The Clash of Civilizations? with its pendant question mark, refuses to go away, smouldering on 20 years after its publication with its provocative, even jarring, call from across the Crusades. The seminal essay by the clear-sighted and quietly insistent 20th century political scientist from Harvard, Samuel Huntington, has created fault lines in academia and among wily practitioners of politics. Humankind will clash on issues of culture, especially between Islam and other cultures, since intergroup violence is higher with Islam according to his precise and prescient thesis. And as 9/11, the Danish cartoons and the Arab Spring have unfolded, the question mark seems to be fading away.

Foreign Affairs, a pre-eminent platform for politics and strategy, and the midwife for bringing this essay to light, has now—after many mutinies at the fault lines from Copenhagen to China—deemed it fit to reignite the debate. It has put together this wee review of responses to the essay after 20 years.

After the reviling of Huntington as a xenophobe and US militarist, stoking hatred with half-baked surmises, came 9/11 that resurrected the good professor as a prophet of doom. Who can forget Stanford University’s Fouad Ajami, arguing that states control civilizations and not the other way around; that states would use culture, but not the other way around, to enter conflict situations. That Islam is not one entity and that politics usurps identity and culture in intra-Islamic conflicts. And yet after 9/11 Ajami had this to say of Huntington’s position: that he had underestimated Huntington. In a New York Times piece he stated: “My mistake".

In his essay West versus the Rest, Kishore Mahbubani, Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, posits the clash at the feet of Western dominance and hubris that stirs up feelings of threat among others. He points us to high crime rates and divorce rates that are the spawn of unbridled liberal individualism. Accordingly, the West is spurning the rest, the developing world and tightening immigration laws and trade laws.

In contrast, Richard K. Betts of Columbia University says Huntington’s jarring, but novel, idea was that he saw conflict instead of consensus with increasing opening up and connectivity through globalization. Huntington saw an ethnocentric wave model whose force had peaked. Betts acknowledges that Huntington opted for humility instead of hubris and said staying out “is the first requirement of peace". This is what would be the tough thing to do in dealing with the Islamist world which has a record of being “far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization".

According to Betts, while Huntington’s response to these new geopolitical civilizational clashes is pessimistic, it is also realistic—his diagnosis is radical but the prescription is conservative and one calling for US restraint. Betts compares this to what Francis Fukuyama (another of Huntington’s students, like CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria) says about how forecasters could be proved wrong by history’s Black Swans. These can  turn out to be apocalyptic moments that can sweep away these considered scenario mappings. Increasingly, apocalyptic moments seem to be significant in forecasting everywhere.

An essay by Chinese dissident Liu Binyan, a believer in equal rights and freedom, insists that transforming underlings and cowed peoples into human beings in China is the big agenda. He thinks it is ironic that where Huntington sees a resurgent Confucianism, actually China has plumbed the nadir of cultural degradation and that a new kind of Chinese path will eventually emerge—neither communist nor capitalist. Huntington of course felt that China’s ascendancy must be respected though it is at variance with concepts such as equality, balance and multipolarity. East Asia will be Sinocentric, he felt, and that we must accept.

One wonders if progress and more freedom can be anathema to so many cultures even as they see Western nations reap happy, comfortable and creative lives from such a world view. And why does the US not heed people like Huntington who believe in staying away from unnecessary conflict?

The collection also has personal pieces by friends and practitioners like Stephen Peter Rosen, professor of national security and military affairs at Harvard and Zbigniew Brzezinski, geostrategist and national security advisor to Jimmy Carter when he was president of the US, who attest to Huntington’s austere and calm brilliance.

This is an essential compendium of controversy by careful political writers and thinkers who try and make sense of unfolding history.

Sundeep Khanna is Executive Editor of Livemint.com

Comment at views@livemint.com

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