A Machiavelli for Our Times

December 1, 1996 Topics: Society Tags: September 11 AttacksSpies

A Machiavelli for Our Times

Mini Teaser: Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations might not only be about the future. It actually might help shape it.

by Author(s): Wang Gungwu

A Machiavelli for Our Times
Wang Gungwu

Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
In his Foreign Affairs essay on "The Clash of Civilizations?" Samuel Huntington offered a new paradigm for analyzing our increasingly multicivilizational world order. His provocative essay deserved the great attention it received, and so does the book he has now written refining and extending the argument. Huntington has put ample historical and political flesh on the civilizational frames he earlier identified, and the result is persuasive.
The key conceptual refinement Huntington has made en route from essay to book is making clear that he is talking not about civilizations as such, but rather about power groupings made up of nation-states and formed either around shared core cultural values or through a readiness to cohere in defense of common interests against challenges coming from different cultural systems. Once this clarification has been made, it is difficult to fault Huntington's basic premises, for we are back to the familiar realm of the clash between political structures as they compete for power and hegemony. What is novel, in his view, is that these structures will not be traditionally minded nation-states clashing along conventional frontiers, but Civilizational States struggling along the much vaguer fault lines that separate them.
One need not quarrel either with the fuller picture of a "World of Civilizations" underlying Huntington's basic approach. His purpose in using this term, as I understand it, is to emphasize the increasing inadequacy of Eurocentric models of international politics in the contemporary world. Undeniably the world has been transformed by the West's impact on it over the past two centuries; indeed, the West brought modernization to virtually everyone, whether they wanted it or not. For nearly half a century the bipolar divide in international politics-the Cold War-largely disguised the significance of what was happening. But Huntington believes that the end of that divide has made clear that a new paradigm is required: The globalized universalism inherent in the Western way of thinking about global issues must give way to a view of a new multipolar world, one that is not universal or homogeneous but multicivilizational.
More deliberately than in his original essay, Huntington sets out to demolish any residual sentimentality about the idealistic vision of a one-world future. As he points out, the Western utopian ideal-that of a single universal civilization that would ultimately absorb all other civilizations-reached its apogee at the beginning of this century. The two Euro-centered world wars that followed did much to disabuse Western (and other) intellectuals of this utopian hope, but it is still not entirely dead. Huntington is concerned to give it a final burial, and he does so maintaining that it represents the kind of overreach that destroyed past civilizations.
Huntington's basic argument-which may thus be characterized as a kind of conservative multiculturalism-holds that the balance of civilizations has now shifted, largely (and ironically) because of the success of Western science, technology, and the victory of capitalism in the open international market system. That victory does not necessarily make the users of originally Western concepts "Western" in the full civilizational sense; on the contrary, other civilizations learn all they can from the West partly in order to defend themselves against Western dominance. As they do so, new patterns of global development emerge, and novel factors come into play.
From the complex array of variables that Huntington defines and describes in the new world of civilizational conflict, two merit special comment. The population explosion in the developing economies, notably in the Islamic world, will continue for decades. The rapid spread of high-tech weaponry and electronic communication will accelerate as well. The former points to chronic clashes and crises that will result as national borders are threatened and breached by substantial spillovers of peoples. The latter will so reduce the functional size of Huntington's multicivilizational world that the new order may end up as comparable in scale to the state system of nineteenth-century Europe. Both trends will work to weaken the integral, stand-alone nation-state.
In place of the dynastic and religious wars of the pre-Westphalian epoch, then, or the mercantilist and ideological struggles that followed, we shall increasingly encounter conflicts between integral value-systems, as represented by clashes between the core powers of each civilizational cluster. Just as the European Great Powers, along with their proxies and colonies, fought one another throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so Civilizational Powers will now seek victories for themselves and dominance over others.
Because the political orientation of the actors is changing, future intercivilizational relations will require a new language both for understanding and for conducting war and peace. But the struggles among the major protagonists may well not be so different from the way Great Powers have acted in the past. Huntington is nowhere explicit about affirming the tenets of classical realism, but this may be inferred from his assertion that "the sources of conflict between states and groups from different civilizations are, in large measure, those which have always generated conflict between groups: control of people, territory, wealth, and resources, and relative power, that is the ability to impose one's own values, culture, and institutions on another group as compared to that group's ability to do that to you."
