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Clash of Civilizations—or Clash Within Civilizations?
(OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

Clash of Civilizations—or Clash Within Civilizations?

Seth Cropsey & Harry Halem

Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” caused a stir when Foreign Affairs published it in the summer of 1993. Grand theoretical views by eminent thinkers deserve to cause stirs, whether they are right in the main or not—for being wrong grandly can start ultimately useful conversations in ways that being right trivially cannot. But Huntington’s “Clash” caused a stir for a special reason: He flew against prevailing zeitgeist, which had room for only a globalist versus nationalist conception, by proposing the concept of culture, and by extension civilization, as the organizing principle for global politics in the post-Cold War era. His attempt to determine where we, as a species, are in terms of political and social development arguably represents the pinnacle of Huntington’s work as a political thinker.

Some quarter century later, understanding what Huntington got right, and where he may have missed the mark, is worth the effort. Global politics at its great power weight class has returned to a state of competition; not that competition at any level entirely ceased between 1993 and today. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the Clash thesis can help leaders, particularly Western ones, navigate a turbulent international environment increasingly primed for conflict.

The Civilizational Argument

Huntington’s essay, followed by a similarly titled 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, directly challenged both globalist and nationalist predictions with its claim that differences among civilizations would become the core source of future global conflict. Unlike the former, Huntington denied that values were universal or likely would be universalizing. Increasing complexity and interconnectedness, he said, would not usher in a period of secular messianic calm, but instead prepare the way for a return to independent identities. Rather than deriving identity from ideological systems with global appeal, Huntington foresaw the enduring role of religion and culture in shaping individual and state identity.

At the same time, however, Huntington did not believe the nation-state would continue to serve as the fundamental unit of geopolitical conflict, as it had done for much of the 20th century. Instead, global interconnectedness would intensify political competition, forcing individual states to look upward and outward for protection. This combination of increasingly polarized identities and growing political competition would lead, in Huntington’s view, to an international system defined by civilizational rather than interstate competition. Civilizations would still organize themselves around certain “core states” that combined hard and soft power resources to lead their cultural groupings, while torn states would be internally split between major civilizational poles. Huntington sought to reshape our idea of post-Cold War politics emphasizing culture as a significant divider between friends and enemies, but not to the absolute exclusion of other traditional causes of enmity.

Huntington’s predictions were divided between grand theoretical pronouncements and what he took to be their specific corollaries. Certain broad insights—in particular, the endurance of value differences between the West and non-West and how it would shape politics going forward—were accurate. Moreover, several of his discrete predictions, such as, for example, the shifting military balance toward non-Western civilizations and the dynamics of fault-line conflicts, have enjoyed resounding vindication over the past two decades.

Yet for all that, one of Huntington’s broader assumptions—that political units, pressured by international competition, would work with their affiliates to create a “civilization-based world order”1—now seems mistaken. Civilizations have not cohered into unified political entities as Huntington predicted they would, each working to advance its own agenda vis a vis the others. Instead, cultural divisions within civilizations have become the dominant feature of 21st century world order, with West and East alike confronting their own peculiar identity crises. The result has not been cultural clash so much as cultural implosion—and how it ends is anyone’s guess.

The West and The Rest

The most significant and enduring of Huntington’s predictions are the deepening, persistent value differences between Western civilization and its competitors. He not only foresaw that civilizations would come into conflict, but specifically that the West would find itself engaged with multiple non-Western challengers.

Huntington divided the world into nine distinct civilizational zones. Western civilization spans the Atlantic, encompassing the United States and Canada, Western Europe, parts of Central Europe, the Baltic States, Poland, and Australia. Both Japanese and Latin American civilization can be considered loose affiliates of the West, although in Latin America cultural differences make that linkage highly variable. Slavic-Orthodox, Central Asian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Sinic, and African civilizations encompass the rest of the world’s nations, generally breaking down along ethno-religious lines.

It has become increasingly clear that major differences in values do exist between Western civilization, including its Latin American and Japanese affiliates, and nearly every other civilizational group, with the potential exception of Hindu civilization on the Indian subcontinent. Despite structural variations, every Western country is defined by an elective political system and a constitution that broadly guarantees personal, political, and religious freedom. The past 25 years of political development demonstrate that these systems, however fragile they become from time to time, rest on shared Western social and cultural values.

