Power and civilization

Power and civilization

Owen Harries

UNTIL VERY RECENTLY, the concepts of “civilization” and “culture” have played a minor role in thinking about international politics. Realism, which has been the dominant theory of international politics for the last fifty years, allows no significant role for civilizational influences–not in its older version which posits a universal and unchanging human nature, nor in its neo-realist form in which the structure of the international system is what is considered decisive.

The principal reason why civilizations and the differences between them have not been considered important in the study of international politics is, surely, that until very recently power politics was a Western game. All the leading actors belonged to one civilization, so that the question of the effect of civilizational differences did not arise. The states and societies of other civilizations figured in the script not as participants but as objects. As such they were usually dealt with under the heading of “colonial policy”, and were subject to different kinds of theorizing and moralizing. (As John Stuart Mill pronounced in 1859, “To suppose that the same international customs, and the same rules of international morality, can obtain between one civilized nation and another, and between civilized nations and barbarians, is a grave error, and one which no statesman can fall into…”)

Japan has been the one obvious exception to this, and during World War II it did inspire the U.S. government to sponsor a study–Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword–attempting to relate Japan’s political behavior to its culture. But for the most part, Japan has been dealt with by treating it as an honorary member of the West, one of the Club–something that its diligent efforts to copy and borrow from Western institutions and practices made plausible.

Now all this is changing. As a number of non-Western countries make startling economic progress and improve rapidly their standing in the hierarchy of states, and as it has become evident that decades of suppression under Communist rule has not diminished the vitality (and in some cases the virulence) of local cultures, increasing attention is being payed to civilizational factors. Two of the most interesting manifestations of this so far are Professor Samuel Huntington’s essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993), and the debate which is underway concerning the way in which culture, economic growth and political freedom are related in Confucian countries (especially China), and the validity and wisdom of Western (especially American) criticism of and pressure on those countries. The articles by Eric Jones and Irwin Stelzer in this issue both bear on that subject, the first directly, the second indirectly.

HUNTINGTON IS concerned to move civilizations and cultures from the periphery of international politics to the very center of the stage. Briefly stated his thesis is this: The fundamental source of conflict in the new post-Cold war world will not be predominantly ideological or economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics, and the fault lines between civilizations will be the flash-points and the principle battle-lines of the future.

As to the pattern of conflicts that is likely to emerge among these civilizations, he believes that it will be shaped mainly by challenges mounted by the others against the dominant Western culture, and that the main challenge will come from “the Confucian-Islamic connection”–a connection that currently manifests itself mainly in military terms, in the form of a flow of arms and weapons technology from China to Islamic countries.

As well as being a radical departure from most past thinking about international affairs, Huntington’s thesis is also strikingly at odds with most other current attempts to predict the character of the post-Cold War era. These have typically put heavy stress on the allegedly universalistic, integrative, homogenizing and pacific consequences of forces like proliferating democracy, global capitalism, and technological advances, all of which, it is claimed, will reduce the civilizational differences of the past. Indeed, the authors of many of these predictions see emerging a single new global civilization and culture, and with that the obsolescence of war and power politics. They foresee a degree of international harmony and placidity that one of them at least (Fukuyama) fears may be positively boring–boredom, of course, being one of the problems associated with Utopia. (Incidentally, one surely sees in all this the extent to which Western democratic thinking, in the process of combating messianic ideologies during this century, has itself been infected and made more ideological. Mainstream Western democratic theory did not used to promise Utopia.)

In any case, Huntington rejects all that and says virtually the opposite: we are heading towards an increasingly particularistic world of civilizations in which differences will be emphasized, not softened, and which will allow plenty of scope for conflict and violence. Passions will be stronger, since civilizational differences are more basic than ideological ones, less mutable, less easily compromised. Technological and economic forces will not override culture but will be subordinate to them. The fact that the world is shrinking will make for more, not less, friction.

