Huntington begins his text by emphasizing the importance of cultural difference in the post Cold-War world. He introduces the central question of the book: What are the new sources of social organization in general, and conflict in particular, in this period after the end of the Cold War? Huntington zeroes in on the role of civilizations, which he defines as the broadest level of a cultural identity. Huntington splits his main argument into five parts, corresponding to the five sections of the book. In this first section, he will explore the ways in which global politics have become multipolar and multicivilizational, meaning they involve multiple world powers and civilizations competing with one another. He will also discuss how modernization is different from Westernization. In other words, Huntington believes that the process of a society becoming modern is not the same as the process of a society adopting the values of Western civilization. Huntington will also argue that modernization is not leading to a “universal civilization,” or turning the world into a single civilization. Neither is it Westernizing those societies that were not Western to begin with.
Next he explains the terms “multipolar” and “multicivilizational,” which constitute the main argument of this first section. The shift toward a multipolar system occurred after the Cold War, when politics involved a bipolar system of Soviet vs. West. After this system collapsed, it left room for multiple civilizations to rise to a more powerful position and compete with each other on an international scale. Huntington’s main argument regarding the changes that occurred after the Cold War is that the differences between people shifted from ideological, political, or economic ones to cultural ones; after the fall of the main rivalry between communism and capitalism, people across the world began to define themselves primarily by their different cultural groups. This form of identification can both bring people together and split them apart. Huntington believes certain countries are more united now because of their shared cultural values, while others have split apart because they have become more focused on how their cultures differ. For example, he identifies a sharp line between peoples of Western Christianity and those of Muslim and Orthodox traditions. One of the central axes of conflict is between Western powers and non-Western civilizations. Overall, Huntington identifies seven or eight major civilizations in the post-Cold War world and argues that power has shifted from the West to the non-Western civilizations.
To emphasize how significant this shift is, Huntington compares his account of the current situation with other accounts, which he argues aren't adequately responsive to the changed landscape of the post-Cold War world. First he cautions that paradigms must be used carefully: overreliance on a paradigm can blind scholars to information that lays outside that given paradigm. However, he argues that they are still important because all people have personal biases that prevent them from being objective.
With that in mind, he begins by critiquing the “one world” paradigm, of which his former student Francis Fukuyama was a leading proponent. This posited that the end of the Cold War meant the end of significant conflict in global politics in general. Huntington dismisses this paradigm as a naïve response to the end of the Cold War; he points out that conflicts continued to exist after the 1990s; now, though, they were centered on ethnic rather than ideological difference. On the other hand, Huntington also dismisses the “two worlds” paradigm. This model retains the Cold War focus on a split between two different worlds. In the contemporary system, this split might instead be between rich and poor countries. Huntington points out that this does not make sense because poor countries are unlikely to challenge richer countries on a level that could lead to serious conflict. Other "two world" models that posit a conflict between East and West assumes that the “East” refers to one cohesive culture when, actually, everything non-Western is very varied. It is better to refer to “the West and the rest,” which implies many different non-Wests. Overall, though, the world is too complicated to divide between only two poles.
Next, Huntington addresses the realist theory of international relations. This theory argues that global politics involve interactions between states, which are constantly trying to maximize their own power at the expense of other states. Huntington believes this is a good starting point for analyzing the post-Cold War world. However, he points out limitations: states define their interests in terms of things other than power, such as values, culture, and institutions. In other words, states with similar cultures and institutions are more likely to cooperate. On the other hand, states are most likely to perceive threats from societies that are culturally different from them. Moreover, international institutions have also become important alongside states, making the borders of states less clear.
Contrasting with the realist paradigm is the chaos paradigm. This model assumes that the breakdown of governmental authority and states alongside the emergence of ethnic conflict, refugee crises, nuclear weapons, terrorism, etc. means that the world is in chaos. Huntington acknowledges that this paradigm also provides some insights. However, it can't be of much help for policy-making or figuring out how the world works, because it assumes that there is no structure at all.
