The West and the Rest

In “The Clash of Civilizations,” the political scientist Samuel Huntington maps out a geopolitical paradigm that is as disturbing as it is destructive. Huntington’s work imagines a new post-Cold War world order, one which pits civilizations against one another in a struggle for power, and one which centers the United States as an exemplar of supreme virtue. Huntington paints broad strokes of ignorance in ascribing certain values and capabilities to entire cultures and–surprise–Western civilization triumphs within Huntington’s crooked hierarchy. On page 40 of the text, Huntington writes,

“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. Western efforts to propagate such ideas produce 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.”

This line of thinking constitutes the framework for what Huntington subsequently calls the “West versus the Rest,” an axis of world politics that essentially demands conformity to Western culture from non-Western civilizations.

“The Clash of Civilizations” was a frustrating reading especially after going through the Gordon and Kaplan pieces, which each offer stark empirical evidence of the heinous practices carried out by the United States government–policies that, in Gordon’s words, are “closer to the government’s own definition of a rogue state than it is to a model democracy.” (2006:44) Over the last ten years or so during the so-called War on Terror, the United States government violated international law and sovereignty, committed countless human rights abuses, and purveyed over immense destruction around the world. Yet, the values that Huntington bestows to the West only involve democratic principles, human rights, liberty and equality, etc. This reasoning that the United States is a Good Power, on a mission to protect world order and that any violence that accompanies this mission is subsidiary, has been employed to dehumanize non-Western civilizations and rationalize war against them.

As I was reading, my mind went to an interview I had seen with Jose Rodriguez, a former director of the National Clandestine Service which authorized the torture of detainees:

This video offers a really illuminating look at Rodriguez’ worldview, which could comfortably fall into the Huntington paradigm. In his justification for authorizing torture, Rodriguez explains (in rather patriarchal language) that the United States were compelled to “put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities that we needed,” because it was a matter of protecting American lives. American exceptionalism is the ideology underpinning this justification, because it allows our government to absolve itself from blame for executing these crimes. As Gordon points out, “American exceptionalism – the assertion that the US is an inherently more democratic, egalitarian and just society than all others – has always been a lie. The current Bush government has indeed formulated a policy of exceptionalism, claiming the right of the US, as a sovereign God-given Christian nation, to exempt itself from the same laws that govern the conduct of other nations.” (44)

The West is the entity committing these atrocities, often at the expense of the “Rest” of the world; but since, as Huntington’s writing shows, the West can wipe away these incidents and project a pristine image of standing up for democratic principles, the West never has to be held accountable for its wrongdoings. Instead, the flawed “Rest” must accommodate to the West’s standards.

One thought on “The West and the Rest

  1. caalamo

    This is a nice post Jack that raises several questions. I too am struck by the ways in which the Gordon and Kaplan pieces contrast so starkly with Huntington’s manifesto for the West. What I especially appreciate about Gordon and Kaplan are the ways in which they trace the longer fetch of the American empire so as to rather bluntly challenge us to think more critically about our surprise and disappointment over these practices. But I also think that Huntington is also clever in his use of history. What role do his rhetorical strategies related to history play in advancing his problematic and racist world view? One could never claim he is short sighted, but I think it is in the story he wishes to tell us about world history that his problem rests.

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