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Islam and Great Power Rivalry: Doom and Humanism in International Relations

The world today faces the most wars since World War II. “Great Power Rivalry” has become a major narrative in explaining the trend toward conflict. However, humanism has deep roots in all societies and gives us the means to build coexistence.

When we survey the state of international relations today, the overwhelming mood seems to be one of pervasive pessimism. The frameworks of leading thinkers confirm this.  

For the French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy we are living in what he calls the “age of madness.” Niall Ferguson contends, “We are already well on our way to Raskolnikov’s nightmare at the end of Crime and Punishment, in which humanity goes collectively mad and descends into internecine slaughter.”  

John Gray affirms we are heading for “global anarchy.” Noam Chomsky argues that humanity is “at the brink of self-destruction” and the Israeli intellectual Yuval Noah Harari contends, “We are probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens.” 

Leading statesmen are telling us to reset our calculations—we are essentially living in a world of increasing warfare. The UK defense secretary, Grant Shapps, declared that the post-Second World War and post-Cold War world was over. Instead of being “post-war,” the world was now “pre-war,” and he warned of wars with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea within the next five years. Already, he said, citing UN statistics, “we are facing the highest number of violent conflicts since the Second World War.” Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland, agreed, warning, “I know it sounds devastating, especially to people of the younger generation, but we have to mentally get used to the arrival of a new era. The prewar era.” 

It is thus no surprise that John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, perhaps the most prominent current proponent of the “realist” school of international relations, has recently surged in the media, despite authoring his major book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics nearly a quarter century ago. Like Samuel Huntington after 9/11, Mearsheimer has met a moment that has in many ways caught up to him. He has put forward a series of bleak arguments about the inherently warring nature of states which have caught on, we believe, because they provide a framework to make sense of the darkening storms around us.  

In this, “Great Power Rivalry” is a new “Clash of Civilizations”—a deterministic argument that runs a risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

But does “Great Power Rivalry” truly illuminate current world politics and adequately explain the motivations of states, which, after all, are made up of human beings? We argue that it does not. To illustrate this, we will focus on the compatibility between the theory and Islam and, more generally, humanistic philosophies which have been proven to motivate people’s actions. Not only does Great Power Rivalry come up short as an explanatory meta-narrative of the times, but it could actually help drive conflict. In this, “Great Power Rivalry” is a new “Clash of Civilizations”—a deterministic argument that runs a risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

Islam and world politics 

When Huntington first published his 1993 Foreign Affairs article which argued that post-Cold War conflicts would be between clashing “civilizations,” it led to great debate in academia and in diplomatic circles. There was an immediate counter by those who felt that the paradigm was simplistic in the extreme and did not capture the full dynamics of the relationship between different cultures and civilizations. Alternative international relations frameworks were proposed such as the “Dialogue of Civilizations,” launched at the UN in 1997 by Iranian president Mohammad Khatami.  

The “Dialogue of Civilizations” is based in humanism. It is predicated on learning about the “other” with the goal of fostering human coexistence. In the Islamic context, it means learning about the world of Islam, which consists of 57 states and a population of 2 billion people. Islam is based in the foundational values of ilm (knowledge), adl (justice), and ihsan (compassion), which led to the advances of the Islamic “Golden Age” and influenced the European Enlightenment.  

With this background, there is no reason to assume that Islam as one such “civilization” (as defined by Huntington) is destined to clash with other religions and cultures. Indeed, Islam’s humanistic foundational values teach the opposite approach. History is replete with examples of coexistence between Islam and other religions and cultures, for example in Andalusia, Spain. We have promoted the “Dialogue of Civilizations” in our own work, for example in our quartet of anthropological studies examining the relationship between the Islamic world and the West.  

After 9/11, however, the Clash of Civilizations narrative was easily and commonly applied to the Muslim world to explain why the attacks happened and justify the “Global War on Terror” launched in response—which only drove further conflict. The rich and diverse world of Islam, which is crucial to understand for anyone interested in comprehending world politics, was distorted and reduced to a caricature.  

While we are now nearly a quarter century away from 9/11, Huntington’s influence remains.

Had the Dialogue of Civilizations not been arrested by 9/11 when it was most needed, it might have mitigated some of this turmoil. While we are now nearly a quarter century away from 9/11, Huntington’s influence remains. Scholars such as Amitav Acharya, for example, have noted the trend of states defining their identity in “civilizational” terms. 

The Clash of Great Powers  

Today, a new “clash” theory, this time between “Great Powers” is ascendent and personified by Mearsheimer. His surging global fame began at the time of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and has continued through Israel’s campaign in Gaza.  

Mearsheimer has proved controversial in his arguments that 1) NATO provoked Russia to invade Ukraine by expanding to the east and thus interfering with Russia’s sphere of regional influence and 2) Israel, an “albatross” and a “liability” for the US, is perpetuating “genocide” in Gaza in which the US is “complicit.” He argues that Americans cannot challenge their nation’s support for Israel because of the influence of the “Israel lobby” in the United States. He also makes assertions like “no country on the planet should trust the Americans.” In today’s charged atmosphere these are provocative statements, but Mearsheimer makes them with the backing of evidence in advancing his interpretation of events.  

