Article – America and Its Discontents
America and its discontents: living with a changing world
A response to the ‘review’ books for a Global Business course:
Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson – Why Nations Fail
Niall Ferguson – The Great Degeneration
Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum – That Used to be Us
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge – The Fourth Revolution
Joseph Stiglitz – Making Globalization Work
Together with some comments on:
The Clash at 20, a collection of essays from Foreign Affairs
World 3.0 by Pankaj Ghemawat
Twenty-five years ago, the fall of the Iron Curtain heralded more than just the collapse of the Russian communist ‘experiment’. It was seen as the vindication of the two great pillars of the American way of life – democracy and the free market. Commentators, journalists and many academics celebrated this in a continuing series of articles, books and discussions on the theme of convergence: this was the evidence that slowly but surely everyone in the world is going to end up living like we do. However, even as it was being claimed that optimistic view was already being criticised, and then everything changed again fifteen years ago. A terrorist attack in New York, the continuing growth of China, and more recently the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis: all these events helped create a political and economic landscape in which the dominant concern moved from convergence to decline: why is the rest of the world growing faster than we are, and changing our place in the world, so that we will no longer be the #1 nation?
The two issues of convergence and decline remain central to much of the commentary about world affairs today. Many living in the US feel less assured about the country’s dominance in world affairs, concerned about what the future will bring, and a little more inclined to turn back inwards to a more domestic and isolationist approach. To some extent, each of the books in the review list reflects these concerns, and seems to share a common perspective in that they are all concerned by ‘the state we are in’. At the same time, most of the authors include in their analysis comments on what they see as the way to get the USA back on track.
If the diagnosis of the present ills sounds familiar, it is because almost all our authors are concerned about the same facts. Indeed, they all seem to share the same view that the US has lost its way. To lose your way implies there was a path in the past that was successful, and somehow we have to recover what has been lost by us in recent years as we went astray. To address this suggests two questions we might ask. First, is the story that we have lost our way correct, or are we relying on an idealised picture of the past? Second, even if things were better in the past, the world has changed and so are the old ways the right way, or should we be seeking an alternative path for the future?
Given the changes that have taken place in the global environment, it would seem sensible to expect that these authors would not just share a common view, but that they would also share a common diagnosis and recommendations for action. However, reading across the books highlights that while these books worry about the place of the US in the world today they hide a great deal of disagreement both about the details of the causes and how to correct the situation. In part this is because each one, in its own way, tries to squash the analysis of a complex world into a relatively simple framework: inevitably the simplification this entails means that details get lost and some points get emphasised at the expense of others. Moreover, many of the authors wear their colours very clearly, and so we see a perspective that is shaped by a particular set of political values, an ideology even.
However, hard facts remain, and this should lead to a degree of agreement about the way things are. Are there some common causes behind the symptoms each book addresses? This essay is going to give a personal take on the topics that are explored, and has been written to give you one perspective on the book you reviewed, as well as on the more general situation the books as a whole describe.
It is difficult to know where to begin, but I am going to start by commenting on The Fourth Revolution. I am not doing this because this is the best book or because it is ‘correct’ (although I do like it in many ways), but rather because it takes a sweeping analysis of the issues at stake (this is something this book shares with those written by Niall Ferguson and Pankaj Ghemawat who also situate their books within a framework that takes a longer term view of change).
The thesis of The Fourth Revolution is simple. The world has witnessed three major revolutions in the past few centuries. The first was the emergence of the state. The second was the emergence (or re-emergence?) of democratic government, and the third was the emergence of the welfare state. Now, the authors argue, it is time for a fourth revolution. Why are they talking about a ‘revolution’? The authors see a revolution as a radical change, both shifting the way in which things are done, and in the way in which we see ourselves. Some revolutions are short and violent, like the French Revolution; others are slower and change more gradual, as in the case of the Industrial Revolution. Mickelthwait and Wooldridge are looking for a radical change, but one it seems they are expecting will be evolutionary rather than sudden, short and violent!
