Looking the World in the Eye
November 28, 2001 1:27 PM   Subscribe

Looking the World in the Eye Huntington, a Harvard prof., lays out his vision for the future of the clash of civilizations in an article in The Atlantic Monthly. The main points are- • The fact that the world is modernizing does not mean that it is Westernizing. The impact of urbanization and mass communications, coupled with poverty and ethnic divisions, will not lead to peoples' everywhere thinking as we do. • Asia, despite its ups and downs, is expanding militarily and economically. Islam is exploding demographically. The West may be declining in relative influence. • Culture-consciousness is getting stronger, not weaker, and states or peoples may band together because of cul tural similarities rather than because of ideological ones, as in the past. • The Western belief that parliamentary democracy and free markets are suitable for everyone will bring the West into conflict with civilizations—notably, Islam and the Chinese— that think differently. • In a multi-polar world based loosely on civilizations rather than on ideologies, Americans must reaffirm their Western identity.
posted by SandeepKrishnamurthy (8 comments total)
"Huntington disdains "rational-choice theory," the reigning fad in political science, which assumes that human behavior is predictable but which fails to take account of fear, envy, hatred, self-sacrifice, and other human passions that are essential to an understanding of politics."

hear hear, I certainly don't feel like recent world events have much at all to do with rational decisions...

you say Americans must reaffirm their western identity? seems to me like we don't have much of a cohesive definition of our Western Identity to reaffirm... What is our western identity???
we need more iconoclasts.
posted by dorcas at 1:58 PM on November 28, 2001

While the basis of some of his beliefs are indeed accurate he fails to take into account that the large reason for the socio-economic divide has little to do with culture and more to do with the gutting of the economic and political developmental precepts necessary for the neo-corporatist ideologies that we like to call democracy. He is correct in saying that you can't just transplant our system in Somolia. This is not because the Somolis are ignorant barbarians (uneducated and desperate perhaps), but instead because they were not allowed to develop as a society. This is not to say that were civilization to advance in any of these countries that democracy would be their first choice, after all, even Western Civilization is not left without a few other options to that ideal, but that is not a definate. Politics does not always follow rational principles, it is a science only in predecting preconditionality for certain events to happen, and usually only in hindsight. Otherwise it is all theory. This does not mean it doesn't follow some rational principles, just ones that are hard to follow when you are but one fish in a giant ocean. *this is not the actual owner of the account, and these ideas may not reflect her opinions*
posted by calistasm at 2:43 PM on November 28, 2001

Boy, calistasm (or whomever), ideologue much? How about some substance, instead of jargon, and some recognition that Huntington has been at the top of the foreign policy academic establishment for half a century? He didn't just pull this out of his hat, and he isn't the first to make some of the points he's made.

Huntington certainly does not argue that Somalis are "ignorant barbarians", and your assumption that they "were not allowed" to develop is a pretty loaded interpretation. (I would say that their problems stem as much from overpopulation of an arid desert as anything external; overpopulation caused, in part, by Western medical advances, rather than resource exploitation.) And indeed your statement that "were civilization to advance ... democracy [may not] be their first choice" is exactly in line with what Huntington is saying -- had you bothered to read him. Huntington is not arguing for a value-based judgement on "advancement" of one civilzation versus another; quite the contrary, he is stating that we may be incorrect if we assume that other civilizations share our values on capitalism, democracy, secularism, and cooperative international society.

Your last three sentences make absolutely no sense. Politics is most certainly a factor in the real world, whether or not it is studied as a science and labeled as "theory".
Sandeep: Surely you noticed that the lengthy article to which you linked is a profile of Huntington, rather than an article written by him where he "lays out his vision"? He laid out his vision in his book several years ago. This article is by Robert Kaplan, a prominent Huntington disciple.

Even if you disagree with some of his conclusions, the article is fascinating in the insights to the divisions and alliances within foreign policy academia. For full understanding of what's at stake, one should read Huntington's Foreign Affairs essay (the nucleus of his later book) The Clash of Civilizations, and the counterpoint by Francis Fukuyama The End of History [book introduction by author, not original article]. These are the bookends of much of the center-right debate concerning foreign policy in the 1990s, the central theory for most of the 20th century having been the Cold-War-ified, hawkish realpolitik outgrowth of Morgenthau's undeniably giant shadow of Realism (the ultimate in rationality political theory).

