LOWRY/A clash of civilizations
A clash of civilizations is upon us.
Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine doesn’t just herald a new era in European security, it underlines a growing threat to the American-led international order by two revanchist powers, Russia and China.
What they represent, in broad brush, is a civilizational challenge. China and Russia don’t have a formal alliance and their current cooperative arrangement may well break down over time, but they share the same interest in ending the long era of Western preeminence.
Russia can punch above its weight, but fundamentally represents a regional threat, in particular to a NATO alliance that has been a keystone of Western security. Moscow seeks to divide European countries from one another and diminish U.S. influence in Europe toward the end of reversing the post-Cold War settlement that was the fruit of the West’s triumph over the Soviet Union.
What Putin seeks is consequential, but not nearly as sweeping as Beijing’s goal of supplanting the United States at the top of the hierarchy of nations. China wants nothing less than to restore itself as the Middle Kingdom, owed the respect and obeisance of the rest of the world.
What unites Russia and China is that they are two civilizations that feel they were humiliated and trampled by the West (Russia at the end of the Cold War, China from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th) and need to regain their rightful place in the sun.
There is an ideological element to the growing challenge, as these two authoritarian regimes confront the democratic world, but the crux of the matter is cultural — neither Russia nor China has ever been a liberal democracy and each country is reacting against international norms they’ve never embraced.
The phrase “clash of civilizations” was made famous by a 1993 essay, later turned into a book, by the late social scientist Samuel Huntington. His paradigm hasn’t been borne out in all particulars — many post-Cold War conflicts have been between nations or sects within the same civilization. But his basic contention looks prescient right now. “The fault lines between civilizations,” he wrote, “will be the battle lines of the future.”
It is imperative that the United States, as the leader of the West and the only nation capable of maintaining the international order that it has built over the last seven decades, rises to this challenge.
The previous hegemonic power, Britain, had a soft landing because Pax Britannica was replaced by Pax Americana, run by a partner that shared similar values and mindsets. The same wouldn’t be true if we hand the baton over to China.
Consider the seas. As the navalist Jerry Hendrix notes, the U.S. Navy has kept the seas safe and free for decades now. It’s no accident that there’s been a surge of global trade during this period that has made countries around the world more prosperous. Russia and especially China are a threat to this system, seeking greater control of the seas for their own purposes.
If the U.S. lacks the resources or will to resist this Chinese aggrandizement, the rules of the road of international commerce will change drastically in China’s favor. Imagine a kind of perpetual supply chain crisis imposed by China as a matter of policy.
A China that has achieved mastery in Asia and a position of global predominance won’t leave us to tend our own garden at home. Former Trump official Elbridge Colby warns that “it could intrude into and shape our national life, using its position to coerce, bribe, and cajole companies, individuals, and governments to do its will.”
Resisting the growing challenge to the West will require continued engagement around the world and the return in certain respects to a Cold War footing. Ducking our leadership role will mean inevitable decline and the creation of a more hostile world, beholden to the values and interests of rival civilizations.
Rich Lowery is editor of National Review, a leading conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley.