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Decline of the West?

Circumstances pushing humankind toward antagonisms between civilizations are indeed very strong, and Huntington’s argument to that effect is what makes his book disturbing. When I think of the recent history of, say, Iran, I have to agree with his view that

Initially, Westernization and modernization are closely linked, with the non-Western society absorbing substantial elements of Western culture and making slow progress towards modernization. As the pace of modernization increases, however, the rate of Westernization declines and the indigenous culture goes through a revival. Further modernization then alters the civilizational balance of power between the West and the non-Western society, bolsters the power and self-confidence of that society, and strengthens commitment to the indigenous culture.

In the early phases of change, Westernization thus promotes modernization. In the later phases, modernization promotes de-Westernization and the resurgence of indigenous culture in two ways. At the societal level, modernization enhances the economic, military and political power of the society as a whole and encourages the people of that society to have confidence in their culture and to become culturally assertive. At the individual level, modernization generates feelings of alienation and anomie as traditional bonds and social relations are broken and leads to crises of identity to which religion provides an answer.

But what religion? Often a reconstructed and emotionally appealing version of an age-old, established religion is available to meet the needs of newly urbanized migrants from peasant communities. This is conspicuously true among Muslims in Iran or Egypt, for example; and Hinduism seems well on its way to playing the same part in India. Confucianism, however, does not easily extend its ethics of solidarity beyond family boundaries. Among the Chinese, therefore, heterodox Buddhist sects once sustained religious and political community among distressed peasants and urban dwellers. For all anyone knows, they may do so again if extensive breakup of Chinese village life sets in as China’s economic development gathers further momentum.

Huntington remarks that when “the religious needs of modernization cannot be met by their traditional faiths people turn to emotionally satisfying imports.” In today’s world, this opens the door for either Muslim or Christian missionaries—most commonly Protestant evangelical sects for Christians. To quote Huntington once more:

During the last decades of the twentieth century both Islam and Christianity significantly expanded their numbers in Africa, and a major shift towards Christianity occurred in South Korea. In rapidly modernizing societies, if the traditional religion is unable to adapt to the requirements of modernization, the potential exists for the spread of Western Christianity and Islam. In these societies the most successful protagonists of Western culture are not neo-classical economists or crusading democrats or multinational corporation executives. They are and most likely will continue to be Christian missionaries. Neither Adam Smith nor Thomas Jefferson will meet the psychological, emotional, moral, and social needs of urban migrants and first-generation secondary school graduates. Jesus Christ may not meet them either, but He is likely to have a better chance. In the long run, however, Mohammed wins out. Christianity spreads primarily by conversion, Islam by conversion and reproduction.

The extensive conversions by Protestant missionaries now taking place in Africa and Latin America may mean that external cultural influences will increasingly have a deep transforming effect on their civilizations. Huntington writes that

The spread of Protestantism among the poor in Latin America is not primarily the replacement of one religion by another but rather a major net increase in religious commitment and participation as nominal and passive Catholics become active and devout Evangelicals.

Still, having said so much, Huntington does not seem greatly interested in the transformation of cultures by external encounters with missionaries or any other outside influence. He therefore pays scant attention to Africa and Latin America, where these processes are especially prominent. He also says nothing at all about the Israeli-Arab wars, perhaps because he is not sure whether Jews belong to a separate civilization or not. This is particularly surprising, since he concentrates his attention primarily upon Western conflicts with Islam and secondarily with China—the two civilizations that he thinks will challenge the West in coming decades. As has been said, he recommends accommodation with each of them, by dividing the globe into well-defined spheres of influence.

Yet he also entertains hopes of absorbing Latin America into the modernized West, by which he means North America and Europe. How such a policy would work remains unexplored, but Huntington seems to suppose that while Amerindian and African cultural heritages, and the underdevelopment of many South American nations, have in the past cut them off from the US and Europe, Latin Americans might be drawn into the more prosperous Western orbit not only by religious conversion but by such schemes as NAFTA. He thus implies—but does not say explicitly—that the weaker, merely secular infiltration of ideas and goods resulting from everyday encounters and trade may have an effect in reshaping identities and political affinities of different civilizations. Still, if I understand him rightly, Huntington also believes that Latin American society can be really and truly Westernized only if populations of Amerindian and African ancestry could gain free and easy acceptance among the reigning elites of American society, both North and South—not a prospect that seems likely for a long time.

