Next, I’m describing a world in which divergence turns into conflict, especially as great powers compete for resources and dominance. China and Russia clearly want to establish regional zones that they dominate. Some of this is the kind of conflict that historically exists between opposing political systems, similar to what we saw during the Cold War. This is the global struggle between the forces of authoritarianism and the forces of democratization. Illiberal regimes are building closer alliances with one another. They are investing more in one another’s economies. At the other end, democratic governments are building closer alliances with one another. The walls are going up. Korea was the first major battleground of the Cold War. Ukraine could the first battleground in what turns out to be a long struggle between diametrically opposed political systems.
But something bigger is happening today that is different from the great power struggles of the past, that is different from the Cold War. This is not just a political or an economic conflict. It’s a conflict about politics, economics, culture, status, psychology, morality and religion all at once. More specifically, it’s a rejection of Western ways of doing things by hundreds of millions of people along a wide array of fronts.
To define this conflict most generously, I’d say it’s 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’s important is the way these longstanding and normal cultural differences are being whipped up by autocrats who want to expand their power and sow chaos in the democratic world. Authoritarian rulers now routinely weaponize cultural differences, religious tensions and status resentments in order to mobilize supporters, attract allies and expand their own power. This is cultural difference transmogrified by status resentment into culture war.
Some people have revived Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory to capture what’s going on. Huntington was right that ideas, psychology and values drive history as much as material interests. But these divides don’t break down on the neat civilizational lines that Huntington described.
In fact, what haunts me 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 nations. The status resentment against Western cultural, economic and political elites that flows from the mouths of illiberal leaders like Putin and Modi and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro sounds quite a lot like the status resentment that flows from the mouths of the Trumpian right, from the French right, from 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 contest between Reds and Blues. In America we’ve 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 various populists prefer may differ, and their nationalistic passions often conflict, but what they’re revolting against is often the same thing.
How do you 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? That’s the bind we find ourselves in today.