Civilizations in Conflict?

reviewed by Robert T. Sandin

A Review of The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking the World Order, by Samuel Huntington (1).

A while back I read an editorial in the New York Times which struck me as a constructive evaluation of the situation in the Balkans. The Times identified the author as a University Professor at Harvard, a former director of security planning at the National Security Council, and the author of the book reviewed here. I thought this was someone whose work I needed to know, so I bought the book.

Reading it was a disappointment. Samuel Huntington has obviously assimilated a great mass of information. The work reflects sound scholarship, is well documented, and is very well written. The problem: it is an exercise in special pleading.

The work reads like a position paper on national security, designed to combat what the author regards as an unfortunate malaise in American foreign policy. In support of his policy preference, Huntington develops a paradigm for viewing global politics that will be meaningful to scholars and useful to policy makers.

The author is convinced that his generalized interpretation of the emerging world order is consistent with historical research though he readily admits that his paradigm does not account for everything currently going on in global politics. He only holds that a "civilizational approach" provides a useful lens through which to view (for the time being) international developments in the light of American security interests. The logical status of his paradigm is placed in doubt by his admission that it might not have been valid in the mid-twentieth century and that it might not prove to be valid in the mid-twenty-first century. A paradigm, apparently, is not an explanatory theory or even an empirical hypothesis to be confirmed by further inquiry, but a framework for an ad hoc policy preference.

Is such a paradigm the stuff of scholarship? Huntington first offered his ideas in 1992 in a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute and later presented them in an occasional paper published in an Olin Institute report. His ideas quickly became highly controversial, both in the U.S. and at a series of international conferences in which Huntington was a participant. He also tested them out on his graduate students at Harvard. He declares that he benefited greatly from the criticism of his theses in the course of this dialogue. I suggest that he still has quite a lot to learn.

The burden of this book is to combat what the author calls "American hubris" which supposedly inspires an attempt to impose the values and processes of Western (i.e. American) civilization on the rest of the world at a time when American hegemony is not being checked by countervailing forces in the old world of realpolitik. Huntington urges the U.S. to pull back from its inclination to foster the spread of "Western values" to other civilizations—-particularly to those that are being affected by the "Islamic resurgence" or the "Asiatic affirmation."

Huntington’s new version of an "America First" policy calls for a global strategy based on the primacy of America’s national interest. He reads twentieth century history as providing evidence of the "decline of the West" as forecasted by Spengler, Toynbee, Sorokin, et al. America, he thinks will have its hands full providing leadership to its own civilization. It should forget about trying to lead the other extant civilizations of the world—Sinic (centering on China), Japanese, Hindu (centering on India), Orthodox (centering on Russia), Latin American (centering on Brazil), and African (if an African civilization can be recognized) —and about any possibility of forming a world civilization founded on shared regard for human rights, free markets, and respect for law.

Huntington’s thesis (some critical respondents have called it "Huntington’s disease") is that cultural identities (civilizational identities) are now shaping the patterns of international cohesion, disintegration, and conflict. A "civilization-based world order" is emerging, he says, where societies which share a common cultural heritage will find ways to cooperate with and help one another. These societies are grouping themselves around a "lead" or "core" state that is strong enough to defend their interests against strategies of military intervention, economic boycott, and financial isolation in a regional or international showdown.

In such an order the West is declining in relative influence and will continue to decline. An American sense of "manifest destiny" as a leader of the democratization of the whole world is irrelevant in such a situation. American universalist pretensions will only bring it into increasing conflict with the other civilizations of the modem world, most especially with China and Islam. Huntington affirms:

The survival of the West depends on Americans affirming their Western identity and Westerners accepting their civilization as unique not universal and uniting to renew and preserve it against challenges from non-Western societies. Avoidance of a global war of civilizations depends on world leaders accepting and cooperating to maintain the multi-cultural character of global politics.(2)

As G. John Ikenberry has suggested, the problem with Huntington’s thesis is that "it is wildly overstated."(3) Huntington’s reading of the history of civilizations is simply lopsided. A universal order of economic exchange and international law is entirely compatible with cultural diversity in the modem world. An intransigent declaration of "civilizational divides" in the emerging order will actually foster the continuation of the antagonisms and mistrust which deter the formation of a realistic basis for world peace. It would be a tragic squandering of recent accomplishments in international trade and international law if American policy were to settle for what Ikenberry calls "an inward looking and defensive ‘little West.’"

