Reading Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations”

Just some notes. Nothing here is meant to be conclusive. Read it for the first time recently. My own thoughts are in italics.

“The Clash of Civilizations?” by Samuel P Huntington, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993.

The Next Pattern of Conflict

Central aspect of global politics in the future will be cultural

  • Summary of conflicts within Western Civilization
    • Peace of Westphalia
    • conflicts among princes-emperors, etc.
    • Emergence of Nation States
    • After French revolution conflict between nations rather than princes
    • Russian Revolution
    • Conflict of ideologies
      • communism
      • fascism
      • liberal democracy
    • the collapse of the Soviet Union marks the end of the conflict of ideologies

Nature of Civilization

  • Civilization is a cultural entity
  • Could be large or small – eg. China or Anglophone Caribbean
  • Civilizations blend and overlap and have sub-civilizations
  • Are dynamic, rise, fall, divide, merge

Why Civilizations Will Clash

  • civilizations differentiated by
    • history
    • language
    • culture
    • tradition
    • religion
    • different views of
      • God and man
      • individual and group
      • citizen and state
      • parents and children
      • husband and wife
      • relative importance of rights and responsibilities
      • liberty and authority
      • equality and hierarchy

Differences are more fundamental than political ideologies and regimes

Interactions among civilizations increasing with increasing possibility of conflict

Interactions increase “civilization-consciousness.” “…that, in turn, invigorates differences and animosities stretching or thought to stretch back deep into history.”

I think of ISIS talking about “Crusaders.”

Modernization separates people from local identities. Fundamentalist religion has filled the gap.

Most people active in fundamentalist religious movements are young and educated.

The “unsecularization of the world,” George Weigel has remarked, “is one of the dominant social facts of life in the late twentieth century.”

Religion is an identity that transcends national boundaries and unites civilizations.

  • In the past – elites westernized, populace with indigenous culture
  • Now – de-Westernization and indigenization of elites and populace more connected to Western culture, styles and habits.

Interesting – will have to think about this more.

“communists can become democrats, the rich can become poor and the poor rich, but Russians cannot become Estonians”

Reminds me of how I could become Canadian but not Quebecoise.

“Even more than ethnicity, religion discriminates sharply and exclusively among people. A person can be half-French and half-Arab and simultaneously even a citizen of two countries. It is more difficult to be half-Catholic and half-Muslim.”

Regional economic integration:

Regional economic blocs will reinforce civilization-consciousness. Success of Reg.Econ.Bl. might depend on common civilization.

Interesting in light of the opposition to the TPP.

…the efforts of the West to promote its values of democracy and liberalism as universal values, to maintain its military predominance and to advance its economic interests engender countering responses from other civilizations. Decreasingly able to mobilize support and form coalitions on the basis of ideology, governments and groups will increasingly attempt to mobilize support by appealing to common religion and civilization identity.

We might abandon the idea of promoting our values but is in hard to imagine ceasing to pursue our economic interests or abandoning our military predominance.

Clash of civilizations: 2 levels

  • micro
    • adjacent groups, control of territory
  • macro
    • military and economic power
    • control of international institutions
    • promote political and religious values

The fault lines between civilizations are replacing the political and ideological boundaries of the Cold War as the flash points for crisis and bloodshed.

Largest fault line in Europe: between Orthodox Christianity and “Western” Christianity.

The peoples to the north and west of this line are Protestant or Catholic; they shared the common experiences of European history-feudalism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution; they are generally economically better off than the peoples to the east; and they may now look forward to increasing involvement in a common European economy and to the consolidation of democratic political systems. The peoples to the east and south of this line are Orthodox or Muslim; they historically belonged to the Ottoman or Tsarist empires and were only lightly touched by the shaping events in the rest of Europe; they are generally less advanced economically; they seem much less likely to develop stable democratic political systems.

1,300 years of conflict along that fault line.

  • Arab and Moorish surge north
  • Tours 732
  • 11th – 13th century Crusades
  • 14th – 17th century rise of the Ottoman Turks
  • 2 sieges of Vienna
  • Decline of Ottoman Empire
  • British, French, Italian control of North Africa and Middle East
  • Post WWII – decline of European colonial empires
  • Arab nationalism
  • Islamic fundamentalism
  • Dependence on Persian Gulf oil
  • Wars between Arabs and Israel
  • 1950s Algeria
  • 1956 invasion of Egypt: UK and France
  • 1958: US involvement begins – Lebanon, Libya, Iran
  • 1990 – Gulf War

The Gulf War left some Arabs feeling proud that Saddam Hussein had attacked Israel and stood up to the West. It also left many feeling humiliated and resentful of the West’s military presence in the Persian Gulf, the West’s overwhelming military dominance, and their apparent inability to shape their own destiny. Many Arab countries, in addition to the oil exporters, are reaching levels of economic and social development where autocratic forms of government become inappropriate and efforts to introduce democracy become stronger. Some openings in Arab political systems have already occurred. The principal beneficiaries of these openings have been Islamist movements. In the Arab world, in short, Western democracy strengthens anti-Western political forces.

Migration from Arab countries and North Africa to Europe.

Rising racism in Italy, France and Germany.

Writers from both Muslim countries and Western countries see a potential clash.

A reaction against “our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present and the worldwide expansion of both.” Interesting linkage between the secular present and Christian past. Usually only one or the other is emphasized.