Their analysis becomes interesting if we look at the third of the revolutions that have occurred. They portray the move towards establishing the welfare state as having its origins in the UK, and specifically in the work of the Webbs, who were part of the Bloomsbury Group, a gathering of largely left-wing intellectuals in the early part of the 20th Century. What kind of revolution did the Webbs want? Well, a quiet one: it was about planning, not chaos; it was a process of change to establish meritocracy, not inherited privilege; and it was for science not prejudice. They saw their revolution as a process of gradual change, accomplished by pressuring the government to respond to worthy causes such as health, education, and welfare. Most interesting, the underlying assumption was that the best people to make decisions are the most gifted, the model of a meritocracy. For those that read the book, you will have noted their view had a dark side, too: they also supported larger families for the meritocracy, and sterilisation for the less competent.
The other important issue was the outcome they sought. Their goal was to ensure equality (a fair deal for everyone?): today we would say the outcome was the creation of the welfare state. They sought equality of opportunity: for a good education, for health care, for a living wage. Looking back over the past 100 years, we know there are many challenges in creating a system that gives equality of opportunity in practice. It is not just the case that people differ in their capabilities, but the environments in which they grow up can also be very different. Families, schools, peers, and even towns and rural areas, they all play a role in shaping development. Does this mean that equality of opportunity is impossible? Tawney, writing in the 1950s on Equality recognised it was an ideal, but argued that it was still one worth striving to achieve: ideals can be beacons for change, even if they will always be unattainable.
Looking to the future, Mickelthwait and Wooldridge are arguing for another revolution of the same kind, brought about by thoughtful people, and the result of careful planning and development. In developing their ideas about this next revolution, they find some interesting lessons to be learnt in Singapore, and possibly in China. At first glance it seems they are unlike some of the others in this collection of books as they look forward. Rather than wanting to restore what existed in the past (a theme we will see in some of the other authors’ views), they are suggesting a major change in the way in which the nation state operates: going in a new direction which is less supportive, with government more focussed on the key areas of the rule of law, the protection of individual rights, and the enabling of business; and, complementing this, a greater emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for their own lives, what they work for, and what they are prepared to do without. It is a world of tough love. Well, perhaps there are some elements of the past in this, but it is the idea that each person is responsible for their own life and what they want to get out of it. This is more than just ‘freedom of choice’; this is about being much more ‘on your own’!
This is not a call to abandon democracy. Rather it is a view that democracy is in severe need of a makeover. Is that makeover to return to the small government model that the Republicans keep advocating? Or is it something more? They seem to urging a smaller role for government in some respects, and more individual responsibility, but they still see democracy as critical in monitoring those areas where the government does have a role. I think they want to bring government back to being close to and transparent to the electorate. When I was younger, the big worry was the influence of the ‘military industrial complex’; if Mickelthwait and Wooldridge are right, the worry today is the ‘corporate government complex’. Big money politics, corporate and government rent-seeking, huge welfare costs – are we able to turn all that around? Do we need our equivalent of Lee Kwan Yew, or perhaps of Amy Chua? The reforms these two authors seek will be painful – a sort of ‘fifty shades of government change’!
I started with The fourth revolution because it provides a nice framework against which to comment on the other books. They, too, seek change, but some of the changes they advocate look rather different, and if there is one common theme in at least two of the others, it is that the changes they propose are more directly concerned with trying to reclaim the past, to go back to the way things were.
The Fourth Revolution sets its approach within the broader sweep of history, and Niall Ferguson also looks back to the past. However, his examination is more nostalgic, and while his analysis shares some of the themes of the other writers, he has his own twist on where the source of the problems and the opportunities for future change are to be found. His book, The Great Degeneration, opens with some familiar observations: in describing the US as a ‘stationary state’, he identifies three key issues, excessive regulation, limited mobility, and growing income divergence. He also puts forward a major concern about debt, debt that he feels is being offloaded by the government on to future generations – an issue well illustrated by current concerns over funding health insurance and social welfare programs (especially pensions).
However, these concerns are then situated within an argument about the importance of institutions, and the importance of the transition that took place some 200 years ago in Europe and later the US from the ‘limited access organisation’ of the past to the ‘open access’ approach that followed. Why did an open, civil society with a decentralised government and emphasis on the rule of law matter? Ferguson claims these conditions created the context for wealth generation that has characterised Western Europe and the US at least up until recently. Why has it gone wrong? Ferguson is concerned that we are returning to business and government relying on increasingly ‘extractive’ approaches, whereby corporations (and therefore their shareholders and senior executives) and governments (and therefore those they support) get rich by charging rents as well as by selling goods and services. Those rents cover such things as subsidies, permits, and all the other charges that sit on the top of the normal costs of delivering a product or service (by the way, we will find another of the books touches on a similar analysis, contrasting extractive and ‘inclusive’ approaches).
