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 P. Huntington
Samuel P. Huntington; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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