The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

A Huntingtonian Nightmare

July 23, 2006

Pardon my absence from the blog roughly since the current Mideast hostilities began; besides the fact that my blogmates here at the Duck have been doing an admirable job quacking away and trying to provide a little insight into the situation, and the fact that I’ve just been busy with other work, I haven’t felt like I had a lot to say about the situation that hadn’t been said already.

That changed this morning, when I read in the Washington Post that

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel would accept a temporary international force, preferably headed by NATO, deployed along the Lebanese border to keep Hezbollah guerrillas away from Israel, according to officials in his office.

The thought that NATO might get involved here scares the crap out of me, and seems like a recipe for an unmitigated global disaster. I mean, it’s bad enough for the residents of the region at the moment, but put NATO-flagged forces on the ground and it’s going to get a lot worse for a lot more people in a lot more places. Samuel Huntington might turn out to be a prophet after all.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I have spent a lot of my professional career criticizing Huntington; my first single-authored academic publication (in the journal Millennium; I can’t find a link to it that isn’t behind a subscriber firewall, sorry) was a critical review of Huntington’s approach to analyzing civilizations, and my recently published book opens with an indictment of Huntington for committing what I call the “West Pole fallacy”: the presumption that because people refer to an entity called “Western Civilization,” this means that there really is such an entity. And I stand by what I have written: Huntington’s causal logic, whereby essentially separate “civilizations” fall into irreconcilable clashes with one another because of incommensurate worldviews and values and the like, is deeply flawed. Communities in general do not, in my opinion, clash with one another because of their intrinsic value-commitments; few if any communities have value-commitments that clearly and sharply defined in the first place, and even those that do are still strategic actors capable of weighing value-commitments against other considerations as the situation demands. So “my (civilizational) values made me do it” is an insufficient explanation of anything, particularly of something as involved as a military deployment.

But the fact that Huntington is out to lunch when it comes to causal explanations does not necessarily mean that he is wrong to claim that clashes of civilizations will dominate the future of world politics. Indeed, he could easily be right empirically but completely wrong about the reasons why his predictions come true — a situation that would be complicated if, say, his own predictions were part of the causal mechanism that was actually bringing about the fulfillment of his forecasts. People might read Huntington and then, operating on Huntingtonian premises, bring about (whether deliberately or not I will not speculate on) a Huntingtonian nightmare scenario in which ‘the West’ finds itself arrayed against an ‘Islamic’ civilization that finds itself able to unify around its shared opposition to ‘Western’ encroachment.

Let’s see: if one wanted to provoke such a reaction in the Islamic world, what would one do? Maybe deploying troops to the region under the banner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the military defense arm of ‘the West’ and the concrete instantiation of the idea of a ‘Western’ political community — so much so that if you look for the phrase “western alliance” on, books on NATO pop up — might press a few buttons. Yes, NATO troops in southern Lebanon would certainly provide a very concrete ‘Western’ target to attack, since NATO has been wrapped up with the idea of ‘the West’ from its beginnings. As I argue in my book, the availability of the language of ‘the West’ allowed politicians to legitimate the idea of a peacetime transatlantic alliance in the first place; saying that one was going to deploy troops to defend ‘Western Civilization’ allowed one to parry the suggestion that the United States should simply defend its own borders (“but our whole civilization is under threat, and you don’t want the Communists to destroy ‘the West’, now do you?”). NATO makes no sense without the notion of ‘the West’; it is a constitutively ‘Western’ organization.

I keep putting ‘West’ and ‘Western’ in single-quotation-marks to signal a bit of analytical skepticism about the notion of ‘the West’. I’m not skeptical of that people used and keep on using it; that’s a documented fact. I’m not skeptical that their use of that language had an impact; that’s my whole point, that the use of such language has concrete, observable effects. What I am skeptical of is the inference that because people talk about ‘the West’, it follows that there really is such a civilizational community out there someplace, a community with definite values and borders and coherence. Instead, what I think is going on whenever anyone appeals to ‘the West’ and uses that kind of language is that they are producing the ‘Western’ community, and trying to yoke together a bunch of actions and subsume them under the heading of ‘the West’ in an effort to get them accomplished. ‘The West’, as a piece of political rhetoric, has certain functions and generates certain effects, and that’s what we should be paying attention to. When I say that “NATO is a ‘Western’ organization, I do not mean that there is something in particular about NATO that makes it genuinely Western; I mean that NATO has been traditionally labeled ‘Western’, and that this labeling is a central part of the alliance’s identity. And a central part of the identity of any troops deployed under a NATO flag.

This is where Huntington may be empirically right but analytically wrong. Huntington argues that when members of two civilizations are involved in a conflict, we will see “kin-country rallying” as members of each civilization come to the aid of their fellow-civilizationist. Huntington thinks that this is due to deep value-commitments, which I think is silly, but we still might see such dynamics if the parties to the conflict start interacting with one another in civilizational terms, and appealing for assistance from others in those terms. And if the help in question comes under those terms, well, it can start a spiral of civilizational language: Israel claims to be defending ‘the West’ from Iran and Syria and other Islamic states, Iran and Syria call for help from other Islamic states on the basis that their civilization is under threat, and so on. The presence of civilizational language on one side makes it more plausible for the other side to respond in kind.

Now, perhaps the worst possible thing that one could do in a volatile situation like this is to ramp up the civilizational language unilaterally, which is what deploying peacekeepers under a NATO flag would do. (Granted, this wouldn’t be as bad as doing what Ronald Asmus bizarrely suggests doing and actually admitting Israel to NATO, but it would still be bad.) All of a sudden there would be a self-identified ‘Western’ military force in easy striking distance, susceptible to the kind of guerilla attacks that are plaguing the US occupation of Iraq, and equally susceptible to being rhetorically framed as a ‘Western’ incursion into another civilization’s internal affairs. And maybe as an incursion calling for attacks in the ‘Western’ homelands in consequence. Poof: a clash of civilizations. A real clash of fictitious civilizations.

So no, I do not think that deploying NATO troops to southern Lebanon is any kind of good idea. And yes, I am well aware that many regimes in the region are turning against Iran and Hezbollah for exactly the strategic reasons that Marc Lynch sketches, but I would argue that having NATO troops there will make it increasingly difficult for even those regimes to keep up their opposition to Hezbollah (and Iran) in the face of public opposition to a perceived ‘Western’ incursion. So what to do? Keep the NATO flag away, de-escalate the civilizational language, and go for something that can serve as more of an honest broker. A real UN force, with real multilateral backing, would do much more good than a NATO force would. NATO could even provide some of the back-end logistical support. But there’s a strategic value to having a global peacekeeping force rather than a civilizational one, and I sincerely hope that the assorted world leaders trying to negotiate this actually keep that in mind.

Because if they don’t, we might end up in a global clash of civilizations.
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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.