Thoughts Prompted by the Russian Fighter Jet

(I started writing this shortly after I saw the news but was interrupted and didn’t get to finish until just now. I’ve decided to not go back and change the whole thing.)

Turkey has downed a Russian jet is claims was over its airspace. Russia claims that it was not. As of yet, we don’t know who is telling the truth.

I mentioned the other day that the overly dramatic title “The Clash of Civilization” misleads people into thinking they know what is in the essay without bothering to read it. Many people seem to believe that the concept is that a major international force representing the Muslim world and a major international force representing the West are going to engage in some mighty apocalyptic battle. It is a misreading of the title, because I suspect those people never read the actual essay.

At the heart of the concept is an idea so ordinary it can be easy to overlook, and that is a large part of the point, to bring our attention to something we tend to forget. That is the fact that people tend to side with other groups that have similar language, culture, history or ethnic identity. Take the United States’ “special relationship” with the United Kingdom. What does that mean beyond the fact that the US began as a colony of Great Britain and we share a common language, have strong historical ties and weak cultural and ethnic ties. For some reason, many people find these similarities to be meaningful. It is not a question of whether or not people are right or wrong in this regard. It is a simple observable fact that they do.

The weak part of Huntington’s argument is his choice of the word “civilization” to describe the cultural groupings he has in mind, although I can’t think of a better word. When I hear the word “civilization” I think of the Ancient Egyptian Civilization, Rome, the Aztec Civilization, Incan, Persian and so on. The word is not equivalent to empire, but the image of a central imperial power spreading its culture is strongly implied. Huntington means something significantly looser, more along the lines of “Western Civilization.”

<blockquote>A civilization is a cultural entity. Villages, regions, ethnic groups, nationalities, religious groups, all have distinct cultures at different levels of cultural heterogeneity. The culture of a village in southern Italy may be different from that of a village in northern Italy, but both will share in a common Italian culture that distinguishes them from German villages. European communities, in turn, will share cultural features that distinguish them from Arab or Chinese communities. Arabs, Chinese and Westerners, however, are not part of any broader cultural entity. They constitute civilizations. A civilization is thus the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.</blockquote>

Since with a couple of exceptions, such as Japan, Huntington’s civilizations do not have a central government capable of projecting power, so the “clash of civilizations” he foresees is not a titanic clash of one mighty empire against another, but the possibility that small, local clashes will draw in other actors who perceive themselves to be closely related to one of the original antagonists. In this way, a local conflict becomes a conflict defined by alliances of political entities united by common cultures, or members of the same “civilization.” He writes, “violent conflicts between groups in different civilizations are the most likely and most dangerous source of escalation that could lead to global wars.” The point of being aware of these civilizational fault lines is to avoid exactly this kind of escalation.

So I was put in mind of Huntington’s argument again when I read about the downing of the Russian fighter jet. In this incident we can see both confirmation of Huntington’s argument and its limitations. The Russians have been bombing some anti-Assad groups comprised of Turkmen. Turkmen are not Turks, but they are seen as a related group.

On the other hand, there is, as far as I understand, no reason based on ethnicity for Russia to back Assad. They do not belong to the same “civilization.” Furthermore, many of the fault lines in the Syrian conflict lie within the Arab world. The division between the Shia and Sunni is evident, but there are also divisions among the Sunni. For instance, the Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslim, although Shia Muslims, Alevi Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Zoroastrians. What divides them from their neighbors seems to be ethnicity. These aspects of the conflict are not in keeping with Huntington’s thesis.

It is important to remember that Huntington did not predict that a grand civilizational conflict would occur, only that, with the end of the cold war, these ethnic and cultural similarities would gain importance. The point was to be aware of them in order to avoid a larger conflict.


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