Given the extent to which this thesis goes against prevailing opinion, it is not surprising that some have reacted strongly to it. I had personal and unexpected experience of this early last year, even before Huntington’s article was published. In a patriotic spirit, I wrote a preview piece for The Australian, Rupert Murdoch’s national daily newspaper, pointing out the serious implications of Huntington’s thesis for Australians, should it turn out to be true. For one thing, it would mean that, as an isolated fragment of Western civilization, Australia would be situated on what Huntington nominates as the most dangerous fault-line in the world: that between the West and the Confucian-Islamic connection. For another, it would mean that the policy favored by the current Australian government of converting the country from being Western to being “part of Asia” was not only doomed to fail but highly dangerous. It would end up weakening Australia’s civilizational ties with its traditional and compatible Western friends, while necessarily failing to make it acceptable to the Confucian and Islamic countries to its north.

The article elicited the most violent response of anything that I have ever published, in Australia or anywhere else. Although I was doing little more than reporting the views of a distinguished Harvard professor, I was attacked as a racist, as being involved in a conspiracy (nature unspecified), and as being generally ignorant and out of touch with the region–and this not from members of the general public but from, among others, the foreign editor of the newspaper involved and a recently retired head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.(1)

Nor was this reaction an isolated one in the West Pacific. In August, shortly after the appearance of the article in Foreign Affairs, a very agitated U.S. ambassador reported back to the State Department from Indonesia:

Sam Huntington’s thesis about the “coming clash of civilizations” has caught on in Asia like wildfire. Dealing with the issue is as great a challenge for policy and public diplomacy as any in the post-Cold War era.

His cable went on to report how a recent Asia-Pacific conference had been dominated by the article (“Sam Huntington’s ghost lurked in every shadowy corner…”) and how a Malaysian minister had received a spontaneous round of applause for asserting that the Huntington “doctrine” (his word) represented the central core of U.S. policy and the prevailing view of Western intellectuals.

NOW IT SHOULD come as no surprise, in my opinion, that the most violent reaction to Huntington’s thesis has come from the West Pacific, for, more than anything else, it is the almost incredible economic progress being made by the Confucian countries in that region–and especially in the last decade by China–that gives that thesis most of its credibility.

A China-led group of Confucian countries seems to offer the only credible challenge to the West in the foreseeable future. Despite its wealth, Japan stands alone culturally, has too small a human and territorial base, and lacks the will to assert itself politically. It may be of course that that lack of will is temporary, and many Asians are wary of Japan. Even so, it is difficult to see a country so strategically vulnerable and isolated as a major threat to the West in the sort of civilizational line-up that Huntington envisages.

Islam has the will, but it is deeply divided internally, and, despite its fortuitous control of a good deal of the world’s oil, lacks and shows no signs of acquiring the economic base to be a credible challenger. Fanaticism plus weapons could give it terrible destructive power in the near future–but only at the expense of its own certain destruction should it ever use that power.

As for Russia, having failed in its challenge to the West while in its Soviet, superpower pride, I think it is unlikely to launch another challenge now in its weakness. Besides, if Huntington is right about the Confucian-Islamic connection, no country is more vulnerable to it than Russia, which has enormously long common borders with both those civilizations. If civilizational fault-lines are what count, Russia is going to be fully occupied to the East and the South and in no position to project power Westwards. On the contrary, it is going to be looking for Western support.

Of the other civilizations–the Hindu, the Latin American, the African–for a long time yet none of them is going to have the ability to project civilization-threatening power outside its own region.

So it comes back to the Confucian civilization. What, then, is the state of the relationships between it and the West–and, more particularly between the dominant powers in each, China and the United States?

While the economic relationship has been strengthening rapidly, and while there are no immediate strategic or geopolitical strains in the relationship, there is serious political friction between the two countries. It centers almost entirely on the strong American pressure on China to make rapid improvements in its human rights performance and adopt democratic practices.