The weaker, everyday, secular encounters that Huntington mentions in passing, affecting every society on the face of the earth, are, of course, what official American foreign policy expects to prevail. Free, rational choices aimed at achieving a better life (usually measured in crudely material terms of rising income and economic growth) are presumed by American leaders to push both private and public behavior in the direction of peace, compromise, the rule of law, and mutual accommodation. War and violence, being obvious departures from social and rational order, are viewed as deplorable anomalies. When a wicked villain can be identified as responsible for unleashing organized violence, Americans have sometimes indeed been willing (almost eager) to fight, as recently demonstrated in the Gulf War. But such actions are sporadic and exceptional. What our foreign policy officially counts on is the multiplication of peaceable contacts, and the slow amelioration of conditions of life for all the world’s inhabitants that such contacts are supposed to bring about.

Such ideas, of course, are rooted in the rationalism and universalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, as is the economic theory of free markets and free trade that dominates so much of our public policy. Are such ideas, as Huntington declares, obsolete and mistaken? My rather lame response is both yes and no.

Yes, Huntington is right inasmuch as human beings are indeed shaped by culture. It follows that heirs of the great Asian civilizations and of African and Amerindian societies are not identical with heirs of the European past. Such differences matter in politics and find their keenest expression in religion. They may affect economics, too, as Huntington argues when he writes that recent economic surges in China and other East Asian countries—what he labels “the Asian Affirmation”—are consistent with Confucian values of hierarchy, consensus, and self-discipline.

But civilizations are themselves diverse, with innumerable internal fissures and resulting frictions. Moreover, all human groups have to deal with strangers and outsiders, and across the millennia such dealings have become more and more pervasive and important. The flows between civilizations of information, goods, and services have increased precipitously in recent decades; and the innumerable human encounters that result, whether they are personal or only electronic, leave their mark on literally everyone today.

In parts of the Middle East, and Asia, and recently in Bosnia, for example, one reaction to the resulting flood of discrepant messages clamoring for attention has been to emphasize aspects of the local cultural heritage and affirm its superiority to anything and everything outsiders have to offer. And, as Huntington powerfully argues, this style of withdrawal into the cave of a familiar, primarily religious, past has become a growing popular response to uncomfortable encounters with outsiders, whether in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, India, or the US.

Indeed, withdrawal and emphatic reaffirmation of local habits and customs has always been the first, most elemental and popular reaction to novelties that threaten established verities and routines of life. But throughout human history the occasional efforts made by creative minorities to borrow foreign ideas and practices and adapt them to local use have been far more important; for these efforts, when successful—and they have been successful only occasionally—allowed new skills to spread and evolve. The Moslem mastery and elaboration of Greek mathematical skills and the subsequent borrowing and further elaboration of the same skills by Europeans after the thirteenth century provide a vivid example of such exchanges. The net effect of successful borrowing and adaptation was to increase human wealth and power by enlarging our niche in the ecosystem. This, in fact, is, and has always been, the central phenomenon of human history.

Retreat into a local cultural past—even when it is a reconstructed past that never existed before—can indeed sustain local morale and cohesion in time of troubles. But when the resulting bunker mentality dictates a systematic disregard of, or deliberate inattention to, the ideas and skills alien peoples and cultures have at their command, the end result is to be disastrously left behind by the rest of the world. Beginning early in the nineteenth century, even a civilization as vast and successful as the Chinese had to face up to this hard fact. The Chinese people have yet to recover from the resulting shock to their self- esteem.

If a nation or bloc of nations is to have long-term success, cultural continuity must somehow be combined with close attention to useful new ideas, practices, and technologies from near and far. In early modern times, Europeans managed this feat, and thereby achieved world primacy. At a time when each of the great Asian civilizations sought to minimize disturbing contacts with outsiders, Europeans continued fighting among themselves while exploring the rest of the world with an eager, restless greed for material gain and for intellectual understanding as well. As a result, the West expanded and transformed itself over and over again. And so far as I can tell, the tumultuous cross-purposes at work in the prolonged destruction and renewal of Western civilization remain as lively and as distressing as ever. Current efforts both to consolidate Europe and to oppose such a union are an example of this kind of energetic, disputatious development with consequences no one can confidently predict. Huntington’s gloomy perception of the decline of the West may merely mistake growing pains for death throes. Who can tell for sure?

In the process of trying to assess Huntington’s views, it occurred to me that what is happening globally today resembles European experience in the Renaissance and Reformation era. In the Western Europe of that age, Renaissance worldliness found itself pitted against reinvigorated Christian faith; and this happened at a time when rural communities were being rapidly incorporated into market networks that damaged village solidarity and disrupted prevailing moral rules. Religious controversies attracted by far the strongest popular and political responses; but the appeal of the Renaissance style of secular rationality was never entirely suppressed, even among the most impassioned theologians.

