Foreign and Defense Policy

Culture Matters, but So Do Politics and Statecraft

voteiraqMy AEI colleague Ayaan Hirsi Ali has written a powerful op-ed today for the Wall Street Journal. In it, she argues that the late Harvard political scientist Sam Huntington was right when he penned his article, then book, “The Clash of Civilizations,” and that, today, “the survival of the West depends on Americans, Europeans, and other Westerners reaffirming their shared civilization as unique—and uniting to defend it against challenges from non-Western civilizations.” And, in particular, she argues, it is China and Islam that must be defended against.

Now, I’m all for Western civilization and it is unique. But its uniqueness comes not from the fact that it’s tied to America and Europe but because it is the one major civilization that has found room for philosophy to live “in the open” with government and religion. It is the one civilization that, as a result, allows a continuing—sometimes healthy, sometimes debilitating—self-criticism of its own governing paradigms.

That point aside, Hirsi Ali appears to repeat Huntington’s overly broad brush about civilizations in general. First, China is not a civilization. It’s a nation governed by one party for 60 years and whose one-time dominant ethical regime was Confucian. But also part of this Confucian world were South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan—each now firmly part of the liberal and democratic West. Our problem with China is not one of civilization but the fact that it’s ruled by an increasingly nationalistic and ambitious despotic elite.

As for the Muslim world, yes, progress has been much slower. But then again, so too have been the West’s efforts in pushing reform. Even so, the Balkan Muslims of democratic Albania and Kosovo show little sign of wanting to adopt sharia. And, yes, Hirsi Ali is right when she notes that “Islamist movements are demanding the expansion” of sharia in Indonesia. But that is not the same as saying they will have their way. To the contrary, it’s striking how Indonesia’s experiment in liberal democracy has held so far. Of course, one wishes more effort was made by the United States and others to help democrats there consolidate the gains that have been made but, nevertheless, there is no reason to believe that Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, will inevitably slide into some form of Islamic despotic rule.

Hirsi Ali is also right to see the West being challenged by China and some Muslims, and facing challenges presented by Muslim states ruled by strongmen of one sort or another. And she is right to focus her concerns on the current state of affairs in Turkey. And she is also right to see President Obama’s conciliatory posture toward the Muslim world as buying little in terms of gaining greater cooperation against Islamic extremists. But just as Frank Fukuyama was wrong to suggest there was some iron law of history that would lead to a global liberal democratic hegemony of sorts, so too she is wrong to see these problems as inevitably involving civilizational disputes. Culture does matter—but so do politics and statecraft. If anything, the remarkable increase around the world in the number of liberal democratic states over recent decades suggest that the latter matter more.

Image by DVIDSHUB.

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