If you’re in the mood for a dark view of the world and of humanity, then boy oh boy I have the article for you: The Clash of the Civilizations. Some are content with mere pessimism. That isn’t enough for the author, W. Ben Hunt. He aims for the apogee of cynicism.
“Lots of quotes this week, particularly from my two favorite war criminals – Sam Huntington and Henry Kissinger.”
Such casual disregard about war crime and those who commit it. I’m impressed right from the start.
I’m not a Christian, but I find myself automatically putting something like this into a Christian context. I don’t just mean the mention of war crime. I’m talking about the entire article that follows it. The war crime comment just sets the tone. There are a number of reasons for my thinking of Christianity, both in terms of morality and history.
First and foremost, what brought Christianity to mind was the simple fact that the person who recommended the article to me is a practicing Christian. That person isn’t just any Christian. He is my father who not only raised me in Christianity but raised me to take Christian values seriously. I don’t know how my father would square Hunt’s views with Jesus’ teachings, assuming he would even want to try. I do know my father deeply struggles with his faith and how it applies to the larger world, but in the end my father is in the impossible position of any other conservative Christian. Simply put, Jesus wasn’t a conservative, not to say Jesus was a liberal, but he certainly wasn’t conservative in any sense of the word (politically, socially, or attitudinally).
My own values have a Christian tinge. I don’t care one way or another if Jesus ever actually existed, but the radicalism of the message itself has stood out to me for a long time (far more radical than can be allowed for by either mainstream conservatism or liberalism). Jesus was always on the side of the powerless, not the powerful (on side of the victims of such things as war crimes, not the purveyors of it). I was thinking about this lately in context of the Ferguson protests and, more importantly, in the context of the words of Martin Luther King Jr.
You can agree or disagree with someone like MLK, but what is clear is that his view is in line with a Christian worldview. He was a Christian preacher, after all. Hunt’s philosophy, on the other hand, is just as clearly not in line with a Christian worldview. Hunt is advocating for something that is un-Christian or even anti-Christian.
I wanted to note that upfront. Hunt, as with those he quotes, seeks to defend Western society. But his interest seems to be more a desire to protect a particular power structure and social order, rather than any substance of the culture itself. Huntington and Kissinger were both advocates of American imperialism where mass violence was used to enforce the will of the American ruling elite (e.g., the Vietnam War). He is invoking American imperialism by relying on two major figures who have been the focus of serious accusations of war crimes, as he acknowledges.
Hunt shows no concern for Christian values, except maybe as they offer a contrast with non-Christian societies. He is not making a moral argument, at least not in the straightforward sense, or rather the morality he is proposing not of an inspiring variety. It’s more in line with might makes right, rather than love thy neighbor.
“Everyone has heard of Kissinger, fewer of Huntington, who may have been even more of a hawk and law-and-order fetishist than Kissinger”
I might point out that the Pharisees and Pontius Pilate were also law-and-order fetishists. They were likely hawks as well.
“But Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” argument is not just provocative, curmudgeonly, and hawkish. It is, I think, demonstrably more useful in making sense of the world than any competing theory, which is the highest praise any academic work can receive. Supplement Huntington’s work with a healthy dose of Kissinger’s writings on “the character of nations” and you’ve got a cogent and predictive intellectual framework for understanding the Big Picture of international politics.”
Basically, the author is arguing that the best way to understand the world is by listening to those who advocate for cynical realpolitik. Huntington and Kissinger are favorite thinkers of those in power. They speak for power and justify power. They are giving voice to those who rule the world. So, of course, they best explain the actual way the world is being presently ruled or at least how that rule is being rationalized in the minds of the ruling elite, whether or not the rationalization explains much of anything.
Hunt is going even further, though. He thinks that Huntington and Kissinger were speaking for reality itself. It is a cynicism so deep that it blinds him to genuine alternatives. It isn’t just the way the world is because how those in power have made it to be. He is going far beyond that. The claim is that it could be no other way.
