2003 October 23 Thursday
William H. McNeill On Samuel P. Huntington

Back in January 1997 historian William Hardy McNeill wrote a review for the New York Review of Books of Samuel P. Huntington's book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and made some great points worth pondering today.

It is easy to mock such self-righteousness, and Huntington's rejection of the moral imperialism implicit in such rhetoric seems to me well taken, especially in view of American unreadiness to back up most of our exhortations with potentially costly actions. But Huntington's recipe for adjusting relations between large blocs of nations somewhat loosely defined by the word "civilization" strikes me as no great improvement on naive moral crusading. First, he is persuaded, without showing us quite why, that the decline of the West has begun. To slow down this decline, the United States, he believes, should reaffirm its identity as a Western nation by repudiating multiculturalism at home, while "adopting an Atlanticist policy of close cooperation with its European partners to protect and advance the interests and values of the unique civilization they share." This sounds suspiciously like a bunker mentality, inviting us to hold out as long as we can against other, rising civilizations that are more demographically expansive, socially cohesive, and morally united than the now-decadent West.

I think the neocon project for remaking the world is lacking a coherent grand strategy and is entirely too idealistic. It is based on a naive and dangerous belief in a universalism of values that Huntington and McNeill both correctly reject. But at the same time, like McNeill, I do not see what he describes as the "bunker mentality" as a preferable alternative. Transportation and communications costs are falling even as technology for making powerful weapons advances in ways that drives down costs and lowers the barriers for making weapons of mass destruction. Isolationism is not an option. We have to be very involved with the rest of the world. So far, however, Western elites are not thinking ambitiously or imaginatively enough about how to prevail over the rising threats in large part due to a failure to recognize the sheer scale of the problem.

McNeill sees conflict and consolidation as a recurring theme in human history and he sees this process as moving to a global level due to advances in technology.

As World War II approached, I, too, was fascinated by theories of cyclical repetition in history. When I first read Toynbee in 1940 his tragic model of the human adventure struck me with all the force of a new revelation because his Study of History detected a simple, intelligible pattern in the past, despite a hitherto unimagined multiplicity of civilizations. He saw each of them rising and falling according to the same (or a very similar) pattern. Since then I have become more aware of the importance of two factors that Toynbee neglected. The first is that contemporary civilizations have always interacted with one another, even across long distances. The second is that human skills and ideas, propagated through these encounters between civilizations, have a cumulative character.

Parallels between the history of separate civilizations certainly exist. The most conspicuous such parallel is the way that intensifying conflict among rival, warring states ended up, time and again, in victory for one of the combatants, resulting in imperial consolidation of all the different political entities in the region. This pattern asserted itself in such diverse settings as ancient Mesopotamia, classical China, ancient India, pre-Columbian Peru, Muscovite Russia, and, of course, in the ancient Mediterranean world. In modern times, Western Europe came close to comparable political consolidation under Charles V; and only external intervention by previously marginal powers—first Britain, then Russia, and most recently the US—prevented such would-be conquerors as Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Hitler from establishing a pan-European empire. But of course, involvement of previously marginal powers merely enlarged the theater of political rivalry and prolonged the process of political consolidation without, necessarily, altering its ineluctable dynamics.

In our time, the improvements in the speed and effectiveness of transport and communication that dominate our lives has made this age-old process of political consolidation into a global affair. As Huntington argues with particular force, newly confident and powerful nations like China are sure to challenge existing world balances of power. Conflicts that take place across lines dividing different civilizations are likely to be more intractable than conflicts within civilizations simply because cultural differences multiply occasions for distrust and misunderstanding. It follows that in a world of civilizational blocs, however scrupulously each bloc may be assigned to the sphere of influence of one or more powerful states within the blocs, we may expect the same kinds of conflict that were so often enacted within separate civilizations in the past. The result could conceivably be consolidation of a world empire or the destruction of humankind in a nuclear, biological, and/or chemical holocaust.

