Skip to main content

“The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs

Samuel P. Huntington
Published by Simon & Schuster in 1996

American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy

Paul D. Miller
Published by Georgetown University Press in 2016

Empire in Retreat: The Past, Present, and Future of the United States

Victor Bulmer-Thomas
Published by Yale University Press in 2018

By and large, the discipline of political science does not take religion seriously. The typical member of this particular scholarly guild sees religious belief and affiliation not as causes of political action, but rather as consequences of political or economic interests. Religion, at most, is a device that savvy elites use to hoodwink gullible masses into serving their purposes. Osama bin Laden, on this view, used Islam to recruit naïve Muslims to commit suicide to serve his ambitions; and American presidents who talk of a divine mission to spread liberty are using such language and symbols to aggrandize themselves and their wealthy constituents. In the study of international relations, the tradition most known for this cynicism is called realism, the basic view that the quest for power is the main driver of political action. There also are liberal and Marxian versions, which take the pursuit of wealth to be paramount. The late Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008) was a realist for most of his career. One of the most influential political scientists of the late twentieth century, with seminal contributions in civil-military relations, political development in the Third World, arms control, and the global spread of democracy, Huntington took a cultural and religious turn in the 1990s. His 1993 article “The Clash of Civilizations?” and 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order show that he found himself unable to explain world politics after the Cold War without putting religion front and center.

For Huntington, civilizations were the world’s largest cultural groupings, cohering around a common worldview defined over against other civilizations. Civilizations found their origins in traditions that stretched back over centuries—traditions that typically derived from, or were otherwise reducible to, major religions. During the Cold War (1947-1989), Huntington argued, these old civilizational boundaries were submerged under the bipolar Soviet-American struggle. The collapse of the Soviet empire brought religious identities back to the surface.

Thus, contra Huntington’s student Francis Fukuyama, the end of communism did not mean the end of History; the human race was not uniting under the banner of triumphant liberal democracy. Instead, as the smoke and rubble of the Cold War lifted, ancient loyalties and ancient hatreds were starting to appear among and sometimes within countries, a development Gilles Kepel called the “revenge of God” against arrogant secular modernity. The best paradigm for understanding world politics would now begin with a map of the world’s major religions—Orthodox Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Western Christianity—a map that had not changed in many centuries.

Huntington’s religious turn, then, took a direction that unsettled and even offended many people. Some secular social scientists took Huntington to task for slighting the importance of nation-states and their rivalries; others, for its relegation of economic interdependence, democracy, and other well-established causal variables. Most ferocious were the responses from readers who saw in Huntington’s clash thesis an “essentialism,” a reduction of people to one particular identity, and even an attitude of superiority and bigotry from a Western academic.

It has never been clear whether many of those critics bothered to read Huntington all the way through, or if they instead were like the familiar student who comes to class ready to bury or praise a book based on a deep perusal of its dust jacket. In fact, Huntington made clear that although he was himself a grateful Westerner and liberal democrat, he found his own civilization annoying and arrogant in its attitude and actions toward the rest of the world. The West had too often used its wealth, technology, and firepower to wreak catastrophe on other parts of the world. Huntington focused most sharply on the West’s self-regard, its invincible conviction that its civilization was universal. Westerners tended to see the West as the human race’s highest stage of development and other cultures as lagging behind to varying degrees, as less developed or defective versions of itself in need of evolution or liberation.

Huntington called his civilization out on this arrogance. In fact, he argued forcefully, Western principles are Western, culturally-specific principles that can gain little traction in other civilizations:

Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist, or Orthodox cultures,

Huntington wrote with discernable irritation.

Western efforts to propagate such ideas produce instead a reaction against “human rights imperialism” and a reaffirmation of indigenous values, as can be seen in the support for religious fundamentalism by the younger generation in non-Western cultures.

Thus he openly opposed the Iraq War of 2003, which he took to be a horribly misguided venture liable to amplify rather than suppress the clash of civilizations.

Curiously, Huntington did not probe the causes of Western universalism very deeply. Had he done so, his line of argument about the fundamental importance of religion would likely have pressed him toward a familiar thesis: namely, that the West considers its ways universal because its own origins are in Latin (Western) Christianity. The best recent version of this thesis is in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), but the argument is older than that. The West—Europe and North America—is constituted in part by an attachment to Enlightenment ideas (see Huntington’s list in the preceding paragraph), ideas generally understood as non-religious, capable of articulation and thriving without appeal to the Christian God. But these are really just secularized ideas that developed in Latin Christendom, particularly its Protestant form. That the individual rather than the group is the fundamental unit is found in biblical accounts of the Last Judgment, where each person stands before God’s throne. The notion that all persons are fundamentally the same is found in St. Paul’s statement that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek.” And so on.

Is the West universalistic because it was once Christian? To narrow the question to a form that will seem more vital: Does the United States—the West’s exemplary and most powerful actor—try to spread its ideas and institutions to the rest of the world because of its Christian origins?