Huntington identifies religion as a critical differentiating factor. Western Judeo-Christian values, derived from centuries of political and social development, buttress and facilitate representative governance in a way that other religious systems do not. Regardless of this judgment’s accuracy, different cultural units do not share the same idea of legitimate political order. Most Slavic-Orthodox populations live under dominant-party anocratic regimes, such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which despite public elections is controlled by a politico-economic oligarchy. Alexander Lukashenko is now in his fifth term as president of Belarus having defeated the opposition by lop-sided margins since 1994.

Chinese integration into the international economic system did little to modify its underlying domestic structure. At present, China under Xi Jinping’s “Paramount Leadership” is more politically centralized and internally controlled than at any time since Mao. Chinese political institutions today resemble the imperial traditions of its past more than they do any more modern alternative.

States in the Islamic civilizational group are increasingly theocratic, authoritarian, and violent, particularly in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring. Tehran’s leaders and the House of Saud show no signs of relaxing their grips on power, while Turkey is morphing from a relatively liberal, secular, multiparty democracy into a religious, populist authoritarian state.

Dissent exists in authoritarian Russia and China. Much of both regimes’ perceived legitimacy is derived from the threat of government violence. Particularly in China, the regime’s insecurity, partially manifested in an obsession with Taiwan’s democratic existence, demonstrates its leaders’ anxiety over their claim to rule. Similarly, the Islamic World retains its democrats and dissidents, while a new generation of leadership in Saudi Arabia may lead to a less theocratic regime. Regardless, a high enough proportion of the population in these non-Western civilizations look askance at democracy, reject toleration of different ideological and religious positions, or actively embrace an alternative social framework grounded on different forms of legitimacy, all of them inherited to one degree or another from parochial experiences of the historical-cultural dialectic common to all civilizational zones—including the Western one.

Huntington correctly identified these differences as the inchoate drivers of non-Western opposition to the West. Russia’s growing cooperation with China is one example how distinct civilizations might enter into an alliance against a perceived hegemonic threat. Others include Russia’s active intervention on Iran’s behalf in the Syrian civil war and China’s growing economic cooperation with Orthodox and Islamic Central Asian States, Pakistan, and Iran.

The sharpening antipathy that the West faces today is in part due to the high level of underlying consistency, in certain respects at least, between Russian oligarchy, Chinese state capitalism, and Islamic authoritarianism. In their educational systems, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran encourage at least skepticism about the West and its values. They use such appurtenances as elections to mask tyranny. All three states are as consistent in their embrace of kleptocratic rule as they are contemptuous of the freedom to speak, assemble, and pray. As competition continues, this axis shows no signs of weakening: Deeper links between Islamic states and Russia should be expected.

The Civilizational Balance and Western Decline

Despite his criticisms of great power theory, Huntington understood that military and economic prowess play a critical role in shaping civilizational conflict. That is, while differences in values may produce and reinforce anti-Western sentiment, shifts in the major civilizations’ balance of power are what enabled the particular challenges we face today. Non-Western states have narrowed the technological gap with the West, developing the means to contest Western hegemony. China, for example, is well along in developing military applications of quantum computing, directed energy weapons, maneuverable re-entry vehicles, artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons. More importantly, Huntington’s emphasis on the shifting nuclear balance of power retains its merit 25 years later. There was a time when the West’s nuclear supremacy established its unassailable power. Now, however, that supremacy is eroding as more and more non-Western states get their hands on nuclear weapons. Out of the world’s nine nuclear-armed states, only four are Western: the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Israel. Sinic civilization comes in second place, with two nuclear powers, while Hindu, Islamic, and Slavic-Orthodox civilization each have one nuclear weapons state. Iran needs only to wait until the mid-2020s until the nuclear deal practically permits its nuclear weapons production; or it may break out sooner, depending on circumstances, to become the second Islamic nuclear power. These states do not necessarily have the same strategic culture as the West, which means the logic governing Western military policy may be outdated or even obsolete.

The problem isn’t just that more non-Western states have nuclear weapons; it’s that the nuclear weapons they have are growing increasingly dangerous. The North Korean situation demonstrates how non-Western nuclear states have refined their capabilities. Until now, such mid-level nuclear challengers as Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan lacked the missile capabilities to threaten the U.S. mainland directly. The U.S. military could therefore extend its deterrence umbrella to allies as well as a few lucky bystander nations without truly exposing its population to a nuclear strike. But Iranian and North Korean missile technologies, combined with insufficient American and allied defense systems, expose the United States to a level of risk it has not faced since the end of the Cold War. Thus, mid-level non-Western powers can effectively “decouple” the United States from its allies, or reasonably hope to do so in the absence of effective Western countermeasures. The point is that as the nuclear balance continues to shift, Western freedom of military action will narrow.

