'War of Civilizations' a Dangerous Theory

WILLIAM PFAFF

November 04, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Washington -- In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Such is foreign-policy Washington under the Clinton Administration. The President knows that his test is to succeed with his domestic agenda. International politics do not greatly interest him.

He has named to his government's principal foreign policy posts individuals who are experts without being conceptualizers. In the policy confusion that has followed, anyone with a big theory is listened to. People in and out of government want to be told the significance of things.

Thus, Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard's well-timed essay, ''The Clash of Civilizations?'' (in the summer issue of Foreign Affairs), is widely cited in Washington as ''the new 'X' article'' -- reference, of course, to the brilliant 1947 Foreign Affairs essay by George Kennan (writing under a pseudonym) that provided the American government with the rationale for its policy of containment of Soviet communism.

Professor Huntington's prophetic record is not as good as it might be. He produced an essay for the Trilateral Commission in the early 1980s that argued that Western democracy was in grave danger from communism because of its failure of morale and will. We know what actually happened.

His thesis today is that national and ideological conflicts are being replaced by conflict between civilizations. ''The next world war, if there is one,'' he says, ''will be a war between civilizations.'' Implicit in his discussion is that this war, if it comes, will be between Islamic civilization and the West, or between a ''Confucian'' Asian civilization and the West. (He believes Japan cannot dominate East Asia but that China can.)

Professor Huntington says that the wars of kings were replaced in the 18th and 19th centuries by the wars of nations, then by the wars of ideologies, and that now it is time for the wars of civilizations. Much that he says is interesting. Some of it is true. The great civilizations are cultural and moral rivals. Members of these civilizations have fought in the past, although chiefly for religious reasons. There are issues of conflict between Islamic and Asian states and the West today.

However, his claim that we have begun to make war between civilizations rests on the fact that Arabs and the West have struggled over Israel and oil, that Yugoslavia at war lies on the ''fault line'' dividing the Orthodox from Catholics, and both of them from Muslims, and that economic rivalry is rising between Asian nations and the West.

The Arab-Western conflict is mostly one of tangible political and economic issues: Israel's implantation in what formerly was Arab territory, and the control and exploitation of oil. It is true that Islamic fundamentalists preach opposition to Western civilization as such, but Islamic fundamentalists are not Islam. The main front in their battle is with other Muslims, as in Algeria and Egypt today. The Gulf war was fought by Muslims and the major Western powers, but began with the invasion of one Islamic country by another and saw two of the principal Islamic powers, Egypt and Morocco, on the side of the West.

Anyone who thinks that the struggle in Bosnia is between Islamic and Christian civilizations displays how little he knows of Bosnia. Bosnia's Muslim society was integrally European, and the Bosnian government today still is the only one in ex-Yugoslavia that defends a pluralist, liberal and ''Western'' idea of society.

I have not the space to make detailed criticism of Professor Huntington's argument. I will simply say that to translate the obvious differences and moral rivalries of civilizations into a foreign and strategic policy issue is a terrible and potentially pernicious error. If tangible conflicts of economic interest (as over oil) or trade, or territorial and political conflicts (as over Israel), or ethnic nationalist conflict (as in the ex-Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union) are interpreted as collisions of civilizations, they are thereby transferred from the realm of the negotiable and solvable into that of perpetual and unresolvable conflict.

I do not think that Professor Huntington really understands what he has done. He has provided the rationale for something like racial war. Adherence to a civilization, like membership in a race, is unnegotiable and uncompromisable. It is unchosen and inescapable. If our future indeed is war between civilizations, then it is a future of perpetual and unendable war, or at least of wars endable only by extermination -- which was Hitler's conception of his war against the Jews.

This is a desperate view of history, an expression of a total and irresponsible fatalism. It is morally as well as politically catastrophic in its implications. It is also simply untrue. The potential as well as actual conflicts in the world today have to do with money, commerce, territory and political and economic interest. They all can be dealt with through conventional political, economic or, if it comes to that, military measures. They have solutions. A conflict of civilizations has no solution.

The practical effect of Professor Huntington's argument is to rationalize vulgar stereotypes of entire peoples and to license apocalyptic thinking of the kind that already in this century has given us a world war and the Cold War. That this should be taken seriously in Washington is deeply dismaying.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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