A comparison of two new and very different books can help us with this question. Paul D. Miller’s American Power and Liberal Order is a tour de force on American grand strategy. Miller’s primary task is prescriptive, not descriptive or explanatory. He makes a sustained argument that the United States, as a liberal democracy with an abundance of power and experience, is morally obligated to promote liberty and stabilize polities elsewhere. But Miller argues as well that America serves its own interests when it does so. He argues for what Tony Smith calls “national-security liberalism”: in promoting its values, America makes itself more secure, because a more democratic world is safer for the United States.

Victor Bulmer-Thomas’s Empire in Retreat takes a perspective nearly diametrically opposed to that of Miller. Bulmer-Thomas looks at the same world and the same American policies as Miller, but sees something sinister and oppressive: an empire expanding and bringing more and more peoples and societies under its sway. And Bulmer-Thomas’s explanation for U.S. foreign policy looks to sheer power and desire: America spread its influence over the centuries not, in the end, because of moral motives, but because it could.

Of these two books, Empire in Retreat has the broader historical sweep by far. An accomplished historian of Latin America and the Caribbean, Bulmer-Thomas begins his story with the ambition of eighteenth-century Virginians to press their colony’s boundaries westward into the Ohio Valley. He moves briskly through the Monroe Doctrine and manifest destiny in the nineteenth century, formal imperialism in the 1890s and interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America in the early twentieth century, America’s rise to globalism during and after the Second World War, and the peak of American power and influence in the 1990s. The story is one of remorseless efforts by various Americans in government, the military, and commerce to acquire and control more territory. This includes the country’s expansion across North America in the nineteenth century at the expense of Britain, France, Mexico, and various Indian tribes (Bulmer-Thomas persuasively argues that the Indian Wars should be included in historical treatments of American foreign policy). Also incisive is the inclusion, in the narrative about America’s current global influence, of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as missionaries and human rights organizations; most of these would be horrified at the suggestion that they are tools of U.S. power, but many have propagated ideas and practices that have smoothed America’s dealings with other parts of the world.

Bulmer-Thomas’s argument appears unfalsifiable at various points. Virtually everything the country did for most of its history is, in his telling, imperial. America promoted authoritarianism in the Third World during the Cold War? Empire. After 1985, it promoted democracy instead? Why, empire. It set up and joined various international organizations, such as the IMF and World Bank, at the end of the Second World War? Empire. It refused to join more recent ones such as the Law of the Sea or the International Criminal Court? Empire again. It secured resolutions from the UN Security Council before using force? Empire. It used force without a UNSC resolution? Every inch an empire. There is more of this kind of thing. The Associated Press (AP) enabled America’s empire by giving the U.S. media access to information the world over; yet, when United Press International went out of business and the AP shrank its foreign coverage, that too enabled empire by deepening Americans’ ignorance of the rest of the world. It seems that Bulmer-Thomas begs the question by defining America as a perpetually expanding empire and then interpreting anything it has done as imperial.

Until the recent turning point, that is. As the book’s title implies, Bulmer- Thomas argues that U.S. power recently began to decline and that the country is relinquishing its empire. He identifies three measures of this decline: America’s shrinking percentage of the global economy, its decreasing share of global trade (owing in part because of Americans’ growing hostility to international trade), and the net outflow of capital from the country over recent years. Bulmer-Thomas does not consider counter-arguments such as those of Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, but his case is serious. It is difficult to think of any similarities between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, but here is one: both have stated that the United States is overextended and needs to offload much of its burden to allies, especially rich ones in Europe and East Asia.

The essential point stands, however: Bulmer-Thomas implies that Hunting- ton is plain wrong about what drives America to do what it has done (and will no longer do as much of). For Bulmer-Thomas, it is not the West’s pretensions to cultural universality. It is Western power and interest, full stop.

Miller’s American Power could hardly be more different. It does not see America as an empire at all. One reason for that may be the book’s focus on policy rather than on history—on what the United States ought to do in the world (specifically the area generally called grand strategy), rather than on what it has done. The opening chapter, on how U.S. power and the liberal international order are mutually reinforcing, is lucid and persuasive. Miller argues that the old debate between academic realists, who say all countries maximize power or security, and liberals, who say that some countries (democracies) seek to improve the international environment, is not only tired but fallacious. Liberals and realists are both right, insists Miller, because the more of the world lives in free-market democracies, the more security and economic partners the United States has. America really can do well by doing good.

Up to a point, that is. Miller repudiates any global crusade for American-style liberty. Playing off of Henry Nau’s Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan (Princeton University Press, 2015), another recent right-of-center treatise that questions the nationalism of current Republican foreign policy, Miller argues that Washington should maximize the percentage of global power under the governance of democratic institutions. That is an abstraction, but Miller means, for example, that shoring up democracy in tiny Montenegro is less important than doing so in massive India. A former military intelligence officer and member of the National Security Council, Miller is highly attentive to the costs and benefits of various policies. Most distinctive are his urgings that Washington draw still closer to India, a growing democratic power in a strategic location, and recommit once more to stabilizing Afghanistan. At the same time, Miller downgrades the Middle East as a quagmire and, thanks to the new availability of North American energy, a depreciating asset. Readers may be surprised at Miller’s criticism of America’s often-uncritical support of Israel.

