I think both elements are important. However, identity requires differentiation. You have an identity as an individual or a group and you say, "We are this"— which is also to say, "We are not this". That’s the only way you have an identity, distinguishing yourself from other individuals, groups.
Philosophers since Aristotle have reasoned that friends should be chosen for their character. By contrast, the US has chosen its friends for their tactical utility. Hasn’t this blindness to virtue been a significant source of America’s difficulties of which the Taliban are but one example?
I think you have to make a distinction here. For practical reasons, governments have to deal with groups whom they do not necessarily deem virtuous. There is the famous quote from Churchill where he says that he did not have a problem working with Stalin in order to defeat Hitler. We similarly worked with the Taliban in order to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Governments can’t always deal with good guys but that doesn’t mean they identify with them in any way—it’s based on mutual interests which obviously change.
So what is the relationship between culture and interests? After a brief flurry of activity following September 11, it seems European and American relations are again being strained by a clash of interests that predates September 11.
I think that describes it well. With the end of the Cold War, one major source of glue holding Europe and the US together, namely the Soviet Union, has disappeared. In the meanwhile, the Europeans had also been going through a process of integration, i.e. creating the European Union which is nearly a state. This obviously creates tension and antagonisms with the US, because there is a natural tension between the superpower and major regional powers, since regional powers like to run things in their region without the intervention of the superpower. That was the reason why people felt that Europe and the United States were drifting apart during the 1990s. However, after September 11 there was this sudden realisation amongst Europeans that they shared this civilisational identity with us, which produced this rather extraordinary outpouring of sympathy and sentiments. It’s obviously now fading in the light of this other dimension in the relationship, namely the structure of global power which creates a natural tension between Europe and the US. Nevertheless, I feel that because of the common culture it will not get out of hand, it will be better managed and it will generate a lot less friction than our relations with other major regional powers such as China, Russia and even India.
Paradoxically though, the sharpest critiques of US culture have in fact come from the Europeans, particularly the French.
Well, the French are all concerned because they feel that American culture is overwhelming them and that French culture is fading and so they want to defend it. The French have this image of themselves as a great power and they obviously aren’t that now and so they resent US power. The British, by contrast, are our cultural cousins. I remember seeing a poll a few years ago which asked a sample of the British public: "Which of the following would you rely on coming to save us in a time of crisis?" About 15 per cent respondents said the European Union, about 15 per cent said the Commonwealth countries and about 65 per cent said that Britain could rely on the US. The fact is that we too can rely on the British as well—it’s sort of a family relationship.
What about criticisms directed to the core of your thesis, namely the utility of a static concept of ‘civilisations’? Many scholars have shown that no civilisation exists in isolation.
Sure, I make that point in my book. Obviously, as a result of globalisation, civilisations are interacting with one another in a way that they haven’t really before. As I point out in the book, for many centuries interactions between civilisations were rather limited, intermittent even. Then 500 years ago you had the expansion of the West which had a tremendous impact on every other civilisation of the world. But now we are moving into a situation where it isn’t just the impact of one civilisation on the others, it’s the interactions amongst civilisations that are influencing each other in ways that I don’t think has happened before.
If interaction, transmission and intermixing lie at the root of most practices we associate with civilisation, then do these categories help us understand the world? Aren’t these distinctions likely to disappear?
No, I don’t think so. Again, as I argue in the book, as people with different civilisations interact with one another and learn and adapt things from each other, they also become very conscious of their differences. As societies with different cultures develop over time, they then tend to re-emphasise their indigenous values and culture and also try to claim that that culture (rather than the West) is the basis for their success. Hence, they all try to distinguish between technology, which they seek to import from the West, while also seeking to maintain their own distinct values and traditions. The two (technology and culture) are obviously related and so they can’t exactly follow that policy and maintain a strict distinction—but that is still what they try to do and in some measure are doing.
You are working on the global impact of religion on politics. Does this imply that you have repudiated your former unit of analysis, i.e. civilisation? In fact, you were previously criticised for conflating religion with civilisation.
