Clash of Civilizations
Are we doomed to an endless cycle of conflict and violence?
Clash of Civilizations Map. Artist: Kyle Cronan. Source: Wikipedia
Sometimes it feels like it. In 1992 Samuel Huntington outlined his thesis: there were nine major world civilizations in the world, and these would remain a major source of conflict. The early ‘90s was a heady time: the Berlin Wall had fallen; East and West Germany were reunifying; Operation Desert Storm had repelled Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Some political theorists opined that we had reached the end—or goal—of history, and that liberal democracy and free-market capitalism were the only reasonable way for societies to organize themselves. This was the “new world order.”
Huntington didn’t see it this way. He observed that there were still large cultural rifts in the world—and he outlined the major world civilizations: Western, Islamic, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist, Latin American, and African. The people in these groups are separated by history, language, culture, and most importantly, religion. The principal conflicts of the future, he thought, would occur along the cultural fault lines between these civilizations.
We certainly see a lot of conflict among the first four—China, Russia, Islam, and the West—and a lack of understanding. China sees itself as a formerly great civilization that was oppressed and is now assuming its proper place in the world. Vladimir Putin justifies his aggression as a defense of the Russian people, language, and culture from Western decadence. And Islamic jihadis believe there are only two regions of the word: the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb—the house of Islam and the house of war.
Ironically, there are many in the West who deny that there is a civilizational clash—that Iranians and Chinese and Russians are just like Westerners, only with different backgrounds. But that’s the whole point. Our different backgrounds lead to skirmishes that highlight our different cultures and values. We don’t all want the same thing. And the very self-criticism that characterizes Western culture has led many folks in other cultures to believe that the West is fundamentally flawed. Hence the belief that most of the world’s problems come from the blind assertion of Western power.
So we see conflict—hacking and cyber-war, guerilla war and terrorism, refugees, espionage, and other battles. We need to acknowledge this and be ready. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky—the Communist revolutionary—you may not be interested in the Clash of Civilizations, but the Clash of Civilizations is interested in you.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer