Global politics was becoming not just “multipolar” but “multicivilisational,” he argued, with competing powers modernising along different cultural lines, not simply converging with the liberal West. “The balance of power among civilisations” was shifting, and the West was entering a period of relative decline. A “civilisation-based world order” was emerging, in which societies “sharing cultural affinities” were more likely to group themselves into alliances or blocs. And the would-be universalism of the West was setting the stage for sustained conflict with rival civilisations, most notably with China and the Islamic world.
These claims were the backbone of Huntington’s book “The Clash of civilisations and the Remaking of World Order,” which was seen as a sweeping interpretive alternative to Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, with its vision of liberal democracy as the horizon toward which post-Cold War societies were likely to converge.
The Huntington thesis would seem ripe for new attention in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the surprisingly unified Western response, the more uncertain reactions from China and India. But more often lately Huntington has been invoked either warily, on the grounds that Putin wants a clash of civilisations and we shouldn’t give it to him, or in dismissal or critique, with the idea being that his theory of world politics has actually been disproved by Putin’s attempt to restore a Greater Russia.
That’s the argument offered, for instance, by Olivier Roy, the French scholar of Islam, in a recent interview with Le Nouvel Observateur. Roy describes the Ukraine war as “definitive proof (because we have many others) that the ‘Clash of civilisations’ theory does not work” — mostly because Huntington had predicted that countries that share Orthodox Christianity would be unlikely to go to war with one another, but instead here we have Putin’s Russia making war, and not for the first time, against a largely Orthodox Christian neighbor, even as he accommodates Muslim constituencies inside Russia.
Writing for the new outsider journal Compact, a would-be home for radicals of the left and right, Christopher Caldwell also invokes Huntington’s seemingly falsified predictions about Orthodox Christian unity. But then he also offers a different reason to reject Huntington’s application to our moment, suggesting that the civilisational model has been a useful framework for understanding events over the last 20 years, but lately we have been moving back to a world of explicitly ideological conflict — one defined by a Western elite preaching a universal gospel of “neoliberalism” and “wokeness,” and various regimes and movements that are trying to resist it.
This is a right-wing reading of the global landscape, one hostile to the Western missionary zeal that 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 multiple poles and competing civilisations.
Yet both of those contemporary arguments offer weaker interpretive frameworks than the one that Huntington provided. No theory from 25 or 30 years ago is going to be a perfect guide to world affairs. But if you want to understand the direction of global politics right now, the Huntington thesis is more relevant than ever.
To see why, cast your mind back to the years just after his book was published — the turn of the millennium, the Bush and early Obama years. In those days Huntington’s analysis was often invoked to explain the rise of jihadi terrorism, the Islamist resistance to the power of the West.
But in every other theatre of the world, his thesis looked relatively dubious. American power didn’t seem to be obviously declining. China was integrating with the Western world and liberalising to some degree, not charting its own civilisational course. Russia in Putin’s first term seemed to aspire to alliances with America and Europe and to a certain kind of democratic normalcy. In India the forces of Hindu nationalism weren’t ascendant yet. And even in the Muslim world, there were 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.
The first years of the 21st century, in other words, provided a fair amount of evidence for the universal appeal of Western capitalism, liberalism and democracy, with outright opposition to those values confined to the margins — Islamists, far-left critics of globalisation, the government of North Korea.
The last decade, on the other hand, has made Huntington’s predictions of civilisational divergence look much more prescient. It isn’t just that American power has obviously declined relative to our rivals and competitors, or that our post-9/11 efforts to spread Western values by force of arms so often came to grief. The specific divergences between the world’s major powers have also followed, in general ways, the civilisational patterns that Huntington sketched out.
China’s one-party meritocracy, Putin’s uncrowned czardom, the post-Arab Spring triumph of dictatorship and monarchy over religious populism in the Middle East, the Hindutva populism transforming Indian democracy — these aren’t just all indistinguishable forms of “autocracy” but culturally distinctive developments that fit well with Huntington’s typology, his assumption that specific civilisational inheritances would manifest themselves as Western power diminishes, as American might recedes.