The tilting nuclear balance is not the only indicator of the growing anti-Western challenge. Non-Western states have developed both asymmetric and even some equivalent conventional capabilities, representing a further challenge to Western power. Chinese long-range missiles are designed to force American naval assets out of the striking range required to deter China or defend U.S. allies. Russian and Iranian anti-aircraft systems, combined with irregular grey zone assets, sharply curtail the U.S. ability to build up land forces near relevant conflict areas. The West’s rivals control conflict escalation in flashpoints ranging from Ukraine to Syria to the Scarborough Shoal. Meanwhile, powerful Western conventional capabilities are matched to a type of conflict that may never come.

The West’s rivals have also begun to field progressively more advanced conventional military technologies and have innovatively adapted them to the tactical-level. This is an underrated yet highly problematic trend in the balance of power between the West and non-West. Despite advances in precision-guided munitions and air forces, urban operational environments remain congested and confusing for offensive forces, nullifying the effects of Western armor and airpower. Absent the total air superiority and geographical propinquity featured in operations like Desert Storm, Western forces will find themselves operating in urban environments without the benefit of sustained interdiction campaigns beforehand. The West can no longer assume its infantry forces will prevail. We have already seen evidence of situations in which they might not: insurgent success in the Second Battle of Fallujah (against Western and Western-trained forces); Hezbollah’s effectiveness against Israel in the 2006 Lebanon War; and the tenacity of ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa.

Not only are non-Western forces becoming more adept at nullifying or matching Western technological advantages. They have also demonstrated an increasing ability to challenge Western forces in close combat. As Huntington foresaw, the West’s military decline, nuclear and otherwise, has created the conditions for a non-Western challenge.

Huntington also accurately identified how a changing military balance allows cultural power to spill across civilizational borders. Proponents of “soft power” theory in the 1990s and early 2000s argued that the utility of military force in international politics was declining, hence the supposed primacy of attractive cultural and political values. By embodying these values in foreign policy, Western states could attract allies and partners without offering concrete military incentives—or so it was thought.

For Huntington, though, “soft power,” was more an intra-civilizational phenomenon rather than an extra-civilizational one. Russian relations with Belarus, the majority of Central Asia, and parts of the former Yugoslavia benefit from historical, cultural, religious, and linguistic affiliations, just as China actively cultivates links with Sinic immigrant and expatriate communities, especially in the Asia-Pacific. But the strength of shared values weakens across civilizational borders. Western unpopularity in Islamic, Sinic, and Slavic-Orthodox civilization cannot be attributed simply to the inability of Western policymakers to articulate their professed values of tolerance and universal acceptance. Indeed, ample evidence exists that many of these norms repel states outside the West’s cultural orbit. It’s not that they don’t like us; they just don’t like what they’re hearing.

Yes, it is true that, aside from in the most reactionary sections of Islamic civilization, Western media, entertainment products and fashion remain popular throughout the world. Three of the top ten and seven of the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time in China are American made. English-language songs are routinely at the top of Russian music charts. On a casual stroll through the souk of any large Near Eastern city, the popularity of denim jeans among all age groups is undeniable. But the embrace of Western culture does not ipso facto entail the Levis-wearers’ acceptance of Western political values. Putin remains extremely popular throughout Russia, particularly among young voters. Despite the underlying brutality of his regime, the current Kleptocrat-in-Chief need not fear a pro-Western revolt, even among those most susceptible to Western influence.

Chinese youth today are less nationalistic than their parents and more exposed to Western political and philosophical culture than previous generations. Yet the Chinese Communist Party remains effective in its indoctrination efforts, and the shadow of the government’s brutality at Tiananmen Square, combined with controls over internet access, still stifles political debate. As Xi Jinping further consolidates power and Beijing cuts deals with significant non-state parties like the Vatican, the possibility that China will embrace Western values remains very distant.

Iran remains a curious case. Protests in December 2017 and January 2018 show that there is significant dissatisfaction with the clerical regime. But it is difficult to translate regime opposition into support for Western political values even in Iran, a country with a deeper proto-democratic tradition than any Near Eastern state apart from Turkey. And there is no indication that regime opponents in Iran are any less eager to acquire the global status that comes with being a nuclear-weapons state.

