Professor Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis has been remarkably influential—and controversial—since its enunciation, first in 1993. Political scientist Peter Sederberg in this insightful analysis finds intellectual fault with the thesis and raises questions about the concept of “paradigms” as a useful analytical tool.—Ed.
“[D]espite our obsession with the ‘axis of evil,’ we overlook the rather odd ‘civilizational’ character of the terrible trinity of North Korea, Iraq, and Iran: the sole surviving Stalinist regime, the sole surviving fascist regime, and a fascinating hybrid of Shiite fundamentalist theocracy and an Islamic democracy struggling to be born.”
“Huntington and I share one conclusion: We face a perilous century.”
Some people see the forest; others see only trees. Jimmy Carter, Michael Nacht once commented, is strictly a leaf man. At least no one can accuse Samuel Huntington of missing the “big picture” when he argues that the next century’s conflicts will reflect the “clash of civilizations” (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993). To the contrary, critics suggest his planetary perspective loses sight of leaves, trees, forest, and even whole countries.
These critics raise some telling objections, suggesting, for example, that Arab, Turkish, and Persian differences will outweigh their Islamic civilizational unity. Huntington, however, disdains the little people nipping at his heels. No longer content with the injection of a provocative, if empirically dubious, idea into the public arena, he puffs his piece up into a “paradigm” (Foreign Affairs, November/December 1993). Paradigms, he grandly reminds us, cannot be disproved by mere anomalies; they can only be replaced by a better paradigm. Moreover, he argues his paradigm must “strike home,” because so many people are discussing it.
We might find it entertaining, if not altogether fair, to subject these claims to a close analysis. Were we to do so, we could develop the following points:
One, almost no one in philosophy of science finds Kuhn’s notion of “paradigm” particularly useful any longer.
Two, if still of some utility, we note that the accumulation of anomalies is precisely what generates pressure to search for an alternative paradigm. The “paradigm” of clashing civilizations promises to move from revolutionary idea to the intellectual dustbin without passing through an intervening stage of “normal science.”
Three, this paradigm, theory, or idea contains at its core a geological metaphor of tectonic plates rubbing fractiously against one another. The core metaphor goes a long way in illuminating the deterministic and two-dimensional character of Huntington’s argument. The metaphor also suggests why his point of view tends to be more “planetary” than most; so global, in fact, that what actually happens on the ground tends to be lost from sight. The interactions among civilizations, conflictual or otherwise, might be better captured by theories that begin with organic metaphors, rather than those borrowing images from geology.
Four, the mere presence of controversy does not substantiate a “paradigm,” or anything else. Vilakovsky’s Worlds in Collision generated considerable controversy throughout the 1950s, but this did not make it into good scientific theory. The claims of the cold fusion enthusiasts sparked significant public interest, but the claims could not be replicated and were ultimately dismissed.
Five, the lack of conceptual clarity probably makes the “paradigm” nonfalsifiable by evidence, other paradigms, or even an act of God. His argument slips and slides away from threatening critiques, while at the same time casting its evidentiary net so wide as to incorporate all possible support. No doubt, many conflicts in the future will be organized around widely shared identities, whether these reflect racial, religious, ethnic, cultural, or civilizational divisions. The question remains, however, whether these identities will be the underlying causal mechanism of conflict, or whether they will essentially serve as mediating variables, important but not fundamental to our understanding.
Six, civilizations, according to Huntington, are the highest, most abstract, cultural identity people possess short of their identification with the whole species. As a vulgar Hegelian, Huntington turns this abstraction into the driving force of future history. Hegal, oddly enough, once asked “who thinks abstractly?” and concluded it was the average person in the street. The philosopher, in contrast, should strive to think concretely. Hegal, moreover, was not a vulgar Hegalian. He recognized the importance of the material world. After all, the ultimate advantage the slave has over his “high civilization” master is precisely the slave’s control of the material environment. Before we are anything else, we are physical creatures, and we ignore this concreteness at our peril.
This brings us to a final point.
Huntington, after asserting that his paradigm can only be replaced by another, superior, paradigm, reviews and dismisses the competitors. These, it seems, number two: the “pseudo-alternative” of statism and the “unreal” alternative of universal civilization. He argues that his paradigm subsumes state behavior, and he rejects the likelihood of a world civilization with the contempt realists usually reserve for anything that smacks of idealism.
Rather than lamenting Huntington’s failure of imagination, we find it more tempting to take up the challenge and identify a few alternative “paradigms” for the “bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion” he expects to characterize the 21st century. We impose no greater intellectual discipline on our paradigms, than Huntington does on his —in short, not much. We, however, make no universalistic claims for our efforts, except we think these alternatives provide at least as much food for thought as clashing civilizations. Some, in fact, already inform various research programs.
Our alternative “paradigms,” at least superficially, range from the positive to the negative, in terms of ending our world as we know it. They also appear to range from the familiar to the extreme. However, the interconnections among them suggest that the gap between “familiar” and “extreme” may be smaller than we think. The four paradigms are: global security; commerce versus culturism; continents of chaos; and the political economy of mass death.
Paradigm 1: From Realist to Global Security Thinking
Huntington might have subtitled his initial article “The Last Stage of Realism.” The realist view of the world traversed through a couple of previous stages, starting with the anarchic system of competing states, followed by the still anarchic system of competing blocs. Now with the disintegration of the bipolar world and the grudging acceptance that the 19th century has irrevocably passed, Huntington breathes new life into the realist perspective. In the future, civilizations will carry out the quest for security in a zero-sum struggle with their rivals. This perspective, as we noted above, absorbs state-centric realism and continues to reject one-world idealism.Over the past fifteen years, however, a number of commentators have developed a third path past the debates between realists and idealists. This perspective—labeled variously world security, global security, or new security—offers a world view different from either of the other two. Like the other approaches, its argument contains both empirical propositions about how the world “is” and normative conclusions concerning what we should do about it. Each also makes characteristic assumptions about human nature that reflect both empirical and normative content.
The essential realist position, which Huntington embraces, includes the following elements. Empirically, the most significant problems of security are zero-sum in nature. Human beings, moreover, are selfish maximizers. Given the absence of any higher sovereignty beyond competing states, blocs, or civilizations, the relations among competitors are inherently conflictual. The normative preferences of the realist are for security and order. From the realist perspective, idealists sacrifice individual (that is, state) security in their utopian quest for a one-world order.
In contrast, idealists recognize the same zero-sum world problems but draw opposite conclusions. They believe the quest for autonomous security is futile; only some collective arrangement can guarantee world order. Consequently, they believe we must move away from the obsolete state-centric (or civilization-centric) system and establish a global authority. Collective solutions are possible because human beings are fundamentally social and cooperative, not egoistic and competitive. Idealists pursue collective security rather than individual security. From an idealist perspective, the realist heedlessly abandons global order for the ultimately futile quest for state security. This futility culminates in the transformation through war of a zero sum competition into a negative sum outcome.
Lastly, the global security perspective argues that, empirically, the nature of world problems varies across the entire dimension, from negative sum, through zero sum, to positive sum. Increasingly, many problems demonstrate non-zero sum potentialities because of growing interdependence. Similarly, human nature contains the full range of tendencies, from egoistic to altruistic. Context plays a significant role in determining which factors emerge or achieve dominance. Normatively, the global security position embraces both security and justice, attempting to establish their ultimate interconnectedness. From the global security perspective, neither realism nor idealism is sufficiently “realistic.”
By themselves, these skeletal representations offer little guidance to under-standing the “bloomin’ confusion” of the 21st century. One point, though, merits further elaboration—specifically, the global security contention that many world problems are non-zero sum in nature. The challenge comes in determining which problems possess what character and then responding appropriately. To treat a problem contrary to its nature courts disaster.
The indeterminacy of the world, unfortunately, complicates the problem of response; that is, the nature of a security problem or “game” partly depends on how we choose to treat it. Further, some security games appear more indeterminate than others. We can capture these differences by borrowing the concept of inertia from physics. Simply put, inertia refers to the resistance to change, whether an object is in motion or at rest. Analogously, we might recognize the character of a particular security game as possessing more or less “inertia.” The way we treat a low inertia game will significantly shape how it “is.” Alternatively, a high inertia game resists our best efforts to recast it into something else. A few examples might make this problem clear.
All-out nuclear war is a high inertia, negative sum game—a genuinely bad idea. Over four decades, American strategic thinkers, and their Soviet counterparts, tried to figure out a way to transform nuclear war into a zero-sum game—one with clear winners and losers. (Note that no one seriously proposed that nuclear war could benefit all comers.)
They failed. Finally, the political leaders of the two countries formally recognized the negative-sum character of nuclear war when Reagan and Gorbachev declared that such a war “cannot be won and must never be fought.” Once genuinely embraced, this recognition led to previously unimaginable progress in nuclear disarmament. Both sides realized that each side’s true security interests were profoundly interconnected with those of the other, and national security could not be pursued without regard for the effects on the other side.
