The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order | Study Guide

Samuel P. Huntington

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The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order | Part 1, Chapter 2 : A World of Civilizations (Civilizations in History and Today) | Summary

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Summary

The Nature of Civilizations

The history of humans is the history of civilizations. Civilizations are the main lens through which to study the development of humans, and civilizations are what have provided a sense of identity for humans. Yet there is a distinction between "civilization" and civilizations. Civilization is an idea developed in contrast to the concept of "barbarism," in that it is considered settled, urban, and literate rather than primitive. Civilization became a standard against which to measure societies—particularly non-European societies during the 19th century.

The concept of civilizations, however, means that there is no one ideal standard of civilization, but many. Civilization and culture can both refer to the overall way of life of a society—a civilization can also be a culture. Huntington posits that although kinship, language, and way of life can define a civilization, religion tends to be the most important unifier. Civilization and race, however, are not identical, since people of the same race can be divided by civilization, or people of different races can be united by it. There may be differences within a broader civilization in terms of regions, ethnicities, and religious groups. But the different cultures inside a large civilization are still united in their common identity. Therefore, a civilization is the highest cultural grouping of people at the broadest level of cultural identity. Although people have different levels of identity, the civilization they belong to is united by common elements such as language, history, religion, customs, and institutions.

Civilizations also have no precise boundaries, beginnings, or endings—they change over time. They endure since they are able to evolve and adapt. What makes each one unique is its historical continuity. They are able to survive despite the rise and fall of empires and the upheaval of governments. Every major civilization in the world that currently exists has existed for at least a millennium or is an offspring of another long-lived civilization. Although these civilizations have endured, they also evolve. Scholars disagree on the exact number of civilizations throughout history, but they agree on at least 12. Of the 12, only 5 still exist (Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Islamic, and Western). One distinction about Western civilization is that it is the only one to be identified by a compass direction. This takes it out of its historical, geographical, and cultural contexts since it can refer simultaneously to Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

Relations Among Civilizations

Relationships among civilizations have evolved along the lines of contact. For the first 3,000 years after civilizations first emerged, contact between them was nonexistent or rare. Most of them were separated by time and geography. Ideas and technologies eventually moved from civilization to civilization, but this often took centuries. Yet these influences and encounters also led to civilizations attempting to conquer, eliminate, or colonize another civilization.

The rise of Western civilization began in the 8th and 9th centuries. It lagged far behind many other civilizations that surpassed it in wealth, territory, power, and achievements. Yet by 1500 European culture was well underway and beginning to influence global politics. By 1914 Europeans controlled 84 percent of Earth's land surface—11 million square miles and 390 million people. In the midst of this European expansion, two other civilizations (Andean and Mesoamerican) were eliminated. Many others were subjugated and subordinated by Western influence. The immediate source of European expansion was the invention of ocean navigation across great distances, along with the military capabilities to conquer. Huntington claims that the West was capable of this not because of its ideas, values, or religion. Rather it was in the way it used organized violence to conquer.

By 1910 the world was more united politically and economically than at any other time in human history. This emergence was largely because of a Western-defined international system that created conflicts between "people" rather than "kings." But throughout the 20th century, the relations among civilizations moved from being dominated by one civilization to multidirectional interactions among all civilizations. The expansion of the West ceased, and with that, the "revolt against the West" began. Western power declined relative to the power of other civilizations. While Western civilization has created multiple political ideologies, it has never generated a major religion. As Western civilization declines, the precedence of its political ideologies is replaced by religions and other culturally based means of identity. This creates a tension and possible future clash between culture and religion rather than between political ideas.

Analysis

In "The Nature of Civilizations," Huntington posits that "human history is the history of civilizations." By this he means that humans are inextricably linked with the civilizations and societies they belong to as individuals. They shape civilization, and civilization, in turn, shapes them. People can have multiple identities according to gender, nationality, religion, and family.

The broadest possible identity people have is with the civilization they belong to. In order to understand what this means, one must make the distinction between "civilizations" and "civilization." Under Huntington's theory, the world is made up of multiple civilizations with unique identities. Yet civilization can also refer to the idea of a universal civilization—which Huntington disagrees with—or civilization as the opposite of barbarism. Culture is also often conflated with civilization, since both "refer to the overall way of life of a people, and a civilization is culture writ large." This link is important, since it is differences and similarities between cultures that determine whether civilizations see each other as allies or enemies. Huntington uses the example of the ancient Greeks to demonstrate what they believed was important in defining their culture—"blood, language, religion, way of life." These elements for them determined what distinguished them from non-Greeks. Yet the Greeks placed a special emphasis on religion as being a distinguishing feature of their culture. Huntington highlights this element as a key difference that leads to both civilizational alliances and clashes throughout history. Religion can be used as a common objective among the citizens of a civilization and becomes a rationale for self-identification and identification with others. Huntington points out that the civilization level is the "biggest 'we' within which we feel culturally at home." He continues, "This is distinguished from all the other 'thems' out there." This sense of a cultural home plays a large role in determining how alliances and enemies emerge between civilizations.

Huntington also highlights that "civilizations have no clear-cut boundaries and no precise beginnings or endings." Through this lens, a civilization is more of an abstract concept than it is a physical place or boundary people can seek. Its lack of hard boundaries has also historically led to deep conflicts when a country is divided between two or more civilizations. Yet even for its lack of boundaries, a civilization survives well beyond the collapse of governments, empires, or upheavals. This is largely due to civilizations' ability to evolve and adapt since they have no clear boundaries. That doesn't mean they aren't subject to being divided, or that they can't disappear over time, although they do tend to go through multiple stages that can be predicted.

The lack of clear boundaries between civilizations also means that conflict between them can be protracted and enduring. In this chapter, Huntington points out that the most common story between civilizations is of one conquering or eliminating another. He says the West "won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or value or religion but by its superiority in applying organized violence." This is a key distinction to make. The conquering of one society by another largely boils down to the amount of power it wields rather than any convincing ideologies or ideas it spreads. The West came to power largely through its military and economic capabilities and influence. Yet in Huntington's view, this also gave the West the longest way to fall.

At one point, until after the Cold War, the West defined "civilization." The war between civilizations began as the West's power began to decline and other powers began to step in and vie for a place at the table. Huntington cites historians who claimed that once "the expansion of the West ended, the revolt against the West began." This implies that no one civilization is able to wield total power and influence forever. Once its power reaches a certain height, it has nowhere to go but down as resentment toward its influence builds. Huntington points out that "every civilization sees itself as the center of the world and writes its history as the central drama of human history." No civilization wants to see itself as a side player, or as lesser than, particularly when self-identity is so closely linked to it. This also implies that all relationships between civilizations are, by their very nature, tenuous and uneasy.

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