Huntington Reloaded: Reflections on German Escapism
The three candidates to succeed Angela Merkel as German Chancellor are woefully unprepared to deal with geopolitical pressures.
- Reading Huntington's book today, one finds many of his assessments prophetic. He recognized early on the antagonism of Islamic and Sino cultures toward the West.
- Europe has fought many wars with the Islamic world since the rise of Islam. The conflicts will continue, with the difference that Europe can now count on the support of the U.S. only to a very limited extent.
- Unlike the U.S. regarding its threat from China, Europe seems to be oblivious to the seriousness of its threat from the Islamic world and Russia. This is truer for Europe’s first core state, Germany, than for its second, France.
- European unification took place under the protective umbrella of the U.S. This allowed Europe to pursue costly domestic policies, ranging from an inefficient common agricultural policy to an ailing monetary union.
- The 21st century, defined by the "clash of civilizations," will be much harsher for Europe.
- Without a reappraisal of past problems, a joining of forces to meet geopolitical challenges and a return to the values of Western culture rooted in Christianity and the Enlightenment, Europe --- and the West as a whole --- will fray.
The matadors of the 2021 German election campaign come in three stripes. In the first stripe, they want to save the world from climate death as a (female) German savior (Annalena Baerbock).
In the second stripe, they want to promote the continued dragging out of the problems largely left unattended during the Merkel era (Olaf Scholz).
In the third stripe, the candidate simply displays a stunning lack of substance of contemporary German politics (as exemplified by Armin Laschet).
Clash of civilizations
Meanwhile, a profound change is shaping the world of today. Because the leading contenders for Germany’s top political post have not even noticed it, they appear to have no idea what awaits them in office.
In 1996, based on an essay published three years earlier in Foreign Affairs, Samuel P. Huntington authored a book entitled “The Clash of Civilizations,” which was translated into German as “Kampf der Kulturen.”
In the essay and the book, he argued that the 20th century defined by the clash of ideologies, would be followed by a 21st century defined by the clash of civilizations.
Huntington argued that the end of the Cold War and increasing globalization would lead people to search for identity, which they would find in their culture. Culture, in turn, Huntington argued, would be largely determined by religion.
Why did he believe that? Because religion, the shared notion of the afterlife and of the meaning of life, was the most powerful binding force of human communities — from tribes to nations to cultural communities.
Nine cultural groups worldwide
In a world map of cultures, Huntington, then a professor of political science at Harvard University, identified nine cultural groups: the (1) Western, (2) Latin American, (3) African, (4)
Islamic, (5) Sino (Chinese), (6) Hindu, (7) Orthodox, (8) Buddhist, and (9) Japanese.
Cultural similarities and differences would determine the interests, antagonisms and connections of states.
The major countries of the world would be predominantly from different cultures. Local conflicts between them would likely lead to major wars.
In the process, power would shift from the long-dominant Western to non-Western cultures.
False hopes of Western dominance
Although he justified it with many facts and analyses, Huntington’s thesis was largely met with rejection.
By the mid-1990s, there was a strong belief in the global triumph of Western culture, which had just proven its superiority over Soviet communism.
Various U.S. presidents, especially George W. Bush and his neo-conservative entourage, who took office in 2001, believed they could impose democracy and the rule of law on Muslim societies by force of arms.
China was to be transformed by rapprochement with the West and integrated into the world order that had been shaped by the United States after World War II.
Both projects failed. The latest beacons of this failure are the Covid pandemic and the loss of Afghanistan.
Beacon of failure: Covid
Even though the Covid pandemic emanated from China, it ended up reinforcing the country’s economic rise and the confidence of the majority of the country’s population in the superiority of Chinese culture.
Before the pandemic (in the fourth quarter of 2019), China’s GDP (in U.S. dollars) was 66% of that of the United States. Over the course of the pandemic, it has risen to 78% (in the second quarter of 2021).
There is widespread belief in China and its culturally related countries that they are handling the pandemic better than the West.
Afghanistan in a broader context
After more than 20 years of effort, it was clear that the project to build a democratically constituted state in Afghanistan along Western lines had failed.
Nevertheless, the collapse of all Afghan institutions, which had been built up with significant money from the West, at the same time as the military withdrawal occurred, came as a shock.
The defeat did not hit the West as hard as the Soviet Union’s defeat three decades earlier. But it probably ended the West’s claim to be able to shape the Islamic world according to its own ideas for a very long time.
Predictions largely fulfilled
Reading Huntington’s book today, one finds many of his assessments prophetic. In particular, he recognized early on the antagonism of Islamic and Sino cultures toward the West.
His prediction that the United States would enter into a struggle with China for global hegemony and that the Islamic world would form a front against the West proves to be on point.
Nor can one indignantly reject his statement that “Islam’s borders are bloody, and so are its innards.”
