Library / Other Great Books

Date of review: April 2021
Book author: Samuel Huntington
Вook published: 1996

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel Huntington (1996)

I first heard about this book almost immediately when I started studying at university in 1998. I viewed civilisations as something eternal (even those civilisations from the past like Ancient Greece or Rome still 'live' in our books, art and even political systems).

Political risks in the investment process

Politics looked to me as quite short-term focused and often associated with achieving personal goals (power, wealth) covered by big ideas, so I thought there was little truth and honesty in it (note that my views were influenced by events that took place in my home country - Russia during the 1990s). Perhaps, because of such views, I thought that mixing civilisations and politics in one book could be only good for grabbing attention, but nothing beyond that.

Besides, it is human's nature (especially of a young and ambitious individual) to pay less attention to things that are discussed by older generations and seek his / her own ideas instead.

Anyway, I thought I got the gist of this book through my studies without reading it.

Now, more than 20 years later, I decided actually to read it. First, I wanted to understand better how to incorporate political risks into the investment process. Generally, until now, I have tried to ignore it because A. It is very hard to get an edge in analysing politics, and B. It is easy to make mistakes being influenced by politics (e.g. Did you sell or think of selling stocks in autumn 2016 when Trump was looking to win? What were your actions in 2018 when trade tensions between US and China were escalating? Did you sell or consider selling stocks after Biden won in 2020 because he could have raised corporate taxes and introduce more burdensome regulations?). Investors in a smaller market like Russia could have easily missed multi-baggers like Tinkoff, Tatneft, Yandex if they just focused on domestic or foreign politics of the country.

Still, I thought I would not lose much by reading this book. As a minimum, and that is the second reason, I could learn something about our world even if it would not give me an edge in investing (life is not just about investing, after all). More specifically, my decision was triggered by a short video clip from Huntington's speech in 1992 when he talked about the possibility of the Russia-Ukraine war. This was not his exact prediction, but the fact that he considered such a scenario drew my attention.

'Global politics is being reconfigured along cultural lines...'

The central theme of the book is that 'global politics is being reconfigured along cultural lines. People and countries with similar cultures are coming together. People and countries with different cultures are coming apart'. A worrying thought is that unlike during the Cold War, when countries could make rational decisions about aligning with either of the centres of power, today 'cultural identity is the central factor shaping a country's associations and antagonisms…it defines the state's place in world politics, its friends, and its enemies'.

I find this idea worrying because culture is always much more subjective and, thus, harder to analyse. Avoiding future conflicts could potentially be more difficult. In fact, this is what Huntington indirectly hinted upon when he said that 'Differences in secular ideology between Marxist-Leninism and liberal democracy can at least be debated if not resolved. Differences in material interest can be negotiated and often settled by compromise in a way cultural issues cannot. Hindus and Muslims are unlikely to resolve the issue of whether a temple or a mosque should be built at Ayodhya by building both, or neither, or a syncretic building that is both a mosque and a temple. Nor can what might seem to be a straightforward territorial question between…Jews and Arabs concerning Jerusalem be easily settled'.

The quality of a new theory is often tested by its predictive power. On this account, The Clash of Civilisation scores quite high. As an example, Huntington writes that 'The essence of Western civilisation is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac. The fact that non-Westerners may bite into the latter has no implications for their accepting the former. It also has no implications for their attitudes toward the West. Somewhere in the Middle East a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and, between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner'.

Two important messages in this book

The world is not going to be Westernised (cultural differences will prevent deep integration/globalisation).
International trade does not decrease the probability of military conflict and can sometimes even lead to wars.

Huntington on China

I wonder if this difference in cultures and identities has then led to a new round of tensions between Russia and the West which has long appeared to me more of a temporary issue. The bigger question is about the gradually rising tension between US and China.

On China, Huntington also shares quite worrying views (some of them are references to other experts). 'Historically, the Chinese did not draw a sharp distinction between domestic and external affairs. Their image of world order was no more than a corollary of the Chinese internal order and thus an extended projection of the Chinese civilisational identity'. In the traditional Chinese view, 'foreign monarchs and states were assumed to be tributaries of the Middle Kingdom: There are not two suns in the sky, there cannot be two emperors on earth'.
As a result, the Chinese have not been sympathetic to 'multipolar or even multilateral concepts of security'. 'Asians generally are willing to accept hierarchy in international relations…Until the arrival of the Western powers ...East Asian international relations were Sinocentric with other societies arranged in varying degrees of subordination to, cooperation with, or autonomy from Beijing'.
Huntington discusses the rise of China and the possible changes it will have on the world. He compares it to the period of rising US power and resulting shift of power from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana. However, rather a peaceful transition then could be explained by the close cultural kinship of the two societies. According to Huntington, 'The absence of such kinship in the shifting power balance between the West and China does not make armed conflict certain but does make it more probable'.
The author discusses the strategies the US could implement to contain the rising power of China, which I will not discuss in detail in this review.

