Yes, there is a clash of civilizations
World politics was becoming not just “multipolar,” but “multicivilizational,” he argued, with competing powers modernizing along different cultural lines, not simply converging with the liberal West. The “balance of power between civilizations” was changing and the West was entering a period of relative decline. A “civilization-based world order” was emerging, in which societies “sharing cultural affinities” were more likely to come together in alliances or blocs. And the so-called universalism of the West was setting the stage for sustained conflict with rival civilizations, notably with China and the Islamic world.
These claims were the backbone of Huntington’s book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Reshaping of the World Order”, which was seen as a radical interpretative alternative to Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis. with his vision of liberal democracy as the horizon toward which post-Cold War societies were likely to converge.
Huntington’s thesis would seem ripe for new attention in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the surprisingly unified Western response, more uncertain reactions from China and India. But more often lately Huntington has been invoked either suspiciously, on the grounds that Putin wants a clash of civilizations and we shouldn’t give it to him, either in rejection or criticism, the idea being that his theory of world politics was in fact refuted by Putin’s attempt to restore a Greater Russia.
This is the argument advanced, for example, by Olivier Roy, the French scholar of Islam, in a recent interview with Le Nouvel Observateur. Roy describes the war in Ukraine as “the definitive proof (because we have plenty more) that the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory doesn’t work” – mainly because Huntington predicted that countries that share Christianity would be unlikely to go to war with each other, but instead we have here Putin’s Russia waging war, and not for the first time, against a largely Orthodox Christian neighbour, even if it welcomes Muslim voters inside Russia.
Writing for the new independent newspaper Compact, a potential hotbed for radicals left and right, Christopher Caldwell also invokes Huntington’s seemingly falsified predictions about Orthodox Christian unity. But then it also offers a different reason to dismiss Huntington’s application to our time, suggesting that the civilizational model has been a useful framework for understanding events over the past 20 years, but lately we’ve reverted to a world of explicit ideological conflict – one defined by a Western elite preaching a universal gospel of “neoliberalism” and “revivalism,” and various regimes and movements that attempt to resist it.
It is a right-wing reading of the global landscape, hostile to the Western missionary zeal it describes. But Caldwell’s analysis resembles the popular liberal argument that the world is increasingly divided between liberalism and authoritarianism, democracy and autocracy, rather than being divided into several competing poles and civilizations. .
Yet these two contemporary arguments offer weaker frameworks for interpretation than that provided by Huntington. No theory from 25 or 30 years ago will be a perfect guide to world affairs. But if you want to understand the direction of world politics right now, Huntington’s thesis is more relevant than ever.
To understand why, think back to the years immediately after the publication of his book – the turn of the millennium, the Bush years and the early years of Obama. At that time, Huntington’s analysis was often invoked to explain the rise of jihadist terrorism, the Islamist resistance to Western power.
But in all the other theaters of the world, his thesis seemed relatively dubious. American power clearly did not seem to be declining. China was integrating into the Western world and liberalizing to a certain extent, without charting its own civilizational path. Putin’s first-term Russia seemed to yearn for alliances with America and Europe and some form of democratic normality. In India, the forces of Hindu nationalism were not yet rising. And even in the Muslim world, there have been repeated moments, from the green movement in Iran to the Arab Spring, that seemed to promise 1989-style democratic revolutions followed by convergence with the West.
In other words, the early years of the 21st century have provided ample evidence of the universal appeal of Western capitalism, liberalism and democracy, with outright opposition to those values confined to the margins – Islamists, critics of extreme left of globalization, the government of North Korea.
The last decade, on the other hand, has made Huntington’s predictions of the divergence of civilizations much more prescient. It’s not just that American power has demonstrably diminished relative to our rivals and competitors, or that our post-9/11 efforts to spread Western values through force of arms have so often failed. The specific divergences between the major world powers also generally followed the civilizational patterns sketched out by Huntington.