Other global games exhibit a high inertia, positive sum potential. Take, for example, the problem of establishing a convention on global time zones. As global participants became increasingly interconnected, the mutual benefits of reaching some common agreement on time zones grew more apparent. Any agreement was better than none at all. Of course, an isolated state could choose to opt out of the international agreement, but only at high cost to itself. International regime theorists, of course, have recognized these positive sum arenas for years. Once these high inertia, positive sum problems are recognized for what they are, mutually acceptable solutions emerge quite readily among presumably competitive, egoistic state actors.
Certain zero-sum problems also exhibit considerable inertia and resist transformation into anything else. Competition for territory, of course, represents the classic example and, unsurprisingly, lies at the heart of the realist conception of security. The territory seized by one state is necessarily lost by another. Even when taking “unoccupied” lands, like in the scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, the territory one state controlled was denied to its competitors. The fact that Africa was “unoccupied” in the minds of the Europeans, of course, made it easier for them to agree on how to cut this new pie. In Europe, of course, such accords were considerably more elusive, and zero-sum territorial rivalries, in the absence of any sovereign authority, led to a something approximating a Hobbesian competition.
Now Huntington tends to see a rather strong territorial component to his competition among civilizations. This tendency, too, emerges from his geological metaphor. Civilizations compete, it seems, for territory, not for “hearts and minds.” But even if civilizations competed for the latter, the game would still be zero-sum, because one heart gained is another civilization’s loss. No wonder, then, that Huntington defines the 21st century in realist terms. However, assuming that civilizations do compete, does this problem exhibit a high inertia, zero sum character?
Some global games possess low inertia. They may be weakly zero sum or non-zero sum, or they may exhibit aspects of all three types. To a considerable extent, the character they take on will be shaped by how they are played. Economic competition offers one example of a low inertia, multidimensional game. Some commentators, Huntington included, seem fond of war metaphors when dealing with international economic issues. The economic game, such arguments suggest, must be played like a zero-sum war. Our competitors, especially Japan, supposedly organize for economic warfare and aim to destroy our economy. And so on.
Low inertia problem areas encourage self-fulfilling prophecies. Treating international economic competition as a war could make it into one. Ironically, it could become a negative sum war with no winners, only losers. On the other hand, treating a low inertia problem as potentially positive-sum accentuates precisely those characteristics and increases the probability for positive sum outcomes. Advocates of free trade, for example, argue that such competition ultimately benefits all participants.
Encounters among civilizations also do not possess the high inertia, zero sum character Huntington imputes to them. Donald Puchala identifies a variety of outcomes from such encounters over the past several millennia. Some encounters, like that between the Aztecs and the Europeans, led to the destruction of one side. Other encounters, like that between the Europeans and Ottoman Empire, resulted in something of a stand-off marked by suspicion, hostility, and occasional war. Still others have led to more positive sum outcomes, like hybridization (Greeks and Romans) or cross-fertilization (Bactria, 100 BC to 200 AD). Note the organic metaphors Puchala uses to conceptualize these more positive sum outcomes.
If civilizational encounters will play a significant role in the 21st century, we better be careful as to how we think about them. Reality may replicate our thoughts rather than the other way around in this low inertia game. In developing a “paradigm” for such encounters, we would be better advised to followed the lead Puchala suggests, and think in organic rather than geologic terms. The encounters among organisms exhibit the full range of potential games, zero and non-zero sum. The developing global security paradigm better recognizes the varying potential of emerging world problems. Huntington’s geologic thinking is inflexible.
Though the global security paradigm provides a more promising way of thinking about future international security problems, it fails to guarantee a blissful future. A better conceptual scheme may simply highlight our inability to act on our understanding. Growing global interdependence in economics, the environment, and even traditional problems of local and regional stability may simply widen the gap between how we should respond and how we can respond. Available international capabilities may fall increasingly short of the demands made of them. Inadequate response could then contribute to the transformation of low inertia problem areas into their worst, negative sum possibility. The challenge of ad-dressing global environmental problems before they result in catastrophic consequences illustrates one such area (see below).
The proponents of clashing civilizations, of course, might respond by arguing that whatever their character—zero or non-zero sum—the relations among civilizations will emerge as the paramount fact of 21st century global stability. But should we assume that encounters among civilizations are the most essential aspect of 21st century security?
Paradigm 2: Commerce versus Culturism:
Curiously, economic relations and actors play little role in Huntington’s conjectures. In his discussion, the vast concentrations of economic and technological power characteristic of the contemporary world fade from view, as people battle over normative identities. Undoubtedly people engage in such battles for, as Morse Peckham observes, we do not live by bread alone… but mainly by platitudes. (Platitudes embody civilization at the mass consumption level.) Nevertheless, Huntington’s portrayal limps along in a curiously imbalanced way.
