Crossed Swords? Rethinking the “Clash” of Christians and Muslims

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Ian Almond, Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians Across Europe’s Battlegrounds (2011)

Since Samuel Huntington unveiled his “Clash of Civilization” thesis in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article, a cottage industry of critiques have emerged to challenge it. Great thinkers, such as Amartya Sen, Amin Maalouf and Edward Said, have expended time and ink to refute Huntington’s controversial thesis. For the most part, these works have presented rationale critiques that focus on theoretical problems raised by Samuel Huntington’s board game like simplification of geopolitics and global history. Few of these critiques have, however, tried to counter Huntington’s argument with primary source research or been as readable as Ian Almond’s Two Faiths One Banner: When Muslims Marches with Christians Across Europe’s Battlegrounds (2011).

In this slim book, Almond shows that European history is far more muddled than Huntington’s depiction of one overarching “clash” between two visions of Abrahamic monotheism. Indeed the individual motivations and allegiances proves far to complex to paint with even the most vivid neoconservative or Marxist brush strokes. In making this argument, Almond cuts across wide historical periods, as well as the politics of several different centuries, demonstrating a mastery of facts, figures and a flair for colorful details. Read more “Crossed Swords? Rethinking the “Clash” of Christians and Muslims”

Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision Rather Short on Vision

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Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (2012)

In Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, Zbigniew Brzezinski promises to map out a broad vision for American foreign policy, but his recommendations aren’t particularly visionary, nor is his vision particularly compelling.

Since Brzezinski served as President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor in the late 1970s, he has been among the United States’ leading foreign-policy thinkers, even when his realist views weren’t always in vogue.

During the administrations of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, America’s foreign policy more often served its values than its interests. Left-wing internationalists in the 1990s and right-wing neoconservatives in the early 2000s refused to recognize a tension between the two. The saddest failure of this tendency in strategic thinking — or lack thereof — was the Iraq War, which not only ruptured sectarian relations across the Middle East but emboldened America’s nemesis, Iran.

Brzezinski, who opposed the most recent expedition in Iraq from the start, cautions against ever pursuing a similar adventure in his latest book. But he falls short of making the necessary philosophical case against interventionism altogether. Rather, he lists all the repercussions of the war — how it divided the West, tainted America’s image around the world, weakened its position in the Middle East — to say, “this didn’t work,” without explaining why. Read more “Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision Rather Short on Vision”

Lieberman Finds Strange Parallels He Can’t Explain

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Victor Lieberman, Strange Parallels, Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 Volume 1: Integration on the Mainland (2003)

In the two volumes of Strange Parallels, Victor Lieberman manages if anything to put Southeast Asia in a global context.

Studying a period of over a thousand years, Lieberman’s two voluminous books propose a new world history, one that curiously originates in a traditional backwater of historiography: Burma. Developments there serve as a blueprint for what Lieberman believes must be interpreted as an “Eurasian-wide pattern of secular integration punctuated by coordinated periods of collapse” roughly between the years 800 and 1830.

From studying the history of Burma to the three continental realms of Southeast Asia, Lieberman derives the notion that all of the “rimlands” of Eurasia, which also include Japan, Western Europe, even Russia, are subject to similar administrative cycles of consolidation during the aforementioned period. He identifies ancient empires in these regions as “charter states” which were all “regarded by local successor states as normative and legitimating.” Their political and ideological organization was initially duplicated and later sophisticated by successive polities situated in the same area. Between subsequent periods of consolidation, the interregna of collapse became ever shorter. By the early nineteenth century, in Southeast Asia at least, this phenomenon had “yielded an unprecedentedly powerful and extensive formation.” Read more “Lieberman Finds Strange Parallels He Can’t Explain”

Why Do We Bowl?

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Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam suggests that we act politically because of a shared trust and sense of community. Other political scientists (such as Benedict Anderson) believe that cultural cleavages are what drive us to act. Still others (Lipset, Almond, Verba) think that a shared tradition and shared cultural norms are what drive our political activity. These culturalist schools of political science all have merits and all can explain some past forms of political motivations.

Putnam’s idea of shared trust (“social capital”) and sense of community can explain a lot and is closely related to those who believe in a shared tradition and cultural norms as motivational factors. Read more “Why Do We Bowl?”