Next, I describe a world in which divergence turns to conflict, especially as great powers compete for resources and dominance. China and Russia clearly want to establish regional areas that they dominate. Part of that is the kind of conflict that exists historically between opposing political systems, similar to what we saw during the Cold War. It is the global struggle between the forces of authoritarianism and the forces of democratization. Illiberal regimes build closer alliances with each other. They invest more in the economy of others. At the other end, democratic governments build closer alliances with each other. The walls go up. Korea was the first major battlefield of the Cold War. Ukraine could be the first battleground in what is proving to be a long struggle between diametrically opposed political systems.
But something bigger is happening today, different from the great power struggles of the past, different from the Cold War. This is not just a political or economic conflict. It is a conflict over politics, economics, culture, status, psychology, morality and religion all rolled into one. More specifically, it is a rejection of Western ways by hundreds of millions of people on a wide range of fronts.
To define this conflict most generously, I would say it is the difference between the West’s emphasis on personal dignity and much of the rest of the world’s emphasis on communal cohesion. But that’s not all that’s going on here. What is important is how these old and normal cultural differences are fanned by autocrats who want to expand their power and sow chaos in the democratic world. Authoritarian leaders now routinely weaponize cultural differences, religious tensions, and status resentments in order to mobilize supporters, attract allies, and expand their own power. It is cultural difference transformed by resentment of status into culture war.
Some people have revived Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory to capture what is going on. Huntington was right to say that ideas, psychology and values guide history as much as material interests. But these cleavages do not collapse along the clear civilizational lines described by Huntington.
In fact, what haunts me the most is that this rejection of Western liberalism, individualism, pluralism, gender equality and all the rest is not only happening between nations but also within within nations. The status resentment against Western cultural, economic and political elites flowing from the mouths of illiberal leaders like Putin and Modi and the Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro is much like the status resentment flowing from the mouths of the Trumpian right, the French right , of the Italian and Hungarian right.
There’s a lot of complexity here – the Trumpians obviously have no love for China – but sometimes, when I look at world affairs, I see a giant, global maximalist version of America’s familiar competition between Reds and Blues. In America, we have divided along regional, educational, religious, cultural, generational, and urban/rural lines, and now the world is fragmenting in ways that often seem to mimic our own. The paths populists prefer may differ and their nationalist passions are often in conflict, but what they are revolting against is often the same thing.
How to win a global culture war in which differing views on secularism and gay rights parades are intertwined with nuclear weapons, global trade flows, status resentments, toxic masculinity and authoritarian power grabs ? This is the impasse in which we find ourselves today.