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Huntington’s Liberal Heirs

“The Clash of Civilizations” prefigures the liberal internationalist war of freedom and autocracy.

US NATO meeting

Few contemporary geopolitical theories have proven as influential beyond their immediate context as Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis. Focused on the cultural and religious fault lines that Huntington believed would set the stage for a new round of intractable conflicts following the Soviet collapse, the Clash of Civilizations was a sobering rejoinder to globalization at a time when many in the West were beginning to dream of an international community united around shared norms and values.

Huntington’s approach of grouping countries into discrete blocs—bound not by something as variable as interests but by a shared underlying cultural essence—that are inevitably hostile to one another was pilloried for decades as an illiberal reading of international politics. A generation of liberal-minded scholars and experts decried Huntington for advancing a framework that treats inter-state conflict as pre-determined. Huntington’s approach, they claimed, is not just reductionist and ahistorical, but dangerous for its capacity to become a self-fulfilling prophecy if adopted by leaders as a lens for interpreting the world. 


It is one of the great tragedies of post–Cold War politics that many of these same voices have gone on to advance their own narrative of international politics as an existential confrontation between hostile blocs—one that, ironically, is less nuanced and more prescriptive of conflict than even the most uncharitable readings of Huntington. In this liberal internationalist adaptation of Huntington, the clash is not of civilizations as such but between Western-style liberal democracy and its many enemies. This rival bloc has gone by many names: the former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen referred to it as the “autocratic camp,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell termed it a new “axis of evil,” and NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg called it an “alliance of authoritarian powers.” Whatever terminology one employs, the concept is the same: The West is locked in an existential, values-driven struggle with much of the rest of the world. Meaningful compromise is thus impossible because this global struggle is shaped not by situational interests but by implacable ideological differences.

The latest scheme along these lines comes from Jonathan Rauch in the Atlantic. “Liberal-minded, Western-oriented countries,” Rauch argues, are confronted with an “axis of resistance” led by the “authoritarian dyad of Russia and Iran.” Rauch, citing Frederick Kagan, adds the nuance that this bloc, which also includes China and non-state actors like the Houthi rebels in Yemen, is united not around a common set of beliefs but in their shared opposition to the West. This is an important caveat which, under different circumstances, could have set the stage for an analytically stronger framework, but Rauch dilutes and renders it meaningless by quickly returning to the overarching premise that this axis of resistance is driven by the goal of “rolling back liberal democracy.” 

This framework invites no shortage of technical objections. If Rauch’s “liberal alliance” has to be stretched to include the bastion of democracy and human rights that is Saudi Arabia, it raises questions as to the soundness of the author’s core concept. One can frame such relationships as a geopolitical necessity, but Rauch robs himself of the ability to make arguments based on realpolitik by taking the position that the international system is shaped by clashing ideologies, not hard power concerns. 

In a similar vein, Rauch’s portrait of Vladimir Putin as a committed enemy of the West elides the more accurate and complex story of a post-Soviet Russia that initially saw itself as a Western, European power and sought to integrate into Western institutions. It was driven to an anti-Western posture for reasons that had nothing to do with an aversion to liberalism and democracy but were instead rooted in evolving Russian threat perceptions of NATO and the West.

But to dwell on these lower-order problems is to miss the larger conceit of frameworks premised on a grand ideological confrontation between the West and its enemies. Bizarrely, the same elite sensibility that rightfully ridiculed George Bush’s assertion that our adversaries “hate our freedoms” has embraced a foreign policy outlook steeped in the equally absurd idée fixe that Russia, China, and others hate the West for its democratic values. This way of thinking imposes an analytical filter that makes it impossible to assess our great power competitors’ goals and intentions. It is teleological and anti-empirical in its insistence that American policy must stem from the conviction that our adversaries aren’t simply driven by different security interests but seek to destroy our very way of life. 


Worse still, this approach enables a particularly destructive kind of policy fatalism. To proceed from the notion that the Russia-China partnership—and, indeed, all instances of international collaboration against the West—are ideologically pre-determined isn’t just wrong on the basis of the facts but lulls policymakers into a dangerous complacence. 

The current state of affairs between the U.S.-led West and much of the non-Western world is, in fact, the natural byproduct of a policy approach that enforces values over concrete interests and insists on putting U.S. credibility on the line in far-flung reaches of the world where no critical interests are at stake. Having driven America’s adversaries together by the sum of its actions and rhetoric, the neoconservative–liberal internationalist consensus that has steered US policy for the past three decades now seeks to absolve itself with the ad hoc excuse that the emergence of an anti-Western bloc was always inevitable. Their storied record of gross foreign policy mismanagement suggests otherwise. 

The post–Cold War West’s most powerful civilizational advantage, apropos of Huntington, is not in wealth or military might but in the universal appeal of its organizations and institutions. Weaponizing the dollar’s status as a global reserve currency, walling off access to Western-led commercial systems, and gatekeeping participation in multilateral platforms in response to foreign transgressions, whether real or perceived, facilitates the division of the world into competing blocs in ways that undermine the West economically and geopolitically. Even a country as dominant and virtually unchallenged as the US was in the 1990’s can only run up the geopolitical tab so much and for so long before its peer competitors start aggressively balancing against it.

None of this is, or has to be, a fait accompli—these are choices made by Western leaders. Convincing ourselves that this division is immutable and legitimizing it in metaphysical terms as a battle between liberal democracy and its discontents is, at best, a recipe for continued American decline. At worst, it is laying the ideological groundwork for the U.S. to drift into ruinous wars in Europe, the Middle East, or elsewhere. 

The point is not that there is or ever can be a perfect harmony of interests between the US and its great power peers. Nor is it, if one was to take the logic behind the clash of values argument to its other extreme, that Washington is to blame for all global conflict and instability. 

The bottom line, rather, is that U.S. policy must employ a better analytical lens than the democracy vs. autocracy thesis and other such reductionist, manichean tales for engaging partners and adversaries alike. 

America still enjoys tremendous latent advantages. If coupled with a more sound assessment of threats and interests, they can be leveraged to reverse the damage done by decades of ill-conceived schemes to extend a vision of primacy that has failed the American people at home and abroad. There is every opportunity to right this ship if, as is long overdue, U.S. leaders finally abandon the search of monsters to destroy and repair instead to a pragmatic, restrained foreign policy that is moored in concrete national interests.