The (Con)Fusion of Civilizations

Larry Summers and Kishore Mahbubani think that globalization will eventually lead to world peace. Except that it hasn’t — and probably won’t.

The cowds at Global Gathering festival, Long Marston Airfield, Stoke on Trent, UK. 28/29 July 2006
The cowds at Global Gathering festival, Long Marston Airfield, Stoke on Trent, UK. 28/29 July 2006

Is all for the best in this best of all possible worlds? If you’re looking for an upbeat assessment of recent global trends, check out the essay by Kishore Mahbubani and Larry Summers (“The Fusion of Civilizations”) in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Instead of a world of dysfunctional democracies, violent extremism, eroding institutions, and incipient Sino-American rivalry, they depict a globe where once-disparate civilizations are increasingly connected by shared values and constrained by a rules-based international order.

In contrast with the dark and violent “clash of civilizations” anticipated by the late Samuel P. Huntington, Mahbubani and Summers believe cultural groups are melding rapidly and creating “areas of commonality.” Extreme poverty is on the wane, a global middle class is growing, and the “march of reason” that began with the Enlightenment is supplanting superstition and spawning “problem-solving cultures” around the world. Western symphony orchestras are wildly popular in China, Asian flavors are infiltrating Western kitchens, American universities are opening franchises in the Middle East and Asia, and global diasporas are helping knit previously distinct cultures together. In their words, “the world is actually coming together, not falling apart.”

Many readers will surely see their article as a welcome corrective to the doom-and-gloom that politicians, pundits, intelligence officials, and cable news companies purvey on a daily basis. Several of the trends they identify — such as the recent decline in global poverty — should be noted and celebrated. And we should all hope the 21st century is as benign as they predict.

Unfortunately, in challenging the “glass-half-empty” view of contemporary world affairs, Mahbubani and Summers have swung too far in the opposite direction. They correctly identify a number of positive trends, but their article offers no theory that explains why these developments will ward off interstate competition. Indeed, the various developments they highlight have little to do with the prospects for peace.

For starters, does a rising middle class make states less likely to compete with one another and less prone to use force? It would be nice to think so, and I can think of various reasons why this might be true. But history is at best ambiguous on this point, and scholarly efforts to explore the links between economic inequality and interstate conflict have been inconclusive. Europe’s middle class grew dramatically between 1850 and 1914, for example, but that development did not prevent the continent from plunging into World Wars I and II, two of the bloodiest conflicts in recorded history.

Mahbubani and Summers’s faith in human reason is even more puzzling. The Enlightenment occurred in the 18th century, and dozens of wars have taken place since then. Moreover, countries where Enlightenment values were embraced and extolled, such as revolutionary France, were involved in many of those fights. If human reason and pragmatic cost-benefit analysis were a reliable barrier to war, then surely the past two centuries would have been far more peaceful than they were.

In fact, as James Fearon pointed out in a famous article, even perfectly rational states could fail to resolve disputes peacefully because they have private information about their relative strength and resolve as well as incentives to misrepresent that information. War is also possible due to the “commitment problem”: There is no central authority that ensures states keep any agreements they do make. Post-Enlightenment “reason,” in short, is a weak reed on which to base our hopes for future peace.

Recent events reinforce the point. Ancient superstitions and clashing cultures did not lead the United States into war in Iraq in 2003; on the contrary, the people who conceived and sold that war were the products of America’s finest universities and were presumably well schooled in post-Enlightenment rationalism and basic cost-benefit analysis. Yale- and Harvard-educated George W. Bush was even lauded as “the MBA President,” and he was surrounded by people with similar pedigrees. Yet these highly educated, rational individuals still blundered into an unnecessary and disastrous war. Even a cool pragmatist like Barack Obama has admitted doing “stupid stuff” while in office, further underscoring the limits of human reason in the political realm.

