Cast your eyes around the world, and they are likely to land on a scene of conflict and chaos. In the Middle East, obviously, from pillar (Libya) to post (the Persian Gulf). In the center of Eurasia (Ukraine). In the South China Sea and the DMZ. The world situation has not been this fraught since the 1930s.
If you are like me, you crave an explanation. You could do far worse than start with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Huntington’s article and subsequent book of the same title unleashed a storm of furious criticism when it came out in 1993. But standing 22 years later, Huntington looks prescient, and many of his critics look like utter fools.
The best evidence of this is to look at the antagonists in the most important cockpits of conflicts.
Start with Ukraine. Putin has explicitly invoked the idea of “a Russian world” and has justified his actions in Ukraine and elsewhere as a legitimate defense of Russian people, language, and culture from the assaults of his enemies, especially in the West. Putin and other Russians tirelessly invoke contrasts between Russian civilization and European civilization in particular.
Putin and Russians generally think they are in a Clash of Civilizations.
Next consider China. China’s leadership too views China as a great civilization that was oppressed by others (Westerners, Japanese), and which is now assuming its proper place in the world. They express a clear cultural-civilizational-chauvinism. If anything, the Chinese people are even more aggressively chauvinistic than their leaders.
The Chinese leadership and people think they are in a Clash of Civilizations.
And of course, there is Islam. That Islam believes that it is in a civilizational war with just about everybody, but in particular the West, needs no explication. Yes, there is an intramural civil war within Islam, between Sunnis and Shia, but (a) this is complicated by a civilizational clash between Arab and Persian, and (b) this conflict is in no small part a battle over who will lead the clash of Islam with the infidels.
The jihadis and the mullahs and vast numbers of Muslims generally believe they are in a Clash of Civilizations.
Who doesn’t believe it? The skeptics and doubters reside mainly in one civilization: the Western.
Indeed, Huntington’s harshest critics resided (and reside) in the West. They are, in the main, progressives, which, like top quarks, come in left-handed (mainly those who self-identify as progressives) and right-handed (e.g., neocons as epitomized by Francis Fukuyama) varieties. Despite their differences in specific policies, they share a dialectical view that history progresses in one direction, and that it is relentlessly moving to a final state, and that in the end, humanity as a whole will converge to this state. The left progs’ final state is socialist/statist: the right progs’ final state is liberal and democratic.
Obama is clearly a progressive, so understood. His most consistent trope in responding to conflict, with Putin or the Islamists, is to say that history will leave them behind; that they are swimming against the tide of history. Obama said this to Putin about Ukraine: he just said it about Syria: he has said it about Isis. His policy towards Iran is predicated on the belief that once Iran is readmitted in into the community of nations, it will become a Normal Country, and discard its Islamist civilizational mission.
So part of the failure of many of those in the West to believe in the Clash of Civilizations is rooted in a worldview that such conflicts are an atavism that will disappear as the world converges to-progresses to-some homogenous end state in which all existing differences are dissolved.
But that’s not the only part. Another part is a paradox of Western civilization. The West’s distinguishing characteristics include skepticism, criticism and doubt. That very skepticism, criticism and doubt have led many (especially on the left, but also many on the right) to conclude that Western civilization is flawed, corrupt, defective, and certainly not superior to any other civilization, and hence not worth fighting for. Thus, the self-criticism that defines Western civilization prevents many in it from fighting for it. In this respect too, Obama is an exemplar.
A big part of the reason the past few years have seen a waxing of the Clash is precisely that the leader of the leader of Western civilization has declined to fight for it, due to a rather strange combination of fatalism (history will progress and nations will converge due to fundamental historical forces) and a belief that its civilization has no right to assert itself, because of its inherent flaws. This is in contrast to the American role post-1945, which self-confidently (on the whole, with exceptions like post-Vietnam) believed in the superiority of Western (and specifically American) civilization, and exerted its power (economic, social, cultural, and often military) to create and maintain a rough order even at the fault lines of civilizational conflict (notably the Middle East, but also between Europe and Russia, and between China and the rest of Asia).
So one way to understand the mess that the world is in now is to take Huntington’s idea of enduring antagonisms and frictions between competing and incompatible civilizations, and add the retreat of the one power that largely kept those antagonisms and frictions under control.
We are arguably in the midst of a new world war, though one that is fortunately, for now anyways, not as cataclysmic as the two that preceded it. But it is a different type of world war not only because of its lower intensity, but because it is not a war between two dominant blocs. Instead, it is a multipolar war with at least four major civilizations jostling at various points around the globe. This multipolarity makes the struggle less predictable, and far more confusing. It will only become more so unless the West, and in particular the US, realizes the nature of the ongoing conflict, and reengages accordingly.
A phrase often attributed to Trotsky (probably wrongly) seems apt here: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Rephrased: you may not be interested in a Clash of Civilizations, but a Clash of Civilizations is interested in you. If we don’t awaken to that reality, we are destined to be the losers in that clash.