We know the considerations that have operated on the American side in all this. They include continuing outrage at those television pictures of Tiananmen Square, back in 1989; a powerful belief that, following the collapse of communism, making universal the triumph of liberal democracy should now be the centerpiece of American policy; a sense, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that the tune was America’s to call; awareness of the importance of access to the American market for the Chinese; the belief of some American industries that they are subject to unfair competition because of exploitative labor practices in China; and a sincere, moralistic and long-standing concern with human rights.

How does it look from the other, the Confucian, side? The best indication of that comes not from China but from Singapore. In the last year or two, Lee Kuan Yew and some senior Singaporean officials, clearly fearing a serious deterioration in U.S.-China relations that would have adverse effects for Singapore and resenting American attacks on their own human rights record, have made it their business to explain the Chinese case to Westerners and to get Americans to reconsider their approach.

They make a very good job of it, with Lee playing the philosopher-king and staying on the high ground, while a few brilliant young diplomatists go on the attack.(2)

Lee weaves together several arguments:

* Culture, he insists, must be taken seriously. Values are formed out of the history and experience of a people, are absorbed with a mother’s milk. They are not learnt from a book and cannot be imposed from without. An act of Congress will not change China.

* Confucians value the group and the community over the individual, and set great importance on order. Order is particularly important for China, with its still recent historical experience of internal chaos and civil war, and given the awesome and unique task of governing over a billion people.

* In the progress of a country, sequence is important. Order is a condition for economic growth and economic growth is a condition for a loosening and mellowing of political control. To attempt to introduce a great deal of individual freedom too soon will risk both order and economic progress.

* What will happen in the coming decades will not be a one-way process, whereby the Confucian countries and the rest of the world simply take instruction from the West and adopt its ways. Those days are over. What will occur will be an interaction between civilizations, in which a Darwinian process of selection will take place, with each culture borrowing from others in terms of what works best and what suits its needs. He points out that Western countries have already successfully borrowed Japanese management practices, with their emphasis on group solidarity, and anticipates that there will be more to such borrowings, given the way Asian economies are outperforming Western ones.

Performance is the test. Asked directly by a Western interviewer, “In principle, do you believe in one standard of human rights and free expression?”, Lee immediately answers, “Look, it is not a matter of principle but of practice.” This might appear to represent a simple and rather crude pragmatism. But in its context it might also be interpreted as an appreciation of the fundamental point made by Max Weber that, in politics, it is “the ethic of responsibility” rather than “the ethic of absolute ends” that is appropriate. While an individual is free to treat human rights as absolute, to be observed whatever the cost, governments must always weigh consequences and the competing claims of other ends. So once they enter the realm of politics, human rights have to take their place in a hierarchy of interests, including such basic things as national security and the promotion of prosperity. Their place in that hierarchy will vary with circumstances, but no responsible government will ever be able to put them always at the top and treat them as inviolable and over-riding. The cost of implementing and promoting them will always have to be considered.

Lee’s answer might also be compared to Edmund Burke’s conclusions on how England should govern its colonies, as expressed in his Letter to the Sheriffs of the City of Bristol in 1777:

|I~t was our duty, in all soberness, to conform our government to the character and circumstances of the several people who composed this mighty and strangely diversified mass. I never was wild enough to conceive that one method would serve for the whole, that the natives of Hindostan and those of Virginia could be ordered in the same manner, or that the Cutchery court and the grand jury of Salem could be regulated on a similar plan. I was persuaded that government was a practical thing made for the happiness of mankind, and not to furnish out a spectacle of uniformity to gratify the schemes of visionary politicians.

As for the counter attack on America, the Singaporeans have no trouble pointing to inconsistency, double standards and opportunism on the part of the United States. To take only a few of the many examples they give:

* When it suited Washington to play the China Card against the Soviet Union in the 1970s it (as well as most American liberals) turned a blind eye on much grosser violations of human rights than occur now. It is only since the end of the Cold War that the U.S. has stepped up its demands.

