Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
I approach the work of Samuel P. Huntington with keen interest and high expectations. Like most political scientists, I have learned much from his writings. Now in his article "The Clash of Civilizations?" he once again raises new questions.
In his essay, Huntington asserts that civilizations are real and important and predicts that "conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict." He further argues that institutions for cooperation will be more likely to develop within civilizations, and conflicts will most often arise between groups in different civilizations. These strike me as interesting but dubious propositions.
Huntington's classification of contemporary civilizations is questionable. He identifies "seven or eight major civilizations" in the contemporary world: Western (which includes both European and North American variants), Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American "and possibly African."
This is a strange list.
If civilization is defined by common objective elements such as language, history, religion, customs and institutions and, subjectively, by identification, and if it is the broadest collectivity with which persons intensely identify, why distinguish "Latin American" from "Western" civilization? Like North America, Latin America is a continent settled by Europeans who brought with them European languages and a European version of Judeo-Christian religion, law, literature and gender roles. The Indian component in Latin American culture is more important in some countries (Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru) than in North America. But the African influence is more important in the United States than in all but a few Latin American countries (Brazil, Belize and Cuba). Both North and South America are "Western" European with an admixture of other elements.
And what is Russia if not "Western"? The East/West designations of the Cold War made sense in a European context, but in a global context Slavic/Orthodox people are Europeans who share in Western culture. Orthodox theology and liturgy, Leninism and Tolstoy are expressions of Western culture.
It is also not clear that over the centuries differences between civilizations have led to the longest and most violent conflicts. At least in the twentieth century, the most violent conflicts have occurred within civilizations: Stalin's purges, Pol Pot's genocide, the Nazi holocaust and World War II. It could be argued that the war between the United States and Japan involved a clash of civilizations, but those differences had little role in that war. The Allied and Axis sides included both Asian and European members.
The liberation of Kuwait was no more a clash between civilizations than World War II or the Korean or Vietnamese wars. Like Korea and Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War pitted one non-Western Muslim government against another. Once aggression had occurred, the United States and other Western governments became involved for geopolitical reasons that transcended cultural differences. Saddam Hussein would like the world to believe otherwise.
After the United States mobilized an international coalition against Iraq, Saddam Hussein, until then the leader of a revolutionary secular regime, took to public prayers and appeals for solidarity to the Muslim world. Certain militant, anti-Western Islamic fundamentalists, Huntington reminds us, responded with assertions that it was a war of "the West against Islam." But few believed it. More governments of predominantly Muslim societies rallied to support Kuwait than to "save" Iraq.
In Bosnia, the efforts of Radovan Karadzic and other Serbian extremists to paint themselves as bulwarks against Islam are no more persuasive, although the passivity of the European Community, the United States, nato and the United Nations in the face of Serbia's brutal aggression against Bosnia has finally stimulated some tangible Islamic solidarity. But most governments of predominantly Muslim states have been reluctant to treat the Bosnian conflict as a religious war. The Bosnian government itself has resisted any temptation to present its problem as Islam versus the Judeo-Christian world. The fact that Serbian forces began their offensive against Croatia and Slovenia should settle the question of Serbian motives and goals, which are territorial aggrandizement, not holy war.
Indubitably, important social, cultural and political differences exist between Muslim and Judeo-Christian civilizations. But the most important and explosive differences involving Muslims are found within the Muslim world-between persons, parties and governments who are reasonably moderate, nonexpansionist and nonviolent and those who are anti-modern and anti-Western, extremely intolerant, expansionist and violent. The first target of Islamic fundamentalists is not another civilization, but their own governments. "Please do not call them Muslim fundamentalists," a deeply religious Muslim friend said to me. "They do not represent a more fundamental version of the Muslim religion. They are simply Muslims who are also violent political extremists."
Elsewhere as well, the conflict between fanaticism and constitutionalism, between totalitarian ambition and the rule of law, exists within civilizations in a clearer, purer form than between them. In Asia the most intense conflict may turn out to be between different versions of being Chinese or Indian.
Without a doubt, civilizations are important. By eroding the strength of local and national cultures and identifications, modernization enhances the importance of larger units of identification such as civilizations. Huntington is also surely right that global communication and stepped-up migration exacerbate conflict by bringing diametrically opposed values and life-styles into direct contact with one another. Immigration brings exotic practices into schools, neighborhoods and other institutions of daily life and challenges the cosmopolitanism of Western societies. Religious tolerance in the abstract is one thing; veiled girls in French schoolrooms are quite another. Such challenges are not welcome anywhere.
But Huntington, who has contributed so much to our understanding of modernization and political change, also knows the ways that modernization changes people, societies and politics. He knows the many ways that modernization equals Westernization--broadly conceived-and that it can produce backlash and bitter hostility. But he also knows how powerful is the momentum of modern, Western ways of science, technology, democracy and free markets. He knows that the great question for non-Western societies is whether they can be modern without being Western. He believes Japan has succeeded. Maybe.
He is probably right that most societies will simultaneously seek the benefits of modernization and of traditional relations. To the extent that they and we are successful in preserving our traditions while accepting the endless changes of modernization, our differences from one another will be preserved, and the need for not just a pluralistic society but a pluralistic world will grow ever more acute.