In the cases of both Ukraine and Israel, Mearsheimer laments that in involving itself with these wars, the US is taking its eye off China—the essential confrontation that the US must have to “contain” a rising “peer hegemon.” China is, Mearsheimer argues, “the most dangerous threat that we face.” 

Mearsheimer has long argued that states, operating in an environment of global anarchy, selfishly seek raw power for themselves in furtherance of their national interests. His picture of “offensive realism” is a grim one in which states attempt to maximize their chances of survival in their competition with other states. Each state is unsure of how the others will behave and therefore will aggressively gather as many allies and as much political and military power as possible, including seeking nuclear superiority. Zero-sum games are played by the Great Powers in their dealings with rivals. It is a framework, Mearsheimer contends, in keeping with the pessimistic philosophy of Thomas Hobbes regarding human nature. 

In many ways Mearsheimer’s outlook is complementary to that of Huntington. While Mearsheimer explains, “There has always been conflict, there is conflict today, and there always will be conflict, and there’s not much you can do about it,” Huntington argued that the likelihood of achieving “general or lasting peace among ethnic groups, states, or nations is remote.”  

Yet whether we are talking about a “clash of great powers” (Mearsheimer) or a “clash of civilizations” in which states representing different “civilizational” identities oppose each other (Huntington)—we are still talking about open-ended global confrontation and warfare between states. 

The difference is that while Mearsheimer defined a state’s national interest as a desire to “maximize its own share of world power,” Huntington asserted that a state’s national interest and foreign policy are determined by its identity. Yet whether we are talking about a “clash of great powers” (Mearsheimer) or a “clash of civilizations” in which states representing different “civilizational” identities oppose each other (Huntington)—we are still talking about open-ended global confrontation and warfare between states. 

The importance of humanism 

We note that in both these paradigms, humanistic values are nowhere to be seen, and indeed are seen as a mask to conceal the “true” story—clashing civilizations or the raw power realpolitik machinations of states. Just as proponents of the Clash of Civilizations dismissed the Dialogue of Civilizations, adherents of Great Power Rivalry would dismiss similar humanistic worldviews that see humanity as an interconnected whole. This is not necessarily the “liberalism” discussed by theorists but the human values that influenced liberalism.  

In Islamic societies, the values of ilm, adl, and ihsan remain essential to understanding human behavior. They serve as guidance, ideals towards which human beings must aspire and which continue to motivate them. This ethos gives people a sense of hope, strength, and confidence. This is in spite of global trends that might indicate the opposite, such as rising nationalism and the “re-tribalization” of communities—which we have argued is occurring throughout the world.  

Countries such as the United States have similar important strains of identity which promote humanistic values such as the visionary examples of America’s Founding Fathers in their advocacy of religious freedom, education, democracy, and civil liberties. These humanistic values are an important part of American identity, despite Huntington’s arguments about American identity being rooted in “Western civilization” and “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” culture. Such humanistic values are found in all cultures and states and can be used as grounds for promoting coexistence.  

And yet, “Great Power Rivalry” discounts such values as motivators in state behavior in asserting “realism,” thus purportedly capturing the reality of how the world is. In the context of Islam, for example, it would imply that reading the great Muslim philosophers and political scientists like Ibn Khaldun and Nizam al-Mulk is not useful or relevant in understanding Muslim societies and how they function.  

Reaching the ideal 

As anthropologists, we must point out that realism is only a philosophical theory, albeit one that could be useful in explaining aspects of human societies, as popular or dominant theories often are. It is no substitute for on-the-ground perspectives, which tend to be varied. There is a spectrum of beliefs in society and differing perceptions of its animating values and principles.  

Today, the world faces myriad, grievous threats such as the devastation of climate change, the terror of nuclear war, the peril of pandemics, and the impact of AI. All require a united and global approach to address.  

We need renewed dialogue and peacebuilding in order to promote coexistence between the world’s diverse peoples.

The solutions or desired outcomes posed by many analysts of Great Power Rivalry (a “balance of power”) and the Clash of Civilizations (non-interference in other civilizations) cannot tackle these problems. Neither will they be effective at ameliorating the world’s deepening wounds of ethnic, racial, tribal, and religious violence which are causing so much human suffering—particularly as so many of these conflicts are occurring within rather than between states. We need renewed dialogue and peacebuilding in order to promote coexistence between the world’s diverse peoples. It is a vision captured in the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, or healing a fractured world.  

There are many people with humanistic values—as our years of fieldwork on multiple continents attests—including at the highest levels of state policymaking. A “realist” approach resigned to perpetual conflict between peoples is unacceptable, both as a universal social science paradigm and a prescriptive policy directive. If global societies are moving towards increasing conflict, we should do all we can to reverse such trends. We need to remind ourselves that humanism means reaching for an ideal—this ideal may not be achieved, but we must reach for it, nonetheless. We will doom ourselves if we accept that such a pursuit is inherently futile.  

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not express the official position of the Wilson Center.

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more