Having reviewed these competing paradigms, Huntington now argues that his own paradigm—of a world split into seven or eight civilizations—is most useful because it avoids all of the problems of these four existing paradigms. It is both simplest and closest to reality, and brings together multiple ideas from these four paradigms while best explaining modern conflicts. For example, Huntington’s paradigm accepts that the world is anarchical, but also posits that the most dangerous conflicts political scientists should focus on are those between groups from different civilizations. Thus, he provides material for understanding structure and making policies based on his model. Huntington also gives an example of how his “civilizational approach” would respond to a recent world conflict: the conflict over borders and nuclear weapons between Ukraine and Russia in the immediate aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union. A realist paradigm would assume that Russia and Ukraine will end up in conflict over security concerns on both sides. A civilizational approach, however, emphasizes the cultural similarities between the two and assumes that a war is less likely than a split occurring within Ukraine. In turn, the civilizational approach encourages a focus on cooperation between Russia and Ukraine, while the realist paradigm would lead policymakers to support arming Ukraine in case of a conflict with Russia.
In his second chapter, Huntington provides a more detailed definition of civilizations. He explains that “civilization” in the singular is used as the opposite of “barbarism,” and refers to a society that is settled, urban, and literate. In the plural, “civilizations” does not refer to a particular system or ideal, but rather to different cultural groupings. Huntington is concerned with discussing civilizations in the plural. For him, civilizations are cultural entities, meaning they involve the “values, norms, institutions, and modes of thinking to which successive generations in a given society have attached primary importance.” The most important factor to a given civilization is usually religion, with language coming next. Moreover, civilizations are very broad cultural groupings, which means that they do not have clear-cut boundaries or exact beginnings and endings. They can end, though they tend to be very long lasting and are more prone to evolving over time to adapt to new conditions. Since civilizations are not defined as political entities first and foremost, a given civilization typically involves more than one state within it.
Huntington provides a list of the major contemporary civilizations, as he defines them: Sinic (Chinese), Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Western, Latin American, and possibly African. The West came to dominate in the past few centuries primarily because of its technological capacities, which allowed Westerners to travel around the world and wield weapons that subjugated other peoples. Now, however, relations among civilizations do not involve the West dominating others, but rather constant and multidirectional interactions amongst all of these seven or eight civilizations. This did mean that conflict between Western states faded, as they focused on conflicts with other civilizations, instead. Today, religious clashes have become more important than ideological ones. This has reduced the influence of the West because the West has not generated any major religions, though it did produce different ideologies.
In his third chapter, Huntington argues against the idea that the world is moving toward a universal, Western civilization. He concedes that most societies share a certain set of basic values, but points out that these do not help to explain changes over time because they are constants. “Civilization” in terms of literacy, industry etc. has been spreading over time, but this does not mean it is erasing civilizational differences. Those who argue that international institutions now share the same values, and therefore one set of values dominates the whole world, ignore the fact that international institutions are composed only of a small number of elites; they do not represent the real values of everyday people across the world. Finally, people who point to the spread of Western pop culture as something that Westernizes the rest of the world are also wrong, because the consumption of popular culture does not necessarily change attitudes toward the West. Someone in Iran can enjoy Coca-Cola and write emails, but also hate the United States and its values. Huntington then demonstrates that, statistically, languages and religions across the world are becoming more polarized.
Huntington also debunks three main sources of the belief in a universal civilization. First, some people believe that the end of the Soviet Union meant that liberal democracy had triumphed around the world. Huntington argues that this is based on a fallacy; the Cold War perspective that the only alternative to communism was liberal democracy colors this kind of thinking. In actuality, there are many different forms of authoritarianism, nationalism, etc. and, in fact, religious alternatives have become particularly important in today’s world. Second, others believe that increased trade and interaction around the world has led to cooperation and peace. Huntington shows that, actually, increased interaction leads people to define themselves even more strongly in opposition to the other cultures they encounter. This is an idea taken from “distinctiveness theory,” which generally holds that people define themselves by what makes them different from others in any particular context. So, for example, a French woman amongst French men would define herself first and foremost as a woman, but a French woman amongst German women would define herself mainly as French. Third, others argue that the process of modernization has gradually made all societies the same. Huntington responds by conceding that modern societies do have some similarities that are not shared with agricultural societies. However, he points out that the West was considered “the West” before it had become modern, so modernization cannot be equated with Westernization.
Huntington ends this section by summarizing the qualities that define the West and explaining different responses to its domination. These qualities include the classical legacy (meaning Greek philosophy, Roman law, Christianity, etc.), Catholicism and Protestantism, the plurality of European languages, separation of spiritual and political authority, rule of law, a plurality of different institutions, representative bodies in politics, and individualism. Huntington argues that Catholicism and Protestantism are the most important characteristics of Western civilization. He also explains that none of these factors are unique to the West on their own, but that the combination of them is what is most unique.
