Column: Rich Lowry: a civilizational challenge (02/26/22)
A clash of civilizations is upon us.
Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine not only heralds a new era in European security, it underscores a growing threat to the US-led international order from two vengeful powers, Russia and China.
What they represent, basically, is a civilizational challenge. China and Russia do not have a formal alliance and their current cooperation agreement may well crumble over time, but they share a common interest in ending the long era of Western dominance.
Russia can do more than its weight, but fundamentally poses a regional threat, especially to a NATO alliance that has been the backbone of Western security. Moscow is seeking to divide European countries from each other and diminish US influence in Europe towards the end of the post-Cold War settlement reversal that was the result of the West’s triumph over the Union Soviet.
Sign up for daily headlines
Get the last thing of every day in the morning.
What Putin seeks is substantial, but not as radical 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 a Middle Kingdom, in front of the respect and obedience of the rest of the world.
What unites Russia and China is that they are two civilizations that feel humiliated and trampled on by the West (Russia at the end of the Cold War, China from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century) and need to find their rightful place in the sun.
There is an ideological element to the growing challenge as these two authoritarian regimes take on the democratic world, but the crux of the matter is cultural – neither Russia nor China have ever been a liberal democracy and each country is reacting against the norms international they I’ve never kissed.
The phrase “clash of civilizations” was made famous by a 1993 essay, later turned into a book, by the late social scientist Samuel Huntington. Its paradigm has not been confirmed in every detail – many post-Cold War conflicts have pitted nations or sects within the same civilization against each other. But his basic assertion seems prescient right now. “The fault lines between civilizations,” he writes, “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 it has built over the past seven decades, rise to this challenge.
The previous hegemon, Britain, had a soft landing because the Pax Britannica was replaced by the Pax Americana, led by a partner who shared similar values and mindsets. It would not be the same if we left the baton to China.
Consider the seas. As navalist Jerry Hendrix notes, the United States Navy has ensured the safety and freedom of the seas for decades. It is no coincidence that there was a surge in global trade during this period that made countries around the world more prosperous. Russia and especially China are a threat to this system, seeking to better control the seas for their own ends.
If the United States lacks the resources or the will to resist this Chinese expansion, the rules of the international trade route will change dramatically in favor of China. Imagine some sort of perpetual supply chain crisis imposed by China as a matter of policy.
A China that has achieved mastery of Asia and a position of global dominance will not let us nurture our own garden at home. Former Trump official Elbridge Colby warns that “he could interfere in and shape our national life, using his position to coerce, bribe and cajole corporations, individuals and governments into doing his will”.
Resisting the growing challenge from the West will require continued engagement around the world and a return in some respects to a Cold War stance. Avoiding our leadership role will mean inevitable decline and the creation of a more hostile world beholden to the values and interests of rival civilizations.