Highbrow Tribalism

Highbrow Tribalism

Highbrow Tribalism

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Nov. 2 1996 3:30 AM

Highbrow Tribalism

Is Harvard geopolitical theorist Sam Huntington the next George Kennan, or just the thinking man's Pat Buchanan?

In American foreign-policy circles, everyone is waiting for the next X. "X" was the byline on the famous 1947 essay in Foreign Affairs, actually written by George Kennan, that analyzed Soviet communism and laid out the post-World War II policy of "containment." Where is a comparably compelling vision of the post-Cold War world, a new lodestar for American foreign policy? Who is the next George Kennan? Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington has a suggestion: How about him?


Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is now hitting the bookstores. The jacket copy says that the germ of the book--Huntington's 1993 Foreign Affairs essay "The Clash of Civilizations?"--drew more discussion than any Foreign Affairs piece since Kennan's (at least, "according to the editors of that distinguished journal"). Blurbs from Brzenzinski (effusive) and Kissinger (guarded) reinforce the air of eminence.


Huntington's book is devoted to a currently ubiquitous theme: tribalism. In politics, the tribal theme shows up in the rhetoric of Pat Buchanan, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and so on. In the intellectual world, the tribal theme shows up in treatises about the importance of the sentiments aroused by such men. Now that the bipolar order of the Cold War is gone, we're told, the primal bonds of ethnicity, language, and religion will be a central--if not the central--organizing principle in world affairs. Huntington carries this idea to new heights of theoretical elaboration. Surely tribalism has never sounded so cerebral. But it's one thing to analyze a phenomenon and another thing to encourage it. Huntington crosses the line so easily as to make you wonder: How different, really, are the lowbrow and highbrow expressions of the vogue for tribalism?


H untington's 1993 essay was, by design, a downer. The end of the Cold War had inspired such upbeat visions as the inexorable triumph of liberal democracy (Francis Fukuyama's The End of History) and the "New World Order" (global peace mediated by the United Nations). Huntington insisted we recork the champagne. The world would remain strife-torn, he said, only now the main actors would be not ideological blocs or nation-states or superpowers, but distinct "civilizations"--Western, Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, Hindu, and African. (In the book, he adds a ninth civilization, Buddhist.) "Civilizations are the ultimate human tribes, and the clash of civilizations is tribal conflict on a global scale," he writes in the book. Relations between nations from different civilizations will be "almost never close" and "often hostile"--"trust and friendship will be rare." Wars will tend to break out along civilizational "fault lines" and will tend to expand along the same lines.

How should we respond to this tribalism? Tribally. The very "survival of the West" depends on Westerners "uniting to renew and preserve" their civilization "against challenges from non-Western societies." Thus, Australia should abandon efforts to mesh with its local Asian milieu and instead should join NAFTA. The United States should de-emphasize engagement with Asia and turn back toward Europe.


How exactly Huntington's diagnosis (perilously deep fault lines) leads to his prescription (further deepen the fault lines) is a puzzle to which we'll return. But first, a word about the diagnosis. Does his notion of "civilizations" as tribes writ large make sense?

Back in 1993, most commentators said no, and this book is unlikely to change their minds. For example, Huntington has renamed "Confucian" civilization "Sinic," but that doesn't tidy up the concept. South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, China, Singapore, and Vietnam are very motley and definitely not a crew. In fact, the thriving capitalist democracies of South Korea and Taiwan seem to blatantly violate Huntington's logic, showing how fast cultures can switch orientations from one "civilization" to another. Yet Huntington not only sees hidden coherence in the Sinic bloc; he sees the bloc as part of an even larger threat--the "Confucian-Islamic connection." This consists of China and North Korea "cooperating" with Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Algeria to thwart the West on such issues as arms proliferation. But the grab bag of national policies that supposedly add up to this grand transnational "connection" doesn't even include most Sinic or most Islamic states. If we wanted to use one variable to predict whether a nation is involved in Huntingon's Sinic-Islamic "connection," we'd be better off knowing whether it's one of the four remaining Communist dictatorships than knowing whether it's one of the five Sinic nations (50 percent predictive power vs. 40 percent).


I could, as others have, about the civilizational paradigm's lack of analytical elegance. But that's not what really bothers me. Though ancestral cultures aren't the mystical epoxy that Huntington imagines, language, religion, and other aspects of cultural heritage do matter a lot in the post-Cold War world. The "civilizations" part of Huntington's thesis is less troubling than the "clash" part. Why is it an inherent property of intercivilizational relations that they be "usually cool" and "often hostile"? Why, for example, must Western relations with a Sinic bloc be typically tense? Obviously, current Western-Chinese relations are pretty tense. But why can't this change with, say, a new, more cosmopolitan, regime in China, or firmer and more consistent diplomatic signals from Washington?

It isn't enough to say, as Huntington does, that Sinic civilization lacks the West's bent for democracy. The cliché that democracy hobbles the conduct of a coherent foreign policy is true. If Chinese leaders are freed from the burden of domestic pandering, they should be able to calmly find their zones of common interest with the West and cut the appropriate deals. So why does Huntington think we can't do business with these people? Are only Westerners capable of perceiving their rational self-interest and acting on it? Are only Westerners reliable negotiators?


Sometimes Huntington seems to think so. After criticizing naive American attempts at "constructive engagement" and "dialogue" across the Pacific, he writes, "To the Asians, American concessions are not to be reciprocated, they are to be exploited." Ah, yes, those wily Asians. Pat Buchanan couldn't have said it better. (Here, again, Huntington conflates with other explanatory variables.)


H untington--like Buchanan--claims not to be a cultural supremacist: He is defending the integrity of all cultures, theirs and ours. Indeed, he sounds almost like a lefty relativist when he says we must accept "global multiculturality" and discard the "linear" view of history, which sees Western values as the inexorable fate of humankind. But of course, that's just another way of saying that liberal democracy--a value Huntington surely ranks above the alternatives morally--may never fit some peoples as naturally as it fits us. In this light the meaning of his call to "maintain the multicivilizational character of global politics" seems clear: separate but equal. You let one alien nation move into your trade bloc, and pretty soon the whole neighborhood goes downhill. (And already, Huntington worries, the West is suffering "decline" and "decay.")

The Barbarians, in short, are at the gate--and conspiring against us. The future, Huntington says, may boil down to "the West against the rest." Raise the drawbridges!

And yet, toward the end of this book, just when I was about to file Huntington in the "Pat Buchanan" section of my brain, he underwent a miraculous transformation. Up until this point he has been ignoring or downplaying the interdependence among modern nations. He doesn't seem to think the Chinese reliance on Western markets, say, or Hong Kong's thirst for Western capital, can help keep trans-Pacific relations smooth. And God knows he doesn't waste time talking about environmental problems soluble only by international cooperation. On the contrary, hovering like white noise throughout his 1993 essay, and through much of this book, is the that international relations are typically zero-sum, so that "natural conflicts of interest" dominate world affairs.


B ut then, in the book's final few pages, Huntington does his sudden turnaround and finally sees what he missed in 1993: It is in the interests of civilizations not just to "coexist" but to actively cooperate. We live in a world not just of "transnational corporations" but of "transnational mafias and drug cartels," problems that nations can solve only by acting in concert. In the book's final paragraph he repeats that, "in the clash of civilizations, Europe and America will hang together or hang separately," but he adds that in "the greater clash," the "global" clash between chaos and order, "the world's great civilizations ... will also hang together or hang separately." Huntington, who set out in 1993 to debunk the New World Order, is suddenly talking like Boutros Boutros-Ghali!

On behalf of one-worlders everywhere, I celebrate Huntington's Road to Damascus experience and officially disassociate him from Pat Buchanan. But before we teach him the secret New World Order handshake, we'd like him to resolve some paradoxes in his thinking. In particular: the tension between his prescriptions of (a) the West turning inward for its own salvation; and (b) the world's different tribes cooperating for global salvation. Clearly, the first can complicate the second. If, for example, America focuses on nourishing its European kinship and is wary of joining Pacific regional organizations, then building a bridge to Asia will be tricky.

One can imagine another book that would synthesize and elaborate the of this one. For example, Huntington suggests putting an Islamic nation on the U.N. Security Council--an interesting idea, and proof that thinking "civilizationally," or at least culturally, has its uses. But the growing academic fad of thinking in primarily, almost obsessively, tribal terms is another matter. In addition to being analytically sloppy, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Huntington notes, as evidence of tribalism, that foreign investment in America encounters more hostility when it's Japanese than when it's Canadian. Regrettably, this is true. But one reason it's true is because Huntington and other tribalism aficionados spend so much time talking about people from other "civilizations," as if they lived on another planet. Turns out they don't.