The west won the cold war, but cannot and should not impose its distinct values on other world civilisations. Samuel Huntington, in an elaboration of his "Clash of Civilisations" essay published in 1993, argues that the west can only flourish in a more hostile world by abandoning its universal aspirationsby / February 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the post cold war world the most important distinctions among people are not ideological, political or economic. They are cultural. People and nations are attempting to answer the most basic question humans can face: who are we? And they are answering that question in the traditional way by reference to the things that mean most to them. People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs and institutions. They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations and, at the broadest level, civilisations. People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.
Nation states remain the principal actors in world affairs. Their behaviour is shaped as in the past by the pursuit of power and wealth, but it is also shaped by cultural preferences and differences. The most important groupings of states are no longer the three blocs of the cold war but rather the world’s seven or eight major civilisations. Which are they?
Sinic. All scholars recognise the existence of either a single distinct Chinese civilisation dating back at least to 1500 BC, or of two civilisations one succeeding the other in the early centuries of the Christian epoch. While Confucianism is a major component of Chinese civilisation, Chinese civilisation is more than Confucianism.
Japanese. Some scholars combine Japanese and Chinese culture under a single far eastern civilisation. Most, however, recognise Japan as a distinct civilisation which was the offspring of Chinese civilisation, emerging between AD 100 and 400.
Hindu. One or more successive civilisations have existed on the subcontinent since at least 1500 BC. In one form or another, Hinduism has been central to the culture of the subcontinent since the second millennium BC. It has continued to be so even though India has a substantial Muslim community.
Islamic. Originating in the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century AD, Islam spread rapidly across north Africa and the Iberian peninsula and also eastward into central Asia, the subcontinent and southeast Asia. Many distinct cultures exist within Islam, including Arab, Turkic, Persian and Malay.
Western. Western civilisation is usually dated as emerging about 700 AD. It has two main components in Europe and North America.
Latin American. Latin America, often considered part of the west, has a distinct identity. It has had a corporatist, authoritarian culture, which Europe had to a much lesser degree and North America not at all. Europe and North America both felt the effects of the reformation and have combined catholic and protestant cultures. Historically, Latin America has been only catholic (although that may be changing). Latin American civilisation also incorporates indigenous cultures, which were wiped out in North America.
Orthodox. This civilisation combines the Orthodox tradition of Christianity with the Slav cultures of eastern Europe and Russia. It has resurfaced since the demise of the Soviet Union.
African (possibly). The north of the continent and its east coast belong to Islamic civilisation. Historically, Ethiopia constituted a civilisation of its own. Elsewhere imperialism brought elements of western civilisation. Throughout Africa tribal identities are pervasive, but Africans are also increasingly developing a sense of African identity, and conceivably sub-Saharan Africa could cohere into a distinct civilisation, with South Africa as its core.
The term “the west” is now universally used to refer to what used to be called western Christendom. The west is thus the only civilisation identified by a compass direction and not by the name of a particular people, religion or geographical area. The name “the west” has also given rise to the concept of “westernisation” and has promoted a misleading conflation of westernisation and modernisation.
Modernisation is often associated with the idea of a single, universal civilisation. What people usually mean by universal civilisation refers to the assumptions and values held by most people in the west and by some people in other civilisations. This might be called the Davos culture. Each year about 1,000 businessmen, bankers, government officials, intellectuals and journalists meet in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Almost all the people hold university degrees, work with words and/or numbers and are reasonably fluent in English. They generally share beliefs in individualism, market economics and political democracy. Davos people control virtually all the international institutions, many of the world’s governments, and the bulk of the world’s economic and military capabilities. The elite Davos culture is thus very important. Worldwide, however, how many people share this culture? Outside the west it is probably less than 50m people or 1 per cent of the world’s population.
An even more tenuous case for the advance of a single universal western civilisation is based on the spread of US pop culture and consumer goods. This deprecates the strength of other cultures while trivialising western culture by identifying it with fatty foods, faded pants and fizzy drinks. The essence of western culture is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac.