The University of Chicago historian William H. McNeill offers an edifying comment on the writing of histories of world civilizations. His 1963 book The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community received an extremely warm response. In 1988, when McNeill was invited to a seminar devoted to a discussion of his book at Williams College, he picked the book up and read it for the first time in twenty-five years. He sat down and wrote a self-critical reassessment of the work in which he said some important things about historical methods in tracing the course of civilizations and their interaction.(4)

McNeill confessed that in the course of his following the rise of Western civilization out of various historical antecedents, he had made the understandable error of viewing the history of the world from the perspective of the nation and times in which he himself lived. As he looked back on the work, however, he became con-scious of serious omissions and misinterpretations which rendered the book now obsolete. These omissions included his failure to display the primacy of China in the processes of world commerce and political organization during the critical period A.D. 1000-1500 and his failure to recognize the interdependence of commerce and of governments in virtually all periods of civilized life. "The fluctuating growth of this ... world system, with shifting centers and a great multiplicity of peoples and cultures caught within it" was an aspect of world history which largely escaped his notice as he was writing his tome on the rise of the West.

Cultural pluralism has always been a dominant feature of world history. But so has been the search for ways to facilitate cooperation in commerce, communications, and politics through a related body of international law. Market-based economic exchange, the formation of agencies of international law and peacekeeping, and arrangements for regional cooperation are entirely compatible with cultural diversity and have always belonged to a proper history of the world in some form or other. Regard for human rights, the notion that governments are in some way responsible to the governed, equality of economic opportunity, and the rule of law are values which can be fostered throughout the world by American leadership in a manner which is quite compatible with cultural pluralism.

The modem historian has a mass of information available to him, but the historian’s stewardship is to use those data with care. The art of the historian of civilizations involves the selection and ordering of this great (and constantly growing) mass of data so as to form an interpretation which views the rise and development of civilizations and cultures as a kind of "ecumenical process" (as McNeill calls it) out of which a world system of economic complementarity, political interdependence, and cultural understanding/integration may emerge.

Huntington as historian leaves much to be desired. Huntington as political scientist is still mired in the policy debates of national security. With a refreshing touch of lightness, Foreign Affairs offers a poetic rebuttal by Frederick S. Tipton, which concludes:

I prefer a paradigm intent on integration,
The framework for a future forged by acts of innovation:
Taking expectations from technology and trends
And staking aspirations on the future that impends.
All this implies a vision less fixated on our seams
And giving much more weight to global specialized regimes:
Those critical components of a global public order
Of common-sense consensus, both cross-culture and cross-border.
History’s indispensable to shape our understanding,
But it needs to be there at the takeoff, not the landing.
To find our voice and tools of choice in shaping human futures,
We need to nurse that vision not with scalpels, but with sutures.
Huntington as scientist may well deduce his stances,
But Huntington as moralist might just reduce our chances.(5)

1. 1. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations: The Remaking of the World Order (Simon and Schuster, Touchstone Book, 1997).

2. 2. Ibid., p. 21.

3. 3. "The West is Precious, not Unique," Foreign Affairs, March/April 1997, p. 162.

4. 4. "The Rise of the West After Twenty-five Years," Journal of World History I (1990) pp. 1-21. Reprinted in the 1991 edition of William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (University of Chicago Press, 1991).

5. 5. Frederick S. Tipton, "Culture Clash-ification: A Verse to Huntington’s Curse," Foreign Affairs, March/April, 1997, pp. 166-169.

Robert T. Sandin is a former academic Dean of North Park University.

See all articles by Robert T. Sandin