Stop Invoking the ‘Clash of Civilizations.’ There are Too Many ‘Intra-Civilizational’ Wars and Conflicts It Can’t Explain

Why Civilizations Really ClashI am fairly exhausted that this framework gets brought back to life every few years. Yes, it has an exciting historical sweep, but it is conceptually a mess and empirically doesn’t really work very well.

This essay is a re-post of an article I wrote for 1945.com, based on a Twitter thread I wrote in response to a column by Ross Douthat from the New York Times. Lots of other people have criticized Huntington over the years. My concerns below are mostly conceptual – I don’t think Huntington’s civilizations hold up very well – but here is an empirical evaluation of Huntington’s troubles by a friend of mine.

In brief, my concern is that Huntington’s civilizations are just not convincingly aggregated or monolithic enough to be coherent actors. He says in the essay that conflict in the future will occur between civilizations. This means that civilizations acting en bloc will either supplement or displace states as the primary conflict actors in world politics. But this just isn’t convincing, because the divisions inside many of his civilizations are so deep and serious that they cripple his civilizations from acting as coherent agents.

Here are some intra-civilizational wars and conflicts which undercut civilizational agency (i.e., sink Huntington’s concepts of civilizations):

Russia vs Ukraine in Orthodox civilization

Rwandan genocide and ‘WWI of Africa’ after Zaire’s fall in African civilization

Sunni-Shina contestation in the Persian Gulf in Islamic civilization

Chinese contestation with Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, plus inter-Korean competition in Confucian civilization

In fact, a Confucian civilization so obviously  doesn’t work – because there is so much conflict within it – that Huntington doesn’t propose a Confucian civilization, enough though that’s what his framework demands! Instead he kludges: he hives off Japan as its own civilization (?) in order to, unconvincingly, accommodate Sino-Japanese competition, now can now be read as ‘inter-civilizational.’ But even that dodge doesn’t explain China-Taiwan, China-Vietnam (in the South China Sea), S Korea-NK. What a mess.

Here’s that 1945 essay:

In The New York Times recently Ross Douthat suggested that Samuel Huntington’s famous theory of global politics, the clash of civilizations, could help explain the Ukraine War and other contemporary world conflicts. This is a curious choice because academic international relations theory does not much use the clash of civilizations in research or teaching because it is riddled with conceptual and predictive errors.

It does not, in fact, explain the Ukraine War, and it woefully exaggerates the importance and coherence of ‘civilizations’ as conflict actors.

Modern Conflict is Not Always ‘Civilizational’

The most basic problem with the framework is its insistence that conflict has moved away from political, ideological, territorial, and other sources of competition to civilizational clashes.

Huntington defines civilizations via culture, especially religion, in part because he first worked it up in response to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. There the Serb-Croat-Bosnia split overlapped with an Orthodox-Catholic-Islamic division. And the harshness of that war seemed to justify Huntington’s religious pessimism.

Read the rest here.

Mearsheimer, NATO Expansion, and the Ukraine War – M Predicts Russia’s Desire to Dominate Ukraine, but also NATO Expanding to Fill a Vacuum

UkraineEveryone seems to have a take on Mearsheimer and Ukraine, so here’s mine: Mearsheimer’s offensive realism predicts Russian’s desire to dominate its borderlands, but ALSO a NATO effort thwart that via expansion. So its awkward that he blames NATO, because playing international politics toughly is what his offensive realist theory would predict NATO to do.

This is a re-post of an article I wrote a few days ago at 1945.com. I should say to start that I find damning Mearsheimer as some kind of Russian operative or stooge is wrong. He’s been predicting this for years, and he’s an academic with a reputation for integrity. He’s a far cry from embarrassing, pro-Putin hacks like Tulsi Gabbard or Glenn Greenwald.

