Before publishing his essay “The Lonely Superpower” (Foreign Affairs, 1999), Samuel Huntington had spoken more candidly in an address to the American Enterprise Institute in May 1998. On that occasion, he had identified himself as an old-fashioned Burkean conservative.
Huntington’s central thesis is that “global politics has now moved from a brief unipolar moment at the end of the Cold War, into one of perhaps more UNI-MULTIPOLAR decades on its way towards a multi-polar twenty-first century.” Such a “multipolarity” will be better for the United States and certainly more stable for us than our current heap of tensions:
Such a world, however, will lack the tension and conflicts between the superpower and the major regional powers that is the defining characteristic of a uni-multipolar world. And for that reason the United States could find life as a major power in a multipolar world less demanding, less contentious, and more rewarding than it has been as the world’s only superpower.
Huntington openly criticized Richard Haass (now director of policy in the U.S. State Department) for arguing that “the United States should act as a global sheriff, rounding up posses of other states to deal with major international issues as they arise.” In fact, says Huntington, what we are seeing is that the United States can only gather, at best, “an Anglo-Saxon posse, not a global one,” made up of “our closest cultural cousins: Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.”
Professor Huntington warned against the rhetoric of American superiority espoused by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, pointing to the results of an international conference held at Harvard in 1997:
As reported by conference participants, the leaders of countries with at least two-thirds or more of the world’s people—Chinese, Russian, Indians, Arabs, Muslims, Africans—see the United States as the single greatest external threat to their societies. They do not see America as a military threat; they do see it as a threat to their integrity, autonomy, prosperity, and freedom of action to pursue their interests as they see fit. They see the United States as intrusive, interventionist, exploitative, unilateralist, hegemonic, hypocritical, applying double standards, engaging in “financial imperialism” and “intellectual colonialism,” and with a foreign policy driven overwhelmingly by domestic politics, particularly the Israeli lobby.
(In his Foreign Affairs article, Huntington quotes the passage almost verbatim, but notably omits “particularly the Israeli lobby.”)
The following February, Huntington addressed a conference held at Colorado College. Near the end of his speech, he narrowed his focus from the West in general to the United States and the American identity, asking, “Are we a country with one culture or many? If we are a country of many cultures, what then is the basis of national unity?”
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Professor Huntington’s question takes on even more import. What is the long-range basis of our multicultural national unity—and will it hold against those who have deeper convictions about truth? Huntington’s answer is as anemic as it is unconvincing:
Historically, America has had a single predominant culture, the product of the original British settlers, and successive waves of immigrants have assimilated into that culture, while also modifying it. Its key elements have been a European heritage, the English language, the Christian religion, and Protestant values. Ethnic, racial, regional, and other subcultures existed within this overarching dominant culture in which virtually all groups shared.
But if this is what truly constitutes our substance, then the jig is up. Those nourishing and fortifying “Protestant values” are as nutritious as a microwave dinner, and our generic “European” heritage is little more than a residue of vanished ethnic traditions. But even this bland core (which never amounted to much) is
under challenge by devotees of multiculturalism, by some minority group and immigrant group leaders, and by political figures including the President and Vice President. President Clinton has explicitly stated that we need a “great revolution . . . to prove that we literally can live without having a dominant European culture.” Vice President Gore has, despite his Harvard education, mistranslated our national motto, e pluribus unum, to mean “from one, many.”
Huntington feebly concludes that Americans will either recover their historic culture or see their country
torn apart and fractured by those determined to undermine and destroy the European, Christian, Protestant, English culture that has been the source of our national wealth and power and the great principles of liberty, equality, and democracy that have made this country the hope for people all over the world.
He again expresses his conviction that this nation, which is more and more pervasively perceived as a “rogue superpower,” is still a Protestant Christian nation, though all the evidence suggests that we are living in a “post-Christian society.”
Professor Huntington is not stupid, but he does not seem to have a clue as to what a Christian civilization would look like. He is blinded by the Enlightenment. Aldous Huxley was less deceived. In his 1937 book Ends and Means, Huxley faced himself and the Enlightenment West. He understood the force of destructive “liberations,” rooted in the Enlightenment’s presumptuous premises about man.
