From Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations:
As the relative power of other civilizations increases, the appeal of Western culture fades and non-Western people’s have increasing confidence in and commitment to their indigenous cultures. The central problem in the relations between the West and the rest is, consequently, the discordance between the West’s–particularly America’s–efforts to promote a universal Western culture and its declining ability to do so. (183)
In the post-Cold War world the choice can be the more difficult one between the friendly tyrant and an unfriendly democracy. The West’s easy assumption that democratically elected governments will be cooperative and pro-Western need not hold true in non-Western societies where electoral competition can bring anti-Western nationalists and fundamentalists to power….As Western leaders realize that democratic processes in non-Western societies often produce governments unfriendly to the West, they both attempt to influence those elections and lose their enthusiasm for promoting democracy in those societies. (198)
While Huntington worried about civilizational conflict, he did not believe we were in the midst of a full-scale clash with the Muslim world in 1996, or even after September 11, 2001. Huntington’s fear was that overly-ambitious efforts to promote democracy and Western culture abroad would actually help to create such a clash.
The revolution in Egypt has launched a new American wave of enthusiasm for democracy abroad. I predict this enthusiasm will cool over the coming months and years as we see what the change has wrought. Recent developments in Turkey and Pakistan, each of which sparked earlier waves of optimism in the West, have not been encouraging. These things evolve slowly, but the direction seems clearly to be along the lines predicted by Huntington. Think of Lebanon as well.
Egypt may hold for now. The best resolution would be a good amount of de facto control by the miliary mixed with a bit of slow-motion democratic reform. Yet the door is now open to the gradual expansion of Islamist power in Egypt. A fairly rapid and total Islamist takeover with knock-on effects throughout the region is at least a possibility. That really would mean a full-scale civilizational clash. With luck and care, we’ll avert that worst-case outcome for a time. Yet the medium-term prospects are not encouraging.
Broadly speaking, I’m sympathetic with Huntington, although I think that over the very long term, authentic democratization is more possible than Huntington would have granted. I gave my take on the Huntington-Fukuyama debate post-9/11 in “The Future of History.” If Egypt falls to the Islamists, it will be time for another assessment.