The spread of universal values is being rolled back on many fronts, from Russia to the Middle East.
By ROBERT D. KAPLAN
Western elites believe that universal values are trumping the forces of reaction. They wax eloquent about the triumph of human rights, women's liberation, social media, financial markets, international and regional organizations and all the other forces that are breaking down boundaries separating humanity.
Tragically, they are really observing a self-referential world of global cosmopolitans like themselves. In country after country, the Westerners identify like-minded, educated elites and mistake them for the population at large. They prefer not to see the regressive and exclusivist forces—such as nationalism and sectarianism—that are mightily reshaping the future.
Take Cairo's Tahrir Square in early 2011. Western journalists celebrated the gathering of relatively upper-income Arab liberals with whom they felt much in common, only to see these activists quickly retreat as post-autocratic Egypt became for many months a struggle among the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist Salafists—with the Coptic Christians fearing for their communal survival.
Though secular liberals have resurfaced to challenge Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, do not be deceived. The military and the Muslim Brotherhood both have organized infrastructures. The liberals have only spontaneous emotion and ad hoc organizations. An Islamist-Nasserite regime-of-sorts is likely to emerge, as the military uses the current vulnerability of the Muslim Brotherhood to drive a harder bargain.
Egypt and the Middle East now offer a panorama of sectarianism and religious and ethnic divides. Freedom, at least in its initial stages, unleashes not only individual identity but, more crucially, the freedom to identify with a blood-based solidarity group. Beyond that group, feelings of love and humanity do not apply. That is a signal lesson of the Arab Spring.
An analogous process is at work in Asia. Nationalism there is young and vibrant—as it was in the West in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Asia is in the midst of a feverish arms race, featuring advanced diesel-electric submarines, the latest fighter jets and ballistic missiles. China, having consolidated its land borders following nearly two centuries of disorder, is projecting air and sea power into what it regards as the blue national soil of the South China and East China seas.
Japan and other countries are reacting in kind. Slipping out of its quasi-pacifistic shell, Japan is rediscovering nationalism as a default option. The Japanese navy boasts roughly four times as many major warships as the British Royal Navy. As for Vietnam and the Philippines, nobody who visits those countries and talks with their officials, as I have, about their territorial claims would imagine for a moment that we live in a post-national age.
The disputes in Asia are not about ideology or any uplifting moral philosophy; they are about who gets to control space on the map. The same drama is being played out in Syria where Alawites, Sunnis and Kurds are in a territorial contest over power and control as much as over ideas. Syria's writhing sectarianism—in which Bashar Assad is merely the leading warlord among many—is a far cruder, chaotic and primitive version of the primate game of king of the hill.
Nationalism is alive and thriving in India and Russia as well. India's navy and air force are in the process of becoming among the world's largest. Throughout most of history, India and China had little to do with each other, separated as they were by the Himalayas. But the collapse of distance by way of technology has created a new strategic geography for two big nations. Now Indian space satellites monitor Chinese military installations, even as Chinese fighter jets in Tibet have the possibility of including India within their arc of operations. This rivalry has further refined and invigorated nationalism in both countries.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin's nationalism is a large factor in his high popularity. President Putin's nationalism is geographical determinism: He wants to recreate buffer states in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, like in the old Soviet Union. So he does everything he can to undermine the countries in these regions.
Western elites hope that if somehow there were truly free elections in Russia, then this foreign policy might change. The evidence is to the contrary. Race-hatred against Muslims is high among Russians, and just as there are large rallies by civil-society types, there are also marches and protests by skinheads and neo-Nazis, who are less well-covered by the Western media. Local elections in October returned a strong showing for Mr. Putin's party. Like it or not, he is representative of the society he governs.
Nor can Europe be left out of this larger Eurasian trend. A weakening European Union, coupled with onerous social and economic conditions for years to come, invites a resurgence of nationalism and extremism, as we have already seen in countries as diverse as Hungary, Finland, Ukraine and Greece. That is exactly the fear of the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee, which gave this year's award to the European Union in order to make a statement against this trend.
Fascists are not about to regain power anywhere on the Continent, but the age of deepening European integration is likely behind us. Get ready to see more nasty and thoroughly frightening political groupings like Greece's Golden Dawn emerge across the Continent.
We truly are in a battle between two epic forces: Those of integration based on civil society and human rights, and those of exclusion based on race, blood and radicalized faith. It is the mistake of Western elites to grant primacy to the first force, for it is the second that causes the crises with which policy makers must deal—often by interacting with technology in a toxic fashion, as when a video transported virtually at the speed of light ignites a spate of anti-Americanism (if not specifically in Benghazi).
The second force can and must be overcome, but one must first admit how formidable it is. It is formidable because nations and other solidarity groups tend to be concerned with needs and interests more than with values. Just as the requirement to eat comes before contemplation of the soul, interests come before values.
Yet because values like minority rights are under attack the world over, the United States must put them right alongside its own exclusivist national interests, such as preserving a favorable balance of power. Without universal values in our foreign policy, we have no identity as a nation—and that is the only way we can lead with moral legitimacy in an increasingly disorderly world. Yet we should not be overturning existing orders overnight. For it is precisely weak democracies and collapsing autocracies that provide the chaotic breathing room with which nationalist and sectarian extremists can thrive.
Mr. Kaplan is chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm, and author of "The Revenge of Geography" (Random House, 2012).