The West is in serious trouble. For the past few years, it has been eroding from growing populist and nationalist forces within. Now, weakened and in disarray, it confronts multiple challengers at once, from the Islamic State and its affiliates, to a rising China and revisionist Russia, which are increasingly assertive and capable of shaping the world in non-Western ways.
These dangers have brought back to the fore an old idea from the famous political scientist Samuel Huntington. His “clash of civilizations” thesis posited that the major source of conflict in the post-Cold War world would not occur over ideological or economic fault lines, but cultural ones. Indeed, today we are beset with crises in the West and around the world—but to what degree is culture the cause?
It depends on where you look. Take the West’s fight against jihadi terrorism. While there is no doubt that certain groups across the Middle East are deeply hostile to Western values, the notion that there is a monolithic Islamic culture aligned against the West is deeply flawed. On the contrary, the Islamic world is comprised of myriad nations with serious disputes and disagreements amongst themselves.
Nevertheless, in the White House, the Trump Administration is promoting the notion that the United States is in a civilizational war with Islam, and has begun to craft policy accordingly. Similarly, in France, far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has galvanized support around her hardline stance against Islam (meanwhile, her centrist opponent François Fillon is floundering due to an ongoing ethics scandal).
Culture is similarly limited in explaining the West’s ongoing tensions with Russia. The conflict in Ukraine, for instance, should have been precluded by the civilizational similarities between Russia and Ukraine, according to the Huntington thesis. Moreover, other Western disputes with Russia, from Syria to cybercrime, are more persuasively explained by classic national security considerations or the personal ambitions and rivalries of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
On the other hand, culture does help us understand one of the seminal tensions of our new era—between urban globalists and non-urban nationalists. Importantly, these cultural tensions are playing out largely within rather than between civilizations. Consider the divide that exists between London and its hinterlands or between Chicago and rural Illinois. Here, differences in culture are key to understanding differences in policy. The urban globalists, with their cosmopolitan liberal attitudes, favored more trade and immigration, while rural voters tended to favor greater limits on both.
Huntington’s thesis was written for and during a different era, but still holds an outsized influence on foreign policy discussions today. This Weeks Reads revisits his ideas and explores the ways in which culture is influencing our new era of global politics.
Scott Shane, Matthew Rosenberg, and Eric Lipton/The New York Times
President Trump has embraced a deeply suspicious view of Islam that borrows from the “clash of civilizations” thesis of Huntington and combines straightforward warnings about extremist violence with broad-brush critiques of Islam. Those espousing such views present Islam as an inherently hostile ideology whose adherents are enemies of Christianity and Judaism and seek to conquer nonbelievers either by violence or through a sort of stealthy brainwashing. They all reflect the hardline opinions of what some have described as the Islamophobia industry, a network of researchers who have warned for many years of the dangers of Islam and were thrilled by Mr. Trump’s election.
Obama's White House Worked for Months on a Plan to Seize Raqqa. Trump's Team Took a Brief Look and Decided Not to Pull the Trigger.
Adam Entous, Greg Jaffe, and Missy Ryan/The Washington Post
The Obama administration deliberated for so long that there was little time left to pull the trigger on its plan for the final assault on Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate. They tried to hand the plan over to the Trump administration fully cooked to execute, but President Trump’s national security team deemed it wholly insufficient and swiftly tossed it. To them, Obama’s approach was so incremental and risk-averse that it was almost certain to fail. President Trump has since directed his defense secretary to bring him multiple options and to ignore previous restrictions on troop numbers and civilian causalities put in place by the Obama administration.
Rukmini Callimachi/The New York Times
Remotely guided plots in Europe, Asia and the United States in recent years were initially labeled the work of “lone wolves,” with no operational ties to the Islamic State, only for direct communication with the group to be discovered later. This in-depth investigation by Rukmini Cllimachi dives into how the Islamic State’s most influential recruiters and virtual plotters launch “remote controlled” attacks on foreign soil.
John F. Harris and Daniel Lippman/POLITICO
“Modern presidents always feel hectored by the news media and harried by opposition legislators,” write John F. Harris and Daniel Lippman, “but mortal threats to their power typically come from hostile forces inside the executive branch.” They write that President Trump has awakened the slumbering beast that felled presidents before him: the federal bureaucracy. The unprecedented barrage of leaks and direct challenges from federal employees parallel President Nixon’s famous suspicion of and war with institutional forces supposedly under his control—a war that eventually caused him his presidency.
Ross Douthat/The New York Times
In Trump’s executive order halting travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, Ross Douthat sees familiar signs of the undoing of a populist movement. Populism pushes against the boundaries of acceptable opinion, ignores elites and proceduralism, and causes chaos and blowback—which are seen as a kind of vindication of its unorthodox stances. Meanwhile the ascent of populism creates an unusual level of solidarity among elites. While some fear that Trump will deal with this elite opposition by crushing it, Douthat says nothing about Trumpian populism to date suggests that it has either the political skill or the popularity required to grind his opposition down.
Steven Erlanger/The New York Times
“Like much of the world, the European Union is struggling to decipher a President Trump who seems every day to be picking a new fight with a new nation, whether friend or foe.” Steven Erlanger reports that European Council President Donald Tusk wrote a letter to leaders of the European Union suggesting that Donald Trump presented a threat on par with a newly assertive China, an aggressive Russia, and “wars, terror and anarchy in the Middle East and Africa.” While The European Union used to rely on US backing, many now believe that Trump is against European integration and sees it as inimical to US interests.
Anne-Sylvaine Chassany/Financial Times
François Fillon was supposed to be the darling of French mainstream politics in this year’s election, promising ethics in politics. That was before allegations surfaced that Mr. Fillon’s wife received almost a million dollars in taxpayer money for a role as an aide to her husband that she did not actually hold. Now the French election has been thrown into chaos before the first round of voting on April 23, with the path opening for a politician outside the left and right mainstream parties, which many in France have come to see as presiding over a perpetual state of economic crises and unemployment.
Franklin Foer says that Vladimir Putin has become the ideological hero of nationalists everywhere, and that he’s done so not through graft and subversion as his primary tactic, but by casting himself as “The New World Leader of Conservatism.” Observing discomfort within America and Europe about the “fetishization of tolerance and diversity,” he anticipated a global revolt against progressive egalitarianism and helped give it ideological shape. Traditionalism has allowed Putin to consolidate power while sucking the life from civil society and egging on anxiety about the West’s downfall that propel popular leaders like Trump or Marine Le Pen to rise.
Ross Douthat/The New York Times
Ross Douthat traces the evolution of US identity and says we still aren’t sure how to relate to our past in the context of our present. The United States’ founders built their new order atop specifically European, Christian, intellectual traditions. Then a left-wing narrative standing in judgment against the racist-misogynist-robber baron past emerged. Meanwhile, many Americans still identified with the older narrative about a Christian moral consensus and American exceptionalism—and elected Trump to restore their preeminence. Douthat says that any leader who wants to bury Trumpism will need to find a unifying story to bridge the gap between the heroic founders-and-settlers narrative and the truth about what happened to blacks, Indians, and others in the United States.
Yossi Klein Halevi/The Wall Street Journal
Israelis have been arguing about settlements ever since the Six Day War of June 1967, when the Israeli army captured the West Bank. The debate within Israel takes for granted the legitimacy of Israel’s claims to the West Bank—which the UN Security Council denounces as illegal under international law—and focuses instead on the wisdom of implementing these claims, which would involve absorbing two million Palestinians to Israel’s population and forcing it to eventually choose between its dual national identity as both Jewish and democratic.