What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

A Millennium Symposium

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 99 (Januray 2000): 20-22.

[Symposium Contents]

Francis Cardinal George

For most of this violent century, realism has been the dominant paradigm for theorists and practitioners of international relations in the United States. There are varieties of realism, of course. Classical realists such as Hans Morgenthau explain perpetual international competition and conflict by highlighting our selfish human nature, while neorealists such as Kenneth Waltz insist that all regimes behave similarly because they are similarly constrained by the "anarchic" structure of the post-Westphalian international system of sovereign states. The neorealist attempt to abstract from human nature begs several questions, one of which is "Why is the lack of certainty with regard to other states’ intentions a problem in the first place?" As realist explanations go, perhaps Hobbes’—which includes both human agents and structure—is the most analytically complete.

But differences in causal emphasis notwithstanding, most realists agree on the inevitability of the hallmarks of international politics: fear, attention to relative capabilities, the security dilemma, balancing through arming and alliances, costly arms races (and the supporting arms market), and war. Fortunately, most realists—contra Machiavelli—also agree that the challenges posed by human nature and freedom do not eliminate normative constraints upon the use of force, including forbidding the targeting of civilians. Instead, responsible realists have prescribed a combination of prudent balancing against capabilities in order to deter, and have argued for the just use of force when deterrence fails.

In his 1993 Foreign Affairs article "The Clash of Civilizations?" and later in his 1996 book, Samuel P. Huntington seems to argue from realist premises—with a civilizational twist—in predicting the international future and prescribing security measures. Huntington asserts that the perceived security and cultural threats posed by the developed and liberal democratic states of the West will be opposed by the collective will of modernizing and increasingly identity-conscious non-Western states, particularly those of Sinic and Islamic civilizations.

History is not ending. Instead, because of ideas—especially religious beliefs—and culture, the realist clash of states will be replaced with the multipolar clash of civilizations. For the West, Huntington adds, the very culture that threatens others also makes it vulnerable: consumerism and multiculturalism erode the strength and unity necessary for this coming clash. His conclusions follow logically enough from these premises. Since "what happens within a civilization is as crucial to its ability to resist destruction from external sources as it is to holding off decay from within," Western security in this emerging world order will depend upon its collective ability to reverse cultural decay and incoherence. Huntington also recommends noninterventionist policies toward conflicts within other civilizations and core state mediation to prevent escalating conflicts along "fault lines" between civilizations.

While this argument is not devoid of theoretical and empirical weaknesses (e.g., interstate conflicts within civilizations still loom large, perceptions of the West among non-Westerners are more complex than Huntington allows, and the power of the West relative to other civilizations may not be declining), I wish to highlight one of its theoretical strengths. Although subscribing to realism in asserting that uncertainty about intentions will produce fear between civilizations, Huntington asserts that comfort with intentions can occur within civilizations. In his words, "Publics and statesmen are less likely to see threats emerging from people they feel they understand and can trust because of shared language, religion, values, institutions, and culture." In other words, as liberal peace and critical theorists have been asserting for years, ideas shape human nature and intentions, and these intentions can be known.

The weakness of Huntington’s idealism lies in his overly simplistic depiction of how ideas can mitigate the security dilemma. More important than the mere sharing of ideas is the quality of the ideas shared. Two societies that universalize the notion of rights ought to be more comfortable with one another than two that simply share a commitment to forceful self-aggrandizement.

Weaknesses and oversimplifications notwithstanding, Huntington’s paradigm—a combination of realist and idealist elements—has merit, and illuminates an important international role for the Church in the coming decades. Although factions within Islamic societies may overstate the security threat posed by the West, they are rightly concerned with the effects of modernity and postmodernity on their premodern, faith-oriented cultures. But as the Church’s often difficult relationship with the Enlightenment has helped us to see, not all modern ideas are inconsistent with faith and human fulfillment—or security.

In the coming decades, the dialogue between Christianity and Islam can be a powerful influence on how Muslims perceive modernity and the West’s intentions. Such a dialogue can assure the Muslim world that science and authentic liberalism are neither totally grounded in nor necessarily conducive to secularism, relativism, and individualism, and that liberal societies’ human rights foundations promote peace among them. At the same time, this dialogue can also assure Islam that Christians are well aware of modern societies’ cultural shortcomings and that the Church is working to convert these cultures—an effort that Pope John Paul II has called "the evangelization of culture." Christians should welcome Muslim cooperation in addressing the moral failures of modernity.

At the end of his book, Huntington offers a final peace-promoting recommendation to the West: "Renounce universalism, accept [global] diversity, and seek commonalities" that constitute the "thin minimalist morality" of "Civilization." But as mentioned earlier, common ground is not as important as true ground. Cultures share truths because civilizations are products of a human nature created and graced by the one God. Cultures also deviate from the truth—in ways both universal and home-grown—because of the same human nature, created free and prone to pride. As an evangelizing Church makes publicly available the truth that is Jesus Christ, she is in a unique position in this next century and millennium to offer Christ’s gifts to all cultures and to create not just a common civilization but a globalization of solidarity—perhaps even what Pope Paul VI did not hesitate to call a civilization of love.

Francis Cardinal George is the Archbishop of Chicago.