Clash of civilizations

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Cover of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

The clash of civilizations is a controversial theory in international relations. It was originally formulated in an article by Samuel P. Huntington entitled "The Clash of Civilizations?" published in the academic journal Foreign Affairs in 1993. Huntington later received a grant from the John M. Olin Foundation to expand this thesis in his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.


Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations?"

In the article, he argued that the primary political actors in the 21st century will be civilizations and that the primary conflicts will be conflict between civilizations rather than between nation states. The article was written in response to the idea by Francis Fukuyama that the world was approaching the end of history in which Western liberal democracy would prove triumphant. In the Foreign Affairs article, Huntington writes:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

Huntington later expanded this thesis in his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

These civilizations are mostly divided along religious lines. The main ones he sees are:

Huntington argues that throughout the post-Cold War era world conflicts have occurred along borders between civilizations with very little fighting within civilizations. Wars such as those following the break up of Yugoslavia, in Chechnya, and between India and Pakistan are all evidence of intercivilizational conflict, according to Huntington. Huntington also cites various conflicts over human rights, weapons proliferation and disarmament, trade conflicts, and other issues as coinciding with the Clash of Civilizations paradigm. He discusses positions taken by various countries in the United Nations in his book as well.

He also views conflict between areas as all but inevitable because of substantially different value systems. He argues that the growth of notions such as democracy and free-trade since the end of the Cold War has really only affected Western Christendom and that the rest of the world has played little role in globalization to this point.

Huntington argues that the level of East Asian economic growth will enable the Sinic civilization to be a powerful rival to the West. He also states that the demographic and economic growth of other civilizations will result in a much more multipolar civilizational system.

Huntingon classifies the Islamic and the Sinic civilizations as challenger civilizations to the West and labels the Orthodox, Hindu, and Japanese civilizations as "swing" civilizations. He also states that Russia and India will continue to cooperate closely while China and Pakistan will both continue to oppose India. Huntington argues that an "Islamic-Confucian connection" is emerging in which China will cooperate more closely with Iran, Pakistan, and other states to augment its international position. Huntington notes that both countries from both civilizations will value cooperation from those of the other.

Modernization, westernization, and "torn countries"

Clash of Civilizations critics often target traditional culture and internal reformers who do not wish to Westernize whilst modernizing. They sometimes claim that to modernize is to necessarily become Westernized to a very large extent. Those who consider the Clash of Civilizations paradigm an accurate one can offer in refutation of this argument the example of Japan, which is not a Western state at its core. It adopted much Western technology (inventing some technology of its own in recent times), parliamentary democracy, and free enterprise but has remained culturally very distinct from the West. China is cited by some as a rising non-Western economy.

Perhaps the ultimate example of non-Western modernization is Russia, the core state of the Orthodox civilization. The variant of this argument that uses Russia as an example relies on the acceptance of a unique non-Western civilization headed by an Orthodox state such as Russia or perhaps an Eastern European country. Huntington argues that Russia is primarily a non-Western state although he seems to agree that it shares a considerable amount of cultural ancestry with the modern West. Russia was one of the great powers during World War I. It also happened to be a non-Western power. According to Huntington, the West is distinguished from Orthodox Christian countries by the experience of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Enlightenment, overseas colonialism rather than contigious expansion and colonism, and an infusion of Classical culture through Rome rather than the Byzantine Empire. The differences among the modern Slavic states can still be seen today. This issue is also linked to the "universalizing factor" exhibited in some civilizations.

Huntington refers to countries that are seeking to affiliate with another civilization as "torn countries." Turkey, whose political leadership has systematically tried to westernize the country since the 1920's, is his chief example. Turkey's history, culture, and traditions are derived from Islamic civilization, but Turkey's western-oriented elite imposed western institutions and dress, embraced the Latin alphabet, joined NATO, and is seeking to join the European Union.

According to Huntington, a torn country must meet three requirements in order to redefine its civilizational identity. Its political and economic elite must support the move. Second, the public must be willing to accept the redefinition. Third, the elites of the civilization that the torn country is trying to join must accept the country.


Huntington's piece in Foreign Affairs created more responses than almost any other essay ever published in that journal. There have been many criticisms of his thesis. Many have argued that his civilizations are very fractured with little unity. Vietnam still keeps a massive army, mostly to guard against China. The Muslim world is severely fractured along ethnic lines with Kurds, Arabs, Persians, Turks, Pakistanis, and Indonesians all having very different world views.

