Courtesy Reuters

The West: Precious, not Unique: Civilizations Make for a Poor Paradigm Just Like the Rest

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Huntington has arrived with bad news: the old world of realpolitik and great power tensions may have faded, but it has been replaced by an even nastier and less predictable world of looming cultural and religious conflict ("The West: Unique, Not Universal," November/ December 1996).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

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