Maybe we got it all wrong.
Maybe civilizations aren’t the problem, as Samuel Huntington warned, but the answer. If so, we should be worried less about them clashing, and start thinking more about how the interaction between authentic civilizations can be the glue that binds the human community together.
This means America should be a powerful voice in that conversation. Rather than being isolated or isolationist, the United States can be a leader in the global revival of an old idea with a bright future.
Some historical baggage ought to be left behind. It’s time to discard negative feelings about world historical civilizations.
The twentieth century was this weird admixture. In the first half, America and Europeans trumpeted Western civilization over all others; in the second half, collective embarrassment about the legacy of the West prevailed among many intellectuals. They rejected the heritage of the West as xenophobic and racist.
Neither legacy ought to be preserved.
Part of the intensely adverse reaction to Trump's touting "America First" stems from recalling the complicated history of the movement that opposed the U.S. entry into World War II before Pearl Harbor. The movement's leader, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, employed the superiority of Western civilization as a cornerstone of his nationalist rhetoric. "We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession," he wrote in Reader’s Digest in 1939, “our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.”
For Lindbergh, civilization was populist shorthand for political solidarity. That's not how critics interpreted it. Even in Lindbergh's day, terms like the "white race" sparked misgivings, controversy, and sometimes revulsion. Also if America First wasn't explicitly racist, the claim of the superiority of Western civilization had more than a little hubris.
After the war, there was a strong reaction against the chauvinism of Western civilization professed by people like Lindbergh. Progressive scholars such as Howard Zinn, William Appleman Williams, Edward Said and Noam Chomsky championed revisionism (albeit laced with sloppy scholarship or outright lies). Western Civilization was not only not superior, they explained, but the West was also corrupt, a malevolent influence suffused with imperialism, greed and intolerance.
Zinn complained in Columbus and Western Civilization that “in these five hundred years of Western civilization, of Western domination of the rest of the world, most of those benefits have gone to a small part of the human race. For billions of people in the Third World, they still face starvation, homelessness, disease, the early deaths of their children.” For him, the West had done nothing right, and its legacy was not worth preserving.
Alternatively, there was an effort, if to not discredit Western Civilization, to make the case that no civilization had the right to assert its superiority over others. Political movements which began to take off in the 1970s not only promoted parity among civilizations but embraced hostility toward the notion of civilizational hierarchy. The argument was for a more diffuse, secular conception of society with a grab bag of personal preferences substituting for a cohesive identity.
What all these twentieth-century critics have in common was an effort to disentangle from the past by denigrating or expunging the idea of a civilized world.
But while civilizations may have been past imperfect, there is something about the idea of them that had proven utility for humanity. For instance, Vaclav Havel described this in a 1994 address:
The large empires, complex supranational entities or confederations of states that we know from history, those which, in their time, contributed something of value to humanity, were remarkable not only because of how they were administered or organized, but also because they were always buoyed by a spirit, an idea, an ethos I would even say by a charismatic quality out of which their structure ultimately grew. For such entities to work and be vital, they always had to offer and indeed did offer, some key to emotional identification, an ideal that would speak to people or inspire them, a set of generally understandable values that everyone could share. These values made it worthwhile for people to make sacrifices for the entity that embodied them, even, in extreme circumstances, the sacrifice of their very lives.
Thus, civilization provides the moral foundation of society.
The root of the poisonous tree is fine as a legal theory. But the legitimacy of modern society should not be constrained by history. White supremacists and hard-core leftists might not want to let go of the past. Westerners can take the good and leave the bad behind without apology.
In a few thousand years of recorded history, of trial and error, of struggling and learning as a species, by the end of twentieth-century humanity did get many things right—that was what Havel tried to get across in his 1994 address. We should take stock of how far humanity has come.
Modern civilizations have to be judged on their own terms. Civilizations past and present aren't equal. The ancient Greeks, the Third Reich, and the modern West are all civilizations like the Model T and Tesla are cars. For all its troubles and shortcomings, Western civilization over the second half of the twentieth century produced a modern world of unprecedented benefits, including an unmatched expansion of individual human liberty and material well-being.
Rather than dismantling civilization to promote equality, combat racism, redistribute income, denounce racists and Islamophobia—rather than treating civilization as something that divides us—civilization ought to be thought of as something that lifts humankind to its better nature.
Don't think of civilization in an old-fashioned way, like an invasive blob that would envelop everything. Nor is modern civilization a wall to keep others out. Authentic modern civilizations can be the superglue that binds us together—not into a single homogeneous community, but as a family of communities that can live well enough with one another.
What makes a civilization valuable as an instrument for knitting us together? It is not antiquity. What makes a modern civilization legitimate is its capacity to respect and improve the human condition.
If there are clashes in the contemporary world, they are not between civilizations, but between civilizations and inauthentic substitutes, like subbing junk food for leafy green vegetables.
In the new age of great power competition, some civilizational pretenders are not so great and pose a threat. Just like the Soviet empire was the great inauthentic claimant of the last century, today we have our dark shadows.
The category of false claimants, which have no legitimate part in a discussion of how civilizations should shape the modern world would include Islamism ; Putinism ; or China's promulgation of ideas like the Beijing Model and Asian Values . These notions may be overlaid on deep historical roots from ancient China and Imperial Russia to the Caliphate, but they don't add up to authentic civilizations. You can throw a bunch of ingredients in a blender—it doesn't mean you will get a healthy smoothie. Likewise mixing a little history and mumbo-jumbo with authoritarian dreams doesn't deliver a true modern civilization.
There are authentic modern civilizations out there—Western, African, Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist which span the world’s frontiers. They are admittedly not the same—but they are compatible. They share a common respect for human dignity and tolerance. As such, together they have a great power to connect the world.