“Huntington and Kissinger were both realists (in the Thucydides and Bismarck sense of the word), as opposed to liberals (in the John Stuart Mill and Woodrow Wilson sense of the word),”
By admiring them as realists, he is advocating realism. There is capitalist realism that has been dissected by others (e.g., Mark Fisher). The criticisms of capitalist realism parallel the criticisms of communist realism. But the view here isn’t using the Cold War rhetoric of either the freedom of markets or the freedom of workers. And it denies liberalism as being valid, liberalism both as progressivism and neo-liberalism. This is pure neo-conservatism. Ruthless power as its own justification.
That is the ‘reality’ Hunt lives in, and so it is the ‘reality’ he would like to enforce on all of the world. He can’t imagine the world any other way.
At the beginning of the article, the author included this quote:
“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”
– Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008)
Many people would interpret a statement like that as an admonishment of Western imperialism. But one gets the sense that Huntington and Hunt takes that as a point of pride. We are the winners! Bow down and submit!
The above was the second quote. It immediately followed this:
“In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.”
– Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1996)
Combining those two quotes, what is implied is twofold.
First, the West is intrinsically unique and fundamentally different from all the rest of humanity. We are the pinnacle of civilization, at least for now (and, for many hereditarian reactionaries, we are also the pinnacle of human evolution).
Second, what keeps us at the pinnacle is nothing more than being better at maintaining power through “organized violence” (i.e., brute oppression and military imperialism). This is to say we are better at keeping everyone else down and in their place where they can’t challenge us. And by saying ‘we’ and ‘us’, I mean the Western ruling elite, specifically those who aspire toward an authoritarian oligarchy or paternalistic plutocracy. Actually, their aspiration is greater still, as is made clear in this article. They want to be part of a transnational ruling elite, not just in the US or even the West but across the entire globe.
To continue with what the author was saying about Huntington and Kissinger, he stated this,
“basically just means that they saw human political history as essentially cyclical and the human experience as essentially constant.”
Right there, that is what I zeroed in on. I just happened to be reading a book that I’ve had for some years, but only now got around to looking at in detail. It is Circle and Lines by John Demos. The subtitle is “The Shape of Life in Early America”.
There was a cultural transition and psychological transformation that had been going on. Demos sees it as a centuries-long shift, but I would identify it’s having begun much earlier with the breakdown of the bicameral mind and the ensuing developments during the Axial Age, during which linear theologies came to dominance (temporal existence as a one-way trip, a cosmic narrative with a conclusive and final ending; the prime example in the West being Christianity which is from the late Axial Age, having been built on preceding expressions and influenced by concurrent expressions of the Axial Age such as Alexandrian Judaism, neo-Pythagoreanismm, Greco-Roman Mystery Schools, Egyptian Isis worship, etc).
One might point out as an example, specifically a Christian example, MLK’s preaching that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This arc extends from the past into the future, as progress toward something. It is not a pagan cycle of return that repeats endlessly, ever coming back to what is, has been, and always will be.
The linear style of thinking had particularly taken hold in the West because of the Hellenistic tradition that was spread through the joint effort of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. It was reintroduced during the Renaissance, became a real force during the Enlightenment, and then violently disrupted the social order during the early modern revolutionary era. It was a slow process over millennia for it to take hold. It still hasn’t fully taken hold, as is shown by the ease of Hunt’s dismissing it out of hand. Hunt, instead, harkens back to an ancient cyclical view of humanity and the world, not only still fightng againt the Enlightenment Age thinkers but also the Axial Age prophets.
“Life is fundamentally “nasty, brutish, and short”, to quote Thomas Hobbes, and people band together in tribes, societies, and nation-states to do something about that.”
