Books in Review
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 73 (May 1997): 40-45.
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. By Samuel P. Huntington. Simon & Schuster. 367 pp. $26.
Reviewed by A. J. Bacevich
Widely heralded prognostications to the contrary notwithstanding, history has not ended. Rather, it continues to advance, implacable and perverse as ever. Indeed, according to this latest work by the distinguished political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, history may well be entering a particularly momentous and dangerous phase: momentous, because the advent of culture as the focal point of international politics is giving rise to antagonisms likely to dwarf the controversies of the past; dangerous, because illusions suffusing the present-day West may well portend disaster for "our side" in the impending global Kulturkampf.
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is a work touched by genius. Huntington has written a brilliant, riveting, and utterly original book, masterful in presentation and brimming with insight, its disturbing conclusions corroborated by an impressive array of data and well-chosen quotations. How Huntington makes his case is no less impressive than the argument itself. The author’s style is precise, pithy, plainspoken, and coolly analytical. He eschews jargon. Crisp, declarative sentences array themselves in tightly organized paragraphs. Aphorisms abound. The result is vivid yet nuanced, elegant yet accessible.
It is also enormously provocative. To readers baffled by developments following in the wake of the abruptly terminated Cold War, The Clash of Civilizations offers a radically different prism through which to view world politics. As such, the policy implications of the book loom large. For this reason, Professor Huntington’s book may also be the most significant—and potentially mischievous—volume to appear in recent memory.
The point of departure for Huntington’s analysis is his distaste for Western smugness, the presumption —pervasive in the United States—that the collapse of communism points inevitably toward the worldwide embrace of democratic capitalism and universal deference to Western values. Such expectations, according to Huntington, are both fatuous and pernicious. He sets out to demolish them.
In reply to the global optimists basking in the triumph of the West and glorying in the benefits sure to accrue from the spread of market economies, free trade, and human rights, Huntington offers a different picture: the onset of an era in which conflict will be deep-seated and endemic and in which the West will find itself competing at severe disadvantage. The adversaries in this great struggle will be blocs of nations—"civilizations," in Huntington’s construct—that will define their identity and determine their interests and loyalties primarily in cultural terms. "Peoples and countries with similar cultures are coming together," Huntington writes. "Peoples and countries with different cultures are coming apart." In essence, culture is eclipsing both nationalism and ideology as the nexus of politics. During the Cold War, he suggests, the fundamental question was, "Which side are you on?" Now the question has become, "Who are you?"
For Huntington, the answer to that question lies, first and foremost, in religion. "In the modern world," he writes, "religion is a central, perhaps the central, force that motivates and mobilizes people." As a result, any civilization bears the ineradicable imprint of the religious tradition that predominates among its peoples—in the West, for instance, Christianity. A clash between civilizations is thus a struggle not between princes and plenipotentiaries but between religions. The stakes are fundamental. The conflict itself is likely to prove intractable.
Redrawing the geographical map along cultural lines, Huntington identifies eight distinctive civilizations: Islamic, Sinic (centered on the "core state" of China), Western (with the United States as its core), Orthodox (with Russia as its core), Japanese, Hindu, Latin American, and (somewhat tentatively) African. Geopolitically, the latter two count for little. Each of the others is likely to have an important role in the forthcoming struggle, but Islam, the West, and China constitute a tier apart, with the "most dangerous clashes of the future . . . likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness." Or to portray the contending forces more starkly still: "The dominant division is between the West and the rest."
Indeed, it is the West’s penchant for meddling, in Huntington’s view, that will make the age of civilizations so perilous. Western insistence that its own values provide the model to which other civilizations must adhere virtually guarantees discord. "What is universalism to the West," he notes, "is imperialism to the rest."
Making this intrusiveness more problematic still is the growing mismatch between the West’s aspirations and its capacity to enforce them. "The West won the world," Huntington observes, "not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion . . . but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence." Now, according to Huntington, the power of the West relative to that of other civilizations has begun to ebb, most notably in comparison to Islam and China. In the Islamic world, massive population growth breeds restlessness and resentment—and produces cohorts of easily mobilized fighters eager to repay the West for slights real and imagined. In China proper and throughout the Sinic world, skyrocketing economic growth translates into military potential that threatens the long-standing dominance of Western arms. The United States and the traditional European powers meanwhile remain willfully oblivious to "the discordance between the West’s—particularly America’s—efforts to promote a universal Western culture and its declining ability to do so."