Modern societies have much in common, but they do not necessarily merge into homogeneity. The argument that they do rests on the assumption that modern society must form a single type, the western type; that modern civilisation is western civilisation-and this is arrogant, false and dangerous.
most scholars of civilisation agree that western civilisation emerged in the 8th and 9th centuries. It did not begin to modernise until the 18th century. The west was western long before it was modern. What were the distinguishing characteristics of western civilisation before it modernised? They include:
The classical legacy. As a third generation civilisation, the west inherited much from classical civilisation. Classical legacies in western civilisation include Greek philosophy and rationalism, Roman law, Latin and Christianity. Islamic and Orthodox civilisations also inherited from classical civilisation, but to nowhere near the same degree as the west.
Western Christianity. Western Christianity, first catholicism and then protestantism, is the single most important characteristic of western civilisation. During most of its first millennium, western civilisation was called western Christendom. There was a well-developed sense of community among western Christian peoples, one that made them feel distinct from Turks, Moors and Byzantines. When westerners went out to conquer the world in the 16th century, they did so for God as well as gold. The reformation and counter-reformation and the division of western Christendom into protestantism and catholicism-and the political and intellectual consequences of that rift-are also features of western history, absent from eastern Orthodoxy and the Latin American experience.
European languages. Language is second only to religion as a factor distinguishing one culture from another. The west differs from most other civilisations in its multiplicity of languages. Japanese, Hindi, Mandarin, Russian, and even Arabic are recognised as the core languages of other civilisations. The west inherited Latin, but a variety of nations emerged in the west, and with them developed national languages grouped loosely into the broad categories of Romance and Germanic. By the 16th century these languages had generally assumed their contemporary forms. Latin gave way to French as a common international language for the west, and in the 20th century French succumbed to English.
Separation of spiritual and temporal authority. Throughout western history, first the church and then many churches existed separate from the state. God and Caesar, church and state, has been a prevailing dualism. Only in Hindu civilisation were religion and politics as clearly separated. In Islam, God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar’s junior partner. In western culture, the division between spiritual and temporal authority contributed immeasurably to the development of freedom.
Rule of law. The concept of the centrality of law to civilised existence was inherited from the Romans. Medieval thinkers elaborated the idea of natural law, according to which monarchs were supposed to exercise their power, and a common law tradition developed in England. During the phase of absolutism in the 16th and 17th centuries, the rule of law was observed more in the breach than in practice, but the idea of subordinating human power to some external restraint persisted. The tradition of the rule of law laid the basis for constitutionalism and the protection of human rights, including property rights. In other civilisations law has been a much less important factor.
Social pluralism and civil society. Western society historically has been highly pluralistic. What is distinctive about the west, as Karl Deutsch noted, “is the rise and persistence of diverse autonomous groups not based on blood relationship or marriage.” Beginning in the 6th and 7th centuries these groups initially included monasteries, monastic orders, and guilds, but afterwards expanded in many areas of Europe to include a variety of other associations. For more than a millennium, the west has had a civil society that distinguished it from other civilisations. Associational pluralism was supplemented by class pluralism. Most western European societies included a relatively strong and autonomous aristocracy, a substantial peasantry, and a small but significant class of merchants and traders. The strength of the feudal aristocracy was particularly important in limiting absolutism’s ability to take firm root in most European nations. This European pluralism contrasts sharply with the poverty of civil society, the weakness of the aristocracy, and the strength of the centralised bureaucratic empires that existed during the same periods in Russia, China and the Ottoman lands.
Representative bodies. Social pluralism gave rise to estates, parliaments, and other institutions that represented the interests of the aristocracy, clergy and merchants. These bodies provided forms of representation that in the course of modernisation evolved into the institutions of modern democracy. During the era of absolutism, they were abolished or their powers greatly limited. But even when that happened, they could, as in France, be resurrected as a vehicle for expanded political participation. Movements for self-government also developed at the local level, leading to such confederations of “strong and independent cities” as the Hanseatic League. Representation at the national level was thus supplemented by a measure of autonomy at the local level.