Technological advances and economic success go hand-in-hand with military power, so it is natural that weaker states look to stronger ones for models and aid for their own development. That process has caused a mixing of cultural and political institutions, starting arguably with 19thcentury Meiji Japan and continuing today in many dozens of states.

But when cultures and political systems do cross borders, the transmission patterns tend to track pretty closely with the civilizational balance of power at the time. In the mid-20th century, for instance, independent states within every civilizational zone adopted either Western capitalism or Soviet communism. And once the Cold War was over, the former Soviet states attempted, with varying degrees of success, to emulate the Western model. Western civilization had won out because its political culture allowed strong civil liberties to coexist with rapid economic growth. As a result, some in the West succumbed to a triumphalist narrative, imagining that liberal democratic capitalism was the only feasible path toward modernization.

Here Huntington disagreed. In his view, other, more authoritarian models could prove every bit as potent and enduring as Western ones, and indeed recent evidence seems to vindicate Huntington on this point. To take just one example, the Chinese system, which has now been emulated by several nations with strong Western roots, undermines the End-of-History idea that was so popular at the turn of the millennium. Ensuring the maintenance and potential growth of the West thus requires repairing our international economic and military positions, for we are no longer a cultural hegemon, a civilization without challengers. We cannot, that is, take our role in the world for granted.

Core State and Fault-Line Wars

Although Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis is an exercise in grand theorizing, his approach includes what is known in the military as the “theater level”—that is, a specification of the geographic area in which conflict occurs. Huntington’s “fault line wars” thesis demonstrates the practical results of meaningful value differences between political communities. When civilizations do clash, the results can be particularly damaging.

Fault line wars are clashes between rival ethnic groups. They are different from conflicts between members of the same civilization, or between great powers that represent different civilizations. States that lie along the “fault line” between two major civilizations are particularly vulnerable largely because geographical propinquity and resource scarcity combine with identity differences to supercharge confrontations. Wars become symbolic, like the struggle between the Achaeans, who honored the rules of host-guest relations, and their Trojan adversaries, whose kidnap of Helen showed that they did not. The Thucydidean concept of “honor” as a fundamental casus belli linked to cultural pride and supremacy prevented the resolution of conflicts despite shifts in the balance of power. The victorious side in fault line conflicts, between governments or non-state actors, is liable to inflict harsh punishments upon its adversary. The Balkan wars of the 1990s and early 2000s were fault line wars between and among ethno-religious groups. Multiple flashpoints created constant potential for conflict between Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosnians. Friction amid ethnic enclaves, combined with assertions of religious and cultural supremacy, led to genocide.

However, fault line conflicts can also occur in the absence of ethnic fragmentation, when deep cultural differences separate populations. Eastern Europe’s current political situation is a sustained fault line conflict, especially with regards to Ukraine, whose polarized population is split along two civilizational lines: The Russophile East gravitates toward its Slavic roots, while the Europhile West retains its Western affiliation.

Tension between political cultures can develop sua sponte, but often human intervention magnifies the tremors. Vladimir Putin took full advantage of the schism in Ukraine to isolate the east from the rest of the country and draw it back into Russia’s orbit. Similarly, in the “frozen conflicts” of Georgia and Moldova, Russia manipulated the ethnic and religious affiliations of the population for their own objectives.

Much of Eastern Europe is frozen between Slavic and Western civilization. The zone of friction runs almost exactly down Huntington’s identified fault line:

This line dates back to the division of the Roman Empire in the fourth century and to the creation of the Holy Roman Empire in the tenth century. It has been in roughly its current place for at least five hundred years. Beginning in the north, it runs along what are now the borders between Finland and Russia and the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and Russia, through western Belarus, through Ukraine separating the Uniate west from the Orthodox east, through Romania between Transylvania with its Catholic Hungarian population and the rest of the country, and through the former Yugoslavia along the border separating Slovenia and Croatia from the other republics. In the Balkans, of course, this line coincides with the historical division between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. It is the cultural border of Europe, and in the post-Cold War world it is also the political and economic border of Europe and the West.2

Multiple signs of stress exist along this fault line today. In the North, the Baltics remain solidly Western and anti-Russian, while Finland and Sweden refuse to be drawn into Russia’s orbit, instead maintaining independent and tacitly pro-Western foreign policies. However, Poland’s current government exhibits increasingly authoritarian tendencies, while Hungary and the Balkans are consistently more ambivalent in their allegiance to the West. Further into Mitteleuropa, fault line stresses still show.

