The Real Clash

September 1, 1994 Topic: Society Tags: Islamism

The Real Clash


The Chinese state must make the great transition from being a communist state to being a Confucian one. This is not going to be a smooth and easy process. The ideal Confucian state in the modern era has been the Singapore of Lee Kuan Yew. Its achievements have been extraordinarily great, but its size is extraordinarily small. (It is really a city-state, with a population of only 2.8 million.) The other successful Confucian states have also governed rather small countries, with the exception of only partly-Confucian Japan. So there is a crucial question: Will the modern Confucian state be able to govern 1.2 billion people?

There may indeed come a clash between Western and Confucian civilizations, but sometime soon there will intervene a clash between the communist past and the Confucian future in China itself. The nature of that internal clash will largely shape the nature and timing of the external one. A clash of civilizations that occurred after a long Chinese "time of troubles" would have different consequences than one that occurred in the near future.

In any event, the clash between the Western and Confucian civilizations, like the clash between Western and Islamic civilizations, is not likely to take place at the level of conventional or nuclear wars. Rather, it will more likely take place between Western-style or liberal capitalism and Confucian-style or state-guided capitalism, as a long series of economic conflicts, human-rights disputes with an economic dimension, and trade wars.

From Christendom to "the West"

A closer look at Huntington's list of major civilizations will raise a fundamental question about the nature of civilizations and the differences between them. He identifies "Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and possibly African civilization." This is, on the face of it, a motley collection of terms. Four clearly identify a civilization with a religion (in Toynbee's term, a universal church). However, the two civilizations with the most advanced economies--the Western and the Japanese--are identified in secular terms. We have already noted that Japanese civilization is a result of a synthesis of three religions--Confucianism, Shintoism, and Buddhism--so in its case the use of a national term rather than a religious one seems logical.

The real anomaly in Huntington's list is the most powerful and most pervasive civilization of them all--Western civilization, which is identified with a term that is only a geographical direction. Instead of connoting the profound essence of the civilization, the term Western connotes something bland and even insipid, with no content at all. And instead of connoting the global sway of the civilization, the term Western connotes a locus that is limited and confined, with no breadth at all.

The problematic quality of Western civilization goes deeper than an anomalous term, however. It reaches to the most fundamental character of the civilization, to its definition and its direction.

The fact of the matter is that Western civilization is the only civilization that is explicitly non-religious or post-religious. This is the radical difference of the West from the other civilizations. It helps to explain why there are new conflicts between the West and the rest. It predicts that these conflicts will become more intense in the future. And it also points to a possible fatal flaw within Western civilization itself.

Three hundred years ago, no one knew that there was a Western civilization, not even those that were living within it. The term then, and the one that would be parallel to Huntington's terms for the other civilizations, was Christendom. The story of how Christendom became Western civilization and how most other civilizations have retained a religious identity is crucial for understanding the clash of civilizations in the future.

Western civilization is, as Huntington notes, the product of a series of great cultural and historical movements. The featured tableaux in this grand parade are the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. Huntington's own list does not include the Counter-Reformation. This may be natural enough for Americans; Europeans, however, have good reasons to include it.

The Enlightenment brought about the secularization of much of the intellectual class, the idea-bearing class, of what hitherto had been called Christendom. The civilization was now no longer called that, even though much of its ordinary population remained Christian. The French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution spread Enlightenment ideas and secularization to important parts of this population, but the Christian churches continued to be a vital force within the civilization. But ever since the Enlightenment, it has not been possible to refer to the civilization as Christendom.

For a time in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, "Europe" became the preferred term for the civilization. But this was also the very time that saw the rise of European settlements in the New World to the status of independent nations. This soon made impossible the term "European civilization."

For a brief and exuberant time in the nineteenth century, when this civilization seemed to be the only dynamic and growing one and with all the others in manifest decline and decay, the preferred term was just "Civilization" itself, since this civilization seemed to be the only one around. But this term, too, could not be sustained.

It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that the term "Western civilization" was invented. The term registered the awareness that this civilization, unlike others, did not place religion at its core. It also registered the awareness that this civilization was only one among many. It was a civilization past the enthusiasms of faith and also past the exuberance of being a civilization so blessed that it was in a class by itself. In short, the term Western civilization was the product of a high degree of intellectualism, perhaps even a sickly self-consciousness. The term was itself a sign of the first appearance of decline. It is no accident that, almost as soon as it was invented, it began to be used in this pessimistic context, as in Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918). Had the term been left in the hands, or rather the minds, of Europeans alone, it probably would have had only a short and unhappy life.

It was the New World that was called in to redress the pessimism of the Old. The Americans breathed a new meaning into the term Western civilization, first as they dealt with the European immigrants in America and then as they dealt with the European nations in Europe itself. For Americans then, and for Huntington now, Western civilization was the ideas of "individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state."

The new content of Western civilization became the American creed. Conversely, the new context for the American creed became Western civilization. The combination of American energy and European imagery gave the idea of Western civilization both power and legitimacy. The power helped the United States win both the Second World War against Nazi Germany and the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The legitimacy helped it to order the long peace within Western Europe that was so much intertwined with that Cold War. The term Western civilization has experienced, therefore, its own heroic age.

That age, however, is now over. It is over partly because the term no longer provides the United States legitimacy among the Europeans. Even today, however, when there is no longer any obvious great power threatening Europe, the Europeans are often willing to defer to U.S. leadership (as the successive crises in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, and Africa have illustrated in different ways). The main reason why the heroic age of the term is over is because it no longer provides any energy within the United States itself, and this is because it no longer has any legitimacy among Americans.

The decline of Western civilization is a tale that scholars have been telling ever since the fin-de-siècle of the nineteenth century. As I have argued, the rise of the term "Western civilization" was itself a sign of the first stage of that decline. Now, at the fin-de-siècle of the twentieth century, the decline of that term is a sign of a much more advanced decline. The tale of the decline of "Western civilization" as a term is part of the longer tale of the decline of Western civilization itself. This is connected with certain transformations within the West that have matured in the 1990s.

The Great Transformations

One big event of the 1990s, of course, has been the end of the Cold War. Many observers naturally see this development to be the most important one for international affairs, particularly those who focus on international security and the national interest (and who read The National Interest). But the 1990s have also seen the maturing of other major developments that will have major consequences for international security and the national interest, and that will shape the clash of civilizations: first, there has been the transformation of the most advanced countries from industrial to post-industrial economies, and their associated transformation from modern to post-modern societies; second, there has been the transformation of the international economy into a truly global one.

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