Huntington’s predictions seem outdated at first glance
But one also stumbles upon views of Huntington that seem outdated at first glance.
In the West, for example, the search for identity has only partly encouraged a turn to religion.
On the one hand, in the European countries under Soviet influence during the Cold War, the Christian faith did gain momentum.
On the other hand, in Western Europe and the United States, the search for identity initially led to the fragmentation of society into identities sorted by ethnic origin or sexual orientation.
However, it is doubtful whether the majority society in the West will put up with the demands of well-organized minorities for long.
Watered-down version of Confucianism
In China, Xi Jinping invokes Marx and Mao. If one takes a closer look, however, it becomes clear that the Chinese leadership is neither pursuing the Marxian ideal of a communist society, in which individuals supposedly live in freedom.
Nor does it want to return to the Maoist suppression of all individual initiative and rigid central planning.
Rather, it appears that Xi wants to distance himself from the watered-down version of Confucianism espoused by some of his predecessors.
The purer Confucian legacy of authority, order, hierarchy and the primacy of the community over the individual remains essential under Xi.
As an “indispensable leader” with no limit to his tenure, Xi bears more resemblance to the Chinese emperors before him than to his immediate predecessors.
The “clash” is here
Of the nine cultures identified by Huntington, consistent with his prediction, the “clash” between Western culture on the one hand and Islamic, Sino and Orthodox cultures on the other is in full swing.
Amid the process, there are temporary alliances of convenience between the anti-Western cultures, as seen in the partial cooperation of China, Russia and Iran.
And against the backdrop of the threat from China, there is also closer cooperation by Japan and loose cooperation by Hindu and Buddhist cultures with the West.
Because of their economic weakness, Latin American and African cultures play a relevant role for the West only in the area of migration.
U.S. focuses on China
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan shows that U.S. President Biden takes the U.S. challenge from China very seriously.
His term and those of his successors are likely to be marked by efforts to contain China, just as postwar U.S. presidents were marked by efforts to contain the Soviet Union.
To that end, the United States will need all its strength. Hence Biden’s continuation of key elements of Trump’s foreign policy. Hence the consummation of Trump’s far-reaching withdrawal from the Islamic world.
But political power is always based on economic power. Both the “hot” Second World War and the “cold war” that followed were decided by U.S. economic superiority.
Europe’s conflict with Islam
What about Europe in the global equation? Europe has fought many wars with the Islamic world over the millennia since the rise of Islam.
The conflicts will continue now, with the difference that Europe can only count on the support of the United States to a very limited extent.
Economically, the Islamic world is clearly inferior to Europe. Militarily, however, the economic inferiority can be compensated for, if the economically weaker side chooses to rely on nuclear weapons and terror.
Nuclear weapons serve as protection against attacks from outside, while terror can be used to attack hostile powers on their own territory, especially if border controls are insufficient to detect terrorists gaining entry as refugees.
Sadly, the Islamic world has not only many aspirants for emigration but also a sizable pool ready for acts of assassination.
The threat to Europe from immigration
Even without terror, immigration from a foreign culture can disintegrate a society, if sufficiently large numbers of immigrants refuse to integrate.
This is especially the case with Muslim immigrants. One cultural reason is that in Islamic culture loyalty is more to the clan and faith community than to a nation or state.
An oblivious Europe
Unlike the United States regarding its threat from China, Europe seems to be oblivious to the seriousness of its threat from the Islamic world and Russia.
This is truer for Europe’s first core state, Germany, than for its second, France.
Consequently, the peripheral states will eventually have to defend themselves against the threat from their neighbors.
For the eastern peripheral states, such as Poland and the Baltic states, this means conventional rearmament and strengthening of NATO.
For the southern peripheral states bordering the Mediterranean, such as Spain, Italy or Greece, this means robust protection of their external borders against migrants (despite displays of German indignation).
With the failure of Kemalism and the Islamization of Turkey, military rearmament is likely to become more important again in Greece as well.
Europe alone at home
European unification took place under the protective umbrella of the United States. This allowed Europe to pursue costly domestic policies, ranging from an inefficient common agricultural policy to an ailing monetary union.
The 21st century, defined by the “clash of civilizations,” will be much harsher for Europe.
Without a reappraisal of past problems, a joining of forces to meet geopolitical challenges and a return to the values of Western culture rooted in Christianity and the Enlightenment, Europe — and, with it, the West as a whole — will fray.
When one aligns these challenges with the tableau of candidates to become Germany’s next chancellor, it is painfully apparent how ill-equipped these three matadors are.
Neither the German penchant to rescue the world (Baerbock) nor an administrative mindset (Scholz) for old problems, nor a political Hans-Stare-in-the-Air attitude (Laschet) are cut out to meet the challenges ahead.
Editor’s Note: This text is based on the German-language version of an essay first published by the Flossbach von Storch Research Institute.