Individualism. Many of the above features of western civilisation contributed to the emergence of a sense of individualism and a tradition of individual rights and liberties. Individualism developed in the 14th and 15th centuries, and acceptance of the right of individual choice, which Deutsch terms “the Romeo and Juliet revolution,” prevailed in the west by the 17th century. Even claims for equal rights for all-“the poorest he in England has a life to live as much as the richest he”-were articulated, if not universally accepted. Individualism remains a distinguishing feature of the west in 20th century civilisations. In one analysis involving similar population groups from 50 countries, the 20 countries scoring highest on the individualism index included 19 of the 20 western countries in the sample.
The above is not an exhaustive list of the distinctive characteristics of western civilisation. Nor is it meant to imply that those characteristics were always and everywhere present in western society. They obviously were not: the many despots in western history regularly ignored the rule of law and suspended representative bodies. Nor is it meant to suggest that none of these characteristics have appeared in other civilisations. They obviously have: the Koran and the shari’a constitute basic law for Islamic societies; Japan and India had class systems parallelling that of the west (and perhaps as a result are the only two major non-western societies to sustain democratic governments for any length of time). Individually, almost none of these factors is unique to the west. But the combination of them is. They are what is western, but not modern, about the west. They generated the commitment to individual freedom that distinguishes the west from other civilisations. They are also the factors that enabled the west to take the lead in modernising itself and the world.
the west is and will remain for years to come the most powerful civilisation. Yet its power relative to other civilisations is declining. As the west attempts to assert its values and to protect its interests, non-western societies face a choice. Some attempt to emulate the west, others-especially Confucian and Islamic societies-attempt to expand their own economic and military power to resist and to “balance” the west. A central axis of post cold war politics is the interaction of western power and culture with the power and culture of non-western civilisations.
Peter the Great and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk were determined to modernise their countries and believed that doing so meant adopting western culture, even to the point of replacing traditional headgear with its western equivalent. They created “torn” countries, unsure of their cultural identity. The main “torn” countries in the world today are Russia-torn between Slavophile Orthodoxy and the west-Turkey, Mexico and Australia, the latter trying to de-link itself from the west and become part of Asia.
More often, leaders of non-western societies have pursued modernisation and rejected westernisation. Their goal is summed up in the phrase woken, yosei (Japanese spirit, western technique), articulated by Japanese reformers of a century ago, and in Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s comment in 1994 that “‘foreign imports’ are nice as shiny or high-tech ‘things.’ But intangible social and political institutions imported from elsewhere can be deadly-ask the Shah of Iran… Islam is for us not just a religion but a way of life. We Saudis want to modernise but not necessarily westernise.” Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and, to a lesser degree, Iran have become modern societies without becoming western societies. China is clearly modernising, but certainly not westernising.
Interaction and borrowing between civilisations have always taken place, and with modern means of transportation and communication are much more extensive. But China’s absorption of Buddhism from India failed to produce the “Indianisation” of China; it instead caused the Sinification of Buddhism. Modernisation and economic development not only does not require cultural westernisation it often promotes the opposite-a resurgence of indigenous cultures. At the individual level, the movement of people into unfamiliar cities and occupations breaks their traditional local bonds, generates feelings of alienation, and creates crises of identity to which religion frequently provides an answer. Modernisation also increases the wealth and military power of a country and thus encourages people to have confidence in their heritage. The global revival of religion is a direct consequence of modernisation. In non-western societies it almost necessarily assumes an anti-western cast, in some cases rejecting western culture because it is Christian and subversive, in others because it is secular and degenerate. The return to the indigenous is most marked in Muslim and Asian societies. The Islamic resurgence has manifested itself in every Muslim country, often becoming a major social, cultural and intellectual movement with a deep impact on politics. In 1996 virtually every Muslim country except Iran was more Islamist than it was 15 years earlier. In the countries where Islamist political forces do not shape the government, they invariably dominate the opposition to the government. Throughout the Muslim world people are reacting against the “westoxification” of their societies.
