Are we in a clash of civilizations?
Clash of Civilizations Map. Artist: Kyle Cronan. Source: Wikipedia
It sure feels like it. In 1992 Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington gave a speech where he outlined this thesis. It 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 Iraq. Some political theorists opined that we had reached the end—or goal—of history, 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 observed eight major world civilizations: Western, Islamic, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, 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 clash among the first four—China, Russia, Islam, and the West—and a lack of understanding. China sees itself as a 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 we are in 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 to believe that our civilization is fundamentally flawed. Hence the belief that most of the world’s problems come from the blind assertion of American power.
So we see conflict—hacking and cyber-war, guerilla war and terrorism, refugees, espionage, and other battles. We need to acknowledge this and prepare ourselves. As Leon Trotsky—the Communist revolutionary—is supposed to have said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer