imagesThe article below is another in our series of reprints from the Christchurch-based magazine revolution (1997-2006), one of the precursors of this blog. The article discussed seven books and concluded that America’s quest for a new world order was revealing its weakness rather than its strength in the post-Cold War world. The article appeared in issue #7, August/September 1998. It actually seems to have been reprinted from the British journal Living Marxism, but we can’t work out which issue. In the near two decades since the article was written, the Western powers have had more success in talking up the threat of ‘Islamic extremism’, but this has come at the cost of the destruction of much of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. And the West is no more united now that when the article was written. Moreover, the hunt for an external threat to cohere Western societies has cost hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of lives. . .

Burgessby Adam Burgess

Looking back from today, ‘1989 and all that’ seems a long way off. Back then, somewhat to its surprise, capitalism found itself triumphant over the old Soviet enemy. Everybody was invited to join the celebrations, with Francis Fukuyama’s End of History eulogy to the wonders of liberal democracy as the main party piece. Yet within a few years, although still without any challengers, red or otherwise, the mood among the political and intellectual defenders of the capitalist system became decidedly downbeat. Since the early 1990s their ‘New World Order’ has been widely derided as a new world disorder, and history, ignoring Fukuyama’s notice that it is at an end, has gone careering off into a chaos of local passions and conflicts.

Not surprisingly, a number of thinkers have been trying to put matters right by recapturing the system’s sense of order and maybe even triumph. This has been the setting for the latest attempt to explain the shape of world affairs – ‘The clash of civilisations’ thesis developed by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington.

Firstly, back to the beginning. The thesis advanced by Francis Fukuyama, that the end of ‘the Soviet bloc meant the vindication of liberal democratic capitalism as the only viable social system, became the centre of intellectual debate in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Its reassurance that, aside from a few minor difficulties, the world was set to emulate the Western model was soothing, if not as gung ho as many might have liked.

Life might have become rather boring as all the ‘big questions’ were now laid to rest, but at least we could sleep without fear of any threat from outside. On top of this, we had the idea of the ‘Rebirth of History’ associated with, for example, the British writer on East European affairs, Misha Glenny. This, too, struck an optimistic note, now based more explicitly on the potential for a resurgence of political democracy in the Eastern bloc.

The end of triumphalism

Then, without ever being intellectually challenged, the rosy views of the future seemed to be overtaken by more worrying developments. While the capitalist slump cast a shadow over the future of both West and East, it also became clear that the post-Cold War world was less, rather than more, stable than the old order. Even the West’s ‘success’ in the Gulf War in 1991 was quickly overshadowed by the onset of civil war in Yugoslavia and the apparent inability of anybody to do anything about it.

In fact, the harmonious ‘New World Order’ hailed by George Bush lasted little longer than a soundbite. Order seemed the last thing in evidence as the rhetoric about the ‘international community’ solving the problems of Yugoslavia or Somalia only exposed the absence of unity and concerted action among the USA and its allies. Instead the USA found itself castigated by liberal opinion for failing to sort out other Third World ‘upstarts’ like the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in the fashion that they bombed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq back into the Stone Age.

Western intervention

The Western elite’s great achievement of recent times has been the reversal of the postwar consensus that it had no business treating the Third World like its own backyard. The recent acceptance that the West has the right, even duty, to determine the fate of the rest of the world has provided a considerable boost to the authroity of Western society. Yet this key shift of opinion now passes almost without comment. Instead, as the Yugoslav crisis has dragged on, events in other parts of the world have only compounded the sense of chaos surrounding the West’s management of international affairs. The descent of the American ‘Operation Restore Hope’ in Somalia into what looked like a traditional colonial-style occupation, symbolised the hazardous nature of the world which the Western elites look down upon today.

Disturbed by the pessimism that surrounds international relations, various commentatorshave sought to restore a sense of certainty to the West’s view of the world. The Real World Order by Max Singer and Aaron Wildavsky deals with the widespread view that the failures in Somalia, Bosnia and elsewhere preclude the creation of any meaningful world order. Singer and Wildavasky’s own idea iis that a discernible pattern does exist, between “zones of peace and zones of turmoil”.

Their bookis an attempt to settle scores with the liberal Doubting Thomases. Singer and Wildavasky’s desire for order is not simply an absttract academic concern. It helps provide the basis for the consolidation of Western authority over, and interference in, the “zones of turmoil” in the Third World. This comes out clearly in the discussion of nationalism.