Historically, the other great antagonistic interaction of Arab Islamic civilization has been with the pagan, animist, and now increasingly Christian black peoples to the south.

  • Civil war in Sudan
  • Fighting in Chad
  • Tensions between Christian and Muslims in the Horn of Africa
  • Nigeria

Huntington predicted an increase in violence. He was not wrong.

Russia’s southern borders. Concern about the Turkic ethnic group

Clash between Muslim and Hindu in the subcontinent

Will India remain a secular state?

Increasing conflict between China and the United States. Sort of, but it hasn’t turned “hot.”

The same phrase has been applied to the increasingly difficult relations between Japan and the United States. Here cultural difference exacerbates economic conflict. People on each side allege racism on the other, but at least on the American side the antipathies are not racial but cultural. The basic values, attitudes, behavioral patterns of the two societies could hardly be more different. The economic issues between the United States and Europe are no less serious than those between the United States and Japan, but they do not have the same political salience and emotional intensity because the differences between American culture and European culture are so much less than those between American civilization and Japanese civilization.

The weak spot in his argument – or at least it shows that serious conflict is not inevitable.

“In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame. This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations from the bulge of Africa to central Asia.”

“Islam has bloody borders.”

The Balkans have calmed, but most of the other areas he names have gotten worse.

Civilizational Rallying: The Kin-Country Syndrome

Example: The Gulf War

  • Arab elites privately supported Saddam Hussein
  • Islamic fundamentalist movements supported Iraq
  • Saddam Hussein invoked Islam rather than Arab nationalism
  • Safr Al-Hawali: It is not the world against Iraq. It is the West against Islam
  • Ayatolla Ali Khamenei: The struggle against American aggression, greed, plans and policies will be counted as a jihad and anybody who is killed on that path is a Martyr
  • King Hussein of Jordan: This is a war against all Arabs and all Muslims and not against Iraq alone.

A world of double standards – one standard for kin-countries and another for everyone else

1992 – 93: Armenia, Azerbaijan. Turkey supported Azerbaijan. Iran supported Azerbaijan. Soviet Union – Azerbaijan, but Russia supported Armenia.

The war in the former Yugoslavia.

Common membership in a civilization reduces the probability of violence in situations where it might otherwise occur. In 1991 and 1992 many people were alarmed by the possibility of violent conflict between Russia and Ukraine over territory, particularly Crimea, the Black Sea fleet, nuclear weapons and economic issues. If civilization is what counts, however, the likelihood of violence between Ukrainians and Russians should be low.

This prediction doesn’t look so great. On the other hand, he says that intra-Civilization conflicts are less likely to spread and it hasn’t spread.

The West versus the Rest

“The world community” a euphemism that gives legitimacy to actions in the interest of Western powers.

International institution used by the west to “run the world in ways that will maintain Western predominance, protect Western interests and promotes Western political and economic values.”

Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox cultures. Western efforts to propagate such ideas produce instead a reaction against “human rights imperialism” and a reaffirmation of indigenous values, as can be seen in the support for religious fundamentalism by the younger generation in non-Western cultures. The very notion that there could be a “universal civilization” is a Western idea…

  • three possible responses for non-Western states
    • Extreme isolation
      • Myanmar, North Korea
    • “band-wagoning” – join the West
    • “balance” by developing economic and military power and joining with other non-Western societies

Torn Countries

Russia, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Mexico,

  • to redefine civilization identity, a torn country must
    • elite enthusiastic about the move
    • public must at least acquiesce
    • recipient civilization must embrace the convert

Did the EU’s rejection of Turkey cause Turkey to abandon its commitment to secularism. Very probably. I thought so at the time.

The conflict between liberal democracy and Marxism-Leninism was between ideologies which, despite their major differences, ostensibly shared ultimate goals of freedom, equality and prosperity. A traditional, authoritarian, nationalist Russia could have quite different goals. A Western democrat could carry on an intellectual debate with a Soviet Marxist. It would be virtually impossible for him to do that with a Russian traditionalist. If, as the Russians stop behaving like Marxists, they reject liberal democracy and begin behaving like Russians but not like Westerners, the relations between Russia and the West could again become distant and conflictual.

They did and they are.

The Confucian-Islamic Connection

countries that want weapons to counter the military power of the West.

Implications for the West

  • differences between civilizations are real
  • civilization-consciousness increasing
  • civilization conflict will supplant ideological conflict
  • non-Western civilizations will be actors not objects
  • successful political, security and economic institutions within civilization, not across them
  • conflicts more frequent, sustained and violent
  • central focus of conflic between the West and Islamic-Confucian states


  • short term
    • promote greater cooperation and unity within Western civilization
    • Incorporate Eastern Europe and Latin America into the West
    • Cooperative relations with Russia and Japan
    • prevent local conflicts from escalating into major conflicts
    • Limit the military strength of Confucian and Islamic states
    • Maintain military superiority
    • Exploit differences among other groups
    • Support groups sympathetic to West
    • Strengthen international institutions
  • long term
    • maintain economic and military power
    • develop a better understanding of other civilizations
    • identify areas of commonality

A few of my own thoughts:

Huntington’s essay is poorly served by its title. Although there are a few areas in which he’s gone off course, the intervening years have proven to his ideas to have some merit. It has definitely aged well and, for that reason alone, should be taken seriously and not dismissed on account of its title.

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