East Asian societies have gone through a parallel rediscovery of indigenous values and have increasingly drawn unflattering comparisons between their culture and western culture. For several centuries they, along with other non-western peoples, envied the economic prosperity, technological sophistication, military power and political cohesion of western societies. They sought the secret of this success in western practices and customs, and attempted to apply it in their own societies. Today east Asians attribute their dramatic economic development not to their import of western culture, but to their adherence to their own culture. They have succeeded, they argue, not because they became like the west, but because they have remained different from the west. When non-western societies felt weak in relation to the west, many of their leaders invoked western values of self-determination, liberalism, democracy and freedom to justify their opposition to western global domination. Now that they are no longer weak, they denounce as “human rights imperialism” the same values they previously invoked to promote their interests. As western power recedes, so too does the appeal of western values and culture-much of the world is becoming more modern and less western.
One manifestation of this trend is what Ronald Dore has termed the “second generation indigenisation phenomenon.” Both in former western colonies and in continuously independent, non-western countries, “the first ‘moderniser’ or ‘post-independence’ generation has often received its training in foreign western universities in a western cosmopolitan language. Partly because they first go abroad as impressionable teenagers, their absorption of western values may well be profound.” In contrast, members of the much larger second generation receive their education at home in universities the first generation established, where the local language is used for instruction. These universities “provide a much more diluted contact with metropolitan world culture.” Graduates of these universi-ties resent the dominance of the earlier western-trained generation and thus often “succumb to the appeals of nativist opposition movements.”
Even some of the first generation had to adapt their identities. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Harry Lee, and Solomon Bandaranaike were three brilliant graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, and Lincoln’s Inn respectively, superb lawyers and thoroughly westernised members of their societies. Jinnah was a committed secularist. Lee was, in the words of one British cabinet minister, “the best bloody Englishman east of Suez.” Bandaranaike was raised a Christian. Yet to lead their nations they reverted to their ancestral cultures. The secularist Jinnah became Quaid-i-Azam the fervent apostle of Islam as the basis for the Pakistani state. Harry Lee became Lee Kuan Yew, learned Mandarin and promoted Confucianism. The Christian Bandaranaike converted to Buddhism and appealed to Sinhalese nationalism.
Indigenisation is furthered by the democracy paradox: when non-western societies adopt western-style elections, democracy often brings to power anti-western political movements. In the 1960s and 1970s pro-western governments in developing countries were threatened by coups and revolutions; in the 1980s and 1990s they have been increasingly in danger of being ousted in elections. Democracy tends to make a society more parochial, not more cosmopolitan. Politicians in non-western societies do not win elections by demonstrating how western they are. Electoral competition stimulates them to fashion what they believe will be the most popular appeals, and those are often ethnic, nationalist and religious in character. This process, which began in Sri Lanka in the 1950s, has spread through Asia, Africa and the middle east, and is manifest in the success of religiously oriented parties in India, Turkey, Bosnia and Israel in elections in 1995 and 1996. Democratisation is thus at odds with westernisation.
The powerful currents of indigenisation at work in the world make a mockery of western expectations that western culture will become the world’s culture. The two central elements of any culture are language and religion. English, it has been said, is becoming the world’s language. It clearly has become the lingua franca for communication in multinational business, diplomacy, tourism and aviation. But the proportion of the world’s population speaking English is small and declining. According to data compiled by Sidney Culbert, a professor at the University of Washington, in 1958 roughly 9.8 per cent of human beings spoke English as a first or second language; in 1992, 7.6 per cent did. A language foreign to 92 per cent of the world’s population is not the world’s language. Similarly, in 1958, 24 per cent of humans spoke one of the five major western languages; in 1992, less than 21 per cent did. The situation is similar for religion. Western Christians now make up perhaps 30 per cent of the world’s population, but the proportion is declining; at some point in the coming decades Muslims will exceed Christians. As Michael Howard has observed, the “common western assumption that cultural diversity is a historical curiosity being rapidly eroded by the growth of a common, western-oriented, Anglophone world culture, shaping our basic values… is simply not true.”
as indigenisation spreads and the appeal of western culture fades, the central problem in relations between the west and the rest is the gap between the west’s efforts to promote western culture as the universal culture and its declining ability to do so. The collapse of communism exacerbated this disparity by reinforcing the view in the west that its ideology of democratic liberalism had triumphed globally and was thus universally valid. The west-and especially the US, which has always been a missionary nation -believes that the non-western peoples should commit themselves to the western values of democracy, free markets, limited government, separation of church and state, human rights, individualism and the rule of law. Minorities in other civilisations embrace these values, but the dominant attitudes toward them in non-western cultures range from scepticism to intense opposition. What is universalism to the west is imperialism to the rest.
