Just when we thought it was safe to relax, Samuel P. Huntington has arrived with bad news: the old world of realpolitik and great power tensions may have faded, but it has been replaced by an even nastier and less predictable world of looming cultural and religious conflict ("The West: Unique, Not Universal," November/ December 1996). And unlike the passing era of power politics, Huntington claims, civilizational politics resists reason and resolution. A prudent West must accept this new dangerous reality, rally together, and prepare for the worst.

The problem with Huntington's provocative thesis is that it is wildly overstated and, if ideas by prominent thinkers have any impact in the real world, potentially dangerous. To begin, the basic features that Huntington ascribes to the West -- democracy, limited government, and the rule of law -- may have emerged first in Europe, but they are not fundamentally a cultural or civilizational phenomenon. They are institutions and practices that are manifest across diverse cultures and societies, driven as much by capitalism and the functional demands of exchange as anything else.

Furthermore, being optimistic about the spread of "Western" principles and practices does not require a simple-minded belief in convergence. As Huntington knows, sophisticated versions of modernization theory never expected convergence of other cultures and societies into a universal Western model. Modernization meant mutual adaptation to industrialism, with the anticipated emergence of increasingly complex and mixed systems that combined many elements, Western and non-Western.

There have also been striking shifts in political culture in major non-Western societies, not least of them Japan. One of the most remarkable developments in the postwar era has been the complete transformation of Japan's (and Germany's) imperialist and militarist political and social structures. It seems farfetched to appreciate the dramatic evolution in the political culture of the major fascist and revisionist states of the twentieth century yet also argue that non-Western states are prisoners of their cultures.

Contrary to Huntington, a belief in universalism and global cultural homogenization is not necessary to pursue an order that goes beyond the historical West. All that is needed are states with commitments to democracy, free markets, and the rule of law. Societies and civilizations can remain very diverse yet still evolve deeply rooted commitments to these basic organizational principles. As a result, the most robust and relevant political community is not limited to the Atlantic world, but stretches well beyond -- to a larger (but certainly not global) grouping of democratic countries with market-oriented economies.

Even if Huntington were right in asserting that the West is fundamentally different from the rest, inter-civilizational conflict is by no means inevitable -- but it is probably more likely if our leaders take Huntington's thesis to heart. Declaring civilizational divides would invite counter-groupings and risk triggering precisely the types of antagonisms that Huntington anticipates. This is the civilizational equivalent of the "security dilemma" -- Huntington wants the West to defensively guard against the coming clash, but to other powers like China and Japan the circling of the Western wagons will look like a declaration of a new Cold War.

The appeal of Huntington's thesis is that it provides a ready and easily grasped ideology for shoring up American relations with Europe. With the Cold War over, what will be the glue that holds the Atlantic alliance together? Appealing to Western civilization -- which separates "us" from "the rest" -- seems like a convenient place to start. Unfortunately, such an appeal solves one problem -- how to solidify a common Atlantic identity -- by creating even more dangerous ones across other oceans and continents.

Finally, Huntington fails to appreciate the larger political community of free market democracies that the West, led by the United States, has constructed. Although undoubtedly anchored in the Atlantic world, that community now incorporates a significant portion of the globe. Robust and expanding, it has developed its own institutions and practices for conflict management and dispute resolution, lending it an unprecedented stability. That larger community may be more difficult to label, but it is far more significant than Huntington's vision of Western civilization.

Huntington sees the great alternative visions of the future as either a universal civilization based on the spread of Western consumerism and popular culture or else what he considers the more sober reality of civilizational divide. But that is not the choice. The world is moving to a divide best seen as one between the open societies with accountable governments and the rest. The United States stands at the center of this wider community of democracies, and it would be a tragic squandering of this accomplishment to settle for an inward-looking and defensive "little West."

G. John Ikenberry is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.


Tony Smith

The ease with which Huntington partitions the world into civilizations divided by political fault lines astonishes me. Establishing who exactly is "Western" is the first point of contention. For starters, why doesn't he count Latin America as "Western," given its remarkable odyssey over the last two decades, a journey that has brought it politically, economically, and culturally closer to North America and Western Europe than it has been in centuries?

And if Latin America is evolving as Western, why not others? Where in Huntington's account are countries like Japan, India, the Philippines, and Israel to be found? Given his dubious list of criteria to determine who is a member of the Western club, apparently they are no more a part of the West than Latin America, despite their democratic polities, liberalizing economies, and, in the case of Israel and Japan, long-standing alliance with the West. Too bad also, we must suppose, for latecomers like South Africa or South Korea. And the same for Russia, apparently hopelessly foreign to the West by virtue of its Orthodox brand of Christianity -- which it shares with Greece, soon to be drummed out of NATO for no better reason than its Orthodox heritage.

All of this frontier-drawing might be no more than academic quibbling had Huntington not issued an explicit call for the West to don battle gear in preparation for the conflicts he anticipates with the non-Western world -- especially, we must assume, with the Muslim world and China. The danger, of course, is that this kind of thinking has the logic of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps conflicts with other civilizations will arise in any event, but they become all the more likely if we assume that other civilizations are inherently evil and raise the ramparts against them rather than bridging our differences with them.

On both counts, then, Huntington's essay is a most unsatisfying statement. It provides neither an accurate picture of the world's evolving political boundaries nor a credible prophecy as to what genuine security threats the future holds.

Tony Smith is Chair of the Department of Political Science at Tufts University and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


David Howell

Huntington is behind the times. Coca-colonization is yesterday's story. The issue today -- at least in Europe -- is not the westernization of the east but the easternization of the West.

Europeans are now debating how to draw on the techniques and financial power of Asia in order to shore up their uncompetitive economies and form alliances with the new Asian corporate giants.

So here we have the Meiji Restoration in reverse. But it goes further than that. Political thinkers in Europe are also looking to the strengths of Confucian society to shore up the West's crumbling values system.

I fear that Huntington's call to return to the Atlantic pond, with its "precious and unique" civilization, comes far too late. Unless we learn quickly from the more cohesive and infinitely more successful societies of the dynamic east and weave together the best of what they have to offer with the best of our own traditions, there will be little left in real Western life that is either precious or unique.

David Howell is a member of the British Parliament and Chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.


Bruce Nussbaum

Despite the great publicity Huntington has received, his thesis has extraordinarily weak explanatory power and offers virtually no guidance in applied foreign policy. His prediction of civilizational conflict reflects the paucity of post-Cold War foreign policy paradigms, not the fresh insight of a millennial George Kennan.

His argument is weak, first and foremost, because it is built on the concept of "culture," which has about as much concrete definition as a snowflake in June. All cultures contain all values universally. It is the specific configuration of elites, institutions, and technology within a particular economic system that determines which values dominate at any one time. What is "Confucianism" in 1997? Is it the centralized authoritarian collectivism of China's delegitimized elite, which uses extreme nationalism and anti-Westernism to replace a lost communist ideology? Or is Confucianism today the market democracy of Taiwan? And what about Korea, with its labor unions, free elections, and recent jailing of one-time military dictators? Even the most superficial analysis of Korea over the past decade reveals an amazing transformation from militaristic authoritarianism to wild-and-woolly democracy. Has Korean culture somehow transformed itself in that short period of time? No, but the economy, the leadership, and the parties have certainly changed.

We can play the same games for each and every civilization Huntington mentions. If you want a more useful post-Cold War foreign policy paradigm, you don't have to go much further than the "long" nineteenth century that extended into the 1930s. It's not the Clash of Civilizations but the Clash of Capitalism that is occurring today. The end of the Cold War has reopened the global economy, tripling the size of international capitalism. A bipolar capitalism is developing, pitting mercantilists against free traders, the Pacific against the Atlantic, and China versus the United States and Europe. The jostling of states striving to move up the economic ladder and the fearful efforts of others who are sliding down define the current age. It's Balance of Power redux, with a high-tech gloss. For inspiration, it's Henry, not Sam; Metternich, not Weber.

The best thing that can be said about Huntington's thesis is that it provokes. The worst that can be said of it is that it might provide pseudo-intellectual ammunition to nativists everywhere seeking justification for ugly thoughts and uglier deeds.

Bruce Nussbaum is Editorial Page Editor at Business Week.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now