I’m only following in the tradition of Max Weber! There is clearly a relationship here: religion is an important element—probably the most important element—in defining a civilisation though, of course, it is not the only one. I think what we are concerned with in this project is the increasing extent to which religious groups, considerations and beliefs seem to be playing a more and more important role in political life at the international and national levels. The study I will be doing as part of this project will look at the role of religion with respect to the identity of nations and the legitimacy of governments. It seems that religion is increasingly being coopted by political regimes in an effort to reinforce identity and legitimacy—or, as in China, religion is being suppressed because it is seen as a threat to the legitimacy of the regime and the identity of the country.
In your first work, The Soldier and The State, you discussed the problematic relationship between liberal society and military institutions founded on opposing principles—individualism as opposed to obedience. Do you now foresee an increasingly strained relationship between American society and the US military?
I don’t think those relationships have changed fundamentally. The question of American defence has taken on new dimensions because we’ve lost the sense of security we had for 150 years or more and realised that we are vulnerable to attack just like other countries in the world. We’re still in a process of resolving that issue...it’ll take a long while to just work out the organisational structure for having some sort of coordinated way of dealing with that.
Concepts like Homeland Defence signify that the US’ wariness about the world outside has now been imported within. Won’t this exacerbate the tension between America’s liberal ideals and its institutions? Take, for example, the inability of the judiciary and Congress to withstand executive pressure since September 11?
I really don’t think that is the case. I think the Democrats in Congress realised that it wouldn’t serve them politically to challenge the president on a lot of these things and President Bush has certainly appreciated that and has made use of that deference. There has however been much debate about issues like military tribunals and the administration, by and large, has backed down after they got criticised in Congress or in the press. Thus, while the separation of powers might not seem as vigorous as it was in the past, I think we will get back there. If you looked at the first year after Pearl Harbor, you will find a very similar phenomenon, but soon thereafter Congress began creating committees to examine the war effort and I think that will come again. I would also like to add that now the media is so much more powerful than it has been in the past that it does serve as a serious constraint. They are investigating everything and the administration has to be sensitive to what will be reported and how it will be reported. This is very different from 50 years ago when you had the establishment media which was very deferential and did not report a lot of the gaffes and deficiencies.
In February 2002, a number of prominent academics including yourself published a signed letter which stated that: "[The] Attackers despise not just our government, but our overall society, our entire way of living. Fundamentally, their grievance concerns not only what our leaders do, but also who we are." But is it not that if a society fails to rein in its leaders, then in the eyes of the oppressed it too seems to be complicit in the activities of the state?
There are a number of issues involved here. Again, you get back to the question of greater and lesser evils. At times you may have to work with a regime which is not very nice in order to accomplish something else which is morally justified and serves a useful purpose. I think American foreign policy has failed to bring the pressure that it should on Arab regimes that are repressive. I think it’s very much in our interests to push them to open up because as long as they are dictatorial the only opposition to them is from the fundamentalist groups. These fundamentalist groups quite naturally link us with the regimes—which they see us supporting—while the regimes, which we are supposedly supporting, are happy to deflect the anger of these groups against us and get them to go outside the country to engage in terrorism. Hence, it’s very much in our interests to push these regimes toward greater openness and pluralism.
In the early 1980s, you wrote that while America is forced by circumstances to appear hypocritical, in certain circumstances it remains the case that "American power is far less likely to be misused or corrupted than the power of any other major government". Do you still hold this view in the post-Soviet world?
My answer is yes, comparatively speaking, since other regimes are not involved in the sort of complex messy situations that we have to encounter. I am sure that Sweden has a pure foreign policy but what does Sweden do? Whereas we are involved all over the world. I think we do pretty well as compared with the record of other countries.
(Rahul Sagar is Michael von Clemm Fellow at Harvard University. He would like to thank Beth Baiter for her invaluable assistance in scheduling this interview.)