It has been pointed out that values are more easily transmitted and altered than Huntington proposes. Nations such as India and Japan have become successful democracies, and the West itself was rife with despotism and fundamentalism for most of its history. Supporters, however, have noted that tensions have often emerged between democratic states and that emerging (or future) democracies in civilizations could very well remain hostile to states belonging to civilizations which are viewed as hostile. Furthermore, they point out that the countries of different civilizations place greatly different amount of emphasis on the nature of the internal governments of countries with which they trade and support in international issues (as with India, Russia, and Japan).

Others who accept his view of divisions along civilizational lines have attacked the idea that conflict is inevitable, arguing that all but a few radicals in each civilization would prefer to coexist amicably. Furthermore, the Clash of Civilizations theory does not encourage dialogue between the civilization but instead encourages further conflict as cultural differences are seen as insurmountable.

Universalization versus particularism and the debate over Huntington's thesis

Supporters of Samuel Huntington sometimes posit that universalist civilizations, such as the Western civilization, often attempt to enforce and spread their ideas into regions that are hostile at a basic level. These universalizing civilizations generally rationalize their ideas and culture as being superior though often this idea can be a quite subtle notion exhibited in claims such as "The West has to find Westernizing states which bring about basic change to give it leverage in the Middle East or East Asia". They often become somewhat frustrated when other regions of the world do not readily adopt ideas from their own civilization. The West is more confident than most civilizations due to its massive success in the last several centuries and hence pursues this objective with more vigor. Anthropologists, specifically of the Boasian school, often criticize the idea that some cultures are innately superior in most respects (though they do not claim there are not some differences among civilizations).

Huntington's predictions: analysis and retrospect

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Huntington appeared prescient to many, and the subsequaint attacks by Western states upon Afghanistan and Iraq fueled the perception that Huntington's Clash was well underway.

Some maintained that the 1995 and 2004 enlargements of the European Union brought the EU's eastern border up to the boundary between Huntington's Western and Orthodox civilizations; most of Europe's historically Protestant and Roman Catholic countries (with the exception of Croatia and countries like Switzerland and Norway who voluntarily opted out of EU membership) were now EU members, while a number of Europe's historically Orthodox countries (with exceptions such as longtime EU member Greece and newly accepted Cyprus) were outside the EU. As others have noted, however, the strong EU candidacies of Bulgaria and Romania, as well as the overwhelming ascendancy of pro-Western powers in Ukraine's 2004 presidential elections, did not bode well for Huntington's arbitrary positioning of Orthodox Christianity separately from mainstream Western civilization. Unlike Turkey's request for membership, which has caused considerable debate within the EU as to what constituted Europe, the candidacies of Christian Orthodox countries were met with unanimous support and considered to be the natural inclusion of traditional European civilizations into the Union.

There are other possible issues which appear to counter Huntington's thesis. Eleven years later, the relationship between Japan and the US is still close, with Japan providing monetary and political support for US foreign policies. Also a Sino-Islamic alliance that Huntington saw as inevitable has not yet come to pass during the intervening 11 years.

German geographers has pointed out that Huntington's regions of "civilizations" are affected by the concept of the "Kulturerdteile" (culture-continents) of the geographer Albert Kolb - a deprecated theory from 1962. In this theory, the effect of religious aspects were less important than historical and social aspects.

Possible resolution of the argument

A synthesis of Huntington's argument with other paradigms such as "resource-based conflicts" or resource wars are a plausible way to reconcile the diverse economic, political, and cultural paradigms which have been proffered recently. Even if this happens by a concerted effort there will still be substantial disagreement on what weight should be assigned to each idea, ideology, or motive and how to calculate or anticipate the interactions among the diverse and sometimes divergent theories.

See also

External links

  • "The Clash of Civilizations?" (, text of the original essay
  • "The True Clash of Civilizations" (, by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, Foreign Policy 2003. This article discusses recent surveys of opinions in predominantly Islamic nations and claims that the real rift between civilizations does not concern the question of democracy (which is generally approved) but rather the attitudes towards sexuality and gender equality. Those societies that do not tolerate self-expression, it argues, are unlikely to become stable der Kulturen



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