Nationalism

In The Wrath of Nations: civilisation and the fury of nationalism, William Pfaff, an influential American columnist on foreign affairs, tries to give order to the subject by explaining nationalism as “a phenomenon of the European nineteenth century”, a “political consequence of the literary-intellectual movement called Romanticism, a Central European reaction to the universalising, and therefore disorientating, ideas of the eighteenth century French Enlightenment.” As nationalism is today essentially rooted in the non-Western world, we, the civilised West, can act to contain and even eliminate its dangerpous consequences. Pfaff now feels able to argue for an activist foreign policy, where it would be “better if the international community would reimpose a form of paternalist neo-colonialism in most parts of Africa.

Replying to Pfaff in the US foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs, Irish intellectual and former UN official Conor Cruise O’Brien reveals the absence of a clear delineation in world politics which Pfaff is reacting against. O’Brien argues that nationalism is in fact a pretty universal primordial instinct. He sees no way in which such an entrenched force can be isolated and dealt with, arguing, “There is no ‘new world order’ within the capacity of the West that will have the effect of eliminating nationalist violence and related ethnic evils from every part of the world.” Pointing to Somalia, he asks of Pfaff’s colonial enthusiasm, “How would they fare if they were to take on all the nationalisms and sub-nationalisms of Africa?”

The differences in these debates are more apparent than real. Disagreement really only revolves around the degree of optimism about the West’s capacity for resolving the chaos that is seen to be the modern Third World. Crucially, all accept the moral superiority of the West over the rest. They disagree only over the extent to which this general sense of Third World backwardness can be made more concrete – the extent to which the sort of clear division which divided the Cold War world between East and West can be redefined today as a division between our own and the non-Western worlds.

Many think it can. But to do so, the difference must be explained as a cultural, even a civilisational divide. With the absence of any political challenge to Western capitalism, different ways of life and culture are now talked up as the great schism of the nineties.

Chaos and disorder?

The zones of peace/zones of turmoil dichotomy already mentioned is one example of a cultural differentiation. The West is defined by its cultural stability, surrounded by a threatening world of chaos and disorder. Similarly, the conservative French thinker Jean-Francis Revel in his Democracy Against Itself: the future of the democratic impulse, replaces the old distinction between democracy and totalitarianism with a distinction between “normal and abnormal” states. It matters little to Revel whether elections take place, or even that formal democracy is exercised, outside the normality of the West. For him, lawlessness and the absence of developed civil society mean that the ‘abnormal’ non-Western world is doomed to a permanent state of turmoil.

Samuel Huntington has made the most notable attempt, so far, clearly to divide the world along the lines of culture and civilisation. Originally published in Foreign Affairs and hyped as the big picture theory to replace Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis, it has been reprinted together with replies as The Clash of Civilisations: the debate. Huntington has packaged the theme of cultural division in a far sexier way than the rather eccentric and crude formulations of Revel or Singer and Wildavasky. His is a world where the shape of the future will be defined by the interaction between discrete civilisations – Islamic, Slavic-Orthodox, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu and so on.

Huntington does not overtly denigrate non-Western civilisations. Indeed, he can sound positively PC: “The presumption. . . that other peoples who modernise must become ‘like us’ is a bit of Western arrogance that in itself illustrates the clash of civilisations.” His bottom line, however, in reply to critics who have exposed the implausibility of squeezing every world event into his civilisational category, is that “faith and family, blood and belief are what people identify with and what they will fight and die for.”

The interest generated by Huntington’s thesis is not due to any intellectual qualities. He himself virtually concedes that it is nonsense by entitling the reply to his critics , “If not civilizations, what?” In other words, “OK, it’s gobbledegook, but what do you suggest? We need some way of understanding the world and our special position within it, and at least ‘civilisations’ sounds good.” Huntington’s aim, as American professor of international relations Albert Weeks explained, is much the same as others seeking a ‘real world order’. Huntington’s concern for civilisations “is symptomatic of the failure of globalism – specifically the idea of establishng a ‘new world order’ – to take root and of the failure to make sense of contradictory trends and events. His aim is thus. . . to get a handle on the international kaleidoscope.”

Endorsement for Huntington’s ideas come down to agreement with the prejudice that the ‘primordial instincts’ so beloved of the likes of Conor Cruise O’Brien are in the ascendant. However, beyond this, his proposition does have the virtue, from a Western point of view, of avoiding the problems that emerge within the West, by concentrating attention upon the West’s differences with the rest.

The West’s own problems

Elevating attention to a confict among civilisations refocuses scrutiny away from the uncomfortable subject of the internal state of Western society and the fracturing of the loyalties which are supposed to hold it together. With grandiose assumptions about civilisational ties, Huntington neatly sidesteps the very introspective questions that have provoked this flurry of articles. All he has done is change the subject.