Certainly this isn't a science to be proved, right or wrong. They're simply frameworks for understanding very complex behavior. There's much to be said for both Fukuyama and Huntington's analyses, and they aren't necessarily completely at odds. Huntington suggests that he isn't predicting behavior so much as warning against a set of choices that could lead us into a "clash".

And whether you agree with him or not, his thoughts have been incredibly popular -- and influential -- around the world. He can't be ignored.
posted by dhartung at 4:28 PM on November 28, 2001

after i read that i found this review of the soldier and the state by kurt kuhlmann (it's only in google cache now) which offers an interesting critique.

also anne applebaum of slate had some relevant thoughts on the "new new world order" being prescribed by foreign policy makers:

What worries me about the New New World Order is something different: how cleanly and easily it explains the world and how like an academic article everything suddenly appears to be. Like the Cold War, the War on Terrorism will tell us everything about Abroad that we need to know: Who are our friends, who are our enemies, where our priorities lie. Like the Cold War, the War on Terrorism seems to appease both the idealism of Americans—we are, after all, fighting to rid the world of an evil—and the realism. No intellectual contortions are required to explain why the fight against Osama Bin Laden is well within the sphere of America's national interest.


Alas, the real world isn't like an academic article. It is certainly comforting to have one big idea around which all other policies easily fall into place, and it is easy to see why everyone is so relieved. Even I am relieved. But I am also afraid that in the complicated, interlinked, globalized modern world, one big idea isn't going to be enough.
posted by kliuless at 6:36 PM on November 28, 2001

Huntington has been at the top of the foreign policy academic establishment for half a century

Not necessarily a sterling recommendation. Remember, Huntington's colleague Kissinger lost his war. Hard-headed realism in the cold war led to a huge disaster for American foreign policy.

The Western belief that parliamentary democracy and free markets are suitable for everyone will bring the West into conflict with civilizations—notably, Islam and the Chinese— that think differently.

Not proven. Certainly a subset of Moslems think differently, but as a civilization? The two largest Moslem countries -- Indonesia and India -- hold democracy as an ideal, and practice it as well (at least to some extent in the case of Indonesia).

The Chinese aren't allowed to think, or at least talk, about democracy. The government is trying to allow economic freedom while still keeping their dictatorial political control. Their ultimate success is problematic.

posted by anewc2 at 7:16 AM on November 29, 2001


I did notice it was a profile and a restatement of his ideas. Must remember to preview my post more often. Good comments.
posted by SandeepKrishnamurthy at 8:27 AM on November 29, 2001

What Huntington seems to fail to acknowledge is that there were all through both the "Islamic" and the "Asian" worlds, very strong movements for democracy all through the 20th century.
These movements were prevalent in Iran in the 50s and 60s, in Malaysia until this day, in Indonesia until the 60s, in Iraq before the Baath party slaughtered each and every opponent, in Thailand in the 70s, in Ben Bela's Algeria, in S. Korea until this day; not to mention Communist movements, all over the globe, which Huntington himself identifies, in the linked article, as a Western ideology:"because communism was a Central European ideology, the Soviet Union was philosophically closer to the West than is the Eastern Orthodox Russia that has succeeded it" (That Russia can be described as "Eastern Orthodox" in any politically meaningful way is another wildly inaccurate remark BTW).
This is unmentionable of course by academic apologists for the "west" (or rather a very narrowly defined fiction of what the west is), because these were the movements and parties that were fought by the US and its allies during the cold war, and which were countered by supporting, financing and propagandizing for the most reactionary and traditionalist elements in these societies.
If reality is taken into account this exercise in parallel universe building fails miserably.
posted by talos at 9:01 AM on November 29, 2001

saw this thing by robert wright. he has a "big idea" to frame the war against terrorism as a non-zero sum game and as part of a larger trend toward global interdependence. i found it interesting in light of rumsfeld's remarks characterizing the war as "nonlinear" and "asymmetric" in that steven johnson emergence article. paradigm shift!

i don't know if interdependence would go over well as an explicit philosophy under which to conduct foreign policy, cuz as a catch-all it obscures the details (reality) just as "the clash of civilizations" does. with "applied interdependence theory" everything might look like a nail. maybe as it should, as huntington seems to argue. at least interdependence balances out the clash :)
posted by kliuless at 11:59 AM on December 1, 2001

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