It is easy for us to think that our Western Civilization is the only one on this planet, but, of course, this is not true. Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of the World Order, points out that most civilizations view themselves as the center of the world. This seems particularly true of people in the United States, who are geographically isolated in the world and have no unfriendly borders.
Huntington identifies 8 major civilizations currently on our planet. Western, African, Sinic, Hindu, Islamic, Japanese, Latin American, and Orthodox. Although Western Civilization is certainly not the only one in the world, it is the most dominant one on this planet in terms of economic and military prowess. Let’s examine our current Western Civilization.
Only about 13.1% of the world population is Western, however we provide nearly 50% of the world’s gross economic product and occupy 24% of the world’s territory. Huntington argues with strong reason that Western Civilization peaked in about 1920 and has been in considerable decline since that time. In 1920, 48% of the world population was Western and the West provided nearly 85% of the world’s manufacturing output. We are not as dominant as we once were.
Only one major world power was left standing at the end of the Cold War - the United States, leader of Western Civilization. This led to a feeling of euphoria in the U.S. that Western Civilization had won the world and its principles would prevail around the world. We are now awakening to a different reality. The alliances in the world during the Cold War were between two military superpowers who dominated the species; the Western system survived and the communist one did not (except for remnants). After the Cold War ended, conflict and tension have now developed along civilization differences.
The West has viewed itself as the center of the world and has largely assumed that its civilization will become the de facto world civilization. It has been easy for people in the US to perceive the world in this manner. It has been more than 200 years since we have had foreign conflict on our soil. Most people in the US have not traveled abroad. Compared to others in the world, most of us have a comfortable standard of living and are very consumed by our many earthly pleasures. It has been easy for us to be lulled into a sense that the world is ours. This is not unlike the conditions in Rome before the fall.
For most Americans it is easy to get caught up in our daily provincial lives because we exist in isolation from the rest of the world. We view ourselves as the premiere human civilization and seem to think this should be unquestioned by others. We certainly are not the only civilization on the planet, and it remains to be determined if we are the best. Throughout the history of humans, many civilizations have risen and all have also fallen.
Our euphoria ended on 9/11/2001. In our lifetime memories, up until the events of that day, we largely felt that we had won the world and that it was ours to guide. On that day we became aware of the clash of civilizations on our planet. Tensions in the world today are not between nations - they are between civilizations.
The West is currently in major conflict with the Islamic Civilization and, to a lesser extent, with the Sinic (Chinese) Civilization.
Both Islam and China have long-standing cultural traditions that are very different from the West and, in their judgment, superior. Both Christianity and Islam teach that their god is universal and is the god for everyone, and they are both taught to be missionary about their beliefs. This creates a fundamental conflict with one another.
Other civilizations on this planet do not accept the West as the eventual leader of all humans. Quite the contrary, they seem to totally oppose our leadership. They believe they have many good reasons to oppose us. They believe that their civilizations are better than or at least equal to ours. We need to examine their points of view. We must also be open-minded and consider that they might even be right on some matters.
Why I wouldn’t like us if I were them
I am a product of Western Civilization, and hence probably cannot be objective about this topic. However, being from the West gives me greater insight about its organization and also more license to be self-critical. I apologize in advance if my self-evaluation of Western Civilization offends.
I would see us as being imperialistic. We impose the structure of our civilization on others. Just as we believe our Judeo-Christian god is their god (we believe that they simply have not yet accepted that fact), we also assume that our civilization structure is best for everyone else and should be so embraced.
I would see us as aggressive. Look at the history of Western aggression against other Civilizations and cultures. We can begin with the crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries in which Western Christians repeatedly marched to the Middle East and killed Muslims. Western imperialism was the clear pattern in the world during the 16th to 19th centuries as imperialistic Spanish, British, Dutch and French navies carved up the world. During the 20th century the US was militarily imperialistic towards Latin America and the Philippines. The history of the 20th century was dominated by 2 world wars - both of which were largely among nations of the Western Civilization. In more recent times the U.S., in particular, has shown imperialistic aggression in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iraq again. Throughout history, the West has had supremacy in military technology. The U.S. is also the only country to have used nuclear weaponry in a war - a fact not lost on others. And now the U.S. has such sophisticated weapons that we can conduct push-button wars and watch them on television.