“The liberation we desired,” he confessed, was finally “a liberation from a certain system of morality” (Christian morality), and “we objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.” Indeed, he adds, the “more serious writers associated political with sexual prejudice and recommended philosophy (in practice, the philosophy of meaninglessness) as a preparation for social reform and revolution.” Revolutionary nihilism masked itself as “liberation”—both liberation from the moral law and liberation from any final meaning in the universe.
As Huxley saw the progress of materialism, nihilism, and “the popularization of meaninglessness,” especially after the demoralizing savagery of World War I and its effects on civilization, he became more troubled. He admits that “It was the manifestly poisonous nature of the fruits that forced me to consider the philosophical tree on which they grew.”
In light of Professor Huntington’s thesis about the coming “clash of civilizations” and the contentious dialectic of their deeper sacred cultures. Huxley’s insights have a terrifying ring:
The general acceptance of a doctrine that denies meaning and value to the world as a whole, while assigning them in a supreme degree to certain arbitrarily selected parts of the totality can have only evil and disastrous results.
Noting again the seductive power of intellectual fashion, Huxley writes:
Indeed it was fashionable during the Enlightenment of the middle nineteenth century to speak of the need for supplying the masses with “VITAL LIES” calculated to make those who accepted them not only happy, but well behaved. The truth—which was that there was NO MEANING OR VALUE in the world—should be revealed only to the few who were strong enough to stomach it.
The American “masses” today are also treated to “vital lies” and sophisticated forms of deception. At a U.S. Army War College Seminar, Prof. Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, a retired Army colonel, argued that a hegemonic orientation of the United States would “entirely re-cast the ethos of the American Soldier.” Bacevich posed two questions to his audience: “What is America’s global purpose?”; and “What is the military’s role in support of that purpose?”
Responding to the conference’s title, “Transforming Defense in an Era of Peace and Prosperity,” Bacevich further argued that “the whole debate about ‘transformation’” was “really an unacknowledged debate over purpose” that was “fundamentally dishonest.” He added that “truisms are endlessly cited” by our leadership, but “they dodge the bigger issue of purpose”—and, thus, the matter of meaning and of truth.
“America’s purpose,” he argued, is “global hegemony,” which is a long way from “providing for the common defense,” in the words of the U.S. Constitution. Under this new orientation, the American soldier’s “true role is neo-imperial,” which is also why General Zinney (now a retired officer on loan to the U.S. State Department) said in late October 2000—while still on active duty—that the commanders-in-chief of the major Unified Commands have become “the new Proconsuls.” But, “those who serve the Proconsul, and follow the Proconsul, are Praetorians,” retorted Bacevich.
Many in the U.S. military do not yet recognize the fuller implications of this new orientation, but Bacevich expects that the general citizenry itself will soon be in for a real shock: “I gotta tell you, if they get wind of this, look out!” Thus, our unacknowledged “neo-imperial purpose” is a form of deception and sophist-
ry. Bacevich believes that this will backfire on us, producing a “blowback” not only from abroad but from the homefront, further weakening us.
Like Huntington, Bacevich does not fully grasp the nature of America’s crisis. James Kurth, one of Huntington’s former students, sees the problem more clearly. Kurth is a Protestant, rooted in the original Protestant Reformation but not in what he calls the “six stages of the Protestant Declension,” which have produced the current “Protestant Deformation.” Implicitly critiquing Huntington’s conception of America’s “core culture” and of our increasingly desacralized (and apparently “atomizing”) “American Creed,” Professor Kurth addressed the Philadelphia Society in 2001 on “The Protestant Deformation and American Foreign Policy”:
. . . American foreign policy has been, and continues to be, shaped by the Protestant origins of the United States. But the Protestantism that has shaped American foreign policy over two centuries has not been the original religion but a series of successive departures from it down the scale of what might be called the Protestant declension. . . . With the United States left as the sole superpower, this Protestant Deformation is at its greatest, even global influence. Because it is such a peculiar religion, and indeed is correctly seen as a fundamental and fatal threat by all the other religions, its pervasive sway is generating intense resistance and international conflict.
