It has been nearly 13 years since Samuel Huntington published his seminal essay "The Clash of Civilizations?" in Foreign Affairs. As works of academic prophecy go, this has been a real winner up there with George Kennan's epoch-making 1947 essay "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," which laid out the rationale for containment of the Soviet Union.
"In this new world," wrote Huntington, "the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations…. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."
The other great think-piece of the post-Cold War period was Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History." Published in 1989, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it argued that liberal democracy had conquered, once and for all, rival ideologies such as fascism and communism. But Fukuyama went from seeming prescient to seeming overoptimistic within just a few years. In particular, Bosnia's civil war showed how history might actually resume with a vengeance in some post-communist societies.
By contrast, Huntington's vision of a world divided along ancient cultural fault lines has stood up much better. Indeed, the Bosnian war was a good example of what Huntington had in mind, because it was a conflict located precisely on the fault line between Western Christianity, Orthodoxy and Islam.
Muslims were the losers in Bosnia. But Huntington's point was that in other respects, Islam was an ascendant civilization, not least because of the high birthrates prevalent in most Muslim societies. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were interpreted by many Americans in Huntington's terms; this was an attack on America's Judeo-Christian civilization by the fanatical followers of a prophet spurned by both Jews and Christians.
Also ascendant, Huntington argued, was Confucianism, the civilization of China. This forecast, too, has been vindicated by the seemingly unstoppable growth of the Chinese economy.
Huntington's model makes sense of an impressively high proportion of the news. When young Muslim men riot in protest against Danish cartoons, it looks like another case of clashing civilizations. Small wonder many congressmen are baffled by the Bush administration's willingness to let a Dubai-based firm take over terminal operations at six U.S. ports: wrong civilization.
Strife between Nigerian Muslims and Christians? Chalk up another one to Huntington. Trouble in the Caucasus? That's two. Darfur? Three, and counting.
And yet, for all its seductive simplicity, I have never entirely bought the theory that the future will be dominated by the clash of civilizations.
For one thing, the term "civilization" has always struck me as much too woolly. I know what a religion is. I know what an empire is. But, as Henry Kissinger might have said, whom do I call when I want to talk to Western civilization? Anyone who crosses the Atlantic on a regular basis quickly learns how vacuous that phrase has become.
As for "Judeo-Christian civilization" (a phrase popularized by Bernard Lewis), I don't remember that being a terribly harmonious union in the 1940s.
The really big problem with the theory, however, is right in front of our noses. Question: Who has killed the most Muslims in the last 12 months? The answer, of course, is other Muslims.
I've been predicting for some time that Iraq could end up being like Lebanon to the power of 10 if the civil war already underway there should escalate. Last week's bomb attack on the Shiites' Golden Mosque in Samarra may be the trigger for precisely that escalation. The point is that Iraq's "clash" is not between civilizations but within Islamic civilization between the country's Sunni minority and its Shiite majority.
Now, Huntington is too clever a man not to hedge his bets. "This article does not argue," he wrote back in 1993, "that groups within a civilization will not conflict with and even fight one another."
But he went on to say: "Conflicts between groups in different civilizations will be more frequent, more sustained and more violent than conflicts between groups in the same civilization."
Sorry, wrong. It's well known that the overwhelming majority of conflicts since the end of the Cold War have been civil wars. The interesting thing is that only a minority of them have conformed to Huntington's model of inter-civilization wars. More often than not, the wars of the "new world disorder" have been fought between ethnic groups within one of Huntington's civilizations.
To be precise: Of 30 major armed conflicts that are either still going on or have recently ended, only 10 or 11 can be regarded as being in any sense between civilizations. But 14 were essentially ethnic conflicts, the worst being the wars that continue to bedevil Central Africa. Moreover, many of those conflicts that have a religious dimension are also ethnic conflicts; in many cases, religious affiliation has more to do with the localized success of missionaries in the past than with long-standing membership of a Christian or Muslim civilization.
In reality, the problems of the Middle East have little to do with a clash of civilizations and a lot to do with the Arab world's "civilization of clashes" the propensity of its political culture to resolve disputes by violence rather than negotiation. The same applies a fortiori to sub-Saharan Africa.
The future, therefore, looks more likely to bring multiple local wars most of them ethnic conflicts in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East than a global collision of value systems.
Indeed, my prediction would be that precisely these centrifugal tendencies will tend to tear apart at least one (and maybe more) of the very civilizations identified by Huntington.
In short, for the "clash of civilizations," read the "crash of civilizations."