Still, I think Mearsheimer gets Ukraine wrong, because he only looks at it from Russia’s perspective. His theoretical priors – offensive realism – do predict that Russia will try to control its borderlands. But offensive realism ALSO predicts that

1. those borderlands will try to escape Russian domination (which Ukraine is doing now and Eastern Europe did by joining NATO)

2. Russian competitors will try to help those borderlands escape (which NATO did by accepting Eastern European states)

3. Germany/EU/NATO, for which Eastern Europe is also a borderland, will also try to dominate it (which has indeed been the case historically – Germany and Russia have contested to dominate EE)

4. states with a window of opportunity for gain against an opponent (Russia’s post-Cold War weakness) will take it (which NATO and Eastern Europe did by consolidating expansion when Russian was weak)

In other words, Mearsheimer’s own theory does not predict Russian domination of Eastern Europe as a stable equilibrium but instead predicts a dynamic contest between Russia, the states it seeks to dominate (Ukraine included), and Germany/EU/NATO for whom Eastern Europe is also a borderland.

Here’s that essay on 1945.com:

The debate over the causes of the Ukraine War is intense. In the West, there has been much contention over whether the expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union provoked the invasion. The most famous proponent of that claim has been John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago professor of international relations. Mearsheimer’s core argument is made here and here, and he has recently re-stated it here and here. Others have made this argument as well (here, here, here). The Russian government has even deployed Mearsheimer’s talks to defend its war.

Please read the rest here.

Reflexively Applying the 1938 Munich Analogy to Ukraine – and Every Other Conflict – Just Shows You Need to Read More History and Watch Less TV

MunichThis is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for 1945.com.

I find it intellectually exhausting how often we use WWII analogies to analyze military conflicts. Particularly Americans seem to be obsessed with re-playing 1938 and the Munich conference again and again, with a foreign opponent – communists, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, Putin – as Hitler and a ‘weak’ US president as Neville Chamberlain.

I have long suspected that the commonplace use of Munich is because:

a) Everybody knows some basic history of WWII, if only from the movies

b) Linking anything to the Nazis automatically raises the stakes and demands attention for your argument

c) the Munich Analogy abets laziness by Americanizing foreign conflicts. The entire discussion devolves into  a debate about whether the US president is weak/Chamberlain or strong/Churchill. So you don’t need to learn anything about the conflict, and all these reporters with no training in strategic studies can still talk about these conflicts like they know what they’re talking about.

But there are lots of conflicts out there which might serve as better models of the current Ukraine war, such as Soviet-Finnish War or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. So before you start in with the worn-out Hitler Channel WWII analogies, go read more.

Here’s the 1945.com essay:

The world is rallying around Ukraine in the war. Indeed, it is remarkable just how much the Ukrainian side has dominated the battle for global public opinion. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, seemingly trapped in an autocrat’s information bubble, appears to realize that now. Because the war is so overtly aggressivetanks rolling across borders in Europe – the media’s analogies to Adolf Hitler’s aggressive war in Europe were probably inevitable.

Please read the rest here.

Trump’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ with China: Huntington’s Model doesn’t even work in East Asia

Image result for clash of civilizations map

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a week ago.

Basically my argument is that even if you are a hawk on China and see it as an emerging competitor or even threat to the US, the clash of civilizations framework is a weak analytical model by which to understand Sino-US tension.

The big problem is that Huntington builds his civilizations everywhere else in the world around religion, but in East Asia he can’t, because that would make China and Japan – who are intense competitors – allies in a Confucian civilization. Making Japan and China allies would be ridiculous, so Huntington can’t use Confucianism as a civilization, even thought that so obviously fits his model for East Asia. Hence, Huntington falls back on national labels, identifying separate ‘Sinic’ and ‘Nipponic’ civilizations. This ad hoc prop-up of the theory undercuts Huntington’s whole point of arguing that national distinctions are giving way to civilizational ones and that therefore we should think of future conflicts as between civilizations, not nation-states. Well, apparently East Asia didn’t make that shift; conflict here is still nationalized. So

There are other issues I bring up as well, but that’s the main problem. Please read the essay after the jump…

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If Trumpian Duterte Really Bandwagons with China, It won’t End Well

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This is the English-language version of a story I just wrote for Newsweek Japan on Philippine President Duterte’s strange new flirtation with China.