Consolidation pressures may force world conflict just as those pressures did in Europe for centuries. This argues for a very bloody 21st century. If major conflict seems avoidable right now keep in mind that the 19th century attempts to balance the power in Europe seemed to work for a while but eventually collapsed into all-out continental war that extended into other theaters as well and then was followed by a second world war of even greater scope. Just because Europe has lost the stomach for a war within Europe does not mean that other parts of the world do not contain people who have the stomach for a far greater war.

One thing that McNeill and Huntington agree upon is that culture matters and cultural differences matter. There are civilizational differences that are a powerful source of conflict. Economic rationalists who want to see man as homo economicus miss this and as a consequence tend to see free trade as a powerful balm that could solve a great many conflicts if we would only, to paraphrase John Lennon, "give trade a chance". But trade and free markets are not a panacea.

Huntington points out that Westernization of less developed societies eventually leads to a form of de-Westernization. One can see this all over the world where the desire to feel a stronger sense of self esteem or self identity leads to the development of hostility toward the United States and in many cases for reasons quite unrelated to any particular US government policy.

Initially, Westernization and modernization are closely linked, with the non-Western society absorbing substantial elements of Western culture and making slow progress towards modernization. As the pace of modernization increases, however, the rate of Westernization declines and the indigenous culture goes through a revival. Further modernization then alters the civilizational balance of power between the West and the non-Western society, bolsters the power and self-confidence of that society, and strengthens commitment to the indigenous culture.

In the early phases of change, Westernization thus promotes modernization. In the later phases, modernization promotes de-Westernization and the resurgence of indigenous culture in two ways. At the societal level, modernization enhances the economic, military and political power of the society as a whole and encourages the people of that society to have confidence in their culture and to become culturally assertive. At the individual level, modernization generates feelings of alienation and anomie as traditional bonds and social relations are broken and leads to crises of identity to which religion provides an answer.

It sounds like Huntington is describing such countries as China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia to varying extents.

It is not possible to freeze a favorable status quo. The continued economic development of China is going to change the world balance of power in ways unfavorable to the West as China becomes militarily more powerful and also supports Islamic countries which want to challenge the West. At the same time, technological advances are going to have the effect of making increasingly powerful weapons available to smaller countries and non-governmental groups. Advances in computing power and sensor networks will also radically change the nature of human conflict. Demographic changes look set to weaken Europe and the United States. An aging population and large numbers of unskilled immigrants are not recipes for economic dynamism in an economy increasingly driven by very highly skilled knowledge workers. These are just some of the many changes that are working against the development of a sustainable status quo.

McNeill holds out the hope that increasing connections between civilizations will decrease the extent of the conflict between them. That is a real possibility but only to the extent that those connections really do form. If, for instance, mainland Chinese do not come and read Western commentators and bloggers in substantial numbers then the advent of the internet will not do as much to lower cross-cultural misunderstandings as the optimists might hope. There is a contrary argument that can be made: it could be that humans with affinities of ethnicity, language, religious belief, values, and culture will use the advances in communications and transportation technologies to very selectively reach out to bond with like minds. If there are more channels on cable and more virtual channels in the form of web sites on the internet then people will be able to reach out more selectively to read and communicate with those they most agree with.

McNeill is the author of such fun books as The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society Since A.D. 1000 which drives home the extent to which technological advances can change the shape of societies and The Rise of the West which addresses the question of how the West came to be so successful.

Also see my previous posts Stanley Kurtz on Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, Fukuyama's Critics On Modernizing Islam, and Terrorism and the Assumptions of Classical Liberalism.

Update: James Pinkerton argues that the world is going to be made up of three bloc of influence with the rest of the world up for grabs.

The first bloc is the American Bloc, led by, obviously, the United States.

The second bloc is the Eurasian Bloc, led by France, Germany, and Russia.

The third bloc is the East Asian Bloc, led by China.

As for the rest of the world, it's up for grabs, which means that future advantage will accrue to those who grasp the new dynamics of the three-way world.