However, civilizations as power-oriented actors will have more serious problems with boundaries and will tend to be less manageable than the smaller polities of the more recent past. We know this because what Huntington sees as new finds at least some echo in aspects of what is old. In the roughly thousand-year conflict between Islam and Christendom-from the Battle of Tours to the siege of Prague-boundaries were rarely stable, even as political power within these civilizations shifted and reorganized itself over time.
Not surprisingly, Huntington has some difficulty in showing convincingly how the larger and mixed populations of Civilizational States can be politically coherent and loyal if their only common bonds depend on civilizational values. He comes close to defining identities for Asia (Sinic, Hindu, Islamic, and Japanese) entirely in terms of religion, which is unconvincing, especially as he draws away from this approach in dealing with the Western, Latin American, Orthodox, and African identities. In those instances, Huntington seems to assume that three of these groupings represent different faces of one religion-Christianity-while the potential African Civilization State might be torn between Christianity and Islam.
Although he is far from the first to have recognized it, Huntington is admirably frank about the relative decline of the West. In being so, he offers a major corrective to the complacency and arrogance that have dominated Western self-perception for the past century and a half. If his conclusions are widely accepted by Western scholars and commentators, a new language and vocabulary will have to be developed for coming generations, for to depict the values the West has stood for in the past two centuries as less than universal will call for a revolution of attitudes. This is courageous talk, not only in terms of what it means for Westerners themselves, but also for those from other civilizations who have been educated-and possibly converted, if not misled-to accept the supposed universalism of Western civilization. Indeed, many former colonials in Asia and Africa, including the nationalists among them, have for decades made a living from their mastery of supposedly universalist Western concepts.
Having defined this intriguing amalgam of conservative multiculturalism, Huntington then explains what he calls "the emerging order of civilizations." He speaks of core-states and concentric circles in a way reminiscent both of the Chinese tributary system (in which the "Middle Kingdom" would be the modern equivalent of his core-state) and the concept of the mandala, derived from Hindu-Buddhist ideas of the divine kingship, as a set of political relationships between core and periphery. Here the synthetic genius of Huntington as political scientist not only encompasses a wide range of political models from past and present, but in so doing demonstrates the interpenetration of the multiple civilizations that have survived the ravages of Western imperialism.
Up to this point, The Clash of Civilizations holds closely to modern historical experience worldwide, and readers will have little difficulty in recognizing the landmarks that have shaped our age. Huntington's conclusion, however, entertains what is perhaps an excessively apocalyptic vision of the future. The four chapters of his final section take us into the world of core-states and fault line conflicts, emphasizing, predictably, those between Islam and Christianity, as well as less dramatic quarrels involving Islam and Hinduism, and Islam and "Confucian" China.
The main objective here is to identify the cultural forces vying to replace political and merely national identities. Huntington believes that they manifest themselves increasingly through "kin identifications" between nation-states, and among related diasporas operating across national borders. He explains what he means by the "kin-country syndrome" this way: "When . . . communal conflicts involve groups from different civilizations, they tend to expand and to escalate. As the conflict becomes more intense, each side attempts to rally support from countries and groups belonging to his own civilization. . . . The longer a fault line conflict continues the more kin countries are likely to become involved in supporting, constraining, and mediating roles. As a result of this 'kin-country syndrome', fault line conflicts have a much higher potential for escalation than do intracivilizational conflicts and usually require intercivilizational cooperation to contain and end them. In contrast to the Cold War, conflict does not flow down from above, it bubbles up from below."
This syndrome may become an accurate description of much global conflict in the future, but Huntington claims more for its present impact than seems justified. The few geopolitical examples that lead him to predict an anti-Western coalition between Islamic and "Confucian" forces are little more than the international politics of arms sales and rhetorical support. If these represent the scope of the new world civilizational order, we need not change our textbooks just yet.
Finally, Huntington calls on the West to eschew a hollow universalism and, instead, to unite around America to defend its uniqueness against challenges from the non-West. This is the least convincing part of the book. It fails to recognize that the essential singularity of the modern West resides in a combination of missionary zeal and positive science that made its sense of universalism not only possible but virtually inevitable. This combination is the secret of the West's moral and physical strength against the universal claims of less well-endowed others. To withdraw from the commitment that it implies and retreat to a defensive posture would be to remove some of the features that have been most distinctive of Western civilization for the past five hundred years. Such a new parochialism might not cripple the West's moral purpose, but it could lead Western leaders to behavior similar to that of those leaders in Asia and elsewhere today who appear to be dedicated to nothing more than simply preserving what amounts to their tribal power.