A few years ago, Francis Fukiyama offered a rather divergent, vulgar Hegelian “paradigm” for the twenty-first century: History, it seems, was ending as humanity reached a consensus on the superiority of the bourgeois liberal political economy. A few cultural backwaters might continue to express xenophobic hostility, but eventually they would come around or be permanently marginalized to the outer darkness of poverty and discord.
History, many suspect, is not yet ending. Indeed, the “clash” represented by the perspectives of Fukiyama and Huntington will continue to drive history for the next century, as they have for the last several millennia. This clash we loosely term “commerce versus culturalism.” Now before the anthropologists take us to task, we concede that economics and commerce are, in a strict sense, part of human culture. The contrast simply denotes the competition between exclusive cultural identities and those inclusive, open-ended interactions encouraged by commerce.
Jane Jacobs, in Systems of Survival (1992) notes that human beings have two ways of providing for their survival: taking and trading. These two ways of life reflect contrary “moral syndromes” of guardianship and commerce . The latter pro-motes interaction for mutual benefit; the former organizes existing communities against external threats. The commercial moral syndrome, then, sees the world in positive sum terms; the guardian moral syndrome adopts a zero sum perspective, or worse.
The two moral syndromes prescribe divergent ways of organizing social relations and treating other people. The commercial syndrome, for example proscribes the use of force, promotes voluntary agreements and honesty in relations; supports collaboration with strangers for mutual benefit; urges competition, industriousness, initiative, efficiency, inventiveness, thrift, and investment. Dissent is tolerated for the sake of the task of promoting mutual profit. The guardian syndrome, in contrast, shuns trading while embracing force and taking vengeance; promotes obedience, hierarchy, tradition, loyalty, fortitude, and honor. Guardians dispense largesse, indulge in ostentatious displays, and protect exclusive communities. They are willing to deceive for the sake of the task of protection.
Each way of life, as Jacobs notes, contradicts the other, and when the values of one permeate the other, corruption ensues (for example, using force to crush your economic competitor or using bribes to purchase a political decision from the guardians). Each needs the other, as well. Traders need the guardians to provide the fundamental order required for commerce to proceed; guardians need traders to produce the wealth the state needs to tax.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the history of the last few millennia has been that of increasing commercialization accompanied by intensification of the power of political units. In our time, this process has been confused with “Westernization,” a recent manifestation. Huntington correctly notes that only the naive would expect Japan or China to replicate exactly the experience of the West. Insofar as they follow the commercial moral syndrome, however, certain consequences follow that create some commonality with the West.
Perhaps the most significant consequence of trading freely with strangers and honoring contracts with them arises because we treat every person as a potential partner in a mutually beneficial economic relation, rather than as suspect members of an alien status or communal group. Jacobs makes the provocative argument that the idea of rights adhering to individuals, as opposed to those attached to groups, arose not from Western philosophy or even the moral egalitarianism of Christianity, but from the development of commerce and the emergence of contractual law. The ancient Greeks recognized the emerging commercial ethos as “cosmopolitan” in opposition to the narrow communal identity of the polis. Serfs knew that to escape to the medieval trading cities was to breath free. And in the 1990s, Bosnian Serbs recognized that the cosmopolitan center of Sarajevo rebuked their in-bred communalist vision.
Backed by the power of the state, we might expect that such recidivist ethnic fantasies will inevitably triumph over the more fragile dreams of equality and tolerance nurtured by commerce. They haven’t yet, however, despite millennia of periodic purging. As the commercial syndrome strengthens, the state suppresses it only at growing cost. Albania, Kampuchea, and North Korea offer feeble tributes to the triumph of the guardian caste over commercial relations. The collapse of the Soviet economy attests to the consequences of the corruption of the commercial syndrome.
We are not predicting that the 21st century will bring the triumph of econotopia. Each syndrome, after all, needs the other, confined to its appropriate arena. The coming decades will reflect the contest between those attempting to establish a dynamic equilibrium between the two ways of life and those wishing to impose the simplistic solutions of communal identity. The bourgeois liberal state represents only a recent, relatively successful balance between the two syndromes—not the final end of history. While the guardian syndrome leads civilizations to clash, the commercial syndrome encourages the cross fertilization of trade and ideas.
If the exclusive appeals of the guardian syndrome successfully displace the inclusive thrust of commerce, even for a time, we will be in for trouble. Perhaps the commercial moral syndrome will fail to hold its own in Russia, China, or elsewhere in Asia and Africa.1 The guardian syndrome, unchecked by its symbiotic partner, could then freely indulge its pathologies. Might these pathologies take on an essentially civilizational character, saving Huntington’s paradigm once more? More likely, civilizations will play, at most, only a mediating role in conflicts whose roots lie elsewhere.
