It has been 25 years since Samuel Huntington published in Foreign Affairs his first warning about civilization and culture rapidly superseding ideology and economics as the principal drivers of conflict in the world. Since then the key tenets of Huntington’s analysis have held; the forces of the anticipated civilizational clash have accelerated their remaking of the international system. They also continue to reshape the Western democracies from within and without. Looking back just a generation, one can discern an important undercurrent of the Huntingtonian inter-civilizational struggle: the progressive fracturing of the foundational cultural bonds that once defined the larger idea of the West and gave the NATO alliance its requisite resilience and national cohesion, indispensable at times of crisis. As NATO prepares for the next summit in Brussels, the agenda should go beyond a discussion of defense spending, deterrence, or cyber security. This time there needs also to be deeper reflection on how to sustain and revitalize the larger bonds that for close to seven decades have maintained the indispensable foundation of allied security.
In July in Brussels, NATO will take up the urgent business of how to deal with the continued deficit in defense spending in Europe, arrive at more equitable burden sharing, strengthen defense and deterrence along the eastern flank, and address cross-domain threats. But what has been missing from the larger debate about NATO’s adaptation is the extent to which national resilience has been failed by decades of postmodern ideological deconstruction, with group identity politics, multiculturalism, and, more recently, the surge in immigration into Europe and the United States, which is redefining the meaning of national communities on both sides of the Atlantic.
At the NATO summit, state-on-state competition, which is fast eclipsing the almost two decades of strategic focus on terrorism and non-state actors, will be front and center. And yet the progressive balkanization of Western nations at the intersection of ideology and demographics is fast becoming a key internal security variable and, when considering the overall effectiveness of the Transatlantic alliance going forward, does not seem to factor into the resilience of the West. The increasingly serious national security consequences of ideologically polarized and increasingly tribal publics do not seem to register in today’s debate about the collective defense of the West.
Half a century after the 1960s revolutions in Europe and the United States, Western societies are now on the threshold of internal decomposition, as the political and societal bonds that were the precondition of the Transatlantic age after 1945 fade with each passing year. The internationalization of manufacturing and the benefits of free trade that formed the baseline for elite consensus after the Cold War have in the past decade morphed into a crude but growing belief in globalism as a panacea for national decline. Calls for de facto open borders abound, as well as questioning about the inherent value of Western culture as the framing of modern democratic states. Decline of the sense of a larger community across Western democracies, rooted in cohesive nation-states, is increasingly the norm.
Driven by deepening class polarization and the emergence of unintegrated “suspended communities” embedded within increasingly tenuous national cultures, internally polarized democratic nations themselves are fast becoming the weakest links of the Transatlantic security system, for they raise legitimate concerns about the overall resilience of NATO member-states at times of crisis or war. Less than three years ago a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center delivered the devastating message that majorities across Europe would not support fulfilling the Article 5 commitment if one of the allies were attacked. Only in the United States and Canada did clear majorities (56 percent for the U.S. and 53 percent for Canada) support military action to defend the allies. The Germans were the most opposed, with 58 percent against their country taking military action. Judging by the inward-looking public debate in the wake of the recent wave of mass migration, these numbers, especially in Western Europe, are likely to be even more discouraging today.
The challenge NATO confronts as it prepares for the Brussels summit is as much internal as it is external, defined by a manifest weakening of public consensus about the essential mutuality of security commitments embodied in NATO. The West is more affluent today than at any time in its history, with wealth, technology, and innovation that could easily be melded into the world’s most powerful militaries. And yet NATO continues to struggle to meet the 2 percent GDP defense commitment articulated at the Wales summit and reaffirmed in Warsaw. The gap between the official rhetoric about the scope of the threat confronting the alliance and the actual monetary commitments made to rebuild the armed forces remains an urgent problem for leaders in Europe.
As a result of immigration, countries that were once the proud lynchpins of Western civilization are increasingly in turmoil, with deepening ethnic and religious divisions and possibly at risk of fracturing. If unaddressed by governments, the progressive loss of cohesion, and with it the declining sense of national solidarity, will ultimately result in Western European states becoming hollowed out and bereft of national solidarity. The security risks posed by the progressive fragmentation of the mainstream culture and common identifiers can no longer be charmed away by claims that “our diversity is our strength.” Europe is at risk of becoming a continent of torn countries—a phenomenon not so long ago seemingly limited to the Balkans.
An entirely new generation has grown since Huntington’s seminal essay was first published. Today we can determine to some extent where the civilizational battlefield has been: within the now rapidly fragmenting Western democracies, which have been fractured by the combination of postmodernism, re-transformed Marxism, and group identity politics, against the backdrop of mass immigration and the ideology of multicultural diversity. The most potent factors in this war have been playing out less along the geostrategic fault lines between the West, the Muslim world, and the Asian civilizations, and instead increasingly inside Western democracies themselves. The Western concept of modernity, with its emphasis on individual political and economic freedom—which appeared to have triumphed after the Cold War and was supposed to mark the “unburdening of history”—is no longer the object of national aspirations. More troublingly, the rising generation of Westerners is increasingly less willing to embrace that vision.