Something similar may be happening on a global scale as our millennium approaches its close. Energetic religious reaffirmation or conversion to new (often ecstatic) faiths is spreading rapidly. At the same time, traditional village communities no longer provide a satisfactory way of life for the majority of human beings, as was always the case before in civilized history. Emotionally intense religious sects, whether Islamic or Christian, cannot reproduce the values and social solidarity of village communities in their entirety; but they do provide moral guidance and mutual support for their members, even, or especially, for the millions who have migrated from impoverished villages into city slums in search of a better life.

But the same intensified communications that have penetrated the world’s villages, making local self-sufficiency impractical, also sustain an ever-denser web of exchanges among civilizations. Those who engage in such communication expose themselves to the rest of the world, willy-nilly. Ideas and attitudes are inevitably affected; and vested interests in the continuance of such exchanges grow. They coexist awkwardly with the need of displaced and uprooted persons for a secure moral community, rooted in local religious affirmation or conversion. And just as religious firebrands of the Reformation used Renaissance techniques of rhetoric and historical criticism to reinforce their version of saving truth, so in our time do religious fundamentalists exploit the techniques of mass communication to propagate their messages and adapt them to the needs of their audiences.

This parallel is not exactly reassuring. More than a century of brutal wars of religion was the price Europeans paid for the breakup of village-based morality provoked by the growth of inter-regional market relations. In view of the destructiveness of modern weapons, our world can scarcely afford such a stormy passage into the future. But Huntington’s view that encounters among different civilizations may be manageable if all the parties respect one another’s differences and acknowledge spheres of influence proportionate to fluctuations in actual power is quite persuasive. It was, after all, how the Soviet Union and the NATO alliance survived their fifty-year confrontation. With luck, humanity may continue to muddle through, despite the perils of religious and civilizational quarrels and weapons proliferation.

If so, the networks of global communications and the encounters among different civilizations that those networks sustain will surely deserve some of the credit. Perhaps new, non-confrontational forms of moral community will arise to meet the needs of lost souls adrift in our cities. And when we remember the career and influence of Andrei Sakharov, we can reasonably ask whether professional communities may not attain enough global cohesion to modulate political antagonisms.

In general, human inventiveness is undiminished; and the need in our time for new forms of community to replace the vanished autonomy of self-sufficient villages is acute. Within Christianity, Buddhism, and other faiths, religious communities already exist that emphatically repudiate violence. They may come into their own if the unacceptable costs of angry hostility toward outsiders become unmistakably obvious.

Reason, in other words, and practical experience are not without power in human affairs. It is surely a striking fact that the countries involved in the “Asian Affirmation” and the “Islamic Resurgence,” whose growth and power Huntington persuasively emphasizes, do not attempt to withdraw from global society. Quite the contrary, China’s recent export success in world markets is central to the entire phenomenon of Asian growth, while the Muslim faith is and always has been friendly to trade and accustomed to dealing with unbelievers. No one, in fact, is ready to pay the costs of withdrawal from the rapidly growing global exchanges that sustain human society in all parts of the earth.

Perhaps, therefore, a world in which civilizational blocs and religious identities have a larger role than they had in the past will not be so very different from one in which secular ideological rivalry affected much, but not all, of world politics. Maybe, too, divisions within existing civilizations and religious traditions will continue to complicate and blur collisions between them. That, assuredly, is conspicuously the case among Christians and Muslims alike; and the cohesion of China is not sure to survive the complex risks of political succession, particularly when we take account of tensions inherent in China’s continued population growth, of its pending ecological crunch and its creeping ideological disarray.

If so, the elites whose work spans different civilizations—whether they are concerned with religious evangelism or humanitarian aid, or involved in commercial, financial, professional, and technological networks—together with the increases of wealth that world integration allows, may moderate conflicts among civilizations and religions. Even so weak an instrument as the UN, which Huntington mentions only to dismiss, may have a greater part in defining the world’s future than his bleak vision suggests. In short, the embrace of universal ideals that informs prevailing American rhetoric about foreign affairs may not be entirely misguided. Our public rhetoric surely needs to take more account of the differences among civilizations and of local cultures whose values are at odds with our own. Less self-righteousness and a greater willingness to submit to mutually agreed-on global arrangements and rules would also help. Huntington recommends a different course. He would abandon hope for worldwide regulations governing the behavior of states and civilizations, and would instead create a Western stronghold within which to defend our separate civilized heritage. That seems to me more like an invitation to World War III than a prescription for an endurable future.

In short, I agree with Huntington when he argues that the commitments to particular patterns of civilization and particular religious identities are rapidly gaining importance in international affairs. But I disagree with the conclusions he draws; for it seems to me that increasing connections among civilizations simultaneously sustain a contrary trend toward global cosmopolitanism. This trend, in my view, offers by far the best hope for the future, and is therefore very much worth fostering, as the universalist strand in American foreign policy, perhaps naively, tends to do.

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