Paradigm 3: From an Archipelago of Instability to Continents of Chaos
Occasionally, political commentators express a longing for the bygone clarity of the cold war. True, we existed under the threat of nuclear doom, but at least the bipolar confrontation ordered conflicts around the world. Now local rivalries and tin pot dictators unsettle international relations. Huntington’s thesis of clashing civilizations offers an almost comforting recapitulation of the simple conflict of the cold war era.
This campy nostalgia for the grotesque indulges in fantasy and selective amnesia. The forty-five years following the end of World War II were not a period of cold peace for anyone but the Europeans. Internal and international turmoil wracked every other part of the world resulting in millions of deaths. Even the superpowers, and some European countries, while not directly engaging each other, indulged in interventions and colonial wars that cost them tens of thousands of lives. The first decade of the post cold war world do not appear significantly worse than any other time.
Americans, to be sure, saw many of these conflicts through a bipolar lens, but that perspective often dramatically misled us. A modification of Tip O’Neil’s dictum would have served us better: All conflicts are local. Admittedly, past conflicts were not only local in nature, for the superpower rivalry structured many of them, often in ways that escalated their intensity. The ideological competition of the cold war, however, only mediated the expression of the conflicts rather than provided the underlying causes. Future conflicts are also likely to originate in essentially local conditions.
Political prognosticators, of course, abhor the notion that everything must be seen in terms of the idiosyncratic. They long to identify some underlying theme to order diversity. The ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union provided one such ordering principle; the clash of civilizations provides an-other. In contrast, Robert Kaplan’s depiction of “the coming anarchy” (Atlantic Monthly, February 1994) challenges these abstractions of global conflict. He draws a depressing picture of chaos erupting around the world, from the parts of the former Soviet empire through the Middle East and across much of the Southern hemisphere, creating a disconnected archipelago of instability.
Do any common threads connect these many islands of instability? The clash of civilizations, except in the loosest sense, provides limited orientation to many of these conflicts. The desire of stateless peoples for their own autonomous political entity seems equally important. Thus, Islamic Kurds fight Islamic Turks, Arabs, and Persians for their own state of Kurdistan. This theme, unfortunately, does little to lift us beyond the local; indeed, it focuses our attention precisely on local conditions.
Kaplan identifies another cause of instability around the world—environmental change. Citing a seminal article by Thomas Homer-Dixon (International Security, Fall 1991), Kaplan traces how environmental degradation, resource shortages, and population growth will likely contribute to international clashes and internal political decay. Homer-Dixon correctly recognizes that not all social conflicts arise from purely social causes (for example, class conflict or clashing civilizations). Conflicts also result from the demands imposed by the environment on the social systems that lie embedded in the material world.
Civilizations, after all, arose only because of a material transformation that generated an economic surplus through settled agriculture. Historically, threats to the material foundations of a particular social order have repeatedly unsettled not only the affected society, but often its neighbors as well. Environmental challenges to the material foundations of contemporary societies may prove a far more significant cause of conflict in the coming decades than anything else. Ethnic identity, race, and civilization may do no more than give voice and direction to conflicts emerging out of material crises.
Material crises, however, will not affect all “victims” equally. Different societies face different challenges and possess varying capabilities to respond. Here Jack Goldstone, in Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (University of California Press, 1992), draws upon an apt geological metaphor. Relatively weak earth tremors topple fragile and inflexible structures. In contrast, strong, flexible structures can withstand even powerful shocks. His ecological/structural model of state crisis directs our attention to both sides of this equation.2
On one hand, countries around the world face a variety of intensifying ecological problems including population growth, drought, desertification and other processes of arable land degradation, deforestation, water shortages, or some combination. These problems are often essentially local or regional in nature, and they do not include potentially global ecological crises, like global warming or the depletion of the ozone layer. Social, economic, and political processes give rise to or reinforce many of these environmental problems (for example, land use patterns may hasten the process of desertification; urbanization and industrialization increase pressure on water resources, etc.). Whatever their complex origins, environmental problems directly challenge the material base of social order.
Whether a material challenge of any intensity generates disorder depends on its impact on the existing structure of social relations. Goldstone suggests that a profound structural crisis arises when environmental problems simultaneously affect many levels of the challenged society. He specifically emphasizes three critical areas: the fiscal capacity of the state to carry out its tasks; the unity among the elites; and the contentment of the masses. Increasing fiscal distress, accompanied by elite conflict, and the increasing disruption of the masses combine to produce a major social crisis. Remove any one component of this crisis, and it becomes more manageable (for example, a unified elite could rally behind a fiscally challenged state and provide the necessary support to contain mass discontent). Remove two components, and it becomes doubtful whether a crisis exists at all.