It is unsurprising that the author seeks support from a pre-Enlightenment thinker. But I doubt Hunt would accept Hobbes’ belief that all humans are equal, for the very reason that death makes life “nasty, brutish, and short” (any person could kill any other person). I’m also not sure how the cyclical view could be fit into Hobbes’ ideas about society (in Hobbes and Human Nature, Arnold Green argues that, “In short, stasis was the goal. Cyclical theories do not deny development, as Hobbes essentially did.”), since Hunt doesn’t seem to be denying development in his own cyclical theorizing, just denying progress as a fundamental force of transformation and improvement. Anyway, Hobbes is a weak foundation upon which to base a post-Enlightenment modern view of global society and cross-cultural social order (see Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz).
“As such, we are constantly competing with other tribes, societies, and nation-states, and the patterns of that competition – patterns with names like “balance of power” and “empire” and “hegemony” – never really change across the centuries or from one continent to another. Sure, technology might provide some “progress” in creature comforts and quality of life (thank goodness for modern dentistry!), but basically technology just provides mechanisms for these political patterns to occur faster and with more devastating effect than before.”
In a nutshell: Competition between powers is the only constant. Nothing fundamentally ever changes or can change. There is no such thing as improvement. That is a stark worldview.
Besides moral criticisms, a main problem I have with it is that it doesn’t fit the evidence. Humanity has vastly changed over the centuries and millennia. The neighboring towns around where I live are not separate competing tribes or city-states that are in constant battle with my town. I can travel in most places in the world with relative ease and relatively little fear. For an increasing number of people, life no longer is “nasty, brutish, and short”.
These changes aren’t superficial, but have fundamentally altered how human nature has been expressed (possibly even at a genetic level to some degree, as research shows evolutionary changes can happen over shorter periods of time). John Demos speaks of this psychological level of change at the heart of social change, but even more profoundly it has been analyzed by the likes of Julian Jaynes and the Jaynesian theorists.
“The central point of “Clash of Civilizations” is that it’s far more useful to think of the human world as divided into 9 great cultures (Huntington calls them civilizations, but I’ll use the words interchangeably here) rather than as 200 or so sovereign nations.”
I agree that cultures are important, but this view lacks much depth. If you look very far into this topic, you quickly realize that dividing populations up into clearly delineated and broadly sweeping ethno-cultural categories is about as meaningful as doing the same with races, which is to say not particularly meaningful. These cultures are fluid and constantly shifting. They have porous borders and syncretistic pasts.
Democracy has become associated with the West, but it originated at a time when Greeks had more culturally in common with other Mediterranean people (including Near Easterners and North Africans) than with what we today think of as Westerners. Many of the major building blocks of Western Civilization originated from elsewhere. There was nothing inherently democratic, imperialistic, and colonial about Western cultures prior to these ideological systems having been introduced into the West. The West was utterly and quickly transformed in its process of becoming what it is today. Hunt is being plain ignorant in ignoring this fact.
“Marxism and liberalism are inherently optimistic visions of human society. Things are always getting better … or they will be better just as soon as people wake up and recognize their enlightened self-interest … as ideas of proletariat empowerment (Marxism) or individual rights as instantiated by free markets and free elections (liberalism) inexorably spread throughout the world.”
My sense is that Hunt is missing something centrally important. I’ve wondered if optimism isn’t actually the defining feature of liberalism and leftism. Maybe optimism at best is just a side result of a particular worldview. Liberals and leftists don’t necessarily see everything as progress. Rather, they primarily see it as irreversible, both the good and the bad. Not just irreversible, but also unstoppable. Hunt wants the world to stop so that he can get off. That just isn’t possible.
“For realists like Huntington and Kissinger, on the other hand, this is nonsense. Free markets and free elections are good things (as is proletariat empowerment, frankly), but these central concepts of liberalism only mean what we Westerners think they mean if they exist within the entire context of Western culture.”
These aren’t Western ideas in the first place. They evolved over a complex history that extends way beyond the West. The narrowness and superficiality of Hunt’s view is staggering.
