Huntington’s Liberal Heirs

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.”