Courtesy Reuters

Do Civilizations Hold?

ALBERT L. WEEKS is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at New York University.

Samuel P. Huntington has resurrected an old controversy in the study of international affairs: the relationship between "microcosmic" and "macrocosmic" processes. Partisans of the former single out the nation state as the basic unit, or determining factor, in the yin and yang of world politics. The "macros," on the other hand, view world affairs on the lofty level of the civilizations to which nation states belong and by which their behavior is allegedly largely determined.

To one degree or another, much of the latter school's thinking, although they may be loath to admit it, derives from Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Quincy Wright, F. N. Parkinson and others. In contrast, scholars such as Hans J. Morgenthau, John H. Herz and Raymond Aron have tended to hew to the "micro" school.

Both schools began debating the issue vigorously back in the 1950s. That Huntington is resurrecting the controversy 40 years later is symptomatic of the failure of globalism--specifically the idea of establishing a "new world order"-to take root and of the failure to make sense of contradictory trends and events. His aim is to find new, easily classified determinants of contemporary quasi-chaotic international behavior and thus to get a handle on the international kaleidoscope.

His methodology is not new. In arguing the macro case in the 1940s, Toynbee distinguished what he called primary, secondary and tertiary civilizations by the time of their appearance in history, contending that their attributes continued to influence contemporary events. Wright, likewise applying a historical method, classified civilizations as "bellicose" (including Syrian, Japanese and Mexican), "moderately bellicose" (Germanic, Western, Russian, Scandinavian, etc.) and "most peaceful" (such as Irish, Indian and Chinese). Like Toynbee and now Huntington, he attributed contemporary significance to these factors. Huntington's classification, while different in several respects from those of his illustrious predecessors, also identifies determinants on a grand scale by "civilizations."

His endeavor, however, has its own fault lines. The lines are the borders encompassing each distinct nation state and mercilessly chopping the alleged civilizations into pieces. With the cultural and religious glue of these "civilizations" thin and cracked, with the nation state's political regime providing the principal bonds, crisscross fracturing and cancellation of Huntington's own macro-scale, somewhat anachronistic fault lines are inevitable.

The world remains fractured along political and possibly geopolitical lines; cultural and historical determinants are a great deal less vital and virulent. Politics, regimes and ideologies are culturally, historically and "civilizationally" determined to an extent. But it is willful, day-to-day, crisis-to-crisis, war-to-war political decision-making by nation-state units that remains the single most identifiable determinant of events in the international arena. How else can we explain repeated nation-state "defections" from their collective "civilizations"? As Huntington himself points out, in the Persian Gulf War "one Arab state invaded another and then fought a coalition of Arab, Western and other states."

Raymond Aron described at length the primacy of a nation state's political integrity and independence, its inviolable territoriality and sovereign impermeability. He observed that "men have believed that the fate of cultures was at stake on the battlefields at the same time as the fate of provinces." But, he added, the fact remains that sovereign states "are engaged in a competition for power [and] conquests .... In our times the major phenomenon [on the international scene] is the heterogeneity of state units [not] supranational aggregations."

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