Huntington’s Prescient Warning

In her lead essay, Emma Ashford proposes the provocative hypothesis that President Trump’s closest advisors, including National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Senior Counselor Stephen Bannon, and perhaps Trump himself, appear to have embraced a “Huntingtonian view of the world.” Huntington’s thesis, Ashford points out, is often boiled down to an oversimplified notion that the inimical relationship between Western liberalism and non-Western civilizations will drive future conflict in the world. “The central axis of world politics in the future is likely to be…the conflict between ‘the West against the Rest,’” wrote Huntington in his 1993 Foreign Affairs essay. The Islamic civilization, according to Huntington, is likely to pose the greatest existential challenge to the West, leading to major global struggle in which countries will eventually have to choose sides: join the West or compete with the West. Ashford rightly stresses this version of Huntington’s theory is a caricature of what is actually a more complex (though flawed) vision of 21st century conflict. Ashford’s key point, however, is that it is exactly this caricaturist version of foreign policy that key members of the Administration appear to have adopted.

If we assume, for the sake of a thought experiment, that Ashford’s hypothesis is true, then it could help explain one of the most puzzling foreign policy ideas of the new administration: the desire to build a closer relationship with Russia based on the allegedly shared goal of fighting Islamic terrorism and ISIS in the Middle East. But while it may be tempting to look for a clear expression of the administration’s worldview, it seems premature to impute a theory of international relations onto a nascent administration that has nominated key Cabinet officials with strikingly divergent backgrounds and policy views and has yet to fill key foreign policy positions, articulate a coherent strategy, or – beyond a couple initial Executive Orders – translate campaign rhetoric into actual policy decisions.

To be sure, multiple senior officials and the President have identified the battle against “Islamic terrorism” as the top national security priority. But a closer look at Bannon’s public statements reveals a different vision of the dividing lines between “us” and “them” than that proposed by Huntington. Moreover, Huntington himself had a rather different, more skeptical view of Russia, which should serve as a warning to those in the Administration seeking a closer partnership with Putin.


The West Versus the Rest?

Ashford paints Flynn and Bannon as having this clichéd Huntingtonian vision of the world: Western liberalism versus radical Islamism. However, a closer look at Bannon’s few public statements gives reason for doubt. The most extensive and often cited public statement was a 2014 conference speech at the Vatican, which Ashford also refers to. In that speech and interview, Bannon outlined his view of future conflict and the lines of alliances. He says that world is at the “very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” but the nature of the conflict he describes is not between the West and Islam – it is far bigger than that. Rather, the key wedge according to Bannon is the division between traditionalists and the modern secularist West. When asked if the greatest threat to Judeo-Christian civilization is secularism or the Muslim world, Bannon’s answer is secularism – a tenet of the liberal international order many so-called Huntingtonians would view as a defining characteristic of the West.

Bannon does not even refer to Islam until prompted by the questioner at the very end. And then, his response is vague: one “should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam,” he says. Throughout that speech and interview, Bannon paints a vision of the world in which traditionalist forces of nationalism and Judeo-Christian values must unite against rotten modern Western institutions: unbridled capitalism, global elites, and centralized government. Bannon appears to see a modern Western civilization, based on liberal democratic principles, as a civilization in crisis and lacking an organizing principle. Thus, the great struggle facing the world is first and foremost an intra-civilizational struggle (to use Huntington’s parlance) between the stabilizing forces of traditionalists (such as Putin and European nationalists like Marine Le Pen) and the chaotic forces of modern Western liberalism – economic, cultural, and political. The conflict between the West and radical Islam – the clash of civilizations per Huntington – seems secondary to this internal struggle of restorative traditionalism.

There are other differences. Whereas Huntington saw nation states inevitably becoming subordinate to the broader, emerging civilizational conflict, Bannon has said that he would want to reassert “strong countries and strong nationalist movements.” In 2013, Bannon reportedly likened himself to Lenin, telling the Daily Beast that Lenin “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” In this process of creative destruction, a hapless modern state beholden to elite interests, globalization, and multilateral organizations, would ostensibly be replaced by a strong nation state, beholden to the people.

We should, of course, take Bannon’s statements with a grain of salt: most of his public comments date back prior to his involvement with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and may not accurately the reflect the views of the President or other close advisors. And while many critics have sought to draw a direct line between Putin and Bannon, in his public remarks, Bannon has been both critical and full of praise of Putin: calling Putin a kleptocrat and an imperialist but also favorably acknowledging Putin’s vision of traditionalism and nationalism.


