By now Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations has been dissected quite extensively. But I have yet to see even one commenta- tor point out that Huntington’s central thesis ”” that the three major emerging ”œcivilizations” are destined to ”œclash” ”” is based on a rhetorical sleight of hand.
After all, the mere fact that the post-Cold War world has seen some realignment of nation-states in accor- dance with cultural and religious affini- ties does nothing to establish the inevitability of conflict along these ”œcivilizational fault lines.” Why should it not lead to a happy ”œfree to be you and me” world, in which everyone comes to celebrate their differences?
The answer lies in the way that Huntington defines the national interest of Western nations. He claims that the West has an interest not just in main- taining or adding to its civilizational achievements, but also in maintaining what he calls its ”œprimacy” in the world.
Thus the ”œdecline of the West” story that Huntington appeals to is quite different in character from the Weimaresque narrative that we are famil- iar with, from Oswald Spengler to Allan Bloom. When critics in this tradition talked about decline, they meant it in absolute terms. But when Huntington talks about decline, he is referring mere- ly to loss of relative position.
In so doing, he makes things far too easy for himself. He claims that the West is ”œa civilization in decline,” merely because ”œits share of world political economic, and military power [is] going down relative to that of other civilizations.” He predicts that ”œthe power of the West relative to that of other civilizations will continue to decline.” He even laments the fact that ”œthe Western share of the global eco- nomic product…has clearly been declining since World War II” (my emphasis throughout).
But since when do we care about our share of the global economic prod- uct? The last time I checked, it was the size of our economic product that peo- ple worried about. By defining our interests in purely relative terms, Huntington imposes a zero-sum logic upon every aspect of international rela- tions ”” even upon economic growth.
Let us stop for a moment and con- sider what it would take for the West to maintain its share of world eco- nomic output. In China, during the last decade of the 20th century, more people were lifted out of absolute poverty more quickly than ever before in history. From a strictly humanitarian perspec- tive, it was one of the greatest achieve- ments of the human race to date. Yet from Huntington’s perspective, it was a deeply troubling development.
Why? Because all that economic growth in China generated a loss of rela- tive position for the West. Instead of the average American being twenty times richer than the average Chinese, the average American is now only seven times richer. But of course, there has been no decrease in the absolute standard of living of the average American. Nevertheless, in Huntington’s terms, the narrowing of the gap between the United States and China counts as an example of the economic ”œdecline” of the West.
It is no wonder then that Huntington anticipates a clash of civi- lizations. There is no way that any Western nation could hope to main- tain its relative economic position merely by increasing its own absolute level of production. This means that Western nations, in order to advance their rational interests, must be com- mitted to blocking economic develop- ment everywhere else on the planet.
This is, needless to say, not how most Westerners understand their inter- ests. But that doesn’t really matter to Huntington, because his conclusions are not derived upon any empirical assessment of how the citizens of these emerging civilizations feel about one another. His conclusions follow directly from the way that he defines his terms, and the zero-sum logic that he imposes upon international relations.
The nice thing about Huntington’s discussion is that he is remarkably upfront about the idea that Western nations should seek to maintain their position of relative power, influence and wealth. Among many other theo- rists, such a claim functions merely as an unspoken assumption.
One can see this quite clearly in our domestic debates over Canada’s role in the world. The standard narra- tive of decline starts out in the ”œgolden age” of Canadian foreign policy, usual- ly located sometime around the 1940s and 1950s. The long slow decline is then tracked from that point forward.
Yet it is seldom noted that these halcyon days of Canadian global influ- ence occurred during a time when the majority of the human race languished in a state of absolute deprivation.
Thus the ”œdecline of Canada” story that we have grown accustomed to hearing is really no different from the ”œdecline of the West” story that Huntington tells. Given the peculiar cir- cumstances of the world at the time of our ”œgolden age,” it is hardly surprising that we have suffered a loss of relative power. This will only be troubling if one thinks that international relations are dominated by zero-sum interactions.