When the Cold War ended more than 25 years ago, liberal optimism entranced policymakers and political theorists across the West. The Soviet system had suddenly disintegrated. It was time for the universal triumph of western liberalism. Trade deals were signed and democracies took birth in Eastern Europe. International institutions were erected on the principle of free markets and rising powers like India and China opened up their economies. Emerged from this euphoria, Samuel P. Huntington’s essay “The Clash of Civilisations?” that bluntly rejected that optimism. It generated considerable backlash then. And it surely does today. But for the better or worse, it is Huntington’s long shadow that lurks upon South Asia’s contemporary geopolitics. As the world finally starts looking at the region, it is necessary to scrutinise Huntington’s legacy that shapes that outlook.
By “Clash of Civilisations?” Huntington essentially made two points. First, the end of the Cold War’s bipolarity did not imply the dawn of liberal universality. In fact, the world according to Huntington was realigning itself into multipolarity, and the best means to map this realignment was through the lens of culture. So even though the world was being drawn together by globalisation, these different cultures were being drawn into conflict. Huntington’s pessimism was sobering. Non-western civilisations wanted to modernise, but that did not imply they wanted to copy western culture. This pessimism also reflected upon his advice to future western policymakers; to reject presumptions about the universality of western values as the world was becoming genuinely multicultural. The West needed to accept its own decline.
Much of the attention, which in most cases implies criticism, has been focused on Huntington’s suggestions about the inevitability of the clash between the West and the rest—whose chief candidate being Islam. It is obvious that such broad strokes about “civilisations” or “cultures” have the danger of not only becoming essentialist claims, but are at the same time awfully useless for any practitioner of foreign policy. After all, how can you reduce the behaviour of an Arab state to its supposed civilisational interest? What about the fact that conflicts within these civilisations have been far deadlier than conflict between them? These questions are important and the “Clash of Civilisations?” is poor in answering them. However, the region where the clash can be actually scrutinised is South Asia, as it is where the boundaries of Huntington’s “civilisations” correspond with nation-states. Where India, Japan and the West are spectators to the rise of China.
Can Huntington’s thesis be employed to explain the current crisis in the region? The volatile situation in South Asia is primarily a result of Chinese muscle-flexing. Last month a border stand-off between China and India resulted in the loss of 20 Indian soldiers. Many Indian troops dying because they were assaulted by baseball bats laced with barbed wire. China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is causing concern for nations like Vietnam. Above all, just last week, Beijing passed a National Security Act, which practically ends the autonomy of Hong Kong, and kills the “one nation two systems” structure 25 years before its expiry. In “Clash of Civilisations?” Huntington argued that such a scenario was plausible, as the Communist Party in Beijing views the region as its subsidiary, an archaic worldview which it wants to reinforce.
In actuality, no one yet knows the reason for China’s recent assertiveness, much less to extrapolate it to its supposed civilisational aims. What matters is how South Asia realigns itself. For Japan, India, the ASEAN bloc, other Sinic states like Singapore and even Taiwan, along with the West (he saw Australia as a member of the western civilisation) Huntington predicted two options; bandwagon with China or balance against its rise.
For Japan and India the solution seems to lie in balancing. Both are important regional powers in their immediate vicinity. And both are increasingly recognising their mutual interests. Huntington argued that a rising China would bring India and the West closer. The current discourse in India only validates Huntington’s claim. Talk about getting closer to America represents a paradigmatic shift in the country’s public discourse about its foreign policy. Strategists and politicians are increasingly voicing a shift from its supposed non-alignment to an alignment with the West. Indian policymakers have now realised that a hostile China is not a distant possibility but an immediate reality.
Huntington wanted to produce a broad paradigm through which one could view the world with absolute clarity. But such big picture narratives inevitably encounter the limitations of ground reality. South Asia geopolitics is enamoured with its own complexity. It is complex because here too states are primarily driven by their national interest. For example, Nepal was a Hindu monarchy when “Clash of Civilisations?” was published, and thus fitted more into Huntington’s category of a Hindu civilisational state than India, which was then a thriving secular democracy. Today the former has a communist party at the helm, while India is experiencing a rising tide of Hindu nationalism, with the relationship between both nations in tatters due to an ongoing border dispute. Ironically, it is the fear of assimilation within India’s identity, that is partly driving a new class of Nepali leaders closer to China in order for Nepal to seek leverage within the region.
Circumstances have also changed, as no one quite knows what will emerge in a post-pandemic world. As much of western interest in the region will depend on the kind of leadership in Washington after its Presidential elections later this year. And that is why it is difficult to even imagine what the architecture of a future partnership between India, Japan and the West would look like. But it would not be egregious to suggest that these powers are looking at a shared geopolitical interest as Huntington’s clash predicted.
So where do we locate Huntington and his contradictions today? His thesis is provocative, divides a class when it is taught in universities and is controversial, to say the least. But that is one way of reading “Clash of Civilisations?” by analysing its substantive content. The other is to recognise that his audacity to theorise the world order in the broadest brushes did have some predictive element. Huntington essentially predicted the “war on terror” when he wrote about the eventuality of the clash between Islam and the West. And it is his predictive power that makes the thesis relevant for South Asia today.
Huntington was a contrarian of his time. Yet, his life was equally paradoxical as his final works in the 1990s. Someone who was accused of being a reactionary conservative, he remained a life long Democrat. And it was the paradox of globalisation in harmony with global multiculturalism that he rightly predicted. Whether we like it or not, South Asia is now entering a Huntingtonian reality.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Gurmat Singh Brar is studying Political Science and International Relations as an undergraduate at Ashoka University. He is also an Affiliated Researcher at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. His interests within the field range from comparative study of institutions to analysing quantitative data on political parties in north India. He is also deeply interested in issues surrounding human rights and has previously worked in the state Human Rights Commission and the Information Commission. Currently, he is focusing on studying the rise of Populism internationally, so you can expect many articles on crucial elections across the world.