“The West may very well want to impose the practices and institutions of free markets and free elections for its own self-interest, and China may want to adopt the practices and institutions of free markets (but not free elections) for its own self-interest, but the logic of self-interest is a VERY different thing than the triumphalist claim that the liberal ideas of Western free markets and free elections are “naturally” spreading throughout the world.”
I have no desire to impose anything on anyone. But if I did want to impose my own version of Western values on particular people, I’d begin with those who agree with Huntington and Kissinger. I would argue that it is Hunt who is dismissing Western tradition, not just as it might apply to non-Western societies but more importantly as it applies to the West. A linear view of change has become a central tenet of Western thought at this point. He wants to defend some abstract notion of the West by cutting out its beating heart.
Many liberals and leftists are the opposite of triumphalist about Western cultural imperialism. In fact, it is Hunt and those like him who are trying to create a new kind of Western cultural imperialism. He doesn’t actually mind imposing his ideas onto the rest of the world. What he fears is that the influence might be two-way. He wants near total Western dominance where we can protect the West with some utopian hope of cultural isolation.
Even his understanding of game theory is Western. He never explains why non-Westerners would want to submit to his game theory model of a truce among ruling elites. If non-Westerners refuse his desire that they play by Western rules as they inevitably would, what does he advise? No doubt, he would agree with Huntington and Kissinger in their advocacy of military force. Despite the rhetoric, it will always come back to violent power.
“A brief aside here on the distinction between personal beliefs and useful models. I’m not saying that I believe that authoritarian regimes and jihadist despots have some sort of moral equivalence to liberal governments, or that human rights don’t matter, or any of the other tired bromides used to tar realists. On the contrary, I personally believe that everyone in the non-Western world would be better off … MUCH better off … if their governing regimes gave a damn about individual rights and liberties in the same way that ANY governing regime in the West does.”
If that were true, Hunt better get up to speed. His ignorance of world history and world events is massive. The non-Western world is the way it is largely because of Western actions: wars, invasions, occupations, assassinations, coup d’etats, arming and training militant groups, alliances with authoritarian regimes (dictatorships, theocracies, etc), promoting fascism, military-imposed resource extraction, total control of trade routes, and on and on. If we don’t like the world we have helped to create, maybe Western governments need to start acting differently.
“But what a realist recognizes is that our personal vision of how we would like the world to be is not an accurate representation of The World As It Is, and – as Huntington wrote – it’s false, immoral, and dangerous to pretend otherwise.”
A genuine realist would acknowledge our social and moral responsibility for the world we helped create. Hunt is arguing for a vision of a Western society that doesn’t exist, except in his mind and in the propaganda of imperialists.
“Is a realist happy about any of this? Is a realist satisfied to shrug his shoulders and retreat into some isolationist shell? No, of course not. But a realist does not assume that there are solutions to these problems. Certainly a realist does not assume that there are universal principles like “free and fair elections” that can or should be applied as solutions to these problems. Some problems are intractable because they have been around for hundreds or thousands of years and are part and parcel of the Clash of Civilizations.”
Does this guy know anything about history?
The original Clash of Civilizations in Europe was between Greco-Roman culture and the tribal indigenous cultures. The memory of that clash was still so fresh that Thomas Jefferson could cite the pre-Norman English as an inspiration for American liberty (Normans having been the first serious introduction of Roman culture into Enlgand). Jefferson saw a free American society having its roots in the Germanic-Celtic people, not the imperial Roman tradition. There is no and never has been a singular unified Western culture.
“I think the crucial issue here (as it is with so many things in life) is to call things by their proper name.We’ve mistaken the self-interested imposition and adoption of so many Western artifices – the borders between Syria and Iraq are a perfect example, but you can substitute “democracy in Afghanistan” if you like, or “capital markets in China” if you want something a bit more contentious – for the inevitable and righteous spread of Western ideals on their own merits. This is a problem for one simple reason: if you think Something happened because of Reason A (ideals spreading “naturally” and “inevitably” within an environment of growing global cooperation), but it really happened because of Reason B (practices imposed or adopted out of regime self-interest within an environment of constant global competition), then you will fail to anticipate or react appropriately when that Something changes.”