The big question I suppose is whether Duterte actually follows through. He has already shown himself to be a ‘trumpian’ nutball character, talking about killing millions of drug-dealers and users while praising Hitler. Previous associates have claimed him to be erratic and difficult. Sound familiar?

And just as I figure Trump would not follow through on his outlandish promises, like stealing Iraq’s oil, or retrenching from Asia, because it would be too hard – fighting all the interest groups in Washington, Congress, DoD, and so on – so I figure Duterte may just be spouting off. When he collides with the reality that no one in Asia trusts China, that his own people don’t want to give up Scarborough Shoal, this his own military is terrified of cutting links with the US to line up with China, I imagine his ‘pivot’ to China will be hard to pull off.

But let’s say he does take the Phils out of the US Asian alliance network. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he comes to rue that decision. China has no allies; it has purely transactional relationships with places like N Korea, Pakistan, or Myanmar. Beijing would screw them over in a heartbeat if it was in its strategic interests. So I have little doubt that Beijing will come knocking again in the future, asking Manila to surrender all claims to the Spratlys too, or to ‘permit’ China to operate in its airspace. If you think a state run as a nasty authoritarian oligarchy at home, is suddenly going to be a liberal abroad, disappointment is coming.

The full essay follows the jump.

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5 Interpretations of N Korea: Communist, Rogue, Fascist, neo-Confucian, or Gangster?

This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute, available here. And yes, that Godfather pic is meant to imply that I accept the last of the interpretative frameworks suggested: North Korea as a gangster racket.

The more time I spend in this field, the more I see analysts get into really sharp debates over just what North Korea ‘really’ is. The best way to de-legitimize your opponent in this area is to say you don’t understand the ‘real’ North Korea, or know what they ‘truly’ want. This can get pretty intense. And it does not help that we know so little about how North Korea is governed.

As I have listened to these fights over the years, it strikes me that there are roughly 5 major interpretations or schools. And these approaches are politicized too, not just intellectual frameworks, because they have direct implications for how South Korea and the US should respond to North Korea. For example, if you think North Korea is a rogue state gremlin ripping at the fabric of US hegemony, you are more likely to endorse tough action than if you accept leftist interpretations that US-led isolation of North Korea is what makes North Korea so dangerous.

The 5 basic interpretations are:

1. Traditionalist Conservative: North Korea as a cold war stalinist state

2. Neoconservative: NK as dangerous, unpredictable rouge state

3. Fascist: NK as a racist, national security barracks state

4. Leftist: NK as ‘Korean’ (rather than socialist or fascist), neo-Confucian,or post-colonial

5. Gangster: NK as a massive shake-down racket; mafia have overthrown the government

The full essay follows the jump.

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Guest Post – Dave Kang: International Relations Scholarship Underutilizes Asia for the Same Old Western Cases (WWI & Cuba Forever!)

This is a guest post from my friend David C. Kang of the University of Southern California. Dave is a political scientist and runs the Korean Studies Institute there. He is way better at East Asia than I’ll ever be, so stop wasting your time on this blog and get to his author page to start reading his books.

Dave and I were just at the Korea Foundation’s big conference on Korean studies in the 70 years since liberation from Japan. There he made a number of the points below, which I broadly agree with. In short, western IR says Asia is really important – China, North Korea, the pivot, and so on – but still use the same western cases in its writing. Dave has some nice data on this below. I made similar points a few years ago. I think the basic problem is that we still aren’t learning the languages or coming here early in our careers. How many of you studied French and did your junior year abroad in Europe? So when IR actually gets into the casework, its WWI, WWII, and the Cuban Missile Crisis all the time.

Dave’s comments follow the jump.

My Lowy Essay on China Picking 3 Fights in 9 Months: Japan, Phils, Vietnam. WTH?

The essay below is a reprint of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute a few weeks ago (original here). I got into back-and-forth with Brad Glosserman and Hugh White over Chinese foreign policy intentions. I am still not entirely sold on the idea that China is a full-blown revisionist, like Putin, or worse, Wilhelmine Germany. There are other possible explanations.