Major Russian-speaking and former Eastern Bloc populations have retained their affinity for Slavic-Orthodox civilization—a fact demonstrated even in the heart of the West by the rise of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, a right-wing German party hiding behind a nationalist veneer. The majority of the party’s voters are found in what was formerly East Germany, and a third of that base is Russian-speaking Slavic or Volga German. Russian-sponsored media outlets routinely support AfD candidates in an attempt to galvanize Slavic-Orthodox minority groups in the heart of Europe and use them against established parties in the European political system.

Western policymakers would do well to heed Huntington’s fault line analysis. It identifies the roots of many of today’s geopolitical issues and helps us predict what future conflicts might look like. It also hints at policy directions likely to be adopted by other states, which are increasingly motivated by a widespread sense of cultural precariousness.

The Clash’s Blind-Spot

Huntington’s Clash thesis has significant merit, but contemporary events undermine its argument that civilizations will naturally cohere as inter-civilizational competition intensifies. If anything, increased competition has fractured civilizational zones, particularly the Western one.

Huntington’s theory rests upon a major assumption: Political units will only evolve upward, as more and more states would integrate into their respective civilizations. Information technology and more efficient transport methods would “shrink” the world, according to Huntington, making interactions within civilizations more frequent and differences between them much starker. Economic growth would eliminate traditional subcultures, leading populations to turn to religion to find meaning and purpose. Economic regionalism would reinforce these twin motions, creating transnational cohesion and reinforcing religious bonds across borders within civilizational zones.

Finally, Huntington thought that as the West’s power declined, competition between the West and non-West, and among non-Western alternative civilizations, would spike. States would be forced to choose between ceding sovereignty for survival or risking destruction at the hands of more powerful transnational units.

There remains much to this. Value differences have certainly persisted between the West and non-West, and the military decline of Western states parallels a concerted armed challenged from states in non-Western civilizations. The world has “shrunk” with the increase in communications and transportation technologies. Yet for all that, most civilizations have refused to cohere.

Huntington was right to identify civilizations as basic units of political interaction. He erred, however, in underestimating the degree to which intra-civilizational competition would persist: Taiwan remains stubbornly independent despite China’s diplomatic and political efforts to isolate it; tensions on the Korean peninsula remain high; Vietnam, the other critical component of Huntington’s Sinic civilization, not only remains outside of China’s grasp but has explicitly attempted to build links with the United States; and although China holds the preponderance of power in Sinic civilization, the traditional rule of political competition—that power repels power—still applies in the face of cultural consanguinity.

Africa and Latin America also remain fundamentally divided. South of the Sahel, most of Africa’s states have stagnated. Potential regional leaders either refuse to exert their influence and build a clear political sphere, such as in the case of South Africa, or are plagued by internal issues, as with Nigeria. Africa remains too internally fragmented to cohere, which has allowed external powers to influence regional affairs. China now targets the continent, attempting to secure its natural resources, but the United States and France are also major players. French involvement especially indicates Africa’s lack of political coherence: Despite its economic and military fragility, France still dominates many of its former colonies.

Latin America is stronger and more developed than Africa. The civilizational group’s states demonstrate a growing collective industrial capacity, produce significant portions of the world’s energy and food supplies, and have robust demographics. Cooperation rather than competition now defines Latin American regional politics as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile seem to have largely overcome the rivalries that defined their earlier relationships. However, decolonization created multiple and distinct political traditions within Latin America. The connections with the West remain, but as Huntington recognized, Latin civilization as a whole remains distinct with its largely Catholic tradition and Hispano-Portuguese languages. Despite having significance as a broader unit, the unity of Latin civilization remains elusive, and integration between Latin American and the Anglophone parts of the New World, tenuous.

Islamic civilization, meanwhile, has done anything but cohere. In addition to the persistent presence of external powers within its domain—the West, Russia, and India—Islamic civilization is beset by a growing internal battle for political leadership. Several potential core states exist, but out of the six that Huntington identified in 1996 (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Egypt), only three remain as possible leaders of the Islamic world.3 And those three—Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—belong to their own distinct sub-civilizations that harbor deep-seated enmities toward one another.

