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Walt, Bannon and the Clash of Civilizations

Why I want to save Sam Huntington's thesis from the people who would ride it into battle

Most of the way through the article that I promoted last week, Stephen Walt, having explained all the ways in which Trump is not behaving rationally, considers the possibility of a rational strategy at play on a deeper level:

[T]here’s a third possibility, one that offers a unified, coherent explanation for some of the apparent contradictions in Trump’s foreign-policy views. Trump and some of his advisors (most notably Stephen Bannon) may be operating from a broad, Huntingtonian “clash of civilizations” framework that informs both their aversion to multiculturalism at home and their identification of friends and foes abroad. In this essentially cultural, borderline racialist worldview, the (mostly white) Judeo-Christian world is under siege from various “other” forces, especially Muslims. From this perspective, the ideal allies are not liberals who prize tolerance, diversity, and an open society, but rather hard-core blood-and-soil nationalists who like walls, borders, strong leaders, the suppression or marginalization of anyone who’s different (including atheists and gay people, of course) and the promotion of a narrow and fairly traditional set of cultural values.

For people who see the world this way, Putin is a natural ally. He declares Mother Russia to be the main defender of Christianity and he likes to stress the dangers from Islam. European leaders like Marine Le Pen of France, Nigel Farage of Great Britain, and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands are Trump’s kind of people, too, and on this dimension so are the right-wingers in the Israeli government. And if Islam is the real source of danger, and we are in the middle of a decades-long clash of civilizations, who cares about the balance of power in Asia?

The problem with this way of thinking, as I wrote back when The Clash of Civilizations first appeared, is that it rests on a fundamental misreading of world politics. “Civilizations” are not political entities; they do not have agency and do not in fact act. For good or ill, states still drive most of world politics, and clashes within Huntington’s various “civilizations” are still more frequent and intense than clashes between them. Moreover, seeing the future as a vast contest between abstract cultural groupings is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If we assume the adherents of different religions or cultural groups are our sworn enemies, we are likely to act in ways that will make that a reality.

This is a very tricky possibility to address, which is why Walt addresses it so delicately. But I’m not sure his response — that states remain the primary actors on the world stage, and that assuming the inevitability of conflict is self-fulfilling prophecy — is adequate.

Samuel Huntington’s thesis was not that America and the West are under siege from foreign forces, but that the major source of conflict in the post-Cold War world was going to be identity-based rather than ideological, and that the primary source of identity was no longer going to be national but supra-national and civilizational. Moreover, I don’t read Huntington as intending to argue that some entity other than states was becoming the primary actor on the international stage (though I admit that his language is certainly open to that interpretation), but rather as complicating the realist assumption that states have a relatively high degree of freedom to pursue their interests as best they understand them, and to explain how those constraints were in the process of changing. It was an analytic framework intended to inform policy, and not a call-to-arms.

It has been read as a call-to-arms by some people, however. Tony Blankley would be one good example, as would David Goldman — and Steve Bannon is a third. Bannon, now a member of the “principals committee” of the National Security Council, is an interesting figure, and not at all the sort of person you normally find high up in an American administration. He’s not really a political advisor in the mode of David Axelrod or Karl Rove. He’s an ideologist, someone who thinks in world-historical terms. He hasn’t been elevated to the NSC in order help President Trump navigate the domestic politics of a given national security question. He’s there because he has a view of How The World Works — and his view of domestic politics is derivative of that view.

So here’s the thing. I don’t share Bannon’s worldview. Like Stephen Walt, I think that view is quite dangerous — in large part because I think he’s engaged in the same kind of extreme ideological flattening that the neoconservatives of the Bush Administration were, but based on different premises and with consequently different aims. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think Huntington’s views should be similarly dismissed.

For example, I think the Islamic world is going through a civilizational crisis, and that this is an important fact of world politics. But I don’t think this means that Islam is an enemy civilization, or that there is any benefit to acting as if it is. Indeed, one of Huntington’s conclusions is that it would be a very good thing for the West if a single, dominant and stable Sunni Muslim state emerged for the rest of the Muslim world to rally around, and that a lot of our problems stemmed from the fact that nothing like that was happening.

I also think that China will continue to modernize, and that it will continue not to converge to some idealized Western model of political development, such that we can’t be confident that the higher it rises the more it will think like we do, and therefore that accommodation will be relatively painless. But I don’t think that means America and China are destined to go to war over who is top nation, so we might as well have it out now while we are still militarily dominant. And as I recall, Huntington’s view of competition with China looked very compatible with Walt’s, with the exception that he was more skeptical of America’s ability to balance China long-term through local allies that would have reasons of history and identity to be more comfortable engaging in bandwagoning around Chinese power.

Huntington’s original thesis was criticized by many, as is entirely appropriate, for being an inaccurate interpretation of world developments, and in the two decades since he published the book there has been ample evidence on both sides. But there were plenty of people who attacked his thesis for being morally wrong, implicitly endorsing the prescriptive conclusions that people like Bannon have drawn as following necessarily from Huntington’s premises. And that’s a much bigger problem now that someone like Bannon has his hands on the levers of policy.

Bannon and his ilk bolster their intellectual position every time their opponents seem unable adequately to explain the world as it is, or to be taking a moral stance against reality. I don’t want to give them that assistance.