Samuel Huntington was Right: Cultural and Religious Clashes are Driving War Today

History is rearing its ugly head, and it would best not to look away. Time to put away our foolish utopian dreams and face the harsher, more divided world, predicted in Samuel Huntington’s 2011 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

In the heady days following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many public intellectuals, as well as presidents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama, embraced the notion of an ever expanding, liberal and democratic world order. Some, like political scientist Francis Fukuyama, even preached the “end of history,” prophesizing “the good news” of democracy’s inevitable spread and insisting that tech growth favours “a universal evolution in the direction of capitalism.”

Recent events, notably the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, suggest it’s time to bury these notions. In Clash, Huntington predicted the Ukrainian conflict as well the resurgence, at the expense of the West, of many cultures, including Indian, Chinese, Arab and Turkish. He noted all seek recompense for steep declines during the period of European predominance. Rather than a world shaped by the logic of markets and the rule of law, this is engendering the ascendency of autocrats and intensifying tribalization and primitivist religious movements.

Our two concurrent wars demonstrate Huntington’s thesis. The assault on Ukraine, which he foresaw, reflects not neo-Soviet ideology but a deeply Russian Orthodox racial world view. After all, Vladimir Putin’s fears about NATO expansion into the former U.S.S.R., notes historian Robert Service, parallel traditional nationalist concerns that claim Ukraine is an essential part of their state, with roots to the earliest civilization that was long based in Kyiv reaching back to the ninth century.

China’s emergence similarly speaks of revanchist notions more reflective of Han nationalism and Imperial tradition than Communist ideology. The red mandarins may spout Marxist credos but their appeal to the masses lies largely in nationalist desires to achieve the stated aim of becoming the leading global superpower by 2050.

The ties between the two revanchist states are a fundamental fact. Russia already is China’s largest source of oil, followed by Iran, and China has just signed a 30-year deal on massive new gas pipelines from Russia, while also purchasing other commodities like coal, barley and wheat from it. China accounts for 18.6 per cent of Russia’s exports. Both benefit from the general hostility — nurtured by the media and academics — against the West and Israel, among Africans, Latin Americans and Islamic peoples. This, along with economic self-interest, has meant that the support for Ukraine is largely restricted to the West. This even includes such nominal democracies as South Africa, India and Indonesia.

The dangerous conflict in the Middle East further reinforces the “clash of civilizations.” The takeover of the Palestinian movement by Hamas wipes away even the smallest fig leaf of liberal intent for a two-nation solution. Hamas’s goal is simple: eradicate Israel and its Jewish inhabitants. Longer term, the goals of the Islamists also include imposing their faith on even those Christians full of sympathy for the beleaguered Palestinians. The imbecilic Obama-Biden pandering to Iran demonstrates the foolishness of ignoring the fundamental realities of “clash of civilizations”; you can’t make a partnership with someone who wants you dead.

Given the clear threat to the West and its values, how can we resist these forces? The bad news is that Hamas has the support not only of the duopoly, but also of many other revanchist powers. The good news is that, unlike old Communists, who shared a theoretically universal world view, the various forces uncorked by the current wars often have competing visions. After all, Russia may want Chinese money and technology, but it may not be so keen on seeing Beijing’s sphere of influence spill into Siberia and the “near abroad” of Central Asia.

Similarly, despite common membership in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) movement, these countries are also competing with each other. China and India, soon to be the only real challengers to North America economically, have been at loggerheads for decades. Many companies that are contemplating leaving China see India, as well as Vietnam, as alternative locations. There’s more competition than co-operation in their future.

The Middle Eastern conflict also has some nuances. The key player behind the Hamas pogrom, Iran, is deeply feared by Sunni-majority states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Iranians and Saudis are already in a sectarian proxy war in Yemen. The easily manipulated Arab “street” can be counted on for hysteria and hyperbole, but the actual views of the leaders of these countries may be more pro-U.S. and even more pro-Israel than they let on. At the same time, China and Russia are secular states that persecute their Muslim minorities, an awkward reality for supposed allies.

Given the enormous technical and natural resources of the West, we should be able to navigate the “clash,” making allies, for example, with other tribes like the Indians, Japanese and Koreans, all countries that have experienced rapid growth based on engagement with the capitalist world. The major obstacle may be self-inflicted — a lack of belief among large segments of the western population that disdains our own heritage and prefers to embrace groups seen as victims of neo-colonial oppression, however brutal and hate-filled.

Antisemitism, that reliable indicator of Western rot, is on the rise in Europe, the U.S. and, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admits, even in Canada. But hatred being bred largely on campuses seeks not just to destroy Israel and the Jewish people, but is in conflict with the very logic of openness that has allowed our countries to morph from racist to distinctly multicultural societies.

Sadly, it’s hard to find anyone in the West who resembles Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman or even Nixon or Reagan. The EU bureaucracy is no substitute for De Gaulle; it predictably started calling for a ceasefire shortly after Hamas’s atrocities and restored aid to Palestinian groups pushing the conflict.

Nor can we be too confident in a western defence establishment and intelligence services that have been focused elsewhere on green absolutism or gay rights, as the head of MI6 recently opined. The obsession of NATO and the U.S. military in fighting climate change and white nationalism is borderline insane at a time when they should be more concerned about their dubious war-fighting ability and our industrial prowess to meet the new challenge.

Ultimately the West cannot win, or even stay relevant, in the “clash” if it does not believe in itself and is willing to employ all possible means to protect its interests. With a debilitated sense of self-belief, the West, for all its manifold technical and cultural progress, may be ill-suited to battle the pernicious forces shaping our present clash of civilizations.

This piece first appeared at National Post.

Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo: Wafa via Wikimedia under CC 3.0 License.