Sam Huntington opens his Clash of Civilizations in chapter 1 on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain that had separated Communist East with Capitalist West for over a generation. The old Cold War dichotomy was dead, and it looked like the “free world” had won the final battle and we were headed toward an era of peace and prosperity, that if not quite the millennium, was seen by many Western academics as the “end of History” (Francis Fukuyama).
Huntington though, ever the realist, saw things differently. He recognized (I agree with him here) that the era of ideological divide was over; the era of intra-Western debate about forms of government or what economic model to follow, but that this wasn’t going to usher in some secular eschaton. In fact, what this collapse/victory did was open up the field to long suppressed senses of identity that had been smothered but never extinguished by the 20th century’s ideological divide.
This dormant but not dead sense of identity regained prominence almost immediately in places like Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Rwanda, the Sudan, etc. where civil wars broke out often along tribal and religious affiliations. Now certainly there were these kinds of conflicts of “culture” during the Cold War era as well, and many thousands were killed and displaced because of them. But because these conflicts didn’t involve potentially world ending weapons of mass destruction, and the Cold War antagonists did, these “lesser” conflicts were relegated to back burner status.
Once this “new era” in world affairs occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, there were several ways of viewing the world that Huntington describes next.
Two Worlds: Us and Them. This other dichotomy replaced the Cold War us/them dichotomy along similar lines and has a simple elegance to it that’s very appealing; the modern democratic West versus the rest of the world. And yet its simplicity is also its downfall. The non-West is just not unified in the way the modern West is and so there’s no neat and simple contrast to posit.
184 States, more or less. This reflects the realist perspective that “States” are the main actors in world affairs and history. And while that is still largely true, it ends up being a less than satisfactory explanation for the complexity of world affairs, since we are faced with not just non-state actors, such as al Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood, and the power of multinational corporations, and more traditional supra-national entities like NATO and the UN, not to mention civilizational identifying.
Shear Chaos. The end of the Cold War leaves a world in a state of geopolitical anarchy. This view, like the states view is close to reality, but also suffers from being too simplistic. It’s accurate in describing a world filled with violence and various states and other entities trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. But it isn’t just a chaotic world, but one still reined in by competing impulses that restrict the most outlandish behaviors among world actors. Not always of course, but often enough that the world doesn’t descend into some Dante’ like inferno.
Finally in chapter 1, Huntington explains that while each of the paradigms described above have their strengths and weaknesses, his civilizational model better serves not only to describe the current post Cold War reality, but also can serve as a predictive tool in seeing how our near future may go. He follows that up with a list of events just from 1993 to illustrate his point of how the world is reorienting itself along civilizational lines. I was struck at how some of these conflicts described from 1993 were so similar to what we see today, both in Europe and here in the US.
In response to this initial analysis from Huntington concerning the post-Cold War reality, I find myself largely agreeing with him contra Fukuyama and other more idealistic thinkers. I wish I didn’t! I’d love to believe in a world where knowledge trumps passion. Where we see more of what unites us versus what divides us. But like the example he gave from the novel Dead Lagoon, we still live in a world governed to a large degree by sensing our identity by what we’re not as much as by what we are.
In a similar vein, I’ve recently been reading a book by Cass Sunstein called Going to Extremes, which argues along similar lines that extremism is driven by that same us/them dichotomy, a dichotomy which needs an enemy to be better able to define who our friends are and who we are. As Christians, can we surpass this basic human impulse more effectively in the face of international tensions, ethnic tensions, and yes, even religious tensions? As a Christian, I’m forced in a way to be both a hard-nosed realist, but also an eschatological optimist. And as a Reformed leaning Christian, my eschatology doesn’t have to wait for Jesus to come back for things to get better. But we can begin the new creation work now, even if we know it won’t its ultimate fulfillment until the eschaton.