Letter to the Editor of the Atlantic

Response to Robert Kaplan’s Atlantic Article
on Samuel Huntington, “Looking the World in the Eye.”

I have great liking and respect for Robert Kaplan’s travel writing, for The Ends of the Earth, Eastward to Tartary, for his travels in history, his Balkan Ghosts, but in regard to his most recent work he seems to be out of his element.  In particular I find his commentary in December’s Atlantic on Samuel Huntington’s inadvisedly conceived, Clash of Civilizations, sophomoric, at best the fun stuff of dinner table conversation.  To show what I mean I look only at Kaplan’s listing of “some of the main points” of Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.”  Whether or not these “points” are main points in Huntington’s argument I leave to others to determine.  I would be surprised, however, if Huntington himself were to agree with Kaplan’s summation.  Let’s look at each of his five “points” in turn.  To say the least they don’t bear up under scrutiny.

1. “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.”
Well, who says this, that ‘modernizing’ and ‘Westernizing’ are the same thing? I don’t, and in fact they’re not.  Instead, don’t most people say that the world is coming together, evolving into something new, and don’t they use the term, globalization to describe this process, not Westernization?  Furthermore, the implication that we Westerners think the same, ever have thought the same, is simply incredible.  Of all the things we might say about the West this, that we think alike, or ever have thought alike, seems totally removed from the reality of our history.

2.  “Asia, despite its ups and downs, is expanding militarily and economically.  Islam is exploding demographically.  The West may be declining in relative influence.”
Is there any substance in these three statements? Are they anything other than common places?  That the underdeveloped Asian countries are now developing, that Muslim countries have high birth rates, that the West’s influence on the rest of the world is declining as compared to, say, colonial times in the early 20th. Century, when the West did in fact rule much the world?  But are they main points in Huntington’s argument?  Perhaps Kaplan meant to imply that a decline in relative influence is an absolute decline.  If so this is patently false. On the contrary, as Western science and technology become more and more the driving force between the entire world’s development, not to mention the hope for the millions still living in poverty, one might say that the heritage, if not the influence, of the West, is exploding worldwide.  Even Islam’s demographic explosion stems from the discoveries and applications of Western science and technology.  Without the benefits of modern science a demographic explosion, if it were able to come about, would bring only further hardship and greater poverty to the lands and peoples of Islam.

3. “Culture-consciousness is getting stronger, not weaker, and states or peoples may band together because of cultural similarities rather than because of ideological ones, as in the past.”
One might say exactly the opposite and probably find as much, or as little agreement.  What is the evidence for “culture-consciousness,” whatever that may be, getting stronger?  I hear most often that we are losing our traditional cultures, this being the common complaint of the anti-globalization armies, not to mention the dwindling French peasant (farmer) population.  Isn’t it much more apparent that peoples world-wide are experiencing things they have in common, and not just music, life styles, and entertainment, but the rights to, yes, life and liberty, if not yet property.  It is the things we share, the commonalities (the importance of which Huntington seems to recognize in the last chapter of his book) such things as science and technology, and yes markets, and government regulation of those markets, and concerns for the environment, it is these things that bind us together and it is these things that completely disregard the boundaries of civilizations that Kaplan’s Huntington would draw.

4. “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.”
Well, the West certainly does not believe in free markets, so why bring out this old straw man? Hasn’t the case been made definitively that our markets are not free?  In any case, if there is a free market in the world today, it is probably the drug market in such places as Afghanistan or Columbia. Furthermore, the Chinese, perhaps even more than we ourselves, profit from the “freedom” of our markets.  One need only to look at our balance of payments situation with that country to be convinced of this. Why on earth, for China, would free markets, or at least the push towards them, because they can’t ever be absolutely free, be a source of conflict between us and them?  Rivalry and competition for markets are no less with us today than at earlier times in our history, but such rivalries have been as much entrenched within the world’s civilizations as between them. Also, in regard to parliamentary democracy and the West, isn’t the world’s largest parliamentary democracy, and one of the most stable and successful, in an Eastern country, in India?  When, as in a few Muslim countries, Islam is the government there needs to be no conflict between that government and Western parliamentary democracies.  Rather the conflicts that we see today, those that Robert Kaplan became well acquainted with during this travels, are, such as we see in Iran, and up until a few weeks ago, Afghanistan, between the country’s Islamic leaders and their own people.

5.  “In a multi-polar world based loosely on civilizations rather than on ideologies, Americans must reaffirm their Western identity.”
There are a couple of things terribly wrong with this statement.  First of all our multi-polar world, again whatever that expression may mean, is no more based on civilizations than on any number of other criteria, such as the possession of the bomb, the size of a country’s gross national product, the educational level of its citizens etc.  Secondly, Americans would be much better off, not to mention much less the object of acts of terrorism carried out by any number of “losers,” these the products of most, if not all civilizations, if they were to reaffirm, or affirm for the very first time, their identity with, their belonging to, all those fundamental values that they share with the members of other civilizations. Being a man will always be more than being an Afghan or an American.

Finally, one wonders why, how this sort of thinking represented by the “main points” is still with us.  I don’t believe that Samuel Huntington would claim the main points for his own.
In regard to 9/11, of course there are extremists appearing throughout the world in all civilizations who despise our country.  And there are certainly plenty of these extremists appearing in our own country/civilization.  It most behooves us now, not to promote only our own identity in isolation, but rather to join with others in other civilizations and promote all those things we have in common.  The war on terrorism is one of these, for in this regard all civilizations are faced with the same threat.  Globalization, not Islamic fundamentalism, not Westernization, is what is happening in the world today and it’s probably true that terrorism and the war against terrorism are helping to bring this about even more rapidly than would otherwise be the case.

Nov 3, 2001

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