I would also see us as a decadent society that is based upon greed and without moral convictions. Ours is a capitalistic system in which individuals are motivated by self-desires and not according to group-responsibility. Others don’t see the facts that capitalism is designed to meet the common good. Our system motivates people according to their self-serving needs. It would be easy to see selfishness without concern for others. It would also be easy to see wanton waste and materialism that is especially bothersome given their relative poverty and growing scarcity of the planet’s resources. The benefits of capitalism to the group, although they are very powerful, are not easily apparent to an outsider.
I would also see a civilization with many human problems: crime, murder, full prisons, poverty within city cores, drugs, moral decay, moral depravity, sexual promiscuity, full mental institutions. They don’t have those problems nearly to the same extent.
I would see us as two-faced. One of the major foundations of our country, expressed in our Declaration of Independence proclaims that “All men are created equal”. However, this did not stop us from treating Native American Indians as less-then-equal, nor from ignoring the rights of Mexican settlers in gold country in California despite treaties stating otherwise, nor from enslaving millions of blacks. More recently we invaded Iraq on the basis of weapons of mass destruction, then ignored the fact that they were never found.
In Western Civilization we emphasize the individual. Our Declaration of Independence says “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Huntington states that the greatest distinguishing characteristic between Western Civilization and others is the large role and emphasis of the individual. Our system emphasizes the individual and the rights of the individual.
Just as capitalism drives individual humans based upon their self-serving needs, capitalism has also driven Western Civilization to meet its self-serving needs. The 17 countries with the highest gross domestic product per person are all Western - with the possible exception of Japan - although Japan acts similar to a Western country. Of all the world millionaires, 60% are in North America or Europe. Clearly the West has the greatest wealth on the planet.
Now, imagine that you are on the outside looking in at this situation. Imagine that you are a religious fundamentalist who believes that people should be motivated by the religious values of group responsibility and by the nobler principals of morality and ethics. Would you be critical of the system driven by self-desire? Would you judge the other system as selfish? Of course you would! Would you feel even more strongly if your own self-desires were satisfied less because of the greed and competitiveness of the other system? Would you feel even more strongly if the other system were militarily strong and aggressive?
Of course, we (Western Civilization) are that other system. The followers of Islam believe in a religious-driven state that teaches and motivates largely through religious values. I think the reasons they don’t like us are clear. The reasons they don’t like us are also righteous. They can claim the high road when it comes to motivating people.
In the United States we have been strongly influenced by the free speech and individual rights movements of the 60’s. Doctor Spock, known as "the father of permissiveness", had strong influence on individual permissiveness by suggesting that children should be encouraged to do as they want with reduced discipline. The 1980’s became the “Me Generation”. “If you've got it, flaunt it” and “You can have it all!” became generational mantras. Binge buying, “Shop ‘til you Drop”, and credit card debts have become a way of life.
Followers of Islam, on the other hand, put religion first in their life. They consider themselves God-fearing people who live a life of and with God. Their religious laws even supersede those of government. They believe they take the high road (i.e. “nobler road”) in life and believe they live quality lives. They want to continue to live their lives the way they desire without us infringing upon them. However, our civilization pervades theirs. Whether it is MacDonald’s hamburgers, Michael Jackson, or Star Wars movies, Western culture invades other cultures. We are invasive upon their civilization militarily, economically and culturally.
It is easy for them to perceive us as an evil empire. They must feel we are taking over the world with selfishness and bullying tactics. It is not surprising that they resort to desperate tactics to oppose us. We should view terrorism as acts of desperation rather than acts of zealots.
The West has largely won the world because of our stranglehold on the resources of this planet and because of our military superiority and aggression. How would you feel if you were one of the other 87% of the people on this planet? You are poor and impoverished and you are kept that way because a smaller group of people on the planet own most of the resources and also have cruise missiles? They also have a self-serving system oriented around self-satisfaction - or what can easily be interpreted as greed. Would you resent? Would you hate?
Western Civilization has led to amazing developments in science, technology and human comforts. However, it has been at the expense of aggression towards other civilizations and greed that has resulted in tremendous imbalance in resource ownership.
The United States is obviously the most powerful economic and military nation in the world. We are clearly the leader of Western Civilization, but we are also clearly NOT the leader of all world civilizations. Will Western Civilization be able to lead the human race to its future?