For several years, there was a feeling among some Western intellectual elites that the “Clash of Civilizations” predicted by political scientist Samuel Huntington in 1992 had indeed come to pass. The attack on the Twin Towers in New York, the struggle against Islamic terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among others, appeared to confirm the Harvard professor’s claim that the clash between Western civilization and Islam would lie at the center of international relations following the end of the Cold War.
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The rise of China as a competing power with the United States, economically and militarily, also fit Huntington’s thesis of a future global struggle between a declining West and East Asian civilization, with China at its core.
Yet today, Huntington’s predictions are depicted as nothing more than a brilliant intellectual exercise. Huntington may have been right when he determined that ethnic, religious and cultural identities would fuel the awakening of new political conflicts. But contra his thesis, most of these struggles now take place within the framework of the large super cultures. Instead of these cultures creating superregional and global frameworks, the different cultural identities are creating political fissures in different nation-states.
Middle Eastern countries are unlikely to unify under the rule of a single Islamic caliphate in the near or distant future. If it were possible to define any one thing as lying at the center of Muslim civilization today, it would have to be the stubborn struggle between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims – with Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively, leading the two rival camps.
This struggle is creating political splits in Iraq, Syria and Bahrain, as well as counterresponses from secular forces in Turkey and Egypt. In Libya and Yemen, old ethnic and tribal conflicts are being revived.
China has not become the core state of East Asia unifying the surrounding countries under an anti-Western cultural banner. To the contrary, its efforts to become the dominant regional power have generated a counterresponse from countries such as Japan, South Korea and Indonesia, which are pressuring the United States to continue playing a key role in serving as a brake on China’s strategic ambitions in the region.
The conflict most likely to light the fuse of a major regional war in East Asia is not the one between Washington and Beijing, but between Beijing and Tokyo. Both China and Japan are driven by nationalist agendas and territorial struggles.
Likewise – and in contrast to Huntington’s predictions – China did not form alliances with radical, anti-Western Islamic countries. Rather, Beijing is working aggressively to suppress the national and religious awakening of its large Muslim minority.
Sometimes, it seems that one of the most faithful adherents to Huntington’s thesis is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who tries to present his foreign policy as part of a global cultural struggle.
Russia has two roles in this struggle. The first is to represent the Orthodox-Christian legacy of Byzantium and its branches in the Balkans (Serbia) and the Middle East (the Orthodox Christian minorities in Syria) in the face of its historical rivals – Turkey and its Western allies – for control of the region.
In its second role, it represents a conservative worldview against the liberal secular values represented by the European Union and the United States, with its opposition to gay rights serving as a symbol of those conservative and traditional values.
The real culture war is taking place within Russia, with the conservative elites represented by Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Western-oriented intelligentsia concentrated in the large cities.
A similar values-based dichotomy propels a clash of civilizations elsewhere. In the United States, supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement oppose the liberal-democratic coalition. In Turkey, Islamist supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are arrayed against his secular opponents. In the European Union, those who support a strong centralized union are engaged in struggle with those who oppose it.
In Israel as well, the supporters of liberal, cosmopolitan values found in greater Tel Aviv are opposed by the ultra-Orthodox and nationalist camps.
Putin’s success in using culture as a tool to strengthen his rule and promote Russia’s strategic interests highlights the dilemma facing those who march under the flag of liberal reform: Enlisting public support is much more effective when you present yourself as someone seeking to defend community members from those seeking to harm its collective identity, whether it is Pan-Slavic Russian, Islamist or Messianic Zionist.
This explains the difficult challenge faced by the side trying to defend enlightened universal values in a local clash of civilizations.
The writer is a senior analyst at a geostrategic consulting company.