After admitting that “all Protestant churches reject hierarchy and community as the means to salvation,” Professor Kurth traces the “six stages” of attenuation and its soft apostasy from this original Protestant religion in America. He quotes various religious leaders whose language has become more abstract and vague and who only occasionally make “reference to the Supreme Being or Divine Providence and rarely to Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.” Whether they are even Trinitarian in belief any longer is a matter of doubt. The two essential doctrines of the historic Christian Faith—the Trinity and the Incarnation—were spoken about in less and less specific ways, further preparing the way for what Professor Kurth calls “the unitarian transformation,” which is the fourth of “the Six Stages of the Protestant Declension.”
Of the fifth stage (“the American Creed”), he writes:
The American Creed definitely did not include as elements hierarchy, community, tradition, and custom. Although the American Creed was not in itself Protestant, it was clearly the product of Protestant Culture and was a sort of secularized version of Protestantism.
Professor Kurth does not go much further to explain the content and composition of this “sort of secularized version of Protestantism.” He does say, however, that our tradition of “idealism” in foreign policy—as in the case of Woodrow Wilson—is “really secularized Protestantism.” And to Woodrow Wilson himself and “to the Protestant mind of Americans” in general, “Catholicism and Confucianism”—with all their hierarchy and community and tradition—“seemed obviously retrograde and irrational.”
Kurth incisively summarizes U.S. foreign policy (especially since the end of World War II) and calls it “realism toward the strong and idealism toward the weak.” This short formulation reveals an unflattering aspect of our growing at home hypocrisy and double standard abroad.
Kurth writes of our movement from “possessive individualism,” analyzed in Max Weber’s Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism, to what Kurth calls “expressive individualism,” since we have now apparently moved to a “post-industrial economy” and thus “from a producer to a consumer mentality.” Our “core culture” is now displayed in “the new post-industrial, consumer, post-modern, expressive-individualist American.” We must further acknowledge, he says, that “the ideology of expressive individualism” is “a total philosophy”—indeed, “a sort of totalitarianism of the self.” Like the other political variant of totalitarianism—“totalitarianism of the State”—it is “relentless in breaking down intermediate bodies and mediating institutions” that “stand between the [isolated] individual and the highest powers or the widest forces.” Kurth makes an important link with the phenomenon of neoliberal capitalism and “economic globalism” by saying that, “with the totalitarianism of the self, the widest forces are the agencies of the global economy.” Unfortunately, Kurth does not specify the nature of this financial and economic “overworld” nor what and who the specific “agencies” and instrumentalities actually are.
Refusing to let his audience off the hook, however, Professor Kurth tells us that “Expressive individualism . . . represents the logical conclusion and the ultimate extreme of the secularization of the Protestant religion.” Furthermore, this “expressive individualism” logically and psychologically results in “the imperial self,” since “the Protestant Deformation is a Protestantism without God,” which constitutes a grave impiety and “the idolatry of the self.” Taken together, this means an imperial idolatry that is now inflicted abroad and which is likely to provoke strong reactions from abroad, especially from other, more communal religious cultures—such as Islam. Such an intense strategic reaction may even turn into “a sort of counter-Deformation to the Protestant Deformation.”
In addition to Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” according to Kurth, we may see a new and very destructive dialectic of dissolution in “these wars of secularized religion,” which will “replace the worship of God with the expression of self” and “the gratification of oneself,” even when it is desperately self-destructive. It has been wisely said that a suicide dies in order to die, whereas a true martyr dies in order to live.
We have likely come to the point where we shall have to confront this real distinction much more often. The struggle between nihilism and sacred faith may be even deeper than Aldous Huxley so lucidly discerned. We may also confront other seductive forms of Huxley’s “theologies . . . of revolutionary idolatry,” which, perhaps, will leave Samuel Huntington even more perplexed, if not at last awakened to the ultimate reality—which was not made by man.
We must honestly strive to know—and to acknowledge—what we do not know. To know what we do not know is a form of knowledge (ignorantia docta) in itself, one which we shall need in dealing with foreign cultures, especially with foreign sacred cultures, like the Muhammadan civilization, which increasingly despises our own deeply materialistic and de-sacralized, if not apostate, civilization. Are we prepared for this?