Was there really a “clash of civilizations?” | WORLD
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Was there really a “clash of civilizations?”

The answer turns out to be both yes and no

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill after an Easter service in Moscow on April 16. Oleg Varov, Russian Orthodox Church Press Service via Associated Press

Was there really a “clash of civilizations?”
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As we consider America’s greatest challenges in the global arena, should we think of them as a part of a “clash of civilizations?” Are we just competing with China, Russia, and others over markets and money, or is the larger battle over values and ideas?

In 1993, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington published his controversial essay, “The Clash of Civilizations?” That article gave rise to three decades of vociferous debate. Huntington’s basic argument was that the Cold War was a war of ideologies (democratic capitalism vs. Marxist communism), won by America and its allies. Huntington described the “battle lines of the future” as:

… the fundamental source of conflict in this new [post-Cold War] world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theorized that globalizing tools such as media and technology would drive the creation of regional blocs based upon shared historical and cultural affinities, most notably religious identities which would take shape as the Protestant West, Catholic Latin America, Orthodox East (Russia), Confucian China, the greater Muslim world, and the like. The basic idea is that political alliances would form at the highest level of “shared civilizational identity,” coalescing around a thin, yet shared, religio-cultural identity. The flashpoints for conflict should be where these civilizations bump into one another, such as Hindu India’s borders with Muslim Pakistan and China. 

Today’s Russia shows both the power and limitations of Huntington’s theory. Vladimir Putin claims that Russia is the center of such an Orthodox religio-cultural civilization based upon a revisionist history of Russian glory—the Russian mir (world) that encompasses neighbors such as Belarus and the wider Orthodox world. His religious diplomacy resulted in millions of dollars invested in rebuilding Orthodox shrines, churches, and monasteries from France and Greece to Syria and Armenia. Putin justified the invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 as the historical, sacred heartland of the Kievan Rus where the conversion of Vladimir the Great occurred in 988 AD. Forbes calls this “Russian exceptionalism” an “(un)holy alliance” of the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Today’s Russia shows both the power and limitations of Huntington’s theory.

Putin claims to represent a morally superior Eurasian Orthodoxy against both the hedonistic post-Christian West and Islamist violence emanating from the greater Middle East. Putin asserts civilizational struggles, just as Huntington hypothesized, although he has not had success in creating a religio-political revival at home, much less in neighboring countries.

China’s President Xi, speaking from a position of Chinese nationalism, makes similar arguments against the decadent West, sectarian communities (Tibetan Buddhists), and “dangerous” violent Muslim-minorities (Uighurs). Xi calls on neighbors to jump on his Asian “bandwagon,” rejecting pressure to conform to individualized Western liberalism.

Huntington’s “Clash” thesis has been useful in forecasting the likely conflicts where geography is contested at the overlap of these civilizations. In the 1990s this meant places like Israel-Palestine and Kashmir. Today, some of the world’s most insecure spots are on similar fault lines. Just consider where Arab-Muslim North Africa and sub-Saharan Christian Africa meet, or look to the conflicts between Sunni Arabs and Shia Iran, and on India’s borders with Pakistan and China.

Most dangerous are what Huntington called “torn societies,” whiplashed between rival civilizations. In the 1990 the key example was Turkey, pulled between East and West. More recently it has been Ukraine, pulled between the democratized West and an authoritarian Russia. Nigeria, which has lost over 100,000 people to terrorism and sectarian violence in the past decade, is torn between the vision some have for an exclusivist community built on shariah law and a more pluralistic society.

Huntington’s essay continues to be among the most widely cited articles in the field of foreign policy. Was his hypothesis correct? Somewhat. He forecast perennial “fault lines” and predicted some of the historical-cultural arguments of Putin, Xi, and others.

In 2004, Huntington wrote about a new crisis, as elites in the West turned their back on the Judeo-Christian moral center of Western civilization. In 2023, we must renew our commitment to America’s founding principles to deter not just enemies abroad, but harmful ideas foreign to our democratic Republic. This will require a return to commitments of “liberty and justice for all” as established in our Constitution.

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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