China’s one-party meritocracy, Putin’s uncrowned czarism, the post-Arab Spring triumph of dictatorship and monarchy over religious populism in the Middle East, Hindutva populism transforming Indian democracy – these are not only indistinguishable forms of “autocracy”, but culturally distinct developments that fit well with Huntington’s typology, his assumption that specific civilizational legacies would manifest as Western power waned, while American power receded.
And then, just as tellingly, the region where this recent divergence has been weaker, the wave of post-Cold War democratization more resilient, is Latin America, about which Huntington acknowledged some uncertainty as to whether it deserved its own civilizational category, or whether it belonged in the United States and Western Europe. (He chose the first; the second seems more plausible today.)
So what about Huntington’s specific predictions about Ukraine, raised by Roy and Caldwell in the review? Well, there he was wrong: although he accurately predicted the internal Ukrainian divisions, the split between the Orthodox and Russian-speaking east and the more Catholic and Western west, his assumption that the civilizational alignments l would trump national alignments was not confirmed in Putin’s war, in which eastern Ukraine fiercely resisted Russia.
This example fits a larger pattern: none of the major emerging non-Western powers has yet built grand alliances based on civilizational affinities, which means that the third of Huntington’s four major predictions seems to be the weakest today. . He imagined, for example, that a rising China might be able to peacefully integrate Taiwan and perhaps even draw Japan into its sphere of influence; this scenario seems highly unlikely at the moment. Instead, wherever small countries are somehow “torn,” in its language, between another civilization and the liberal West, they generally prefer an American alliance to an alignment with Moscow or Beijing.
This speaks to the resilient appeal of the West, to enduring American advantages, even in a multipolar world. But that does not mean that liberalism is ready for a radical return to the position it occupied when American strength was at its height. None of the ambiguous and ambivalent reactions to Putin’s war outside of the Euro-American alliance suggest a sudden spring for the liberal-international world order. And while aspects of the end of Fukuyama’s story have clearly spread beyond the liberal West, it is also often the dark side of his vision – consumerism and childless anomie – that the idealism of democracy and human rights.
Even less does the conflict in Ukraine mean that the export of an American-style ‘awakening’, whatever Putin’s concern, is about to become the focal point of a new global ideological conflict. . Quite the contrary: most revivals feel introverted and parochial, a specifically Western and especially Anglo-American response to the disappointments of the neoliberal period. Rather than offering a universal message, its key slogans and ideas only really make sense in America and Europe – what might ‘questioning whiteness’ mean for the middle class of Mumbai or Jakarta, or for young Bahrain or Beijing elites? And it’s clearly suited to a time of perceived American decline, offering an agenda for moral and spiritual renewal on the one hand, but also a way to justify a certain mediocrity and torpor, because after all too much focus on excellence or the competition smacks of white supremacy.
Interestingly, the Revival Wars reveal another key thing that Huntington may have been wrong about. His main fear for the Western world at a time of civilizational competition was that it would abandon its own cultural specificity and that multiculturalism in particular would be its undoing – that the United States might even fragment into English-speaking and Spanish-speaking enclaves under pressure from mass immigration. And some of the recent convergences between North American and Latin American politics—the growing appeal of populism and right-wing socialism in the United States, the rise of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in South America—fit those predictions. .
But the battles over enlightenment are not necessarily an example of ethnic balkanization or multiculturalism taken too far. Instead, the current culture war may actually reduce ethnic polarization in our political parties — drawing some racial minorities to the right, for example — while resurrecting some of the oldest divisions in Anglo-American politics. The wokes often appear as the heirs of the New England Puritans and the utopian zeal of the Yankeedom; their enemies are often Southern Evangelicals and Conservative Catholics and libertarian descendants of Scots-Irish; and what is at stake in the debates are competing interpretations of the American foundation, the Constitution, the Civil War, and the settlement of the border.
The current American culture war thus proves Huntington right in the broad sense, while going against one of his specific fears. Our various battles over race and gender, liberalism, education and religion, are indeed a response to a world that no longer takes American hegemony or liberal universalism for granted. But they are not – or at least are not yet – a surrender to dissolving forces, a post-American descendant. On the contrary, if there is to be a clash of civilizations, the clash within America is about what kind of civilization ours should be.
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