Power and Civilization

Until very recently, the concepts of "civilization" and "culture" have played a minor role in thinking about international politics. Realism, which has been the dominant theory of international politics for the last fifty years, allows no significant role for civilizational influences--not in its older version which posits a universal and unchanging human nature, nor in its neorealist form in which the structure of the international system is what is considered decisive.

The principal reason why civilizations and the differences between them have not been considered important in the study of international politics is, surely, that until very recently power politics was a Western game. All the leading actors belonged to one civilization, so that the question of the effect of civilizational differences did not arise. The states and societies of other civilizations figured in the script not as participants but as objects. As such they were usually dealt with under the heading of "colonial policy", and were subject to different kinds of theorizing and moralizing. (As John Stuart Mill pronounced in 1859, "To suppose that the same international customs, and the same rules of international morality, can obtain between one civilized nation and another, and between civilized nations and barbarians, is a grave error, and one which no statesman can fall into...")

Japan has been the one obvious exception to this, and during World War II it did inspire the U.S. government to sponsor a study--Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword--attempting to relate Japan's political behavior to its culture. But for the most part, Japan has been dealt with by treating it as an honorary member of the West, one of the Club--something that its diligent efforts to copy and borrow from Western institutions and practices made plausible.

Now all this is changing. As a number of non-Western countries make startling economic progress and improve rapidly their standing in the hierarchy of states, and as it has become evident that decades of suppression under Communist rule has not diminished the vitality (and in some cases the virulence) of local cultures, increasing attention is being payed to civilizational factors. Two of the most interesting manifestations of this so far are Professor Samuel Huntington's essay "The Clash of Civilizations?" (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993), and the debate which is underway concerning the way in which culture, economic growth and political freedom are related in Confucian countries (especially China), and the validity and wisdom of Western (especially American) criticism of and pressure on those countries. The articles by Eric Jones and Irwin Stelzer in this issue both bear on that subject, the first directly, the second indirectly.

Huntington is concerned to move civilizations and cultures from the periphery of international politics to the very center of the stage. Briefly stated his thesis is this: The fundamental source of conflict in the new post-Cold war world will not be predominantly ideological or economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics, and the fault lines between civilizations will be the flash-points and the principle battle-lines of the future.
As to the pattern of conflicts that is likely to emerge among these civilizations, he believes that it will be shaped mainly by challenges mounted by the others against the dominant Western culture, and that the main challenge will come from "the Confucian-Islamic connection"--a connection that currently manifests itself mainly in military terms, in the form of a flow of arms and weapons technology from China to Islamic countries.

As well as being a radical departure from most past thinking about international affairs, Huntington's thesis is also strikingly at odds with most other current attempts to predict the character of the post-Cold War era. These have typically put heavy stress on the allegedly universalistic, integrative, homogenizing and pacific consequences of forces like proliferating democracy, global capitalism, and technological advances, all of which, it is claimed, will reduce the civilizational differences of the past. Indeed, the authors of many of these predictions see emerging a single new global civilization and culture, and with that the obsolescence of war and power politics. They foresee a degree of international harmony and placidity that one of them at least (Fukuyama) fears may be positively boring--boredom, of course, being one of the problems associated with Utopia. (Incidentally, one surely sees in all this the extent to which Western democratic thinking, in the process of combating messianic ideologies during this century, has itself been infected and made more ideological. Mainstream Western democratic theory did not used to promise Utopia.)

In any case, Huntington rejects all that and says virtually the opposite: we are heading towards an increasingly particularistic world of civilizations in which differences will be emphasized, not softened, and which will allow plenty of scope for conflict and violence. Passions will be stronger, since civilizational differences are more basic than ideological ones, less mutable, less easily compromised. Technological and economic forces will not override culture but will be subordinate to them. The fact that the world is shrinking will make for more, not less, friction.