Huntington avoids predicting precisely how power will be distributed in a new world order divided according to civilizational differences. Yes, conflicts will most frequently occur between powers with distinct and opposing cultural values, and nation-states as we have known them in recent times will cease to be the dominant players in global politics. Indeed, it is Huntington's view that we already live in the age of intercivilizational relations. But he is careful to insist that what he has presented is a model and not a prophecy-a new paradigm that may best explain what happens, and help predict what is likely to happen, when and where civilizational borders collide or intersect-and no more than that.
Coming from a leading political scientist in the most distinguished university in the world's most powerful nation-a nation that symbolizes (sometimes benignly, sometimes aggressively) the dominant civilization of the West-this new paradigm has surprised most scholars, Western and non-Western alike. Huntington's frank admission that the West is in relative decline, and will suffer greater threats and challenges if the United States does not take the lead in steering it away from its present arrogance, is particularly fascinating to the non-Western world. Indeed, the variety of reactions to his thesis outside the bounds of Western civilization reveals far more about these civilizations themselves than about Huntington and his paradigm.
To the Islamic world, spread across three continents, Huntington's thesis comes as confirmation of the prevailing conviction that Muslims are not destined to be Westernized. It is a good feeling, then, for Muslims to imagine the umma, the community of believers, again emerging as a major force in civilizational politics. If devout Muslims think Huntington's call for the West to defend its relative decline in power will be heeded, they may see in their future another Western crusade, against which jihad will be the inevitable defense. Huntington's theory essentially corroborates the classical Islamic worldview.
As for China, the Civilization State par excellence, the author's thesis invites the question of whether a future regional Confucian core-state is to be based on China. It is a question of interest not only to the Chinese themselves, but to their neighbors. From the way China is currently tying itself in knots trying to be a normal nation-state, it will be more likely to frighten its neighbors than inspire them. Southeast Asian nations, in particular, would feel exceptionally insecure in Huntington's larger scheme of things. Is that region's future to be a battleground of clashing Confucian, Islamic, Buddhist, and Christian Civilizational Powers? If so, subordinate states and sub-regions will not fare well. Such has always been the case in world systems, whether based on civilizational criteria or more conventional ones.
Japan-the neatest and smallest of Huntington's civilizations-could offer a good test for his paradigm. Japanese intellectuals are in fact intensely interested in what it means for East Asia; I have made more than a dozen trips to Japan since 1993, and each time I have been earnestly questioned about the Huntington thesis. They will no doubt find the elaborations in this longer version even more interesting, not least because Huntington's thesis allows for several possible futures for Japan.
In one respect, the idea that Japan represents a distinct civilization of its own resonates well with most Japanese. They are flattered to find that, of the non-Western civilizations, they are closest to being acknowledged as crypto-Westerners by the West itself. But then comes the ambiguity. By being depicted as a distinct, stand-alone civilization, Japan is freed from the shadow of China without necessarily being placed under a prolonged Western tutelage. The charge that Japan's modern system is derivative has been overturned by the recognition that Japan has a unique strength that transforms whatever it borrows into its very own. But this also means that the Japanese could be caught internally, so to speak, between two fault lines: between themselves and the West, and between themselves and Chinese civilization.
Huntington's paradigm serves to confirm that globalization has the potential to transform Japan from a peripheral state into the new center of the Asia-Pacific region. The fault lines on either side will make life permanently interesting for the Japanese people. The paradigm thus usefully sharpens Japan's choices: It could stay flexible and ally with one side or the other to avoid ever having to fight on both fronts; it could be a Fortress Japan, forever neutral in a dangerous world where the West and the Confucian-Islamic "alliance" are vying for control; or, for geostrategic reasons, it could identify with the physically more distant West as the civilization that would remain less hostile to Japan than its nearer neighbors. Whatever choice Japan makes, it may be the first to persuade itself of the validity of Huntington's paradigm.
At the end of my second reading of this engrossing book, I was reminded of Machiavelli. What Machiavelli did for the world of princely states, Huntington may well be doing for the multicivilizational world order. The old political rules remain for the most part, but the protagonists of larger polities, or groups of polities, have been provided with a new logic and language of behavior. I reflected, too, on what Machiavelli's contemporaries thought of The Prince when it was first published. The Church authorities who represented the universalism of the day were appalled, but was it because he had elevated the princely states above God's plan, or for some other reason? Did his secular contemporaries think otherwise, that his image of the prince and his princely state represented the real world? Were they puzzled and a little frightened by the new paradigm that accepted the princes for what they were?
By analogy, the Western powers today might respond to Huntington like the Universal Church and reaffirm that universalism is an absolute good. But less powerful civilizations may be encouraged by Huntington to believe that they might become new princes, with greatly enlarged and elevated parts to play. In the end, this is what is so stunning about The Clash of Civilizations: It is not just about the future, but may actually help to shape it.

Essay Types: Book Review