Friday, January 4, 2013

On the "Clash of Civilizations?"

Samuel P. Huntington’s thesis in “The Clash of Civilizations?” is the world is changing and future conflicts will be culturally based and “between nations and groups of different civilizations” (Huntington, p. 22).  Huntington defined a civilization as “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.  It is defined by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people” (ibid, p. 24).  The size of a civilization is not important and a civilization may include several states or overlap other civilizations.  Civilizations also grow, change, evolve, and frequently die out.  Huntington postulated that the seven to eight major civilizations that will dominate future world affairs are: Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin, and perhaps the African (ibid, p. 25). 
This clash of civilizations will take place, according to Huntington, due to the different values between civilizations, increasing interaction between civilizations due to globalization, and the growing importance of religion compared to a decline in nationalism.  Part of the decline of nationalism and growth of “civilization-consciousness” is due to the Westerners looking back to their roots in other civilizations (ibid, p. 26).  Huntington also argued that cultural differences were harder to mute than political or economic differences and these differences will be accentuated as civilizations come into increasing contact.  Civilizations will clash at the micro-level, or along “fault lines” where bordering civilizations interact, or at the macro-level as civilizations compete for power, wealth, dominance, and to promote their own values (ibid, p. 29). 
Huntington argued that the clash between civilizations along the fault lines has been evident for centuries.  For example, the boundary between Western Christianity and Orthodox Christianity and Islam has been an area for conflict since 1500 (ibid, p. 30).  Huntington also cited the Velvet Curtain and Iron Curtain in Europe as physical dividing lines in Europe that separated civilizations but also argued that the wars between Christians and Muslims over Europe and North Africa constituted a fault line.  Wars and conflicts have continued along the boundaries of Islam and Huntington used examples of the Balkans, Arab slavers in Africa, southern Russia, and between Muslims and Hindus in India. 
Conflict between nations will reach civilization levels due to “kin-country syndrome” where people in conflict with others from another civilization will call for aid from those of their own civilization.  Huntington illustrated this with the example of the 1990 Gulf War where the war began when a Muslim country (Iraq) invaded another Muslim country (Kuwait) but the conflict became a war of the “West against Islam” when the US became involved (ibid, p. 35).  Iraq called for assistance from other Muslim countries, and religious and political leaders colored the conflict as fighting the West instead of supporting the country that was invaded.  After citing other examples, Huntington argued that “civilization rallying” has the potential to spread in the future (ibid, p. 38). 
         Huntington also argued that Western civilization is already at conflict with the rest of the world on a macro-level as it uses the International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nations (UN), and other international organizations dominated by the West to promote its economic interests and to impose Western policies on the rest of the world.  Western values, according to Huntington and his sources, are in conflict with those of other major civilizations, forcing other civilizations to react.  Since the West is currently the dominate civilization, other civilizations can choose to withdraw from international relations, copy the West, or oppose the West in an attempt to balance the gravity of the Western civilization (ibid, p. 41).
The overlap of civilizations in a country, which is more obvious in a large country such as Russia, will create “torn countries,” which Huntington argued, “are candidates for dismemberment” (ibid, p. 42).  Huntington also cited the examples of Mexico and Turkey, which are members of competing civilizations but may choose to align themselves as a nation with the most beneficial civilization.
The main threat, according to Huntington’s argument, is that other civilizations will combat the dominance of the Western civilization, and the West will lose its influence, power, and economic advantage in the world.  Diversity and acceptance are also threats to non-Western civilizations as they dilute the commonality and uniqueness of a civilization. 
In the Clash of Civilizations, future military conflicts will be different from those of traditional nation against nation regular warfare.  Huntington accepts war and conflict as part of international relations, but with the Clash, he argues that future conflict will either be a continuation of conflict along the fault lines between civilizations or smaller conflicts will expand as nations from the same civilization gang up on adversaries of a conflicting civilization, as evidenced by the first Gulf War.  The primary challenge will be to dissuade like-minded nations from piling on as nations try to pull other nations from the same civilization into the conflict.