Finally, Huntington explains the responses around the world to Western hegemony. These have varied widely, and they include rejecting both modernization and Westernization, embracing both, and embracing modernization but rejecting Westernization. Countries like Japan initially rejected both, while countries like Turkey embraced both under the assumption that one needed to be Western in order to modernize. However, China has combined modernization with the preservation of Chinese central values, practices, and institutions. Huntington himself argues that Westernization is not necessary for modernization. He does question whether certain qualities of a culture might make it less amenable to modernization. For example, does Islam make modernization less viable? This question remains unanswered. Huntington does, however, conclude by stating that modernization generally strengthens other cultures to the detriment of the West—the world is becoming more modern but less Western.
Huntington introduces his text with an anecdote concerning the period immediately following the end of the Soviet Union. At a meeting between Russian and American scholars in 1992, a statue of Lenin was replaced by an upside down Russian flag. When the error in hanging the flag was noticed, these scholars rushed to correct it. Huntington’s point is that the incorrect positioning of the flag was a serious faux pas even though, just a few years ago, this flag would not have even been an important symbol for Russia. He uses this story to illustrate the larger point of his book: cultural symbols became important after the Cold War, as cultural differences replaced ideological ones. Huntington goes on to allude to other instances throughout the 1990s in which flags were a prominent political symbol of various movements; for example, those protesting strict US immigration laws targeting Mexicans in 1994 marched under a Mexican flag, and then later under a purposefully upside down American one. One of the crucial sources of evidence for Huntington’s argument concerns the use of visual symbols in different cultures. He continuously refers to different cultural trends by using examples such as flag positioning, or the construction of churches, or the kinds of media consumed, etc. This use of subjective, cultural evidence to support arguments concerning politics corresponds to the nature of the argument itself: Huntington emphasizes the increasing importance of culture to world politics.
Huntington does go on to make use of statistical evidence, as well. For example, he measures trends in linguistic and religious differences to show that the end of the Cold War led to the proliferation and rejuvenation of languages that had previously been suppressed or forgotten under imperialism. Similarly, he shows that there has also been a religious resurgence, leading to a greater number of different religions today than in the past. This kind of quantitative evidence allows Huntington to respond to and refute broader arguments made by other scholars. By engaging with these ideas on a quantitative level as well as a theoretical one, he shows their relevance to daily reality. The indisputability of facts gives him a stronger defense against those scholars who have claimed that a universal civilization is emerging.
In particular, Huntington’s use of quotes from the author V.S. Naipul demonstrates what kind of argument he is most opposed to. Naipul belongs to a school of thought that believes we are moving toward a “universal civilization” based on Western values. Huntington’s choice to attribute this argument primarily to Naipaul, a writer as opposed to a political scientist, shows his readers what kinds of arguments he rejects most strongly: broad, non-quantitatively-based claims by cultural critics. Huntington’s responds to sweeping cultural arguments with statistics and analysis. Instead of engaging with Naipaul’s argument on an equally broad level, he provides detailed, numbers-based evidence to argue that it does not hold up to closer scholarly scrutiny.
Huntington is equally thorough in supporting the relevance of his proposed new paradigm. He explains that a paradigm must be evaluated by its ability to explain recent events. Over time, paradigms shift as they fail to fully explain the newest phenomenon, and give way to new ones that can take this new information into account. By introducing the concept of paradigms, Huntington helps to establish the format his argument will take over the course of the book. He explains to readers that the most accurate means of judging a theory is on this paradigm basis. Thus, he sets his readers up to expect that his own theory will be held up to these standards. In other words, readers should evaluate the current relevance of Huntington’s theory, as applied to recent political events, in order to determine whether it still holds weight.
Huntington goes on to illustrate the relevance of his own paradigm by providing a long list of recent conflicts that can be explained by this civilizational approach. In other words, he sets up his argument by defining the boundaries of what makes a good paradigm and then goes on to show how his own paradigm best meets these boundaries. For example, he focuses on the news from a single six-month period in 1993, from which he draws 20 examples of events that fit his paradigm. Huntington does acknowledge that certain aspects of previous paradigms remain relevant, but also points to ways in which they fall short. For the four other theories he evaluates, more recent events disprove one or more aspects of their central assumptions. For example, the realist approach would lead scholars to expect a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, instead of assuming that Ukraine would end up internally split over time. Based on his standards for judging a paradigm, Huntington argues that his civilizational approach is superior to these other four because it best predicts recent events.