;  previous handoffs were confrontational within a civilization -- UK vs. Spain in 1600s; 
  • there's a very good chapter that gives a quick intro to what Huntington considers the "essential elements" of western civilization;  for ex., :
    • dark ages + renaissance (prior to these events, the West and Orthodox were a single "roman/classical" civilization)
    • Greek / Roman experience (in part led to a deep belief in the nation / govt / 'bureaucracy' that doesn't exist to same degree in Islam, for ex.,)
    • limited govt / individual rights (despite general belief in govt, there's also comparatively strict dictates about what the govt can / can't do to the citizenry)
  • absolute height of relative western power was a few years after WWII -- at that point in history, leaders of US + UK (and a few others) had almost absolute ability to draw national borders for other countries, appoint leaders, etc.  "Opposition" towards application of power came principally from within (e.g. internal protestors) or from other civilization members (e.g. Britain vs. France in dividing up African & SE Asian colonies)     Now, in relative terms, other nations/civilizations have caught up and have far more "political capital" on the world scene;    
  • many civil wars/insurrection in recent years have been oriented around civilizational membership (for ex.,  is Bosnia "orthodox" or "islamic"?   Is indonesia Sinic or Islamic?)
  • civilization membership also causes interesting dynamics for "up and coming" states.  Stick in one civilization and run it vs. move to a wealthier civilization:
    • should Turkey assert itself in the Western world (current course), Orthodox world, or become a leader of the Islamic world (b/c of it's much better per-capita GNP, political system,etc. vs. other countries there like Saudi Arabia);  acceptance by West of Turkey has been problematic though
    • is Australia a Western country or SE Asian?   Many in australia want to "defect" to the Sinic world but likelihood of acceptance seems low (similar to Turkey situation)?  
    • is Mexico "defecting" from the S. / Latin American block by trying to join NAFTA?
    • should russia become anchor state in orthodox civ or should it try to join the West?
    • how is the large and very prosperous ex-pat chinese population in SE Asia affecting their politics?
    • S. Africa has potential to be the leader of the sub-saharan civilization but in some ways is looking more towards the West
There's a lot of content analyzing the Islamic block vs. the West  (much of this content was echo'ed recently in Zakaria's Newsweek cover story "Why They Hate Us"):
  • KEY point: much of the Islam vs. the West conflict is broader than the Israel / Palestine issue;  In many ways, much of the antagonism towards Israel is b/c Islamic nations view Israel as an incursion of the West into their realm.    (similar to how much of the historic antagonism by the US towards Cuba was actually b/c Cuba was an incursion of Soviet influence into our realm).   The fact that Israel vs. Palestine constantly hits the news is an amplifier for this fundamental issue  
  • various issues lead to the $17K per capita GDP in Israel vs. the $5K per cap GDP (?) in Saudi Arabia -- despite Israel having no oil reserves
  • "u-shaped loyalty curve" -- within islamic civilization, there's very high loyalty towards the civilizational org (e.g. "nation of islam" religious community) and to the local tribe / clan / sub-state (e.g. "I'm a Kurd");   but very low individual loyalty towards the nation  (big distrust of national govt ;  high likelihood of corruption in govt ; etc.).   
  • By contrast, the West has "inverted-U".    Comparatively lower civilizational affiliation (e.g. a member of the european union is not as loyal to the union as a member of Islam).   Pretty high national loyalty (U-S-A! Vive le France! you won't hear "go saudi arabia!" the same way).   Pretty low local / tribal loyalty  (b/c of comparatively high individual mobility / freedom)
  • demographic explosion vs. demographic implosion.    Islam has very young / growing population.  Young populations trend towards radicalism;  Most western nations are experiencing demographic staleness (ratio of young vs. old is tipping towards old; overall populations are shrinking in many countries -- Italy, Russia ...)
  • many of these societies have Liberal Parents & Conservative Kids;   kids more likely to be fundamentalist, seek authoritarian/powerful govt vs. individual rights, etc.;   some of these countries have a liberal govt & a conservative population (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Syria);   this is opposite of broad Western view of their own polity (e.g. "a bunch of old, rich white men keeping us down!")
    • interesting datapoint... exception to this is Iran whose islamic revolution was >20 yrs ago, now the undercurrent of young "revolutionaries" are actually pro-secular / pro-democracy / pro-capitalism   ;-)

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