'The Clash of Civilizations': The most catalytic work of its sort since 'End of History'

November 10, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Any United World Federalists left over from the 1940s and 1950s - and other romantic celebrants of the concept of a benevolent and democratic one-world order - will detest "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order," by Samuel P. Huntington (Simon & Schuster. 320 pages. $24).

Many others will hate it as well. It is distinguished by uncompromising candor, clarity of analysis, conviction and contempt for feel-good hypocrisies. It collides, often violently, with much of the catechism of human universality and the banalities of American self-congratulatory multiculturalism.

Four years ago, Francis Fukuyama suggested, in "The End of History," that the values of Western liberal democracies are going to prevail throughout the world, rather like that irresistible image in the Sherwin-Williams paint advertisements. This new work rejects that view as pitifully myopic - and catastrophically naive.

Huntington is director of Harvard's John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. He was head of planning for Jimmy Carter's National Security Council. What is his contrary vision?

To begin with, he does not use the term "civilization" in the 18th-century sense of what's left after barbarism is chucked into the waste bin. It does not refer to being clubbable, but rather cohesive; there can be civilizations that are totally "uncivilized" in the traditional Western romantic or democratic sense.

Main players

The principal civilizations are, obviously enough, Western, Islamic, Sinic (that is, Confucian or core Chinese), Hindu, Latin American, Japanese and African. Of course, there are "cleft" regions - Sri Lanka, Bosnia, etc. One can argue at the margins of the broad definitions, but the central concept is that of "the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have, short of that which distinguishes humans from other species."

The armature point is that cultural identity, and culture itself, define what the world is about beyond the Cold War.

This leads directly to the conclusion that the industrial West is increasingly in conflict with the rest of the world, most seriously with Islam and China, while conflict among other non-Western societies increases. Thus, avoidance of global war and other disaster depends heavily upon the capacity of leaders of all these civilizations to accept the "multicivilizational" nature of Earth and thus of global politics. The West's job is to preserve its own culture and respect its strengths unapologetically. And to stop meddling where it does not belong.

On the cheerful side, Huntington finds little or no likelihood of a great international class war between the poor south and the rich north, between Earth's haves and its have-nots.

That, of course, is the prevailing prediction - and sometime aspiration or prayer - of the unreconstituted Marxists who linger on, ignoring modern history, especially in some tenure-narcotized university faculties.

The dangers, to the contrary, are that have-nots and have-nots fight among themselves - violently, bloodily, without resolution; or that the rich states get involved in what essentially would be trade wars.

In looking to the improbability of effective, sustainable intimate relations among different civilizations, Huntington notes that it was the Spanish in the 13th century who invented the term "Cold War" (la guerra fria) to describe the relations between Christian Spain and its Muslim Mediterranean neighbors. (So you thought there was something new on this earth?)

With powerful reasoning, Huntington points out that the great political ideologies - liberalism, socialism, anarchism, corporatism, Marxism, communism, social democracy, conservatism, nationalism, fascism, Christian democracy - are all products of Western civilization and that no other civilizations have generated a significant political ideology. The West, however, has never generated a major religion.

Seen in such broad context, it comes startlingly clear how rare - and foreign to others - are the fundamental characteristics of Western civilization.

The critics swarm

As is true with all great acts of intellectual provocation, "The Clash of Civilizations" offers opportunities for abuse. Several of Huntington's specific explorations are readily debatable, and deserve it. Already, in the first wave of response, the New York Times's redoubtable Richard Bernstein has taken vigorous exception to Huntington's interpretation of the current horrors in Bosnia.

The book's main concepts inevitably will be savaged by the crypto-imperialists of the left - and by that smiley-face crowd of nobly intentioned naifs who deep in their hearts believe that all the folk of Earth are awaiting guidance toward becoming solid, hymn-singing Kansans. Among the right, there is danger that Huntington's structural insights will be put to work to justify a kind of neoxenophobia - to write off any constructive international role for the West beyond the West, isolationism.

This book is not destined to be a classic text, a must-read for undergraduates in 100 years. Rather, its main, and immensely important, role will be to catalyze debate to far more daring and demanding levels than have been achieved either in international academic circles, doctrine-dominated as many are, or in

diplomatic institutions, which so often are bogged in evasions of oncoming, obvious trends.

If you give much of a damn about where the world is headed, you have a duty to your own consciousness to read this book.

If you have any role of influence in international relations - however slim or tangential - you have a moral obligation to read it, carefully.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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