I would agree with one basic component of that assessment. We should be clear in what we speak about. The failure of Hunt is that he lacks genuine understanding. Someone like Noam Chomsky would make mincemeat of his pathetic attempt at international analysis.
“And here’s the kicker: change is coming… It’s going to get worse.”
Sure. Liberals and leftists would be the first to say that. The difference is whether one accepts change or fights against it and tries to deny it. Hunt wants to defend the West against all change, to make sure all change is externalized along with all the costs.
Following that, Hunt goes on for quite a while about economics. That demonstrates the superficiality of his understanding.
There is a certain kind of person that sees everything as economics. To this thinking, all of the social order, all power, all culture comes down to economics. This is unsurprising for someone like Hunt. His career is in finance. That is his hammer by which all the world looks like a bunch of nails. Because of this, he is unable to look deeper into the historical and social forces that have made and are still making the world we live in.
This is an inevitable outcome of his worldview. He sees all change as superficial, which is to say nothing fundamentally changes. His attempt is to understand the change going on in the world. But since all change to his mind is superficial, it forces him to offer a surface level analysis. Economics are just the chips in the poker game, to be won or lost, but the players play on. There is only one game in town and that is the game of power.
The following is part of what interested my father:
“No, the existential risk is that the great civilizations of the world will be “hollowed out” internally, so that the process of managing the ten thousand year old competition between civilizations devolves into an unstable game of pandering to domestic crowds rather than a stable equilibrium of balance of power.”
Hunt supports his view with a quote from Kissinger. In that quote,
“Side by side with the limitless possibilities opened up by the new technologies, reflection about international order must include the internal dangers of societies driven by mass consensus, deprived of the context and foresight needed on terms compatible with their historical character. As diplomacy is transformed into gestures geared toward passions, the search for equilibrium risks giving way to a testing of limits. …
“Because information is so accessible and communication instantaneous, there is a diminution of focus on its significance, or even on the definition of what is significant. This dynamic may encourage policymakers to wait for an issue to arise rather than anticipate it, and to regard moments of decision as a series of isolated events rather than part of a historical continuum. When this happens, manipulation of information replaces reflection as the principal policy tool.”
– Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)
Hunt wants a ruling elite who will paternalisticaly manage Western civilization and will manage the balance of power with the ruling elites of non-Western civilizations. This is a natural worldview for Hunt, as he manages a financial company.
He wants the world managed in the way a transnational corporation is managed. This relates to why he doesn’t think the center of power should be in nation-states. He envisions a transnational ruling elite that would somehow have greater power and influence than even the elected officials of governments.
This would also be an element that resonates with my father. He was a business manager for many years and then taught business management. My father’s entire worldview is steeped in the experience and attitude of the management model of solving problems.
Unlike Hunt and my father, I actually want a functioning democracy, not just in form but also in substance, a culture of democracy and an entire democratization of every aspect of life and governance. What they want is in reality an increasingly privatized technocracy, with maybe some outward forms of democracy by way of a paternalistic ruling elite that would use superficial rhetoric to make claims of representing the people (no different than any other ruling elite in all of history, as even kings claimed to represent the people). Hunt would also want that technocracy to be transnationalized. My father has a slight libertarian tendency and would be more wary of such transnationalization, but still not wary enough for my taste.
Here is where the author goes into detail about game theory.
“I’ll just introduce two key game theoretic concepts at the core of Kissinger’s warning.
