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.

Consider Huntington's assertion that his "civilizational paradigm" describes a new force in the post-Cold War world. How new is it? The end of the conflict between the Communist dictatorships and the capitalist democracies has led to an increase in the importance of "civilizational" issues as a force in international relations. World attention has turned toward problems like African tribal conflicts that had been festering all along but had seemed insignificant during the Cold War.

But "civilizational" influences were certainly at work before and during the Cold War. The Balkans was a case study of the clash of civilizations at the turn of the century, when the Russians feared a "Teutonic drive" to the south spearheaded by Austria even as the Austrians feared a Slavic drive spearheaded by Serbia. It is true that during the Cold War such concerns usually took a back seat, but they remained important -- think of the way Richard Pipes sought to explain Soviet imperial behavior by describing Soviet foreign policy not as a new phenomenon, but as a continuation of strains in the Russian character hundreds of years in the making. Huntington himself approvingly quotes Fernand Braudel's assertion that for anyone who seeks to be an actor on the international scene, "it 'pays' to know how to make out, on a map of the world, which civilizations exist today, to be able to define their borders, their centers and peripheries, their provinces and the air one breathes there." But Braudel made that point in 1980 -- at a time when, according to Huntington, the "civilizational paradigm" was not yet appropriate for understanding international behavior.

The new salience of "civilizational" issues in the post-Cold War era was really more a matter of perceptions than a colossal shift in the priorities of nations and individuals. And the new attention paid to such issues was also a bit of an intellectual fad. With the bipolar world de-poled and the strategic-studies industry in decline, many intellectuals shifted to the study of "tribalism" instead. In his Foreign Affairs essay, Huntington simply posited nine giant tribes, called them civilizations, and declared his new paradigm. (The nine "civilizations" he identifies in the book are " Western," "Latin American," "African," "Islamic," "Sinic," "Hindu," "Orthodox, " "Buddhist," and "Japanese.")

But for a new paradigm to be a "new paradigm," it must transform and revolutionize our understanding of the world, and so Huntington cannot just argue that the salience of cultural differences has increased in the post- Cold War era. He must boldly claim that tribalism on the grandest scale is pretty much all that matters today. The nation-state as the principal actor in the world is history, and international relations will never be the same.

The evidence Huntington cites for this radical shift in the way the world works is suspect. He lists 19 incidents from the first six months of 1993 that supposedly fit the "civilizational paradigm" -- everything from "the failure of the West to provide meaningful support to the Bosnian Muslims or to denounce Croat atrocities in the same way Serb atrocities were denounced," to "the voting, apparently almost entirely along civilizational lines, that gave the 2000 Olympics to Sydney rather than Beijing."

But was "the West's" failure to act in the Balkans motivated chiefly by disregard for the Muslim victims or by the more familiar fear of incurring casualties in any conflict that does not immediately threaten national security? Did Western nations vote against holding the 2000 Olympics in Beijing because it is an Asian capital or because it is the site of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the seat of power of an unrepentant dictatorship? Wouldn't the West have been happy to see the Olympics held in " Japanese" Tokyo or "Sinic" Seoul, as it had been in the past?

Huntington is not interested in such common-sense answers. Instead, he sets out in pursuit of those who claim that the universality of Western principles is being embraced by an increasing number of peoples of all races and cultures. One gets the sense, in fact, that Huntington has decided to dedicate himself to disproving the central thesis of Francis Fukuyama's now- legendary 1989 article, "The End of History?" -- that "we may be witnessing . . . the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy." In a new Foreign Affairs piece adapted from The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington calls Fukuyama's idea " misguided, arrogant, false, and dangerous."

In the course of tearing into the noxious idea that human liberty is a universal value and is spreading, Huntington oscillates between a Buchananite cultural conservatism -- he worries about how immigration may sap the West of its distinctive Westernness -- and the kind of extreme cultural relativism that would make any conservative's hair curl.

The relativism wins out. Like the American Left in the 1970s, Huntington denounces Western universalism as a form of "imperialism." Asians see things differently, he notes, and he sees nothing wrong with the assertion by Singapore's president that the "Asian Way" -- that is, the limitation of political rights in the interest of order -- is as right for Asians as democracy is for Westerners. Indeed, Huntington argues that in the era of the "civilizational paradigm," the preservation of world peace depends on the West butting out of other civilizations' business. (So much for the Hong Kongese and Taiwanese who didn't know they had crossed an uncrossable " civilizational" barrier when they began choosing their leaders democratically. )

Eager to expose the "vacuousness" of Western universalism, Huntington is mesmerized by the Chinese economic miracle. He considers it the definitive refutation of Fukuyama's thesis that there is no longer any viable alternative to Western-style classical liberalism. Liberalism has triumphed, according to Fukuyama, largely because any nation that wants to keep up with the great powers must undergo the process of modernization, which is impossible without liberalization. All other paths promising a route to success -- traditional authoritarianism, fascism, and finally communism -- have proven to be dead ends.

Not so with China, Huntington argues; China is modernizing, but it is not Westernizing. And with its vast population, vast territory, its stunning economic growth, and its politically repressed population, China is destined to surpass "the West" in the future -- somewhere around 2025. It is more likely that Fukuyama is right and that China will eventually face the choice between being rich and free, or poor (and unstable) and tyrannical. But in any case, it is astonishing that Huntington believes he can chart the course of what may be the most turbulent nation of the twentieth century by following a straight line two or three decades into the future.

Huntington's prediction of China's future global mastery is as poorly grounded as his despair about the future of the West, and his general determinism, pessimism, and relativism are unlikely to stand up any better to the test of time than the work of his forebears a century ago, Henry and Brooks Adams.

By Robert Kagan

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