There is a certain urgency about the Trump Presidency that has forced many a denizen of the West to question the direction that the civilization has been moving. As a classical liberal I have entertained these thoughts for some time.
While I celebrated the collapse of Soviet style Marxist-Leninism in the early 1990s I was not convinced that the finality of the great struggle between the powers as envisioned in Francis Fukuyama’s work The End of History and the Last Man (1992), was about to dawn . Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1993) made more of an impression then and I believe that it looms even larger now.
Now Huntington himself was not a Republican. During the Carter Administration he served in a coordinating capacity at the National Security Council and for more than half a century he played an integral role on the Harvard Faculty where he headed the Center for International Affairs. At one time he was a speech writer for Adlai Stevenson.
His understanding of foreign affairs has almost a prophetic feel to it. Huntington argued that the pivotal clash defining the near future would be a series of confrontations between specific civilizations. These civilizations share very powerful cultural values, historical connections and in group similarities that set them apart from each other thereby transcending both economics and political constraints (and in many cases superficialities).
Huntington delineated several civilizations that he aptly named the West, Orthodoxy, Buddhist, Confucian, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Muslim and Hindu. He also identified some cleft countries that were split between various civilizations such as Nigeria and Sri Lanka, as well as ‘standalones’ like Japan. Most civilizations gravitate toward a nexus of power - China in the case of Confucian, Russia with respect to Orthodoxy and India in the Hindu context.
In defining the West Huntington grouped together the United States, Canada, Western and Central Europe, Australia and Oceania. While most of the nation states draw somewhat from a Christian (Catholic-Protestant) moral core they have incorporated within their framework a universalism (certainly evident in the elite) that at its root sees a world that would be all the better if others adopted enlightenment driven western values.
Standing in opposition to the West is the Muslim world of the Middle East, Northern/Western Africa, Albania, Bosnia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Maldives, Comoros, Brunei and Malaysia (as defined by Huntington). Many of these states are gripped by an Islamic resurgence that is hostile to Western Civilization and sees itself as a viable alternative worldview.
Strife and conflict would be inevitable and indeed in the post 911 world Huntington’s view carries some weight. However this is not the only fault line as we have seen with Russia and China reinvigorating themselves globally and India likely to follow suit making the Hindu claim at least on an economic level. In a further analysis Huntington even identified a civilization clash point in the United States with the inflow of Latin American immigrants into the nation (his solution a slow down followed by assimilation).
Huntington was invariably challenged on his model. Both the far left and free trade liberals criticized him for downgrading the role of economics (for different reasons of course) and playing to the vestiges of a worldview that had been swept aside by the ideological struggle of the Cold War. Others accused him of minimizing the nationalist (and religious) splits within the civilizations that he outlined. His view certainly stood in contrast to Fukuyama’s belief in a triumphant Western liberalism, let alone Karl Marx’s stance of a Hegelian march towards Communism. Huntington though was resolute in defending his paradigm and constantly warned optimists about the folly of believing that the path of history was fixed along their specific ‘utopic’ trajectory.
Reflecting on Huntington I see him in a slightly different light that makes him ever more relevant today. He articulated the reality that Particularlism would not be discarded and indeed would live to define a future that was already in the making (at the time of his writing the Balkan conflict was in full swing). International universalism could not celebrate and would have to put the champagne on hold for a while. From a Western perspective this would come to haunt our civilization as it had the most to lose from a resetting of a world order. Demographic imbalance would speed up this transition.
Civilization Theory to some extent is what drives Trumpism. It is a reinvention of the defencse of Western Civilization (albeit more American focused) against the other. It is a reaction to the failed Internationalism of the Bush presidencies, the Clinton Administration and its obvious fall from grace under Obama. What drives Trumpism is a need to reverse decline. On one level it represents the Huntington view reasserting itself against the consensus of the Fukuyama outlook. All the key tropes of Trump – The Wall, Trade Protection, Non-Intervention, ‘Make America Great’ are consistent with such a philosophy that has identified the threat and is acting with deliberate intent. Protecting the civilization is key.
Brexit and other Anti-EU sentiments sweeping across the European continent are a further illustration of the Civilization impulse rejecting the perceived false messiah of Internationalism. It carries with it a defense of culture that sees survival in a return to republic and away from the promises of an amorphous empire centered on platitudes.
In a sense it has replaced once ossified left versus right divide with a dichotomy of Civilization opposing Internationalism that seems to cut across class lines and will in all likelihood emerge in the forefront of policy across the West. The change may appear to have been sudden but the potential was always there. What was needed was time and the right combination of events to catalyze the realignment. It appears to have already happened.