A religious divide also splits these competitors. Shi‘a Iran opposes Sunni Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The differences within Islamic civilization are also highlighted by each state’s choice of allies. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two states with starkly different political systems, have historically gravitated toward the West. As Western power declines, authoritarian Saudi Arabia remains solidly within the Western orbit while still more liberal Turkey hedges its bets, albeit possibly for very time-limited reasons having to do with the ongoing Syrian civil war. Iran, meanwhile, has turned to Slavic-Orthodox civilization as a potential ally. Over time, Islamic civilization’s wars may burn out and its states might cohere into a functional international unit. But without the very unlikely ultimate triumph of one challenger for leadership over the other two, Islamic civilization is very unlikely to emerge as a united, independent force.

Western Collapse

Most dramatically, the West has refused to obey Huntington’s model. Rather than entering a new period of competition for civilizational leadership, the West’s core states seem to be increasingly ambivalent about the ideals that have defined Western culture. The threats to Western leadership have multiplied since the Cold War’s end as revisionist challengers rise from Slavic-Orthodox, Sinic, and Islamic civilizations.

This international competition has highlighted fissures among Western subgroups. The core, comprised of the Anglosphere and Western Continental Europe (particularly Germany and France), maintained a united front throughout the Cold War, despite frequent Gallic squirming. But since the Soviet collapse, the Anglosphere and the Continent have drifted apart. Two models, not one, exist in the West: the market-focused Anglosphere approach and the socially democratic Continental method. A period of civilizational fracture could be consistent with Huntington’s thesis, but signs in both the Anglosphere and the Continent point not to competition between partners but to increasing Western frailty overall.

The problem began in Europe. Germany, a state until 1945 that embraced its own identity, erased nationalism from its (Western German) political consciousness to atone for World War II and the Holocaust. Angela Merkel’s decision to allow significant Islamic populations to enter Germany, and by extension Europe, grew out of this ideology. Merkel’s migration policies provoked a predictable reaction that, at its darkest, reflects the illiberal side of traditional nationalism.

In the Anglosphere, the United States is reconsidering its position as the standard bearer of the liberal international order, as well as its principled attachment to free trade. Meanwhile U.S. trade and immigration policy threatens to alienate all countries to south of the border with Mexico. Britain’s political leadership is inept and has been for a while. The Brexit plebiscite bordered on insane and should never have been allowed, let alone encouraged, and the current Prime Minister nearly permitted a committed leftist and avowed friend of terrorist groups to win the election. She cannot control her own party as Brexit negotiations have all but imploded. Canada, under ineffective “centrist” leadership, is faring little better.

Perhaps more important, the political climate has degenerated since the 1990s. The United States, and the West more broadly, is increasingly divided between political extremes. Shades of collectivist authoritarianism haunt much of the contemporary Left, for example in efforts to manipulate language, curtail free speech, and airbrush alleged malefactors and their works from our common cultural history. Meanwhile the Right is rife with modern versions of the interwar isolationists who lob xenophobic and nativist ideas into the public square. The result on all sides has been a growing affinity for executive action, disregard for the legitimacy of differing opinions, the evanescence of moderate politics, and a coarsening of political discourse that encourages the manipulation of the electorate.

It is therefore not particularly surprisingly that some Western states are turning away from the hard work of consolidating liberal democratic models of governance. Hungary, Poland, and even Austria have all become more authoritarian, with their ruling right-wing parties feeding off the failure of the European Left to articulate a political vision that does not demean the Western experience and its constituent national traditions. Italy and Spain do not appear to be far behind. Tolerance, mixed governance, individual liberty, and open civic cultures, among many other things, made the West great. Whether from intolerance, self-doubt, or some mixture of these debilities, the West now seems to be rejecting its own heritage. Huntington offers few assurances for declining civilizations. The West is no exception.

As we look to an uncertain future, Samuel Huntington, who passed away almost ten years ago, still teaches us one clear lesson. Man will not return to bypassed forms of political organization. Old alliance structures, regime types, and social norms will not succeed when the intellectual and moral frameworks underpinning them have been uprooted. The stakes in the fracturing of non-Western civilizations are large and unknowable. But the consequences of the splintering of the West’s ideas of liberty, the decay of political institutions, the abandonment of market-based economics, and the subduction of its military dominance are larger but knowable. As parlous as the clash of civilizations might be, the implosion of our own is much more to be feared.

1 Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996), pp. 20.
2 Huntington, Clash, pp. 158
3 Huntington, Clash, pp. 177-8