Samuel Huntington’s seminal essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” revived the nineteenth-century view of civilizations as unitary groupings of peoples, tied together by tradition, ethnicity, religion, and primordial values. In Huntington’s view, these civilizations—most notably the West, China, and Islam—were not simply abstractions but actors that wielded power and that were destined to clash. In recent years, Katzenstein, a renowned scholar of international relations, has advanced a strikingly different vision of civilizations, contending that although civilizations exist and are important, they are not really actors. Rather, they are loose, pluralistic systems of belief and identity. Katzenstein objects to Huntington’s essentialist view of civilizations, but he also disagrees with liberal internationalists, who see the concept of civilizations as anachronistic. In Katzenstein’s view, civilizational divides do still exist, but they play out in diffuse and ambiguous ways within and between the major global cultural traditions.
Katzenstein established these arguments in Civilizations in World Politics (2009), the first entry in a collaborative trilogy that he and a number of colleagues have now completed with these two books, which examine the great Chinese and Western civilizations. For China, civilizational politics leads to efforts to make the world suitable for the Chinese way of life. Katzenstein sees this as a complex process of adaptation, in which elements of an older Chinese worldview that placed China at the top of a regional hierarchy are combined with more contemporary visions of order in which China, other East Asian countries, and the wider world exchange ideas and models of economics, politics, and society. Katzenstein holds that Anglo-American civilization is also full of competing and changing ideas and conceptions of identity, all of which are anchored in some core assumptions about individualism and liberal ideas about politics and society. Thus, both Chinese and Anglo-American civilizations are amorphous, evolving cultural constructs that do not direct political action so much as provide the language for an ongoing debate within and between societies about politics and policy.
Intriguingly, Katzenstein also identifies an incipient “global civilization,” a synthesis of visions and values from many civilizations. The exact nature of this synthesis remains a bit vague in these books. But if it includes the iconic internationalist ideas of openness, the rule of law, pluralism, and self-determination, then perhaps the very notion of civilizations has in fact lost its usefulness.