Miller’s idealism is tempered by realism, then. Indeed, he explicitly embraces (25-26) the Christian Realism of American theologian and public intellectual Rein- hold Niebuhr, a realism that at once calls the United States to work for peace and justice in the world and to recognize its own sins. With Niebuhr, Miller would repudiate

Bulmer-Thomas’s account as cynical and a call to moral abdication. Bulmer-Thomas would probably reply that Miller and Niebuhr are well-intentioned but self-deceiving imperialists. Who is right? Setting aside for the moment whether America ought to be so active and intrusive in the world, we can ask why is it such? Why does the U.S. not mind its own business?

We can attack that question indirectly by attacking another: the old question of whether America has an empire. In answering in the affirmative, Bulmer-Thomas employs the definition of historian Charles Maier. Maier includes not only the “accumulation of lands abroad by conquest,” but also situations in which ruling circles in weaker societies accept subordination by ruling circles in a powerful state so that they can stay in power in their own societies. If that is empire, then the United States indeed has had one for more than a century, and a particularly robust one, extending through most of the Western Hemisphere and Europe into parts of Africa and Asia. The virtue of a broad definition such as Maier’s is that it forces us to reckon with the fact that the United States has a great deal more power than any other country, and has used its power to influence other countries to serve its interests. This aspect of America’s grand strategy is all but missing from Miller’s book. Miller explicitly recognizes a role for power in American foreign policy, but when Washington deals with allies, he sees only likeminded partners, not subordinates.

But the trouble with Maier’s definition, and hence with Bulmer-Thomas’s book, is that it erases important differences among types of international hierarchy. The English word “empire” descends from the Latin impera, “rule or command.” The short-lived Nazi empire in Europe came close to that kind of nakedly coercive political order. But no serious scholar would equate the Third Reich, either descriptively or morally, with what America has done vis-à-vis its subordinate states. Empirical studies show that Washington really cannot command its weaker partners under most conditions. From Canada to Germany to South Korea to Colombia, all U.S. partners have enjoyed some leverage and used it to extract concessions from the United States. Thus have political scientists such as John Ruggie, Daniel Nexon, David Lake, John Ikenberry, and Daniel Deudney grappled with different forms of the U.S.-led hierarchical international order. None of these scholars is cited by Bulmer-Thomas. Miller, on the other hand, has clearly absorbed this scholarship on international hierarchy and order. While he might have probed more deeply what power disparities do to America’s relations with its allies and partners, he understands how calling the U.S.-led international order an empire conceals more than it reveals.

Something important is lost, then, when we follow Bulmer-Thomas. America’s preferences for cooperation rather than coercion and for institutions rather than one-off transactions are a function of American ideas about the human person, society, and power. Only they are not simply American ideas: they are shared by other Western countries, countries that share not only the heritage of the Enlightenment but also of Latin (Catholic and Protestant) Christianity. Although one certainly may favor Miller’s type of foreign policy without being a Christian, Miller’s admiration for Reinhold Niebuhr is no accident.

Which brings us back to Huntington and the question of religion and international relations. Miller’s book provides a case study in how specifically Christian values help shape the long American tradition of promoting individual liberty in other countries, a tradition often violated and sometimes ill-advised when followed, but real nonetheless. Huntington himself does not attribute America’s universalism to its Christian heritage, but the link has been clear to many historians and theorists.

The late Huntington might not disagree; he certainly saw religion as the fundament of most of the world’s civilizations. Where he would disagree with Miller, and quite sharply, is over the crucial question of whether American and Western universalism is a good thing. Miller wants America to grow ever closer to democratic India. Huntington implies that pursuing such a course will lead to frustration at best. Miller calls on U.S. leaders to double down on stabilization and democracy in Afghanistan. Huntington would advise them to save American and Afghan blood and treasure, for Afghanistan belongs to a civilization in which the Federalist Papers must be rejected as a foreign body.

But it is not clear that the United States can long refrain from democracy promotion, as Huntington wished it to do. Under the current Trump administration, America is taking a hiatus by emphasizing nationalism and cultivating despotic regimes, but the broad weight of American history is to promote self-government, by example and by action. The realist statesman Henry Kissinger (once Huntington’s colleague at Harvard) complained that Americans are too moralistic to stomach a realist foreign policy. For all of Huntington’s penetrating insights into Western and U.S. culture, he seemed to miss that universalism is part of what makes the West the West. Had he probed more deeply into the Christian origins of the West, he might have seen that more clearly.

Cite this article
John Owen, “Culture, Religion, and American Power—A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:3 , 303-310

John Owen

University of Virginia
John M. Owen is Chair of the Department of Politics; Taylor Professor of Politics; Senior Fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture; and Senior Fellow, Miller Center of Public Affairs, at the University of Virginia.