This framework, then, directs us to look for the material causes of complex crises confronting a variety of societies around the world. The consequences of such crises could range from increasing internal pathologies, conflict, and civil war to massive population flows and external war. Some conflicts will undoubtedly take on cultural, racial, and even civilizational definition, but this veneer should not obscure the conflicts’ material origins.
Kaplan notes that the weak states of Africa seem especially vulnerable to a variety of ecological crises and paints a bleak picture of an entire continent at risk of sinking into anarchy. As bad as this would be, something even worse, at least in terms of scale, threatens Asia. A serious effort to anticipate the challenges to international order in the coming decades must investigate the material requirements needed to support current population growth in India or economic growth in China. The threat of an alliance of “Islamic” and “Confucian” civilizations would pale next to the consequences of China’s disintegration in another of its periodic “hydraulic” crises especially if paralleled by the other Asian giant’s slide into chaos.
Paradigm 4: The Political Economy of Mass Death
The contemplation of entire continents slipping into chaos leads to a more fundamental, if extreme, consideration—the probability that the world’s population will increase to 12 to 14 billion by 2050. Neo-Malthusians have warned us of the consequences of such growth for decades. Perhaps the most famous projection of these latter-day Jerimiahs was the “overshoot and collapse” model published thirty years ago in The Limits to Growth (Universe, 1972). In the extreme version of this model, humanity continues its existing patterns of production, pollution, and population growth beyond the point of sustainability, resulting in not a painful adjustment but a literal collapse.
Cornucopians like Julian Simon, though in a distinct minority, promise that such a collapse will never come. Human ingenuity will find a way to stretch the earth’s carrying capacity in the twenty-first century. For at least the last two hundred years, history seems to support the cornucopians. As everyone knows, increasing productivity turned Malthus’ original predictions into false prophecy.
History, however, teaches a more ambiguous lesson over the last few thousand years. Material crises have overwhelmed the adaptive capabilities of earlier societies. Population growth has been slow, and, at least regionally, populations periodically declined. The growth of the past two centuries represents the exception, not the rule, of human experience. Moreover, Garrett Hardin points out (Living within Limits, Oxford, 1993) zero population growth (ZPG) is the experience of all species nearly all of the time.
No one seriously believes that the current rate of population growth can be sustained indefinitely. The fundamental event of the twenty-first century may be a global demographic transition to some rough equilibrium. The central problem for political prognostication, therefore, concentrates on how this transition occurs, at what levels, and with what effects? A equilibrium reached at fourteen billion constitutes a substantially different world then an equilibrium at half that level. We might think it obvious that smaller is better, but life, or in this case death, is not so simple.
Although we cannot spin out the consequences of an indefinite range of demographic alternatives, we can identify a number of critical questions. Let us assume, with apparent optimism, that the equilibrium is reached in a hundred years at a population approximate to that existing today, about seven billion. Now that’s a lot of people, but it’s a number dwarfed by the size of the potential population. Billions of people are not there. Why not? Where did they go, and how did they get there? How answers to these question play out could illuminate the forms of conflict that will afflict the coming decades.
How these potential billions absent themselves from the planet would profoundly affect the survival of existing forms of social organization from the family to civilization. Some ways appear significantly superior to others. Such a radical demographic transition must arise from the interactions between two variables: natality rates and mortality rates—birth and death. Birth rates must decline dramatically, death rates must increase, or both effects must occur simultaneously, for the population to stabilize at the suggested level.
We might quickly conclude that population control policies represent the most positive way of negotiating this difficult demographic transition. Unfortunately, even dramatic success for these policies offers little hope that absolute numbers will decline anytime soon. Population growth has simply too much inertia behind it to adjust quickly, even if the global birth rate dropped to the replacement level tomorrow. To reach an equilibrium at seven billion in this century, birth rates would have to fall significantly below the replacement level and stay there for some time. Even if global births actually fell below the replacement rate, such an outcome would still be profoundly unsettling to societies confronting the transition of a large demographic bulge moving through its life cycle.3 In any event, declining birth rates alone seem unlikely to produce a demographic equilibrium at seven billion by the end of the next century. Mortality rates must rise.4
Historically, mortality rates within populations fluctuate. Obviously, for the last two centuries, mortality rates have been in an unprecedented decline. At other times, they have risen. How people die, however, makes a big difference. Roughly speaking, from the perspective of our species and our civilizations, processes that destroy both people and capital are bad; those that preserve capital (including knowledge) while eliminating people are not so bad. In addition, quick and cheap death is preferable to prolonged and expensive death. Finally, who dies, in terms of their age and geographic distribution, also makes a difference. Death rate increases that disproportionately affect the less productive, more consuming sectors of the population produce more positive effects than the reverse. Such considerations seem harsh and cynical, but only the naive would fail to recognize the way we die makes a big difference in how the survivors live.