In effect, charging rents over and above recovering costs means that businesses, and especially those at the top, grow their profits excessively, extracting money from the rest of society. Of course, such a process of wealth transfer can only take place in a democracy if legislators are willing to agree to laws and regulations that transfer money to people and corporations through such mechanisms as protective subsidies (varieties of ‘pork’ as some would describe them). Such an approach would imply that legislators favour some constituencies, especially those that fund political campaigns. This is the lobbying/pork/rent seeking nexus!
Ferguson covers some familiar territory. Get rid of excessive government regulation: this has to be linked with allowing a more ‘Darwinian’ environment, for if the business world is to be less regulated, so all can compete to be successful but no-one can be too big to fail. Ferguson argues strongly that it was regulations, encouraging home buying and extending access to mortgages that caused the GFC. Give the central bank some powers, allow businesses (and banks) to fail, and punish wrong doers. It sounds easy. At the same time, he goes on to argue that we should get rid of the excessive rule of lawyers, and get back to a more effective rule of law that focuses on property rights, fairness, and perhaps equality, too, based on common law principles not excessive legislation.
Most interesting is his argument is that we should get the government out of so many of the areas in which it acts today, and go back to promoting the virtues of the ‘civil society’, where people look after themselves – from non-government schools through to welfare services and maintaining social order. Is this similar in its conclusions from those of Mickelthwait and Wooldridge? I think the differences are subtle but important: in The Fourth Revolution it is not so much the civil society as the ‘responsible society’ that is being proposed, but Ferguson is saying quite clearly that we need to get back to the way we used to do things!
Is there a problem with his analysis? Perhaps one telling part of the book was the story about clearing the beach. Discontent with the rubbish accumulating on the beach near his Welsh house, Ferguson wanted to keep it clean, and started to do some of this himself, while at the same time calling for volunteers. Progress was slow, but once the Lions Club got involved the clearing process was well organised and the result showed the power of voluntary organisations. Ferguson uses this as a stepping point into the importance of social capital, and Putnam’s extensive exploration of the decline of social capital (and by implication the decline of the civil society).
Is that story convincing? I wondered about what was achieved at that North Wales beach. Certainly, it was keep clean. However, the ocean was still being used as a dumping ground and other beaches were still polluted: is the answer that we must all go out and clean the beaches? I think that we might be better served by addressing the real problem, which is the pollution and exploitation of the oceans by individuals and by businesses (an example of the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’). Can voluntary groups resolve that problem, or are their activities like to be superficial and miss the underlying issues at stake? It seems to me that only government and inter-government action can deal with major problems of that kind.
This takes me back to the question I raised earlier. Many of our writers look back to better times. But ‘better times’ was when the world was smaller. I have doubts that solutions that worked for small countries and small cities are possible or even feasible in the crowded world of today. Adam Smith could write about the hidden hand working to ensure the efficiency of the market, and the social context in which the baker made his bread: that world, where we knew the baker or even the people with whom we traded overseas, has little to do with the impersonal world of business today. Trust in people we knew was central.
Now we find it hard to trust others. We don’t know them, and we rely on the impersonal processes of the law to ensure that contracts are met, that rules are followed, and that dishonesty and trickery is largely brought under control. We believe that the free market will work, even if it takes time to balance out the forces involved. What was it Keynes said, when asked about the view of economists that the market will always work in the long run: “In the long run we are all dead.” Actually, the fuller quote is worth reading, as Keynes reflects on markets ability to correct and resolve imbalances:
Now, in the long run, this is probably true ….. but this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again” (from Keynes Collected Writings, iv, 56)
Ferguson is not the only author to look back to a better past. Of course, it is not a surprise to find that Thomas Friedman also wants us to get back to the America that was. Writing with Michael Mandelbaum, as his book title tells us so clearly a key theme is about the past: ‘that used to be us’, and somehow we have gone astray. Of the two authors, Friedman is well known as an evangelist of ideas that matter, and he writes with that journalistic fervour that sweeps the reader along muttering ‘well, yes, of course’ as each point is pushed home. Moreover when we know that he is rather more inclined to a Democrat’s view of the world than the previous two writers (he and Stiglitz are the furthest to the left on the political spectrum, I think).
