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Decline of the West?

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

by Samuel P. Huntington
Simon and Schuster, 367 pp., $26.00

Samuel Huntington has written a powerful and disturbing book. He scorns the universalist ambitions and assumptions that have characterized American foreign policy since 1917 or before. He rejects both the hope of a world “safe for democracy” in the idiom of World War I and a world where everyone enjoys the Four Freedoms, in the idiom of World War II, because, he writes, “Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers from three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.” It is false because other civilizations have other ideals and norms; immoral because “imperialism is the necessary logical consequence of universalism”; and dangerous because “it could lead to a major intercivilizational war.” Instead, he advocates an emerging configuration of power requiring mutual accommodation between blocs of different “civilizations,” an accommodation which, he argues, is already coming into being, whether we like it or not.

In his words:

Spurred by modernization, global politics is being reconfigured along cultural lines. Peoples and countries with similar cultures are coming together. Peoples and countries with different cultures are coming apart. Alignments defined by ideology and superpower relations are giving way to alignments defined by culture and civilization. Political boundaries increasingly are redrawn to coincide with cultural ones…. Cultural communities are replacing Cold War blocs and the fault lines between civilizations are becoming the central lines of conflict in global politics.

As evidence of these tendencies Huntington points to the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-1989 and the Gulf War of 1990-1991. “Both wars began,” he says, “as straightforward invasions of one country by another but were transformed into and in large part redefined as civilization wars. They were, in effect, transition wars to an era dominated by ethnic conflict and fault line wars between groups from different civilizations.” After they were concluded, he writes, the new style of “fault line wars” between different civilizations was visibly and definitively launched in Bosnia, just as the ideological warfare of the earlier part of the century was launched by the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. “In an age of civilizations,” Huntington explains,

Bosnia is everyone’s Spain. The Spanish Civil War was a war between political systems and ideologies, the Bosnian War a war between civilizations and religions. Democrats, communists, and fascists went to Spain to fight alongside their ideological brethren, and democratic, communist, and, most actively, fascist governments provided aid. The Yugoslav wars saw a similar massive mobilization of outside support by Western Christians, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims on behalf of their civilizational kin. The principal powers of Orthodoxy, Islam, and the West all became deeply involved. After four years the Spanish Civil War came to a definitive end with the victory of the Franco forces. The wars among the religious communities of the Balkans may subside and even halt temporarily but no one is likely to score a decisive victory, and no victory means no end. The Spanish Civil War was a prelude to World War II. The Bosnian War is one more bloody episode in an ongoing clash of civilizations.

And, by analogy, may the Bosnian war also be a prelude to World War III? Huntington does not think such a worst of all possible worlds very likely. “A global war involving the core states of the world’s major civilizations is highly improbable but not impossible,” he declares. (By core states he means the most powerful nations in each of the main cultural groups he calls civilizations. They include the US, Germany, China, Japan, India, Russia, Indonesia, Egypt, Iran, and Brazil.) To be sure, a global war might arise

from the escalation of a fault line war between groups from different civilizations, most likely involving Muslims on one side and non-Muslims on the other…. A more dangerous source of global intercivilizational war is the shifting balance of power among civilizations and their core states. If it continues, the rise of China and the increasing assertiveness of this “biggest player in the history of man” will place tremendous stress on international stability in the early twenty-first century.

Huntington then goes on to imagine how early in the next century American intervention in a quarrel between China and Vietnam, aimed at protecting access to oil fields in the South China Sea that the Vietnamese had leased to American companies, might provoke a truly horrific war, engaging the United States, Europe, Russia, and India on one side against China, Japan, and most of Islam on the other. Such a conflict, even if halted short of total nuclear destruction, he suggests, would so weaken the combatants as to move the center of world politics southward to such bystanders as Indonesia in Asia and the leading states of Latin America.

Huntington draws three lessons from these imaginings. First, “the avoidance of major intercivilizational wars requires core states to refrain from intervening in conflicts in other civilizations.” In other words, spheres of influence must be clearly drawn among the different civilizations and meticulously observed. Second, in the messy regions where civilizations overlap or abut directly on one another, core states must engage in joint mediation “to contain or to halt fault line wars between states or groups from their civilizations.”

But Huntington does not dismiss universality entirely. Instead (rather surprisingly in view of his tough-minded views that conflict is normal among human groups that need an enemy to stick together), he devotes his book’s final four pages to a discussion of “The Commonalities of Civilization.” From this discussion he derives a third rule for the management of foreign affairs in a multi-civilizational world, to wit: “Peoples in all civilizations should search for and attempt to expand the values, institutions, and practices they have in common with peoples of other civilizations.”

