During the almost half-century of the Cold War, the world was organized in a straightforward way. There were two rival power blocs, each headed by one of the two superpowers. Each bloc had a core membership (NATO, the Warsaw Pact), plus more loosely-affiliated allies around the world; from time to time this or that fairly-minor country changed sides, and some countries clung to neutrality between the two blocs as best they could. It was simple -- there was "we" and "they", with the pronouns presumably reversed on the other side, in the appropriate languages. Other rivalries were re-defined to fit into the global bi-polar system; Israel, for example, was aligned with the American bloc, its Arab enemies with the Soviet one. This was a comprehensive model which described most global power politics quite well, and it seemed very stable; I remember people thinking it might last for centuries.
The break-up of the USSR in 1991 abruptly rendered this paradigm invalid and left us looking for a new model to describe international relations. The concept of a one-superpower world reflected reality to an extent, but since the world had decidedly not become free of conflicts and rivalries, it was clearly absurd to view the whole planet as being subsumed into a single power bloc.
Samuel Huntingdon's 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations
was the first serious new proposed paradigm for the post-Cold-War world, and remains among the most popular. Huntingdon divided the world into nine regions ("civilizations") based on cultural and historical relationships: the West, Islam, the "Sinic" world, Latin America, etc. Some of these do reflect objective reality -- there is clearly a distinct Western civilization, for example, and a distinct Islamic culture. Others seem more artificial -- it's not obvious that black Africa represents the same kind of cultural unit as Islam or the West, and his "Buddhist" civilization, consisting of the Theravada countries plus Tibet and Mongolia but excluding the "Sinic" countries of China, Vietnam, and Korea, seems odd. Some countries are hard to classify -- isn't South Africa both Western and
black-African? Nor does the model explicitly recognize that two of the non-Western regions, Latin America and the "Orthodox" world (Russia, the Balkans, etc.), are close relatives of the West, sharing in the Roman heritage which gives the West its character. For that matter, the "Orthodox" world is defined as separate from the West based on different branches of Christianity, even though most people in both cultures are no longer meaningfully religious, while Islam is lumped into one homogenous mass despite the still-bloody Sunni-Shiite division.
Nevertheless, Huntingdon's paradigm got a powerful boost from September 11 and the War on Terror. A broad West-vs-Islam conflict seemed to fit the "clash of civilizations" model well, and jihadists create similar conflicts with pretty much every non-Islamic society they come into contact with, including non-Western ones (see India, Thailand, Nigeria, southern Russia, Mindanao, etc., etc., etc.). However, the model doesn't seem particularly useful in describing or explaining the world's conflicts, tensions, and alliances other than
the intermittent violence between radical Islamists and everyone else.
In fact, I would argue that many of the most important conflicts today are within
countries, not between them, and are not based on culture. The outcome of the conflict between theocracy and secularism in Egypt and Iran will affect the world much more than the sporadic outrages still occasionally ventured by the remnants of al-Qâ'idah. Putin's effort to replace Russia's democratic promise with a Mussolini-style blood-and-soil gangster state is a far greater source of tension than the fact that that now-irreligious country was traditionally Eastern Orthodox. North Korea is so dangerous because it's ruled by people of questionable sanity, not because of the "Sinic" culture it shares with South Korea and Taiwan.
So what is
the right paradigm for the struggles of the world of today? In the past, I've pointed out that the Islamists in Europe are closely analogous to the Christian Right in the US -- each in its own society is the main force opposing gay rights, female equality, reproductive freedom, freedom of expression, separation of church and state, and modernity in general. I would argue now that these are just two examples of a much more general principle.
The fight for gay marriage and abortion rights in the US, the fight to beat back the influence of Islam in Europe, the defiance and occasional active resistance of the Iranian people against their theocracy, the efforts of the Egyptian military to squelch the murderous Muslim Brotherhood, the plight of Russian gays targeted for persecution, the Saudi women driving their cars, the battle against the evil of "honor killings" from Amsterdam to Kurdistan, the Pashtun girls going to school day by day despite Taliban threats, the push for female dignity and education in Africa and India and so many other places, and a thousand other struggles around the planet -- these fundamentally are all local manifestations of a single
titanic global struggle between two irreconcilable opposing forces.
There still is
a "we" and a "they", but this time neither side is a geographically-definable clump of countries somewhere -- both sides exist in every country. "We" are the forces of secularism, modernity, freedom, and a more humane social order; "they" are, broadly speaking, the forces of malignant tradition, largely (but not only) in the form of intolerant religion.
It is, importantly, a more optimistic vision than Huntingdon's. Our "side" is not a huddled island of a couple dozen nation-states doomed to live forever besieged by a vast sea of irrevocably alien civilizational regions. Our side is alive and fighting for freedom everywhere in the world, however firmly the enemy may hold the reins of power in many countries. And however long it takes, someday that enemy will be vanquished in every land, and all the world will be ours.