What do Friedman and Mandelbaum add to the mix? After another of those telling stories that are used to encapsulate so much of the overall argument (this time about the high speed rail link between Beijing and Tianjin – that was built at high speed as well!), they identify four ills facing the USA. These are forgetting what they call the OODA loop, the continuous need to observe, orient, decide, act – which we might summarise as acting strategically; a failure to address a series of major problems including debt, education, energy, climate change and so on; a failure to invest in the future, associated with the allied need to be entrepreneurial and risk taking; and a divided, ineffective and paralysed government. The good news is that we do not need to copy what other countries are doing right now, because we had the formula for success in the past; all we need to do is be the way we were.
Their recipe is based on what they define as the five pillars of prosperity. These comprise the formula to regain greatness: public education for more and more Americans; building and modernising the country’s infrastructure; keeping the doors open to immigration; government support for basic research and development; and regulations to protect private economic activity – from safeguards against economic collapse to incentives to protection of IP through enforceable patents. Friedman and Mandelbaum are good at instilling a bit of fear too: the world is divided between creators and servers, and being average is not enough (I guess that means we need to be like Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average?). I know, it is easy to make fun of enthusiasm, and a lot of the message is really about making sure we understand that success comes from hard work – and that point surely is true!
It isn’t all nostalgia. Friedman and Mandelbaum want to retrieve our past recipes for success, but they recognise these are to be pursued in a different environment. The book makes clear that the digital world has changed so much that many aspects of the past are irrecoverable. Today, what they describe as the launching pads for the future can be cities and towns that combine universities with an educated populace, dynamic businesses and the best It infrastructure in the world. This is recognising that the virtue of Silicon Valley was the clustering of all these things, just as we now see in Boston, RTP and many other hubs of innovation around the USA. Moreover, they also get Richard Florida’s point that the nature of the urban experience is changing, and we are seeing the flow of the brightest young people right into the city centre, the ‘great reset’ as he calls it.
Friedman has written other books about the impact of technology and the ‘levelling’ of the world as a competitive environment: perhaps it is not as flat as he has argued, but he and Mandelbaum are right to emphasise the impact of the digital era. But it is not just about technology. It is also about corporations, profits, and the desire to make money. Reading That used to be us reminded me of a much earlier book by Max Holland, When the machine stopped. Published back in 1989 (by Harvard Business School Press), it tells the story of Burgmaster, a machine tool manufacturer, and is a moving and prescient story about the decline of the US as a manufacturer. Like Friedman, Holland was a journalist, but his focus on just one story speaks to a wider theme with a great deal of power and insight: the forces that killed Burgmaster were corporate decisions about profitability, the value of outsourcing, and international competition.
In the rush to cover so much, it is easy to miss the need for more in depth analysis of the issues: I missed a Burgmaster story here. There is a tendency for Friedman and Mandelbaum to limit their focus to the surface of the challenges. However, they offer a very interesting and somewhat unexpected element towards the end of the their analysis. Here, out of the blue, Friedman and Mandelbaum suggest putting forward a third party candidate for the US Presidency. Their proposal is clever, and is justified by citing some interesting examples of third party impact in the past. A third party candidate has little chance of winning, but by their very participation they will affect the debate and impact on policy. Could an independent have a real impact? Someone high profile enough, they argue, could.
Like so many things, once you get used to the idea, so you see its challenges. They are presuming a candidate who will want to make the kind of changes they are advocating in their book. However, it is equally easy to assume that a third party candidate might represent some kind of extremist group, well funded, but on the edges of the mainstream views. That could push the debate into less attractive territory. Such a candidate might get funding from a few very rich extremists with similar views. Friedman and Mandelbaum argue that new forms of IT could change the reach and attractiveness of a candidate at a fraction of the cost that has become typical in recent years: again, that sounds good if we are talking about a candidate with sensible and positive views. However, why would that have to be the case? It is hard not to admire this strategy to try to change the debate in the USA; it is also hard to imagine that this is likely to happen I the way their optimism suggests. However, if nothing else Friedman and Mandelbaum have done a good job of getting some key issues out for discussion.