Still, since “a multicultural world is unavoidable because global empire is impossible,” he concludes his book by declaring,

In the clash of civilizations, Europe and America will hang together or hang separately. In the greater clash, the global “real clash,” between Civilization and barbarism, the world’s great civilizations, with their rich accomplishments in religion, art, literature, philosophy, science, technology, morality, and compassion, will also hang together or hang separately. In the emerging era, clashes of civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace, and an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war.

I find much to agree with in Huntington’s assault on prevailing American assumptions about the universal validity of our national version of human hopes and expectations. An ideological war established the American nation only after the rebellious colonists jettisoned the “liberties of Englishmen” in favor of universal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—the latter a euphemism for property in eighteenth-century political discourse—as set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Ever since, Americans have liked to think of themselves as showing other peoples how to bring public affairs into harmony with eighteenth-century Enlightenment conceptions of universal human rights. As a result, in the twentieth century, we justified participation in World Wars I and II by proclaiming crusades to establish a just and durable peace in a world where militarism, power politics, spheres of influence, and other forms of wickedness prevailed among all the other, less enlightened peoples of the earth.

It is easy to mock such self-righteousness, and Huntington’s rejection of the moral imperialism implicit in such rhetoric seems to me well taken, especially in view of American unreadiness to back up most of our exhortations with potentially costly actions. But Huntington’s recipe for adjusting relations between large blocs of nations somewhat loosely defined by the word “civilization” strikes me as no great improvement on naive moral crusading. First, he is persuaded, without showing us quite why, that the decline of the West has begun. To slow down this decline, the United States, he believes, should reaffirm its identity as a Western nation by repudiating multiculturalism at home, while “adopting an Atlanticist policy of close cooperation with its European partners to protect and advance the interests and values of the unique civilization they share.” This sounds suspiciously like a bunker mentality, inviting us to hold out as long as we can against other, rising civilizations that are more demographically expansive, socially cohesive, and morally united than the now-decadent West.

Such a view points to one of the differences between Huntington’s outlook and that of persons like myself who do not share his attraction to theories of civilizational rise and fall, as set forth by Toynbee, Carroll Quigley, and others a generation ago. He cites those writers, summarizes them, and does not explicitly endorse their accuracy; but he seems persuaded that decline and eventual dissolution of Western civilization impends—sooner or later. And perhaps sooner rather than later, if his imaginary World War III were to break out, as projected, during the early decades of the next century.

As World War II approached, I, too, was fascinated by theories of cyclical repetition in history. When I first read Toynbee in 1940 his tragic model of the human adventure struck me with all the force of a new revelation because his Study of History detected a simple, intelligible pattern in the past, despite a hitherto unimagined multiplicity of civilizations. He saw each of them rising and falling according to the same (or a very similar) pattern. Since then I have become more aware of the importance of two factors that Toynbee neglected. The first is that contemporary civilizations have always interacted with one another, even across long distances. The second is that human skills and ideas, propagated through these encounters between civilizations, have a cumulative character.

Parallels between the history of separate civilizations certainly exist. The most conspicuous such parallel is the way that intensifying conflict among rival, warring states ended up, time and again, in victory for one of the combatants, resulting in imperial consolidation of all the different political entities in the region. This pattern asserted itself in such diverse settings as ancient Mesopotamia, classical China, ancient India, pre-Columbian Peru, Muscovite Russia, and, of course, in the ancient Mediterranean world. In modern times, Western Europe came close to comparable political consolidation under Charles V; and only external intervention by previously marginal powers—first Britain, then Russia, and most recently the US—prevented such would-be conquerors as Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Hitler from establishing a pan-European empire. But of course, involvement of previously marginal powers merely enlarged the theater of political rivalry and prolonged the process of political consolidation without, necessarily, altering its ineluctable dynamics.

In our time, the improvements in the speed and effectiveness of transport and communication that dominate our lives has made this age-old process of political consolidation into a global affair. As Huntington argues with particular force, newly confident and powerful nations like China are sure to challenge existing world balances of power. Conflicts that take place across lines dividing different civilizations are likely to be more intractable than conflicts within civilizations simply because cultural differences multiply occasions for distrust and misunderstanding. It follows that in a world of civilizational blocs, however scrupulously each bloc may be assigned to the sphere of influence of one or more powerful states within the blocs, we may expect the same kinds of conflict that were so often enacted within separate civilizations in the past. The result could conceivably be consolidation of a world empire or the destruction of humankind in a nuclear, biological, and/or chemical holocaust.

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