Thus Fouad Ajami, an American professor of Middle Eastern studies, mocks our man of civilisation: “The West is unexamined in Huntington’s essay. No fissures run through it. No multiculturalists are heard from. It is orderly within its ramparts. What doubts Huntington has about the will within the walls, he has kept within himself. He has assumed that his call to unity will be answered, for outside flutter the banners of the Saracens and the Confuucians.”

If the refocusing of attention away from the shortcomings of Western society is to be convincing, it requires a more aggressive approach. Such aggression is difficult when the possible targets are so pitiful. The preoccupations of the likes of Huntington indicate that the hunt is on to find an enemy at least some way to being as convincing as ‘communism’ was. Few questioned the meaning or the value of the West when the Soviet Union was the spectre at the gates. Commentators are looking for new candidates for the old position. The new threat must be viable enough to create a sense of solidarity in the West, and also provide a comparison that favourably demonstrates the benefits of being Western.

All the talk about ‘zones of turmoil’ and ‘abnormal states’ is an attempt to do just that. The construction of such meaningless divisions aims to manufacture a threat from a morally degenerate Third World. So, too, does the growing body of literature attempting to prove that democracies do not fight each other. Grasping the Democratic Peace: principles for a post-Cold War world is one example. According to this school of thought, the West is not only ordered and lawful, but intrinsically peaceful. The violent Third World, by contrast, is threatening, and so needs containing. But how to translate such peculiar academic concerns into a tangible threat? In the real world there is precious little in the way of a threat from the East.

This helps explain why the quest for a new international threat hungrily follows any lead. Newsweek‘s suggestion is a global mafia. “They’re ruthless. Stateless. Hi-tech. And deadly,” declared the front cover of the American news magazine on 13 December 1993. They even got a senator to call organised crime “the new communism, the new monolithic threat.” Nice try, but unfortunately ‘they’ are also non-existent. More serious intellectual energies are going into the hyping of the threat of Islam. “There are many good people,” William Pfaff wrote in the New Yorker, “who think that the war between communism and the West is going to be replaced by a war between the West and the Muslims.”

One of the ‘good people’ Pfaff might have in mind is Mark Juergensmeyer. In his The New Cold War? Religious nationalism confronts the secular state, Juergensmeyer takes Huntington’s civilisational paradigm a step further, singling out Islam as the villain of the peace. Since the American government went to great lengths to blame the bombing of the World Trade Centre on Islamic fundamentalists, the campaign has gathered momentum. But while Islam may be a rather more convincing enemy than Newsweek‘s mythical global mafia, comparison with the truly global dimensions of the Soviet threat only highlights its implausibility. Despite recent years of propaganda against Islamic extremists, the campaign has failed miserably to cohere a Western world view.

Criticising Juergensmeyer’s thesis as “woefully inadequate”, Fukuyama regrets that “one of the maddening characteristics of the new world order is that few generalisations remain valid outside of a specific region.” Or, as one of Huntington’s fellow travellers notes, “new and serious challenges face us abroad, but they may not be sharply defined enough to elicit a similar unifying response” (B. Porter, “Can American democracy survive?”, Commentary, November 1993). Order remains as elusive as ever.

Filling the vacuum

The academics’ search for a new global threat to cohere the West at times seems absurd in its artificiality. But we should not lose sight of the importance of this discussion. The dynamic to draw new boundaries between ‘them and us’ is given by dissatisfaction with the crumbling of the American and Western way of life. Exaggerating the shortcomings of others and the threat they pose acts to ease the pain of the vacuum which the end of the Cold War has left at the heart of Western political life.

The importance of building on the West’s unique qualities is emphasised too by the renowned American historian John Lukacs. Concluding his latest work, The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age, he asks “will the American people have the inner strength to consolidate, and to sustain, the belief that their civilisation is different not from the so-called old world but from the so-called third world, and not merely its advanced model? (T)his is. . . the question.”

The drive to recreate a sense of cultural superiority also expresses a fact of world affairs approaching the end of the century. Despite criticisms, it has proved considerably easier for Western governments to create a sense of their own worth and authority in the international arena than on the domestic scene. In many respects the future of the West is now bound up with the extent to which they can sustain their own solidarity and purpose on the international stage.

This inevitably requires the creation of villains and victims and as much ideological coherence as can be mustered. All the talk of civilisation and order is really an attempt to package this project of restoring the authority of a failed Western system.

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