Getting items on the agenda for discussion is important, but so is the need to have a framework that makes sense of what is happening, and what needs to be changed. A rather different perspective to that offered in That used to be us, and one that takes us back to Ferguson’s analysis, comes from Acemoglu and Robinson, as they take a look the bigger historical picture of what leads to the decline and fall of nations. Their analysis has much in common with Ferguson’s, as they repeat the theme of looking back at what worked well in the past. Their framework distinguishes between inclusive political and economic systems and those that are extractive: inclusive systems ensure the enforcement of property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investment; extractive systems take resources from the many to the benefit of the few, fail to protect property rights, and distort investment incentives. Does that sound familiar? It is essentially the same as the Ferguson analysis, with the inclusive system similar to the civil society that he puts forward in contrast to the extractive world in which the rich keep getting richer at the expense of everyone else.
Acemoglu and Robinson offer come compelling illustrations of their broader thesis. The contrast between the two halves of the city of Nogales, part in Arizona USA, and part in Sonora, Mexico opens the book, and sets the scene perfectly. Incomes in the Mexican half are one third those in the US half, crime is higher, and so it goes on. What makes the difference? They explain that the US half of Nogales has been based in the more inclusive world of the US, whereas the Mexican half of the town is based in a more extractive world. It is used as a vivid and simple example of their thesis that is then developed in many case studies encompassing centuries of development and very different regions of the world. They go on to explain the virtuous circle of growing prosperity and shared wealth that the inclusive approach produces.
They do not argue that we should go back to the way we were, however. Their thesis is more complex. Rather they argue that inclusiveness is a framework that needs to be developed, over time, not a cookie-cutter to be imposed on a society. Empowering the population, recognising the importance of media in communicating ideas and the need for political systems and lobby groups to move change forward, all these factors play a role in shifting from extraction to incisiveness, and everywhere developments are contingent on the realities of the present situation, and the inheritances of the past. How much easier it is to create an inclusive approach in a new country than to gradually shift the institutions of an existing one.
Is there a problem with their analysis? Does it deal with the problem of size that appears to limit the appeal of the ‘go back to the way we were’ approach that Ferguson and Friedman suggest – albeit in very different language! Perhaps we need a case study to make the thesis convincing. Not a case study like Nogales, fascinating though it was. There are a number of reasons why the two halves of Nogales may have developed differently, and the extractive-inclusive dichotomy is only one of them. Government support, different trading opportunities, language barriers for business development, and so many other factors may have played into this divergence in outcomes.
If we want to understand more about extractive and inclusive institutions, China might be more appropriate to consider. China is a huge country, trying to create wealth, eliminate poverty, and enhance the opportunities to learn, work and innovate. Today, Acemoglu and Robinson see it as an extractive society, and certainly the socialist ideals of Mao Tse-tung have been replaced with central control and extensive corruption (not that he was a laissez-faire leader!). The current president, Xi Jinping, is trying to make some changes, and appears to be tackling the issue of corruption: right now we don’t know if this is to ensure he has beaten down any potential rivals to his increasing power, or if he is trying to create a better society.
Is China eventually going to transform into an inclusive society in a form familiar to us in the West, or is that a reflection of our biases? The Chinese leadership believes it is possible to construct something different, a ‘socialist market economy’: it would not be like Singapore, and it would not be like the USA. They see the USA as failed in many ways (high rates of imprisonment, extractive political and economic systems); they recognise the limits of the controlling approach that Singapore has followed, and the risk of revolution that such control can create. Perhaps we should pay close attention to China for the next few years to see if they are able to create a new approach?
The last of the five books takes a very different approach. With experience in the White House and the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz is an economist, and he has a decidedly socialist approach to globalisation. His chapter titles make the agenda clear, as he wants to make trade fair, lift the resources curse, save the planet, get rid of the burden of debt, and even rethink how we manage and protect Intellectual Property. Like some of the other authors, he has a knack of using telling stories to make key points, and he nicely counterbalances the World Social Forum on the outskirts of Mumbai with the World Economic Forum in Davos: it is hard not to believe that the former is a potent source of ideas and initiatives to bring benefits to both the developing and developed worlds, and the latter a rich man’s club largely concerned with corporate profits and developed economies, and a feel-good belief they are creating a better world.
Stiglitz make a good case in showing how politics, alliances and self-interest have warped globalisation to be a further part of the system that ensure that the rich get richer, and the poor stay poor. Each of his proposals makes eminently good sense, whether he is talking about ways to make trade fair, or managing and even forgiving debt. How could there be any problem with his proposals and strategies? Surely everyone would agree with what is a mixture of social justice and good sense? Surely not: the very same political and economic forces that have led us to the current unequal world are exactly the ones that would thwart and derail his suggestions. In its own way, I fear that Stiglitz is as unrealistic as Ferguson. Both want to change the world, and both are better at ideology than practice.