Nuclear war, for example, represents the most negative way of engineering a significant demographic transition by dramatically increasing death rates. Of course, wars are not normally intended as population control measures, but they can have that effect. Indeed, the wars of the 21st century may arise out of the competition for scarce resources. In any case, even a relatively limited nuclear war could send humanity spiraling into a self-perpetuating economic and cultural decline that bottoms out at medieval levels of existence. Nuclear war accentuates war’s most undesirable characteristics: its indiscriminate character and its destruction of what humanity has created over the centuries.
Global environmental catastrophe represents another basically negative transition to demographic equilibrium through increased death rates. Like nuclear war, environmental catastrophes seem indiscriminately destructive of both lives and capital. We must caution against a certain solipsism here. Modern ways of living and doing are not putting the earth at risk. They are putting us at risk (along with thousands of other species). As comedian George Carlin caustically reminds us, the earth’s not going anywhere. We are. The earth has reconstituted itself after past extinction events and will presumably do so again. Who knows? Perhaps the human biomass will fittingly become some future species’ fossil fuel. Even if extinction is not the consequence, environmental catastrophes are not an especially benign way of making a dramatic demographic transition.
Of the three major ways of increasing the death rate, this leaves disease. Of the three, it’s the way to go. The plagues that afflicted Europe in the “calamitous” 14th century contributed indirectly to the prosperity and cultural rebirth in the 15th. Different diseases, though, create different effects. AIDS, for example, is an especially unhelpful disease: it’s slow, expensive, and strikes down the most productive age group. Diseases that strike quickly and disproportionately affect the less productive sectors of the population effect a more promising transition. In this regard, the peoples of the developed world have no reason to feel smug. After all, the “return” on one less American is thirty to forty times that of one less Indian or African.
These observations on death are profoundly unsettling. While they may possess the value of confronting the obvious, they also seem to imply some notion that we can micro-manage megadeath. I believe, however, we lack the knowledge and the virtue to arrogate to ourselves such god-like powers and responsibility. Yet, unless we assume that the human species can continue grow indefinitely, then we must contemplate the nature and effects of the transition to a demographic equilibrium. We must recognize that increasing, indeed dramatically increasing, death rates may play a role in this transition. How this transition evolves and how we cope with it may well define the fundamental reality of the 21st century. At worst, we can deny the problem, thereby increasing the likelihood of its worst versions. At best, we can strive to mitigate the worst causes and effects of the political economy of mass death.
These rather mordant conclusions bring us full circle back to the global security perspective. The four “paradigms” do not really represent conceptual alternatives, so much as political ones. The 21st century has the potential of being as calamitous as its predecessor seven centuries earlier. Potential, however, need not be prophecy. The most catastrophic projections rest on our failure to do what we can. Although the ecological consequences of our patterns of life, from population growth to environmental degradation, may resist rapid remediation, they nonetheless remain subject, in principle, to our response. We are in this fix, in part, because of the power of exponential growth. Even modest annual growth rates lead to enormous absolute increases in population, pollution, and consumption over time. This power, though, cuts both ways. Small negative rates can contribute to significant declines over time, as well.
The worst nightmares arguably arise either from our failure to recognize and address high inertia negative sum problems—like the environmental degradation that makes all parties worse off—or from our tendency to transform low inertia problems into their worst possible form—like treating economic competition or civilizational encounters as necessarily zero sum games.
As an ironic echo of Huntington’s classic argument on “political development and political decay” World Politics, 1985), our world grows increasingly interconnected, economically, ecologically, and culturally but lacks the institutional capability to manage this interdependence. In the last analysis, the security of the 21st century depends on our success in closing this gap.
Afterword: The Search Continues
The collapse of the Twin Towers in the first year of the 21st century embodied in fire and fury Samuel Huntington’s proposition that this new century’s conflicts would reflect the clash of civilizations. He could, perhaps, enjoy some bitter satisfaction that his bleak vision was so dramatically substantiated, leaving his critics grasping for alternatives. The Bush administration’s declaration of a global “war on terrorism,” which despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary seems essentially focused on Islamic extremism, also reflects Huntington’s prognosis. The jeremiads of America’s adversaries further reinforce the image of contending civilizations—the secular, democratic West against retrograde Islam. Huntington has become a prophet with honor in his own land.
