It isn’t often that high-ranking U.S. diplomats publicly invoke the ideas of ivory-tower academics. But earlier this week, the director of policy planning at the State Department, Kiron Skinner, used a controversial concept created by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington to describe America’s unfolding rivalry with China. Speaking at a Washington think tank, Skinner said that China’s rise constitutes a generational challenge that will require a generational response. She also argued that the rivalry represents a great “clash of civilizations,” the term Huntington, who died in 2008, coined in predicting what would take place after the end of the Cold War.
The Trump administration is undoubtedly right that competition with China will be a decades-long affair. Yet the Clash of Civilizations model won’t help the U.S win that competition, because it actually supports Beijing’s strategy better than America’s.
Huntington introduced the clash thesis in a famous Foreign Affairs essay written in 1993. He argued that, with the collapse of communism, ideological rivalries would no longer drive global affairs. Rather, conflict would occur between groups defined by culture, religion and identity. Among the clashing groups would be a Western civilization in Europe and North America, and a “Sinic” civilization made up of China and many of its Asian neighbors.
The clash thesis gained popularity amid bloody struggles between Muslim and Christian communities in the former Yugoslavia, and particularly after the eruption of the war on terror after 9/11. The U.S. government always rejected Huntington’s framing, though: the George W. Bush administration argued that the war on terror was a product of a clash within a civilization — between the tolerant and intolerant parts of the Muslim world — rather than a clash between the Muslim world and the West.
Today, there are profound cultural differences between the U.S. and China, in addition to myriad economic and geopolitical strains. But critics of the Trump administration will hear talk of a civilizational conflict as an echo of the idea, promoted by the controversial former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, that the world has reached a confrontation pitting the Christian West against the rest. And even leaving that loaded issue aside, the concept is ideologically and geopolitically counterproductive.
For one thing, “clash” rhetoric sacrifices the moral high ground in the U.S.-China competition. America has long claimed that democratic values and human rights are not distinctly Western ideas. Instead, they are universal ideas that people everywhere deserve to enjoy — and that no government has a right to deny its people.
This argument, although sometimes selectively applied, represents a fundamental foreign policy strength because it allows the U.S. to identify itself with the aspirations of people around the world — even in countries that are controlled by hostile regimes. Moreover, U.S. officials have used the idea that human rights and democratic values are universal as an ideological bludgeon against authoritarian governments, as it did to great effect against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The Chinese government, by contrast, has embraced the concept of civilizational difference as a means of autocratic self-protection. Beijing has long rejected the idea that it should liberalize its political system — or simply stop throwing dissidents in jail — on grounds that “Western” concepts of democracy and individual rights are incompatible with the traditions of China’s unique civilization.
The U.S. should not be supporting this idea, even implicitly; it should not be affirming the civilizational wall the Chinese regime has sought to build between its citizens and the democratic world.
The clash thesis is also geopolitically dangerous, because here, too, it plays into China’s hands. The Chinese government has long argued that the world should, in fact, be divided along civilizational lines: That Asians have more in common with each other than they do with the U.S., and that Washington should therefore leave Asia to the Asians — meaning that it should allow China to dominate that part of the world. This argument provides an intellectual underpinning for everything Beijing is doing to push the U.S. out of the Western Pacific: Undermining U.S. alliances, building up its military, and weaving webs of economic dependence around its neighbors.
The idea of drawing sharp boundaries between East and West is thus critical to China’s strategy — and it is lethal to America’s. To counter China, the U.S. will need to rally a coalition that cuts across civilizations. This includes, but is not limited to, the democracies of the Western Hemisphere and Europe and an array of Asian countries that are troubled by China’s rise. Yet talking about civilizational clashes merely highlights the cultural and racial differences between the U.S. and Vietnam or India, at precisely the moment when common geopolitical interests need to be brought to the fore.
Holding together a diverse balancing coalition against an ambitious China will be hard enough. American diplomats shouldn’t make that task any more challenging than it has to be.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of “The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.”