Mahbubani and Summers do recognize trouble may still arise, saying “the possibility of an aggressive, militaristic China cannot be ruled out,” and warning that demagogues may exploit popular fears “even in the advanced industrial world.” But they are plainly just hedging their bets, for they conclude by predicting “the progressive direction of human history … is set to continue.”

Again, let us hope they are right. What’s missing from their upbeat story, however, is a sound understanding of the forces that have led to international conflict in the past and are likely to fuel it in the future. Mahbubani and Summers reject Huntington’s gloomy forecast of civilizational clashes, but their argument adopts the same flawed “civilizational” template and its corresponding emphasis on culture as the main driver of international behavior. Because they assume conflict arises primarily from cultural differences, they believe cross-cultural “fusion” will remove this source of trouble and ensure a tranquil future.

But as I noted when Huntington’s book first appeared, civilizations are not actors and they do not make decisions for war or peace. Even now, the main actors in world politics are states and the most powerful political ideology in the world is nationalism. Nationalism explains why the number of countries continues to rise, why supranational institutions like the European Union are in trouble, and why China and its neighbors are increasingly at odds over seemingly minor chunks of territory in the open seas. And in China, nationalism and the middle class seem to be on the rise simultaneously. The power of nationalism and other forms of local identity helps explain the stubborn and bitter resistance the United States has faced in the Middle East (and elsewhere), and it is the real reason why Huntington’s original thesis was wrong. Ironically, his data showed that clashes within civilizations have been and remain more common than conflicts between them, and the vast majority of these conflicts arose not from cultural differences but from familiar security concerns.

In a world where states remain the primary actors, and where there is no central authority to protect or prevent them from fighting, powerful countries will watch one another carefully, keep a wary eye on the balance of power, and do whatever they can to minimize their vulnerability to outside pressure. That is why Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to derail the relentless extension of Western influence into Russia’s traditional sphere of interest, and that is why China’s rise has raised concerns throughout Asia and led the United States to “rebalance” toward that critically important region. None of the favorable trends highlighted by Mahbubani and Summers are likely to arrest these tendencies.

Furthermore, events in the past month have not been kind to their basic thesis. A couple of weeks after their article appeared, the Chinese government “passed a new law restricting the work of foreign organizations and their local partners, mainly through police supervision,” a move designed to curtail the cross-cultural influences the authors extol. Similar measures have been implemented or proposed in Russia, Egypt, Israel, and several other countries in recent years. A few days ago, the increasingly popular far-right party Alternative for Germany called for a ban on minarets and burqas in Germany, an overtly anti-Muslim stance that echoes French restrictions on headscarves and the rightward shifts in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Poland. Cultures may be blending in some ways — just as they have in the past — but a lot of people don’t like it as much as Mahbubani and Summers do. And one of those people may be the next U.S. president.

Lastly, let us not forget that countries don’t just exchange recipes, musical scores, and technological know-how; they sometimes converge in more disturbing ways. Doctrines like communism and fascism crossed cultural borders in the past, and today extreme ideologies can be disseminated at the click of a mouse. Nuclear weapons technology has spread to nine countries over the past 60 years, and 19 states have followed the United States’s lead and acquired their own fleet of armed drones. If a Chinese exchange student learns about the Monroe Doctrine in a course on American history, is it possible she might see this idea as an appealing blueprint for China’s position in Asia? And so forth. Globalization may bring the world closer together culturally, but the blend is bound to include both the good and the bad.

Don’t get me wrong: I like living in a world where diverse cultures interact in manifold ways. As I’ve written before, all societies evolve in response to outside influences and the willingness and ability to learn from others is a valuable source of social and economic vitality. The United States has long benefited from its openness to immigration and other outside influences, and states that try to block out the world are more likely to end up a failed hermit kingdom like North Korea. In short, Kishore, Larry, and I agree on the sort of world we’d like to live in, and I won’t mind at all if their optimistic vision proves correct. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Photo credit: Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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