Huntington’s text addresses the structure of global politics in the post-Cold War world. After the Cold War came to an end and the world was no longer dominated by the two superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union, how were international affairs reorganized? How can we characterize the balance of power in the world today? And where does Western civilization fit into the mix? Huntington answers these questions by focusing on the recent rise of seven or eight major civilizations. His central argument is that culture and cultural identity shape the patterns of conflict, coming together, and splitting apart of international institutions in the post-Cold War world. With the end of the Cold War, countries stopped defining themselves by the ideologies they aligned with. They could no longer turn to their status as Communist or Capitalist nations in order to define themselves and their place in the international order. Instead, countries began to emphasize their cultural identity. This emphasis on culture meant that no country was exempt from determining where it stood. States no longer asked each other, “whose side are you on,” but rather “who are you?” This second question is impossible to avoid.
The five sections of Huntington’s text present different components of this central argument regarding the importance of cultural identity. In the first part, Huntington argues that global politics have become multipolar and multicivilizational. In other words, the world contains multiple different major powers and civilizations that interact on an international stage. He also points out that the process of modernization does not necessarily lead to Westernization or the universalization of civilizations. When countries become modern through industrialization, they do not automatically adopt Western values or merge into one shared culture. The West must begin to recognize that it is fruitless to attempt to spread Western civilization throughout the rest of the world.
In the second part, Huntington focuses on the shift away from Western power and toward Asian and Islamic civilizations. A recent religious resurgence has impacted the Islamic world. This has been motivated in part by the alienation that can result from modernization; as people move away from their family structures and into cities to work industrial jobs, they tend to lose their old senses of identity. In the absence of strong family or community ties, religion presents a good alternative for building a new identity. Huntington argues that the rise of Islam makes Muslim civilization less stable overall; it prompts leaders to make religious appeals and youths to mobilize violently around religious causes. However, he points out that the demographic growth of Islamic societies makes them stronger and more able to influence global politics, as well. They are more culturally confident and have the strength needed to promote that culture. In East Asia, meanwhile, economic growth has brought a similar confidence to countries like China. In general, non-Western civilizations are refocusing on their own particular cultures while rejecting the West. Their economic and demographic strength makes this possible, in a way it wasn’t when the West was more definitively dominant during the Cold War.
In the third section, Huntington argues that international politics are reorganizing around the lines of different civilizations. The key players in world affairs are now the primary states of each of the seven civilizations. Huntington outlines the general structure of civilizations: core states, which are the strongest and most influential members; member states, which are clearly aligned with a given civilization; lone countries, which are culturally isolated; cleft countries, which include more than one influential cultural group; and torn countries, which started out in one civilization but have attempted to shift to a different one. Overall, similar cultures cooperate with one another when it comes to international politics. Of course, this also means that cultures which differ from one another are likely to come into conflict. It is also more difficult than ever to shift a society from one culture to another, because cultural identities have become more solidified as they have become more important.
In the fourth section, Huntington explains that the Western desire to dominate the world is what leads to conflict with Islam and China. As China and Islam have gained in strength and cultural confidence, they have been less willing to accept Western dominance. However, the West has continued to try to exert its influence, anyway. Moving forward, the West will have to become more accommodating on the key issues that bring it into conflict with China and Islam: militarization, human rights, and the influx of refugees and immigrants in the Western world. Huntington predicts that the West will no longer be able to influence these issues as clearly as it once could. Instead, it will have to focus on preserving its own culture while respecting the boundaries of these other civilizations.
Huntington’s last section argues that the West must accept its own civilization as unique, instead of wanting to make it universal. Above all, it must protect this unique culture from non-Western influence. If the United States continues to embrace multiculturalism, for example, it will eventually lose its central identity as a Western nation; it will no longer be identifiable as the United States, but rather will become something closer to the United Nations. The preservation of Western culture is also important when it comes to making sure that the world as a whole can maintain the multicivilizational nature of world politics. The West must stop trying to universalize, and must instead allow other civilizations to hold on to their unique cultures and values. Only by rejecting multiculturalism and embracing multicivilizationalism can the world avoid devolving into conflicts between the major civilizations.