I think remarks by former US president Richard Nixon made in 1994, which Huntington refers to in the book, best summarise possible results of such US efforts: 'Today China's economic power makes US lecturers about human rights imprudent. Within a decade, it will make them irrelevant. Within two decades, it will make them laughable'.
The author leans to a slightly more pessimistic view on the future role of the West in global politics. While not calling an immediate demise, Huntington argues that the West is facing a slow, gradual decline with the inevitable rise of Asia (mainly, China).

Huntington on Europe

Huntington discusses other emerging problems and shares his views on the future. In particular, I found his views on immigration quite interesting, especially in light of recent tensions between migrants from MENA into Europe. Huntington made a prediction in his book that the flow of migrants from MENA could start weakening by 2025 as population growth slows down in that region, however, Sub-Sahara Africa could be a long source of migrants. The book highlights inevitable challenges faced by Europe in light of the active immigration of Muslims.

I like to write down practical takeaways after reading each book. Obviously, it is a little naive to expect a clear roadmap to navigate geopolitical issues during the investment process to be presented in a single book. However, I still think this book adds useful knowledge and perspective to various issues in the world's politics and should help to better understand current events and perhaps even anticipate future ones.

Some interesting comments on individual countries and bilateral relations

  • Vietnam has historically had antagonistic relations with China (despite sharing a similar Confucian culture).

  • 'Japan as a culturally lone country could have an economically lonely future'.

  • Russia, Turkey, Mexico and Australia are 'torn' countries, according to Huntington, which have a single predominant culture placing them in one civilisation, but its leaders want to shift it to another civilisation. For such shift in civilisational identity to be successful, three conditions need to be met: 1) Political and economic elite have to be supportive of and enthusiastic about this move; 2) The public has to be at least willing to acquiesce in the redefinition of identity; and 3) The host civilisation, in most cases the West, has to be willing to embrace the 'convert'.

  • Real reforms and steps towards Westernisation have historically taken place in Russia during the centralisation of power, even with rising despotism (e.g. Peter the Great, Catherine II, Lenin, Stalin).

  • 'While the Soviet Union was a superpower with global interests, Russia is a major power with regional and civilisational interests'.

  • At various times in history, Ukraine has been independent. Yet during most of the modern era, it has been part of a political entity governed from Moscow. The decisive event occurred in 1654 when Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Cossak leader of an uprising against Polish rule, agreed to swear allegiance to the tsar in return for help against the Poles. From then until 1991, except for a briefly independent republic between 1917 and 1920, what is now Ukraine was controlled politically from Moscow. Ukraine, however, is a cleft country with two distinct cultures. The civilisational fault line between the West and Orthodoxy runs through its heart…At times in past, Western Ukraine was part of Poland, Lithuania, and the Austro-Hungarian empire…Western Ukrainians have spoken Ukrainian and have been strongly nationalist in their outlook. The people of eastern Ukraine, on the other hand, have been overwhelmingly Orthodox and have in large part spoken Russian…The Crimea is overwhelmingly Russian and was part of the Russian Federation until 1954…'

  • Huntington laid out three possible scenarios for future Russia-Ukraine relations. One is a direct military conflict. 'If civilisation is what counts, violence between Ukraine and Russia is unlikely'. The second scenario is a split of Ukraine 'along its fault line into two separate entities, the eastern of which would merge with Russia'. '…Western-oriented Ukraine, however, would only be viable if it had strong and effective Western support. Such support is, in turn, likely to be forthcoming only if relations between the West and Russia deteriorated seriously and came to resemble those of the Cold War'. Huntington argues that the most likely is the third scenario: 'Ukraine will remain united, remain cleft, remain independent, and generally cooperate closely with Russia facilitated by a partially shared culture and close personal ties. The Russian-Ukrainian relationship is to eastern Europe what the Franco-German relationship is to western Europe'.

  • 'Turkey is no longer useful to the West as a bulwark against the major threat from the north, but rather, as in the Gulf War, a possible partner in dealing with lesser threats from the south'. The author does not expect Turkey to join EU and notes that 'having rejected Mecca, and being rejected by Brussels, Turkey seized the opportunity opened by the dissolution of the Soviet Union … to develop links with the "external Turks" in Turkey's near abroad stretching "from Adriatic to the borders of China".

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