This conclusion, however, overlooks a few inconvenient characteristics of our current plight. First, selective recall of what Huntington originally predicted ignores that he saw the coming conflict as being the “West against the rest.” In his later book, The Clash of Civilizations (1996), he admits that the facts on the ground indicate that the clash appears to be Islam against the rest. He suggests that this anomaly would eventually sort itself out into the predicted polarization. Admittedly it still might, at least into one of “America against the world,” especially with the current administration’s penchant for unilateralism.
Several current conflicts, however, continue to reflect the pattern of Islam against everyone: Western infidels, Eastern Orthodox, Hindus, and the “Confucian” Far East. Upon closer examination, though, local aspirations for autonomy in places like Kashmir and Chechnya seem more important than contending civilizations. Moreover, despite our obsession with the “axis of evil,” we overlook the rather odd “civilizational” character of the terrible trinity of North Korea, Iraq, and Iran: the sole surviving Stalinist regime, the sole surviving fascist regime, and a fascinating hybrid of Shiite fundamentalist theocracy and an Islamic democracy struggling to be born. Finally, when we attempt to anticipate emerging conflicts, we should not underestimate the divisions within Islam that could degenerate again into bloody wars.
Value conflicts, whether macro-contests between civilizations (Islam vs. the West) or micro-contests between local ethnic groups (Basque vs. Spanish), still remain low-inertia, negative-sum games. As contests over power, what one value community gains is easily seen as a loss by its adversary. How intense these conflicts become, however, seems largely dependent oh how they are articulated, especially by the political leadership of the contending communities. Milosevic clearly made agony of Yugoslavia’s disintegration far worse than it had to be. When it comes to these conflicts, it would be wise to remember Kurt Vonnegut’s admonition in Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Another change Huntington reluctantly reflects in his subsequent book is that the material world matters, a recognition largely absent from his original pieces in Foreign Affairs. Overwhelmed by the drumbeats for the war on terrorism in its various permutations are the voices warning of worsening global material crises. Yet these material crises will likely play a key, perhaps dominant, role in the conflicts and instabilities of this century. Three, in particular, loom especially large: disease, demography, and ecological disaster.
In the past decade, we have been entertained on the nightly news by disturbing reports of frightening new diseases and resistant bacteria, as well as the threat of bio-terrorism. We do not have to imagine new nightmares; a more familiar one is wreaking its havoc now—AIDS. In central and southern Africa and, increasingly in Eurasia, the ballooning AIDS epidemic provides a preview of the profoundly unsettling social and political effects of this contemporary version of humanity’s ancient scourge.
Demographic changes point to an interesting, and perhaps unprecedented, paradox. For the next several decades the world’s population looks to be both too old and too young. The developed countries face the strains of coping with an aging population; while much of the third world, particularly in the volatile Middle East, copes with a ballooning young population, some of whom will prove susceptible to appeals of extremist movements. As we work through the profound instabilities generated by these demographic trends, we can expect that this century will produce a global demographic transition. The questions remain, however: transition to what equilibrium and through what processes?
Finally, we face looming environmental crises that threaten global stability. Global warming and the consequent disruption of agriculture and population centers certainly could stress existing political capabilities. Intensifying global water shortages could further disrupt interstate competition. Interestingly, one of the worst crises, the control of the water of the Tigris and Euphrates, could pit civilizational compatriots Turkey, Iraq, and Syria against one another.
Value conflicts are undeniably important. Ideologies, religions, and cultural heritage give shape and meaning to the world we experience and channel our response to it. The world, though, in all its intractable solidity, generates many of the fundamental challenges we will face. To borrow a phrase from popular culture, reality bites.
Huntington and I share one conclusion: We face a perilous century. I remain convinced that the old realist world view, whether cloaked in the rhetoric of national or civilizational security, offers little guidance to traversing it successfully. Only by seeking global security can we hope to manage the transition. We need to recognize when we play low inertia games, where acting so, makes it so. We need to recognize those positive sum and negative sum situations where fundamental agreement is possible. Most immediately, however, we must reject unilateralism. In this century, Benjamin Franklin’s admonition rings true for global political leadership—we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.
Peter Carl Sederberg is professor, Department of Government and International Studies, and dean of the Honors College at the University of South Carolina,, where he has taught since 1971. He earned a Ph.D. at The Johns Hopkins University. His books include, The Politics of Meaning (1984), Nuclear Winter, Deterrence and the Prevention of Nuclear War (ed., 1986), Terrorist Myths (1989), and Fires Within: Political Violence and Revolutionary Change (1994).