Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Conflict Within, Harmony Between

I've been reading Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. Huntington noted something he considered peculiar about American society in regard to "goodness" or "badness" in international relations: an assumption that friendly international relations are always desirable, and that hostile relations are always undesirable. He contrasted this with the American commitment to competition within American society, that Americans "endorse competition in American society between opinions, groups, parties, branches of government, businesses." (Huntington pg. 221) He wonders why Americans believe conflict within our society is good, but conflict between societies is bad, and speculates that nobody has seriously studied the question.

Off the top of my head it occurs to me that when conflict occurs within established forums or mediums for conflict, the conflict tends to shake out the best ideas and solutions to problems, while resulting in minimal collateral damage. Conflict between competing businesses encourages both businesses to do their best work, while the framework of law prevents destructive forms of conflict. Conflict between ideas occurs as debate and stimulates a vigorous exploration of the ideas under question, while laws and norms prevent the conflict from becoming physically destructive. Conflict between branches of government prevents any one of them from becoming overly powerful, restricting government action to only those things the involved parties can agree are necessary, desirable, or lawful. Even warfare within a cultural group has rules of engagement, ensuring that there is still something left when the victor wins the war.

Between cultural groups, however, laws and norms are not yet developed. As a result, conflict is much more likely to degenerate into total warfare. Tactics which are acceptable to one group are offensive to another group, provoking an equally offensive response. Neither side understands the other's rules of engagement. In debate one man's rebuttal is another man's personal insult. In business one man's clever strategem is another man's unfair practice. And in warfare one man's fair engagement is another man's unforgivable atrocity or abomination.

Conflict that occurs within a cultural paradigm is more likely to be a striving in good works. Conflict that occurs between cultural paradigms is more likely to be nothing but destruction and death. As such, what Huntington describe's as the American preference for conflict within nations, and harmony between nations, makes sense to me.

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