Civilization-ism creates increased opportunities for trade within the civilization, developing bonds of trust that can be called upon in future conflicts.  However, increased equally beneficial trade between civilizations lessens differences and can improve relations. Cross-civilization exchanges will also increase understanding of other civilizations and decrease the threat of a violent clash.  It is a major advantage for the Western civilization that most foreign leaders are educated in the West or have exposure to the Western civilization.  Civilization or cultural clashes can be avoided with increased understanding and exposure.
Samuel Huntington has correctly captured conflict in the past along cultural or civilization lines but failed in his theory in several points.  First, a religion is not the same as a culture.  Huntington singles out Islam as a civilization but in reality it is a religion that while observed by many around the world spanning multiple cultures, has violent divisions within itself.  In addition, in the section in Africa, Huntington uses the terms Arab and Muslim interchangeably while there are huge differences between an African Muslim and an Arab Muslim (ibid, p. 33).  Perhaps Huntington was classifying countries that incorporate Islamic thought into their laws as Muslim, but in that case he should have classified Western countries as Christian for the same reason.  Conflict between religions is significant, but in the framework of Huntington’s argument it is incorrect to classify Islam as a civilization.
Second, people act in accordance with their self-interest and states act in accordance with the will of their leaders.  Constitutions provide guidance for some governments but are not always followed.  Leaders and those aspiring to power will manipulate religion, culture, and policies to their own benefit.  This is manifest on the ground as some conflicts that are framed as religious, as in Christians versus Muslims in Sudan, are actually conflicts over scarce resources (Polgreen, 2007).  Fault line conflicts exist because of competition for resources, prestige, power, or pride but are exacerbated by leaders who want to push an agenda.
Third, as sovereign nations, states will act in their own best interest and are not beholden to any higher ideal or leader.  States will act in conjunction with other like-minded states if it is a benefit to them.  In Huntington’s Gulf War example not all Islamic countries declared war on the West, and those that took sides in the conflict did so because they derived or hoped to gain some benefit.  The leaders that spun the conflict as the “West against Islam” did so because they benefitted from it (Huntington, p. 35). 
Fourth, Huntington argued, “common membership in a civilization reduces the probability of violence in situations where it might otherwise occur” (ibid, p. 38), however Iraq invaded Kuwait instead of negotiating.  Hutus attempted to exterminate Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, and other intra-civilization conflicts have taken place and continue to occur.
Fifth, exposure to other civilizations lessens fear of other civilizations.  As people try to develop the best way of life for themselves they will adopt aspects of other civilizations.  As the West is not devoid of Muslims, many who have relocated from what Huntington calls the Islamic civilization have found a compatible way of life in the West.  Many Muslims studied the West and tried to incorporate aspects of the West in their government, calling for change to government in the Arab Spring of 2011.  Many nations hastened to adapt their governments to the demands of the people, which included Western ideas such as democracy, human rights, and other freedoms (Recknagel, 2013).
Sixth, the African civilization will be a major player in international relations due to its resources, land mass, and growing population.  Africa is no longer the colonial playground of the West and as it develops is able to take care of its own needs and take a greater leadership role in the world.  High-tech manufacturing requires the rare earth minerals found in Africa, and Africa holds a great deal of oil wealth- which is increasing in value as Middle-East stocks decline.


Huntington, Samuel P. 1993. The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993), Vol. 72, No. 3, pp. 22-49. 
Polgreen, Lydia. 2007. A Godsend for Darfur, or a Curse? The New York Times, 22 July 2007. Available:
Recknagel, Charles. 2013. What Happened to the Arab Spring? The Atlantic, 3 Jan 2013. Available:

1 comment:

  1. Great post! It's been a while since I've read that article so it was a very nice review of his arguments and your critique of them. I completely agree about #6. Obviously he wrote this a while back but I can't even imagine that back then he couldn't anticipate the importance of Africa, especially at the end of the Cold War when there were so many civil conflicts throughout the continent! Thanks for sharing!