And then, just as tellingly, the region where this recent divergence has been weaker, the post-Cold War wave of democratisation more resilient, is Latin America, about which Huntington acknowledged some uncertainty whether it deserved its own civilisational category, or whether it essentially belonged with the United States and Western Europe. (He chose the former; the latter seems more plausible today.)
Then what about Huntington’s specific predictions about Ukraine, raised by Roy and Caldwell in critique? Well, there he did get something wrong: Though he accurately foresaw internal Ukrainian divisions, the split between the Orthodox and Russian-speaking east and the more Catholic and Western-leaning west, his assumption that civilisational alignments would trump national ones hasn’t been borne out in Putin’s war, in which eastern Ukraine has resisted Russia fiercely.
That example fits a larger pattern: None of the emerging non-Western great powers have yet built grand alliances based on civilisational affinities, meaning that the third of the four big Huntingtonian predictions looks like the weakest one today. He imagined, for instance, that a rising China might be able to peacefully integrate Taiwan and maybe even draw Japan into its sphere of influence; that scenario seems highly unlikely at the moment. Instead, wherever smaller countries are somehow “torn,” in his language, between some other civilisation and the liberal West, they usually prefer an American alliance to an alignment with Moscow or Beijing.
This speaks to the West’s resilient appeal, to enduring American advantages even in a multipolar world. But it doesn’t mean that liberalism is poised for some sweeping 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 the Euro-American alliance suggest a sudden springtime for the liberal-international world order. And while aspects of Fukuyama’s end of history have clearly spread beyond the liberal West, it’s as often the shadow side of his vision — consumerism and childless anomie — as the idealism of democracy and human rights.
Still less does the conflict in Ukraine mean that the export of American-style “wokeness,” however much it may preoccupy Putin, is poised to become the focal point for a new global ideological conflict. Quite the reverse: Most of wokeness feels inward-looking and parochial, a specifically Western and especially Anglo-American response to disappointments with the neoliberal period. Rather than offering a universal message, its key slogans and ideas really make sense only inside America and Europe — what could “interrogating whiteness” possibly mean to the middle class of Mumbai or Jakarta, or to the young elites of Bahrain or Beijing? And it’s clearly tailored to an age of perceived American decline, offering a program of 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 competition smacks of white supremacy.
Interestingly, the wokeness wars reveal another key thing that Huntington may have gotten wrong. His main fear for the Western world in an age of civilisational competition was that it would abandon its own cultural distinctiveness and that multiculturalism especially would be its undoing — that the United States might even fragment into English- and Spanish-speaking enclaves under the pressure of mass immigration. And some of the recent convergences between North American and Latin American politics — the growing appeal of right-wing populism and socialism in the United States, the rise of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in South America — map onto those predictions.
But the battles over wokeness are not necessarily an example of ethnic Balkanization or multiculturalism gone too far. Instead, the current culture war may actually be reducing ethnic polarisation in our political parties — drawing some racial minorities rightward, for instance — while resurfacing some of the oldest divides in Anglo-American politics. The woke often seem like heirs of the New England Puritans and the utopian zeal of Yankeedom; their foes are often Southern evangelicals and conservative Catholics and the libertarian descendants of the Scots-Irish; and the stakes in the debates are competing interpretations of the American founding, the Constitution, the Civil War and the settlement of the frontier.
The present American culture war, then, vindicates Huntington in the larger sense, while cutting against one of his specific fears. Our various battles over race and sex, liberalism, education and religion, are indeed a response to a world that no longer takes American hegemony or liberal universalism for granted. But they aren’t — or at least aren’t yet — a surrender to dissolving forces, a post-American descent. Rather, if there’s going to be a clash of civilisations, the clash inside America is over what kind of civilisation ours should be.
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