Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mapping the Huntington-Stegosaur Debate at 20

Almost exactly twenty years ago, Samuel Huntington predicted that conflicts in the coming century would occur along civilizational, rather than political or ideological lines. It was an analysis that even at the time seemed to have been inspired more by a Risk board than the real world, and subsequently many people have been understandably content to simply ignore it. Even after making this map, I thought perhaps more useful than actual analysis would be simply pointing out that you could create a more accurate model of global conflict with a child's drawing of a giant Stegosaurus. But this seemed too flippant in light of the damage done by people who do take Huntington seriously. And unfortunately, as this map sort of shows, his vision has been just accurate enough to encourage these folks.

While Huntington named a number of different major civilizational groupings (shown at left), his focus was on the coming conflict between Western and Islamic civilizations. This map compares his hypothesis with data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program that pinpoints world conflicts identified as causing 1,000+ deaths per year in 2012. If you're willing to ignore everything else going on in Afghanistan and post-US-withdrawal Iraq, then it appears two of these eleven conflicts fit Huntington's prediction, as well as another two, in Nigeria and Sudan, that he would say are between Islamic and "African" civilizations, whatever that means.

Now surely someone will look at this map and point out that even if over half of these conflicts clearly aren't occurring between the civilizations Huntington predicted, an awful lot of them do seem to be taking place within the Islamic world. There are, it would seem, a few things to be said about this. First that there was a tragically self-fulfilling element to Huntington's ideas, particularly as they became popular in the US around the same time that a number of radicals in the Islamic world were getting interested in the idea of a clash of civilizations from the other side. The US was directly involved in instigating the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, while US involvement has also helped drive the conflicts in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Even the violence in Egypt and Syria owes its intensity in some measure to forces radicalized, if not unleashed, by America's wars in the Middle East. There are also several conflicts - Afghanistan again, Somalia, and to some extent Yemen - that can be traced back to US and Russian sponsored proxy battles during the Cold War. More striking, though, is the fact that the violence in Columbia, Mexico, Nigeria and Sudan is all inextricably linked with American consumption of cocaine and oil (while oil and heroin play their part in Iraq and Afghanistan as well). These conflicts are also tied to plenty of local factors too, obviously, and I don't think we should be laying all the world's problems purely at the feet of Western greed. Still, if we're going to focus on the religious dimension in global conflict, we might consider the line probably not actually spoken by Porfirio Diaz "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close the United States."