Non-westerners do not hesitate to point to the gaps between western principle and practice. Hypocrisy and double standards are the price of universalist pretensions. Democracy is promoted, but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; nonproliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq, but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth, but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue with China, but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is repulsed with massive force, but not so against oil-less Bosnians.
The belief that non- western peoples should adopt western values is, if taken seriously, immoral in its implications. The almost universal reach of European power in the late 19th century and the global dominance of the US in the latter half of the 20th century spread many aspects of western civilisation across the world. But European globalism is no more, and US hegemony is receding, if only because it is no longer needed against a Soviet threat. Culture follows power. If non-western societies are once again shaped by western culture, it will happen only as a result of the expansion of western power. Imperialism is the necessary consequence of universalism, yet few proponents of universalism support the militarisation that would be necessary to achieve their goal. Furthermore, as a maturing civilisation, the west no longer has the economic or demographic dynamism required to impose its will on others. Any effort to do so also runs contrary to western values of self-determination and democracy.
As Asian and Muslim civilisations begin to assert the universal relevance of their cultures, westerners will see the connection between universalism and imperialism and appreciate the virtues of a pluralistic world. This reversal is already happening. In March 1996 Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia told the assembled heads of European governments: “European values are European values; Asian values are universal values.”
The decreasing ability of the west to achieve its goals against the rising civilisations was revealed at the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in June 1993. On one side were the European and North American countries; on the other side was a bloc of about 50 non-western states, the 15 most active members of which included the governments of one Latin American country (Cuba), one Buddhist country (Myanmar), four Confucian countries (Singapore, Vietnam, North Korea and China), and nine Muslim countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Libya). The leadership of this Asian-Islamic group came from China, Syria and Iran. In between these two groupings were most Latin American countries which often supported the west, and African and Orthodox countries which sometimes supported, but more often opposed, the west.
Two months before the Vienna conference the Asian countries met in Bangkok and endorsed a declaration which emphasised that human rights must be considered “in the context of national and regional particularities and various historical religious and cultural backgrounds.” It also declared that human rights monitoring violated sovereignty.
The western nations were ill prepared for Vienna; they were outnumbered at the conference and made the most concessions. The declaration approved by the conference was a minimal one, weaker than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the UN adopted in 1948. After the conference an Asian critic of the west said: “For the first time since the Universal Declaration countries not steeped in the Judaeo-Christian and natural law traditions are in the first rank. That unprecedented situation will define the new international politics of human rights. It will also multiply the occasions for conflict.”
The governments of Muslim countries are likely to continue to become less friendly to the west. Relations between the US, on the one hand, and China, Japan and other Asian countries will also be highly conflictual, and a war could occur if the US challenges China’s rise as the hegemonic power in Asia. Meanwhile the smaller pressure points in world politics will be on the “fault lines” between civilisations: witness the fighting in Bosnia, Chechnya, the middle east, Kashmir and many other places.
What should the US and Europe do to preserve western civilisation? The west needs greater unity of purpose to prevent states from other civilisations exploiting differences. It should: incorporate into the EU and Nato the western states of central Europe; encourage the westernisation of Latin America; slow the drift of Japan away from the west and toward accommodation with China; and accept Russia as the core state of Orthodoxy and a power with legitimate interests. The main responsibility of western leaders is to recognise that intervention in the affairs of other civilisations is the single most dangerous source of instability in the world. The west should not attempt to reshape other civilisations in its own image but preserve and renew the unique qualities of western civilisation. That responsibility falls overwhelmingly on the most powerful western country, the US. Neither globalism nor isolationism, neither multilateralism nor unilateralism will best serve US interests. Its interests will be advanced if it instead adopts an Atlanticist policy of close co-operation with Europe, one that will protect the interests and values of the precious and unique civilisation they share.