The map to the left is the so-called “Nine Dash Line,” China’s preposterously capacious maritime claim in the South China Sea. I wonder if it’s even worth noting anymore that UNCLOS can’t be possibly be used to justify this. Everyone knows that now, right? The claim is just nationalism, pure and simple.

What’s really struck me though about China’s maritime claims is how Beijing has really ramped up the tension in just a few months. In the last 9 months, China has picked serious fights with Japan (over its ADIZ), the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, and now Vietnam over that oil rig. That much bullying in such a short period of time, very obviously coincident with Xi Jinping’s ascension, pretty much tells the world that the new Chinese administration is becoming the regional bully we’ve all been fearing for 20 years. This strikes me as unbelievably foolish, as there is a very obvious anti-Chinese containment ring waiting in the wings. A lot of people in the US, Japan, and increasingly Southeast Asia would be happy to see this outcome. My strong sense is that US patience particularly is running out, and that ‘neo-containment’ is around the corner.

So this essay is a last ditch effort to try explain Chinese belligerence as an outcome of Chinese dysfunction. Let’s hope this is right, because if the hawks are right that arguments such as mine are just excuse-making for Chinese belligerence, then I guess we have to contain China. Scary stuff.

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My Newsweek Japan Story on the Sino-Vietnamese Clash in the South China: End of the Peaceful Rise?

Nwk J Vn China

Below is the English version of my essay for the current volume of Newsweek Japan. (Japanese version here.)

Regular readers will know that I have argued for awhile that we (the US) should not provoke China into unnecessary hostilities. I’ve thought for awhile that Hugh White’s idea of a concert in Asia is the most likely to insure peace. If the US insists on giving no ground, then a Sino-US conflict out of sheer misperception is likely. But accommodating China can’t be seen as an invitation to bully the neighborhood – just not so much as to cause a war with America. So it is a fine line to walk, and China certainly isn’t helping. In the last year, it has picked fights with Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines. Like most people, I find this pretty scary, but also somewhat inexplicable. Increasingly, I think the ‘peaceful rise’ days are over (argued below), but this might also be external fallout of a new Chinese administration looking to prove itself to the PLA. I hope I am wrong…

“On May 2, China placed an oil rig inside Vietnam’s offshore exclusive economic zone. This deployment was accompanied by some 80 ships, include armed warships. Vietnam responded by sending out its coast guard. These ships were meet by ramming and water-cannon. This in turn sparked anti-Chinese rioting in Vietnam that has killed dozens and sent Chinese workers fleeing the country. In the last year, China has also tangled over islands in the South China Sea near the Philippines and with Japan over Senkaku.

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My Lowy Essay for May: ‘Stop Fetishizing US ‘Credibility’ and ‘Red-Lines’’

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For the Lowy Institute this month, I wrote a response to this preposterously irresponsible and inflammatory Economist cover a few weeks ago. Normally I like the Economist a lot. I agree with their liberal economics and broad support for the advance of liberal democracy. I have written and spoken for the Economist Group and so on. But this cover is just neocon scaremongering. Does no one remember how just 5-10 years ago, everyone wanted American restraint and an end to ‘cowboy diplomacy’? Well that’s what you’ve got in Obama – caution, measured steps, no polarizing grand visions. The Euros even gave him a Nobel for that. But I guess managerialism is just too boring. If POTUS isn’t blustering about the end of history and the global triumph of liberty, then newspaper editors get twitchy and see ‘decline’ everywhere. Sigh…

Anyway, here’s the response essay:

The Economist this week stepped into the widening debate about US credibility provoked by Obama’s caution in the Middle East and (less so) East Asia. And unfortunately, like so many neocons and liberal internationalists, it seems unwilling to learn what should now, post-Iraq, be fairly obvious lessons about hegemonic over-extension and the fetishization of US ‘credibility’: Obama’s restraint and caution are not ‘weakness;’ he is not ‘abandoning’ the allies; constantly analogizing US intervention decisions to Munich or appeasement is pretty facile; constant US intervention erodes the public’s medium-term support for military action, breaks the US fiscus, and ignites local nationalist blowback.

There is already a pretty good response literature on this piece (Sullivan, Beinart, also here and this). I would just add a few points:

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