Huntington is properly wary of the new economic giant that he labels "Greater China and its Co-Prosperity Sphere." In Huntington’s view, China’s emergence as East Asian hegemon is all but inevitable. For the West, the better part of wisdom is to accommodate itself, however reluctantly, to that prospect.
When it comes to Islam, however, Huntington appears less sanguine. The prospects for accommodation are not promising. "The twentieth-century conflict between liberal democracy and Marxist-Leninism," he observes at one point, "is only a fleeting and superficial historical phenomenon compared to the continuing and deeply conflictual relation between Islam and Christianity." As civilizations, Islam and the West—the one with its jihads, the other given to crusades—seem peculiarly well-suited to be at each other’s throat.
Huntington does not attribute the West’s recent difficulties with Islam to the influence of a handful of fanatics. "The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power." Given this combination of qualities, Islam finds it difficult to live in harmony with its neighbors. In the famous Foreign Affairs article ("The Clash of Civilizations?" Summer 1993) that was the genesis of this book, Huntington stated categorically that "Islam has bloody borders." And he bluntly refuses to soften that assertion now. In short, Huntington’s dread of Islam comes at times precariously close to unbridled antipathy.
All of this, in Huntington’s estimation, does not point inevitably to a cataclysmic intercivilizational spasm of self-destruction—although such an outcome is within the realm of possibility. It does, however, point to a new era of competition, friction, and contentiousness. At times, the competition will manifest itself in armed conflict. When actual fighting does break out, it will produce bitter, protracted, off-again-on-again violence that will smolder intermittently along the boundaries adjoining rival civilizations. In this regard, Huntington points to Bosnia as the grim prototype for "fault line" wars to come.
The Clash of Civilizations is prescriptive as well as descriptive. Huntington’s purpose is not to foretell an inevitable blow-up but to posit civilizations as the essential building blocs of a new approach to strategy. "The world will be ordered on the basis of civilizations," he asserts, "or not at all." To achieve a modicum of stability, a world ordered on the basis of competing civilizations will be a world that respects spheres of influence. For Huntington—rejecting the assertions of American statesmen from Woodrow Wilson through Bill Clinton—there is not One World but several. Culturally, there is no single Family of Man, but many families and they do not necessarily get along. All of the giddy talk about globalization, particularly evident since the end of the Cold War, is nonsense: "In the emerging order, global power is obsolete, global community a distant dream."
For the United States, impelled to be "at least a nanny if not a bully in international affairs," accepting a world divided into spheres of influence will not come easy. To endorse such an arrangement is to curb long-held missionary instincts. In Huntington’s estimation, however, only by foregoing its pretensions as vanguard of universalism can the United States avoid catastrophe. Accordingly, the prudent course for America is "not to attempt to stop the shift in power but to learn to navigate the shallows, endure the miseries, moderate its ventures, and safeguard its culture."
The last element is a matter of some urgency. Indeed, Huntington’s characterization of present-day American culture bears more than passing resemblance to the decadent and corrupt Great Satan that is the favorite target of fundamentalist mullahs. Crime, violence, drug abuse, illegitimacy, failing schools, the erosion of the family, a weakened work ethic, and "a cult of personal indulgence" all point to a moral decline that approaches "cultural suicide." For the West in general and the United States in particular the importance of "stopping and reversing the internal processes of decay" is paramount.
Huntington has no doubts about the chief impediment to reversing this process of decay: it is multiculturalism. A small, vocal, but influential minority, multiculturalists deny that the United States is part of Western civilization or that Americans possess a common culture. Propagating the notion that American society consists of various indigestible racial, ethnic, and other subgroups, multiculturalists effectively deny even the possibility of revitalizing a unified culture.
For Huntington, preserving the United States "means rejecting the divisive siren calls of multiculturalism." Indeed, he endorses the view of James Kurth that "the real clash" facing the United States is not the prospect of confrontation with China or Islam. The real clash occurs within, "between the multiculturalists and the defenders of Western civilization and the American Creed."
