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Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster, $ 26

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By ROBERT KAGAN
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At the turn of the last century, when the United States was emerging as the world's most dynamic and successful power, many of America's premier intellectuals were profoundly pessimistic. Although their young, vibrant, industrializing country was growing up all around them, they were convinced that "Anglo-Saxon civilization" was in an advanced state of pervasive and perhaps irreversible decline. Brooks Adams's bestseller, The Law of Civilization and Decay, argued that the explosion of liberal capitalism in fin-de-siecle America represented the penultimate "economic" stage of a civilization's development -- a phase in which the creative spirit and " barbarian" martial virtues that had brought success in the past gradually gave way to an "effete" stagnation, a loss of productive energy leading to a final stage of rot and destruction.

Adams's pessimism combined in equal measure a fear of the rising strength of other cultures and a deep insecurity about his own, an insecurity that bordered on self-loathing. This view was shared in varying degrees by Adams's brother Henry and influential political friends like Theodore Roosevelt, John Hay, and Henry Cabot Lodge. They worried that other "civilizations" -- perhaps "the Slavs" -- in a less advanced stage of development might retain enough "barbarian" blood in their veins to allow them to conquer the world while an increasingly decadent America and Great Britain lost the will to resist.

These thinkers, giants in their own time, appear rather less impressive in ours. Their explorations in the then-immature field of the social sciences -- Brooks Adams insisted his "law" was "scientific" -- have seemed childish and simplistic compared with the sophistication and nuance of scholarship in our own time. Indeed, contemporary American scholars have mostly condescended to such pessimism by explaining it away as a relic of nineteenth-century intellectual faddishness -- an example of how Social Darwinism and elite anxiety could successfully masquerade as serious strategic thought.

We may have to restrain our condescension. For now one of our giants, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, has advanced a view of the world strikingly similar to that of the Adams boys and their friends. In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Huntington argues that the world is organized not around nation- states but around "civilizations," of which "the West" is but one of eight or nine. "The West" is in a penultimate stage of development, Huntington says -- a "mature," golden age of prosperity likely to be followed by a final stage of destruction either by external invasion or internal collapse. Huntington believes some other "civilizations," "younger" and "more powerful," are at a less advanced stage of development and are poised to dominate the world of the future at the West's expense. Huntington insists it is both foolish and arrogant to imagine that Western ideas and principles are universal or to believe that they can be effective weapons in this "clash of civilizations." And Huntington concludes that the best the West can hope to do is shore up its own culture from within and hang on: "The central issue for the West is whether, quite apart from any external challenges, it is capable of stopping and reversing the internal processes of decay."

Huntington's thesis, like Brooks Adams's, has caused a stir in influential circles (the book is an elaboration of a famous article published in Foreign Affairs three years ago). But The Clash of Civilizations will probably hold up about as well as The Law of Civilization and Decay. Huntington's volume already shows the ill-stitched seams where intellectual fads of the moment have been sewn together with the pretensions of " scientific" analysis. Perhaps a few decades from now historians will also be able to identify the elite anxieties that produced this and other jeremiads by leading intellectuals in late-twentieth-century America.

Huntington's argument is based on sleight of hand. He takes a simple and commonly observed fact, exaggerates both its novelty and its significance, and hopes no one notices the resulting distortion of reality upon which his extravagant theory rests. Or, as a historian once wrote of Marx, what Huntington says that is true is not new, and what he says that is new is not true.