From an economic standpoint his division makes a certain amount of sense. The US, Europe, and China look like they are going to be the three biggest economies in the world. So centering blocs around them makes sense. Whether India's economy, growing much more slowly than China's, can make India into a fourth major player remains doubtful at this point. Pinkerton doesn't make the Islamic countries into a bloc and that makes a certain amount of sense because there are serious divisions divisions between them in contrast to the unified US and China and the obviously unifying Europe.

Pinkerton is also correct in thinking that the French want to bring Russian into the European fold. Though it is unclear as to the practicability of doing this if it would entail the incorporation of Russia into the European Union. Putin also sees Realpolitik reasons to stay on friendly terms with the US because the US makes a more useful counterweight to future Chinese designs on Siberia than anything the more militarily timid Europe might have to offer. At the same time, the cost to the EU of incorporating Russia into the EU would be enormous and the political implications of having so many Russians voting in EU elections for parliament would be profound as well.

One wildcard is whether the Muslim lands, and the Arab lands in particular, will undergo consolidation. As McNeill argues, consolidation has been a recurring theme and pressures for consolidation are obviously present.

Update II: Huntington's original Foreign Affairs essay that inspired him to write his book can be found here and here and here.

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new worldwill not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.


These conflicts between princes, nation states and ideologies were primarily conflicts within western civilisation. "Western civil wars," as William Lind has labeled them. This was as true of the cold war as it was of the world wars and the earlier wars of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. With the end of the cold war, international politics moves out of its western phase and its centrepiece becomes the interaction between the West and non-western civilisations and among non-western civilisations. In the politics of civilisations, the peoples and governments of non-western civilisations no longer remain the objects of history as targets of western colonialism but join the West as movers and shapers of history.

One thought struck me while reading Huntington's essay: We can not make the whole world safe for democracy. Attempts to do so are a naive and dangerous overreaching that fails to take account of the depth of the differences that separate the major groupings of people in the world.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 October 23 02:24 AM  Civilizations Clash Of

linden said at October 26, 2003 10:11 PM:

"The first bloc is the American Bloc, led by, obviously, the United States.

The second bloc is the Eurasian Bloc, led by France, Germany, and Russia.

The third bloc is the East Asian Bloc, led by China."

In 1984, George Orwell called these Oceania, Eurasia and East Asia.

Dave Richardson said at March 29, 2004 7:37 AM:

McNeill and other general historians, including Spengler and Toynbee, accept a simplistic theory of worldviews (world pictures) of civilizations. If worldview is defined in a better way it is far more complex and even takes into account Spengler's idea of prime symbols (worldviews). I do this in a booklet almost ready to submit to publishers. Interested? I taught at various universities and am retired.

Dave Richardson said at January 12, 2005 12:45 PM:

A world picture (Weltanschauung)is composed of both conscious and unconscious contents. The former is especially characterized by abundant generalizations which are amenable to logic.
The latter is especially charaterized by an abundance of symbols and metaphors, whether visual, auditory or even musical, as well as values, images, umconscciously arrived-at novel conclusions, sensations, arguments, etc. A world picture,consequently, is both conscious and unconscious; and it not exactly the same identical world picture in any two human minds. But this is not irrational; for the same is true of any essence or nature as realized in differing bodies. Two live oaks have the same nature, though the trees differ. Two instances of the modern Western world picture (in two human minds) have the same nature, though they differ from each other.

Randall Parker said at June 19, 2016 5:51 PM:

13 years after writing the above post here is how my thinking has changed:

First off, I think the bunker mentality is the right approach. Our bunker is huge. We aren't inconveniencing ourselves much by reducing human movement between Western and Islamic civilizations. Some other countries we are friendly with have really large bunkers as well. We just need real border enforcement.

Why the bunker approach is the right approach: We can't change attitudes in the rest of the world. We can't avoid resentment. Some systems of beliefs and value really are mutually incompatible. Keep people who have incompatible beliefs on opposite sides of borders.

The alternative is crazy: attempt to reshape the Muslim countries and radically change their values in ways that make them more compatible with our own values. This hasn't worked. It has just gotten a lot of people killed and increased hostility across the civilizational divide, especially hostility among Muslims toward Westerners.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Web parapundit.com
Go Read More Posts On ParaPundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright ©