Is That Old Time Religion The New World Order?

The simple handshake between Yassir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, astonishing as it was, is but the latest tectonic shift stemming from the end of the cold war. Peace in the Middle East, nuclear disarmament, Bosnia's destruction, warlordism in Somalia--all reflect the amazing changes since the demise of the Soviet bloc.

With the international system torn from its mooring of nearly half a century, the U.S. is struggling to define and defend its interests. If communism is dead, what foreign policy framework should the U.S. use to structure its approach to the new world order? And what is that order, anyway?

A fierce debate in Washington centers on that question. Just as George Kennan's 1947 X article in Foreign Affairs defined the U.S. policy of containing communism, so are others forming new paradigms. First out was Francis Fukuyama, a State Dept. analyst who declared the end of the cold war meant "the end of history." Liberal democracy had won, he wrote, leaving statesmen only "technical" problems to solve.

DARK OUTLOOK. Yet the crises of the 1990s have proved anything but "technical," and Fukuyama's theory has faded from the scene. Instead, policymakers are debating a powerful new world view articulated in The Clash of Civilizations?, a recent Foreign Affairs piece. Espoused by eminent Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, this thesis--should Washington adopt it--has forbidding implications for foreign policy. Huntington's argument: that after the cold war, "the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural," not ideological or economic. "The clash of civilizations will be the battle lines of the future," he writes.

Huntington lists eight civilizations: Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and African. Replacing the Soviet/U.S. blocs are cleavages between the West and the rest--particularly the West and Islam as well as an Islamic-Confucian alliance. The substance of conflict is not markets or resources but values, most embedded in religion.

To Huntington, cultural values and religion are recovering their strength, because economic modernization and social change are "separating people from their local identities." The nation-state is weakening, people are adrift and turning to older beliefs. The world is desecularizing, as fundamentalism sweeps through India and the Mideast and cultural nationalism grows in China, Japan, and Russia. In short, a massive de-Westernization is under way.

Huntington's tract is seductive because it seems to explain so much. Take the tragedy in Bosnia. According to Huntington, this wretched land is probably the site of the first modern clash between civilizations, with Islam facing off against the Christian West. In this determinist scheme, Yugoslavia's unraveling should surprise no one: Bosnia straddles a dangerous cultural fault line that has separated Christianity and Islam since 1500.

Yet this argument comes up short on many points. It wasn't the fundamentalist wing of Islamic civilization that invaded the feudal kingdom of Kuwait, but a very secular Iraqi government. Can one talk of conflict between the West and Islam when the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the secular one-party state of Egypt sided with the U.S. and Europe in the gulf war? How about the new peace between "European" Israelis and Islamic Palestinians? As for Bosnia, why are Christian Serbs also attacking, then teaming up with, Christian Croats? The Bosnian situation seems more a horrible case of Serbian land grabs than a clash of civilizations.

Not only is Huntington's framework wobbly, but he misunderstands the most potent force sweeping the globe today: the market economy. Look at some of today's rising powers. China's new might isn't because of its return of Confucianism but to its embrace of Western-style markets supported by American and Japanese investment.

Granted, Chinese capitalism won't mirror U.S. capitalism--or Japanese or European capitalism. Latin America's emerging market economy will be different, too, as will Malaysia's and Indonesia's. But enough similarities will exist to allow thousands of new business deals uniting citizens around the globe. And new technologies, from satellite dishes to fax machines to the Internet data-base exchange, are uniting an emerging global middle class.

In the end, Huntington doesn't offer much guidance on foreign policy. His clash-of-civilizations thesis basically calls for a state of armed vigilance--a sort of post-cold war cold war. That pleases defense hawks. But the U.S. needs a better guidebook. Policymakers would do better to look to the global economy, where free flows of capital, goods, people, and data may defuse the tribal forces by creating and distributing wealth. And when officials scan for new fault lines to mend, they should look for the ones separating those inside the global economy from those outside of it.

Yes, culture matters--sometimes tragically. But focusing exclusively on old values means ignoring the new forces rapidly remaking the world.

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