* While it is unrelenting towards China on the question of human rights, the United States continues to be very gentle towards Saudi Arabia on the same subject.

* Had the United States been as demanding on human rights and democracy towards Taiwan and South Korea in the 1960s as it is now towards China, those countries would never have experienced their economic miracles, and they and the region would be in much worse shape as a result.

But perhaps the most cutting riposte that these Singaporeans make is that the internal condition of the United States itself today–the evident consequence of pressing its own principles to extremes–deprives it of any authority to preach to others, to insist that all must follow its ways.

Listen to this, from Kishore Mahbubani, a recent Singaporean ambassador to the United Nations and visiting fellow at Harvard:

But freedom does not only solve problems; it can also cause them. The United States has undertaken a massive social experiment, tearing down social institution after social institution that restrained the individual. The results have been disastrous. Since 1960 the U.S. population has increased 41 percent while violent crime has risen by 560 percent, single-mother births by 419 percent, divorce rates by 300 percent and the percentage of children living in single-parent homes by 300 percent. This is massive social decay. Many a society shudders at the prospects of this happening on its shores. But instead of traveling overseas with humility, Americans confidently preach the virtues of unfettered individual freedom, blithely ignoring the visible social consequences.(3)

How is one to respond to all that? One might I suppose simply say, thank God they didn’t bring up Slavery and the Opium Trade, and leave it at that. But in this issue Eric Jones takes the Singaporean case seriously, analyzes its arguments, and then speculates fascinatingly on China’s possible futures. As he says, in one sense the debate is one between those who assert the primacy of history and those who assert the primacy of economics. But as Irwin Stelzer shows, there is room for interesting differences of opinion even among those who agree on the latter.

GOING BACK briefly to Huntington, if I were asked to pass an overall opinion on his thesis, I would have to say that I am left not entirely convinced. I think that there is more continuing truth in the realist view about the central importance of international anarchy than he allows for, and that he too readily subordinates the potential for intra-civilizational conflict to that for inter-civilizational ones. It also seems to me that the nature and durability of the Confucian-Islamic connection is under-argued (after all, the West has been the main supplier of arms to Islamic states for many years, but that has not led us to speak of a Western-Islamic civilizational connection). Again, I find him uncharacteristically unclear on the subject of how nation-states fit into the new scheme of things. (At the beginning of his article he asserts that, “Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs.” But two pages later he goes out of his way to remark that, “Westerners tend to think of nation states as the principal actors in global affairs. They have been that, however, for only a few centuries.”)

That having been said, I find Huntington’s hypothesis to be enormously stimulating, rich in its asides, and suggestive of new connections and distinctions among familiar things.

To give but one example in conclusion, consider this: If civilizational fault lines are indeed to be the battle-lines of the future, is it not interesting and significant that the United States–alone of all the major powers–is far removed from any such dangerous and potentially violent fault-line? What is that going to mean in the next decade or two? That the United States will have a freedom to choose denied to other major powers? That it will be well positioned to act as a balancer when other powers collide? That there will be no compulsion for it to involve itself in fault-line conflicts? Is the latter perhaps the real lesson of Bosnia today, expressed in Huntingtonian terms?

1 Since that exchange of views, the Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, has said that he has been misunderstood on the subject of Australia’s becoming part of Asia and shedding its Western cultural character. He may be right, but it is certainly true that many of the opinion-forming elite in Australia were enthusiastic in their misunderstanding.

2 See for example, Lee Kuan Yew’s interview in New Perspectives Quarterly, Winter 1992, as well as Kishore Mahbubani, “The West and the Rest,” The National Interest, Summer 1992; “The Dangers of Decadence,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 1993; and Bilahari Kausikan, “Asia’s Different Standard, Foreign Policy,” Fall 1993.

3 Foreign Affairs, September/October 1993.

Owen Harries is editor of The National Interest.

COPYRIGHT 1994 The National Interest, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group