The Future of "History": Francis Fukuyama vs. Samuel P. Huntington

By Kurtz, Stanley | Policy Review, June-July 2002 | Go to article overview

The Future of "History": Francis Fukuyama vs. Samuel P. Huntington


Kurtz, Stanley, Policy Review


This is Samuel P. Huntington's moment. The world of cultural and religious strife anticipated by Huntington in his much-discussed (and widely excoriated) book, The Clash of Civilizations, has unquestionably arrived. Yet whether we might also someday see an alternative world -- the global triumph of democracy envisioned in Francis Fukuyama's brilliant work, The End of History and the Last Man -- is also a question that seems very much before us as we contemplate what it would mean to "win" the war in which we are engaged. The question of our time may now be whether Huntington's culture clash or Fukuyama's pax democratica is the world's most plausible future.

This is a question with policy implications, of course, and both The Clash of Civilizations and The End of History are, in part, books about policy -- what the United States government should do. Ultimately, however, to choose between Fukuyama and Huntington is to articulate a vision of human social life. What are the mainsprings of human action? How salient is religion as a cultural force? Is democracy the most civilized and natural way of life? Questions like these are at the heart of the contest between Huntington and Fukuyama, and we can take the measure of the concomitant policy disputes only by moving through these larger problems, not around them.

Philosophically and spiritually, The End of History and The Clash of Civilizations could hardly be more different (although each book can fairly be called "conservative"). Read closely, unexpected areas of convergence emerge. Nonetheless, ultimately, neither Huntington nor Fukuyama tells us what we need to know in order to synthesize their perspectives -- or to finally decide between them. The books are at once complementary and irreconcilable. Taken together, they frame our current perplexity. So let us explore the dilemma that is the state of the world at the moment by considering each book in turn. (1)

Templates of conflict

Anyone who has followed the war and the debates surrounding it will find something familiar and thought-provoking on nearly every page of The Clash of Civilizations. The book often reads as though it had been written this year. It's easy to forget how controversial it was when it appeared. For all the respectful (if often skeptical) attention Huntington's views have garnered from the policy community, his reception within the academy, among liberal opinion makers, and in many overseas capitals has been, and remains, overwhelmingly hostile.

The reason why is that The Clash of Civilizations sticks a thumb in the eye of liberalism and multiculturalism alike. For Fukuyama, the mainspring of history is the liberal yearning for equal recognition. Huntington gruffly retorts, "It is human to hate." Humans require identity, and they acquire it, says Huntington, through the enemies they choose. With the collapse of Cold War enmities, new forms of identity will inevitably be constructed upon new patterns of hostility. Differences of religion and culture, says Huntington, will provide the needed template for the clashes to come.

This vision of a civilizational state of nature in which hatred is rife and trust and friendship rare was bound to get a rocky reception in a nation where every other ad or song is about harmony. But Huntington pushes his argument further. Not content to affirm the inevitability of human hatred, or to predict the rise of cultural antagonisms in general, Huntington singles out "the Muslim propensity toward violent conflict" as the most important coming challenge to world peace and American power. "Muslim bellicosity and violence," says Huntington, "are late-twentieth-century facts which neither Muslims nor non-Muslims can deny." Yet until last September, deny they did. For the post-September 11 reader, watching Huntington demolish President Clinton's contention (SO like the current president's) that the West has no problem with Islam, but only with violent Islamic extremists, is a fascinating bit of reverse deja vu:

The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. …

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