Viewed in this context, the overriding imperative for American leaders is to reaffirm the identity of the United States as an indelibly Western nation. For the U.S. and its cultural partners, the essential task is "not to attempt to reshape other civilizations in the image of the West, . . . but to preserve, protect, and renew the unique qualities of Western civilization." Ultimately, Huntington concludes, "in the clash of civilizations, Europe and America will hang together or hang separately."
How is one to evaluate this tour deforce? One is reminded of the story of the prep-school headmaster grading the work of young C. Douglas Dillon. "A+," recorded the headmaster. "Can do better."
The acknowledged dean of American political scientists, Samuel P. Huntington hardly qualifies as a precocious youngster. Yet The Clash of Civilizations unquestionably rates an A+—and it could be better.
The qualities that make the book compelling also compromise its utility. Huntington’s world of vying cultures is a remarkably tidy world. Each civilization occupies a discernible perimeter. (One map included in the text carefully traces the "Eastern Boundary of Western Civilization" all the way from the Baltic to the Adriatic.) Each adheres to an assigned area like a tectonic plate floating on the earth’s surface. Huntington’s knack for vivid phrasemaking—core states, kin countries, fault lines, cleavages, bandwagoning—reinforces this visual aspect, making his basic argument easy to grasp and almost impossible to forget.
Yet this effort to depict the world in simple terms using the broadest possible categories collides with our experience of everyday life. No doubt there is some cultural denominator linking the African-American cop from Chicago and the elderly wife of a dairy farmer in Provence—and setting them apart from a young business executive on the make in Shenzhen. But to impute political significance to such bonds and distinctions is to credit the wispiest notions of kinship.
At the same time, the imagery of clashing civilizations does possess real and potentially explosive emotional resonance. From his scholarly perch at Harvard, Professor Huntington gives credence to apprehensions that the less erudite and articulate have until now quietly nursed. He examines the tendency of plain folk to identify with "their own kind" and to view with suspicion those from alien tribes. In their instinctive capacity to distinguish friend from foe, he finds much to commend. After all, "we know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are up against." Thus does Huntington legitimize those anxieties—and unwittingly encourage them. His analysis connects with the dark side of human nature that is too willing to interpret difference as inferiority or evidence of malign intent. He puts the stamp of respectability on fears all too easily twisted into bigotry. To the extent that it finds a wide audience and persuades its readers, The Clash of Civilizations could inadvertently serve the cause of intolerance, racism, and xenophobia.
The role of religion is a problem in Huntington’s paradigm. As noted, in sorting the world along civilizational lines, he assigns religion a preeminemt place. More than any other factor, according to Huntington, religious affiliation signifies "who we are" and "who we are not." It identifies kin and marks prospective rivals. Yet implicit in Huntington’s argument is the notion that religion in its own right is without standing. Religion illuminates politics, but should play no independent role in politics. (It is a safe bet that when Huntington calls for the revival of Western civilization he is not advocating restoration of One Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church exercising authority over secular affairs.) For Huntington, religion—particularly religion in the West—is an anachronism, something that was itself once alive and powerful but that now survives largely as artifact or memento. Yet in thus consigning religion to role of cultural ID card, Huntington misconstrues its significance, both politically and otherwise.
For starters, although the West may be Christian, Christianity is not confined to the West. It is, in Huntington’s own terms, an intercivilizational phenomenon. Nor is Christianity a force that spent itself long ago imparting its gifts to civilization and that now survives as little more than a passive cultural reference. The Christian Church is vast, varied, and itself continually evolving, always, one hopes, with an eye fixed on Truth. Thus, Christianity does not subordinate itself to civilization. Rather, it engages in an ongoing dialogue with civilization (not the West alone) in which each respondent continually influences the other. This is manifestly true with regard to Christianity in the United States—and is no doubt true with regard to other religious traditions in the West. For if Christianity does not confine itself to the West, neither does religiosity in the West confine itself to Christianity.
In short, while Huntington is right to see religion as a factor in the coming era of world politics, the role of religion will go well beyond serving as a touchstone for culture. Religion is more than culture. It transcends civilizations. In the end, to listen to the believers among us, it will transcend history itself.
A. J. Bacevich is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.