Generally speaking, Stiglitz is a far less popular writer than Ferguson or Friedman. He writes well and convincingly, but I doubt his ideas get much discussion in boardrooms, and even government probably recognise the ideals he espouses and at the same time know all too well the political realities that make most of his suggestions infeasible if not downright impossible. Stiglitz has written the textbook for social development and a globally fair system. However, his ideals will be hard to realise in practice as they rub up against the need of some nations to retain the wealth they have acquired, and the interest of enterprises concerned to increase profits and returns to shareholders. Developing countries want to enhance education, build infrastructure, and protect growing industries. Developed nations are happy to lend them money, but also we want to choose how it is spent, and we certainly want to be paid back. Aid sometimes looks like another form of FDI!
Stiglitz is seeing a path to a better world. One of the other two other books in this list, published under the strange title World 3.0, by Pankaj Ghemawat, also promises a better world for everyone. His approach is data rich and insightful, and he emphasises the importance of getting away from confrontation. He claims that collaboration and reciprocity establish a better path for the future, ensuring greater prosperity for all, with more market integration, some targeted regulation, and broadening circles of interdependent networks of support. Disentangling the confusions in many countries between integration and regulation allows many different paths for future development to emerge and be assessed. However, Ghemawat doesn’t pull his punches, and he makes it clear we still have to choose between options. Ghemawat takes an essentially pragmatic approach, focussing on business as the real interface between nations, and recognises that thinking the world is not the same everywhere and that a truly cosmopolitan approach is required that is realistic about the world we live in today.
Ghemawat comes across as deliberately counter-intuitive at times, arguing against common beliefs and expectations. He likes localisation, and notes that here he is in a minority as business professors like globalisation, as also do most students. Moreover he suggest there is not enough focus on counter-arguments to help us re-examine what we ‘know’ is the case, which are important in helping business and governments address issues in the ‘real world’.
At the same time, Ghemawat argues for a cosmopolitan approach, one that strengthens adaptation and social alignment, that looks are rethinking the broader challenges of social welfare, and one that actively shows the benefits of integration. In a complex and diverse world, many find fostering human capacity to connect across distances – physical, social, etc. – the biggest challenge. He argues that we need to stretch our perspectives to encompass colleagues, customers, and investors in different parts of the world, bringing ‘them’ closer to ‘us’. His teaching discipline is strategy, and he develops some helpful models to understand the environment for global business and identify the operational issues that confront trading across borders.
Ghemawat is interested in educating people to be open to the ‘other person’: we are far from being open at present, and distance has a major impact: as distance increases, connectedness declines. This is the so-called ‘them and us’ issue. The further away people are from us, the greater the psychic distance (the subjective degree of emotional or sympathetic attachment maintained towards a group or place), and the diminution of sympathy for others. Trust declines dramatically, and as it does so, so do the importance of geographic, linguistic and national differences, and especially culture and the threat of wars: in contrast, higher trust increases trade.
Them and us, trust and difference, they seem to be familiar themes. That takes us to the final book on the list, a book that brings us right back to where we started. Huntington wrote an essay on the ‘clash between civilisations’ a rejoinder in many ways to Fukuyama’s book The end of history and the last man. Twenty years later, a collection of essays on The clash at twenty leaves us still tussling with the question: convergence or divergence? Suggesting that conflicts in the future are likely to be about civilisations rather than nations seems odd twenty years later. Most wars are still local, often between people close in culture, history and even ideologies. Civilisations may represent some kind of deep cultural reference point, but, as mobility, technology and voluntary and involuntary migration continue to create ever more diverse countries, so the parameters of difference are increasingly complex, and mask ties and overlaps that bind people together as much as they separate them.
Actually Huntington throws into sharp relief the issue that sits behind all these books. Each, in its own way, wants to offer a grand and overarching framework to make sense of the world, and how to change it. Each falls into the trap of finding the data that suits the narrative they are using, and each ignores the contradictions and differences that are present. There can be no simple framework that understands our world: each framework is like a tiny part of a complex mosaic. It has its place, but in the matrix of all the influences it is just one brightly coloured piece.