“First, the proliferation of the most dangerous game of all – Chicken. […] Chicken is such a dangerous game because it has no equilibrium, no outcome where all parties prefer where they are to where they might be. […]
“Second, the dumbing-down of all political games into their most unstable form – the single-play game.When Kissinger writes about how political leaders come to see “moments of decision as a series of isolated events”, he’s talking about the elimination of repeated-play games and shrinking the shadow of the future. Most games seem really daunting at first glance. For example, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is famous for having a very stable equilibrium where everyone is worse off than they easily could have been with some very basic cooperation. But there’s a secret to solving the Prisoner’s Dilemma – play it lots of times with the same players. Cooperation and mutually advantageous equilibria are far easier to achieve within a repeated-play game because reputation matters. The shadow of the future looms large if you’re thinking not only about this iteration of the game and the moves ahead, but also about the next time you have to play the game, perhaps for larger stakes, and the next, and the next.”
The author is seeking a stable and unchanging balance of power. He doesn’t want a shared human society nor does he want progress, for free democratic societies are inherently unstable and constantly changing. He wants to create or return the world to some ideal holding pattern between superpowers. The game he speaks of is between elites. He doesn’t care about the rest of us. Democracy and freedom are of secondary concern to him, at best. What he is focused on is stability at all costs, a repeating game between the same players with the same results, an agreement among the powerful to keep the game of power going, a mutual understanding and respect among the world’s ruling elites.
I want to end by noting that, while in the middle of writing this piece, I did talk to my father about the article. He, of course, saw it through a different lens. All that I noticed didn’t occur to him.
He focused on the game theory aspect, apparently to the exclusion of all else (I doubt Hunt’s war crime comment even registered in his awareness to any great extent or, if it did, he probably just took it as humor). The likely reason for this is that my father shares many of the same assumptions and biases as Hunt, specifically the right-wing reactionary mistrust of “the people” along with a desire for an enlightened, meritocratic, and paternalistic ruling elite. The premises of Hunt’s argument didn’t stand out to my father as something to question and doubt. His offering the article to me was just a passing thought, just an expression of mild curiosity about how game theory might apply to international politics. The worldview itself was just background.
For me, game theory seemed like a small part of the argument, and the argument seemed like a small part of a larger worldview. Game theory was more just supporting evidence than the heart of the matter. My attention was caught by how it was being framed.
What to my father just seemed a bit pessimistic to me felt outright cynical. That is because Hunt and my father are conservatives, as contrasted with the liberalism that I espouse and they criticize. Much of conservatism, to my mind, has a disturbingly cynical bent and a fatalistic tendency, but to conservatives it is just being ‘realistic’. That is a ‘reality’ I’d rather avoid.
Let me wrap up with a couple of things about Hunt’s use of game theory.
First, game theory is inherently amoral. What I mean is that it can be applied to and used to justify various moral and immoral purposes. I’m not entirely sure about the universal applicability of game theory. To return to Christianity, I don’t see Jesus as advocating a game theory worldview. I’m thinking that game theory leaves a lot out, at least in a simplistic interpretation as Hunt is using it. However, if we weren’t to interpret it simplistically, how might game theory apply toward morality, rather than just toward self-interest of power and profit?
Second, Hunt is applying game theory only to the ruling elite. He is assuming that the ‘masses’ of the general public won’t be allowed to play, as long as people like him can control the playing field and the rules of play. But if Hunt were to be honest, he would have to confront this inconsistency. He claims that game theory fits human nature the best. In that case, why doesn’t it also apply to all humans, not just the ruling elite? Why not apply game theory to democracy, to freedom and liberty, to social responsibility and public accountability, to moral hazard and externalizations?
Hunt assumes that he is writing to an audience that either is part of the ruling elite, who aspires to be part of the ruling elite, or who sees their interests in line with the ruling elite. The related assumption he is making is that the rest of the population is too stupid, too indifferent, and too powerless to care or be able to do anything about it. Why does he make these assumptions? What if the average person refuses to play by the rules of the ruling elite? Should we expect that the violence committed against foreigners, as neocons recommend, will also be turned against us, the local citizenry?
What does game theory tell us will happen when the ruling elite gets too oppressive?