Heeding Huntington’s Warnings

Rather than speculating what the overarching vision of the administration might be, it may be more productive to think about what specific policy decisions it is likely to face and what the implications of such policy decisions would be. One consistently expressed desire by the Trump Administration, just like its predecessors, has been to seek improved relations with Russia. And this is where Huntington’s policy prescriptions continue to be useful and prescient. Writing in 1993, Huntington predicted that if Russia were to take a traditionalist nationalist path, it would have far different goals than those of the United States and the West. It would be impossible, wrote Huntington, for a Western democrat to have an intellectual debate with a Russian traditionalist because their interests would be in direct opposition to each other. A traditionalist Russia, in other words, cannot be an ally to the West as long as the West continues to be defined by democratic values and principles of self-determination and equality. And of course, under Putin, Russia has taken this exact path toward illiberalism, authoritarianism, revanchist imperialism, and nationalism.

Indeed, Putin’s Russia seeks to undermine Western interests around the world. Putin may talk the talk of “national sovereignty,” but in practice he has flagrantly violated the national sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors by invading Georgia and Ukraine and interfering more obliquely in the internal affairs of other neighbors. In the Middle East, where the administration may seek to engage Russia as a partner against ISIS, Russia has acted not to destroy ISIS but to bolster Syria’s Assad while largely ignoring ISIS. Russia has also supported the radical Islamic Republic of Iran, which advocates enduring hostility to the West, as well as Death to America and Death to Israel.

While it may be tempting to see Putin’s revival of so-called “traditionalist values” in Russia, many analysts view these as little more than a charade used to justify Russia’s military interventions and rally nationalist sentiment at home that distracts from the privation and economic malaise inherent in Putin’s Russia. Putin’s consolidation of power at home and revanchism abroad has taken place at the expense of the Russian people – the Russian economy is stagnant, Russians are leaving the country by the thousands for the West, and Russian journalists and others who criticize the regime often meet a brutal fate. It is something of a stretch to therefore embrace such a corrupt and cynical ruler as a defender of Judeo-Christian values or a Western ally against Islamist radicalism.

Thus, before praising Putin as a traditionalist, policymakers in the new administration would be wise to read Huntington’s prescient warning: as long as the United States sees itself as belonging to the Western civilization, and Russia remains on its current path, our interests and values will remain inimical to each other.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Emma Ashford reviews the thesis of Samuel Huntington’s 1996 The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. She also looks at some of the responses it has received, both positive and negative. She finds that Huntington’s thesis, while rough in itself, is apt to be simplified still further by policymakers. Above all, she urges us to remember that Huntington did not mean to champion the West within a clash of civilizations; he hoped, rather, to avert any such clash in the first place. Huntington viewed Western intervention as potentially destabilizing and apt to precipitate a clash of civilizations, by no means necessary, that he sought to avoid. We simplify his message at our own peril.

Response Essays

  • Paul Musgrave finds in clash of civilizations theory little more than an unseemly fantasy. Why, he asks, are we still talking about this? Empirically, the supporting evidence is weak. The world is becoming more peaceful, not more violent, over time. And Huntington’s theoretical framework hasn’t been the starting point for significant research breakthroughs. Rather, it’s more commonly used as target practice in teaching students how to recognize weak arguments. In a sense, however, we are stuck with the clash of civilizations, because it is a politically popular idea, and because some version of it seems to inform an a growing share of American foreign policy. We must take care, Musgrave agrees, that its description of civilizational conflict does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • The Trump administration is not precisely Huntingtonian, says Alina Polyakova, and the differences matter more than one may appreciate at first. Stephen Bannon has described the key conflict in the world today as the one between traditionalist nationalism and secular, modernizing globalism. Yet that’s a conflict taking place within the West, not across Huntington’s civilizational lines. Intriguingly, Huntington cautioned that if Russia ever became ascendant as a champion of tradition and nationalism, its interests would fail to align with ours, and in that case Russia would make an inappropriate ally, even for a conservative United States. Polyakova finds this an apt warning for our own time.

  • Zack Cooper looks at Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and asks: Where’s Asia in all of this? He notes that Huntington did have an answer. Asia contains many different civilizations in the Huntingtonian paradigm. It therefore makes for a natural site of conflict. U.S. administrations have repeatedly tried to focus their foreign policy on Asia, only to be detoured by events in the Middle East. But it mischaracterizes Huntington’s work to imagine that conflicts in the Middle East were the necessary upshot of his theories.