The Clash of Civilizations

The Clash of Civilizations Summary and Analysis of Part 5, Chapter 12 ("The Future of Civilizations")


Huntington begins this final section by reminding readers that all civilizations come to an end. Nevertheless, the people of a given civilization tend to lose sight of this fact. Especially when a civilization achieves power on a global scale, its inhabitants tend to believe that it can last forever because it represents the highest form of human achievement. For example, in their own time, the Romans and the Ottomans both viewed their empires as the peak of human civilization. In fact, it is those societies that believe their history has ended that are usually on the precipice of a decline. Overconfidence can be a sign of impending doom. In this chapter, Huntington asks: is the West an exception to this pattern? Or is it tellingly arrogant to assume that it possibly could be?

The West does differ from other civilizations in a few key ways. It has had a huge impact on all other civilizations that have come into existence since 1500. It also began the processes of modernization and industrialization, which have spread worldwide. So far, societies in all other civilizations have been attempting to catch up to the West in terms of modernity and wealth, because of its earlier modernization. However, its overall evolution is the same as patterns common to civilizations throughout history. Today, the West has entered its “golden age.” It is in a time of peace that can be attributed to the absence of serious competitors. This period also involves unprecedented prosperity, thanks to the end of internal conflicts within Western civilization. In the past, this phase has either ended dramatically and quickly as a new civilization came to power, or it has ended slowly through internal disintegration. The rise of Islam and the economic strength of Asia could mean that a different society could challenge the West and lead to a quick and dramatic end of Western civilization.

Huntington is more concerned with the possibility of internal decay. For past civilizations, internal decay has meant that a civilization loses the will to defend itself. When morale is low, a civilization will put less effort into self-defense and will end up being unable to defend itself when an external attack does occur. Although there are patterns in the history of civilizations, nothing is inevitable. They can reform and renew, and do not always come to a definitive end. The main question for the West is: can it renew itself, or will its internal decay eventually lead to its defeat at the hands of an economically or demographically stronger civilization?

The West does show a number of signs of internal decay. It has low economic growth rates, especially when compared to East Asia. It prioritizes consumption over producing future economic and military power. Population growth is low or negative. More subjectively, Huntington argues that it faces moral decline, cultural suicide, and political disunity. This manifests concretely in an increase in crime, family decay, a decline in membership in voluntary associations, a weaker work ethic, and lower levels of scholastic achievement. It is true, however, that the influx of immigrants can help to address many of these problems. If immigrants are qualified and energetic people with talents that can be useful to their host country and are well assimilated into the new culture, they can revitalize the West. So far, the United States has struggled to meet the first condition and Europe has struggled with the second.

When immigrants do resist assimilation, they become another internal challenge for Western civilization. For example, in Europe, Muslim immigrants could weaken the Western Christian tradition. This is already happening to some degree; fewer Europeans identify as religious than do Americans. On the other hand, if the US fails to assimilate its large Hispanic minority, it could become a cleft country. The biggest immigration-related danger is the one facing the US. It has so far been defined culturally by the heritage of Western civilization, and politically by the principles of American democracy—including individualism, equality before the law, private property, etc. But a number of intellectuals now promote the virtues of multiculturalism. This means that they believe America would be better off if it came to involve more elements of non-Western cultures. They point to the ways in which Western heritage involves a history of violence and immoral actions, and champion shifting American identity toward identification with other, non-Western cultures.

Huntington fundamentally rejects multiculturalism as a doomed and dangerous philosophy. He acknowledges that the founding fathers encouraged diversity, but warned against the danger of diversity splitting the country apart if not held together by a common culture. Multiculturalism actually involves the shifting of a country’s identity from one civilization to another; American multiculturalists want to shift America from identification with the West and toward a country of multiple civilizations. This means that it would end up not belonging to any single civilization, and would lack a cultural core. He has already established that global politics today are defined by much stronger cultural identification than ever before. In this kind of atmosphere, how could the United States survive without a core cultural identity? Instead of attempting to redefine itself as a political or ideological entity, the United States should focus on reaffirming its commitment to Western civilization. It should do the opposite of what multiculturalists advise, and emphasize the importance of its Western culture. Immigrants must be encouraged to adopt the Western culture of the US, and the US should resist identifying with Asia even though this might be economically savvy. The most important goal for the US is to preserve and protect its unique Western culture, instead of attempting to universalize this culture throughout the world or incorporating new elements into it at home.

The importance of cultural identities in the world today affects the West in three major ways. First, statesmen must recognize and understand the importance of culture if they want to change this reality in any way. In other words, they cannot refuse to recognize fundamental cultural divides. Past American administrations, such as the Bush and Clinton administrations, rejected the idea that there could be a fundamental divide between the Orthodox Christian and Islamic parts of Europe; for example, the US government in the 1990s pushed for subjecting Muslims to Orthodox Russian rule in Chechnya, without acknowledging that this could cause problems moving forward. In the future, politicians will have to recognize such divisions if they want to avoid inflaming them and accidentally acting in ways that go against US interests. When it comes to Chechnya, for example, this error in encouraging Muslim subjection to Orthodox rule has resulted in Chechen attitudes turning against the West, as well. Secondly, the West must move past the Cold War mindset. This means letting go of certain institutions that were important in the Cold War but are no longer practical, such as the US-Japan security treaty. In the past, this treaty was meant to deter Soviet aggression against Japan, but today its purpose is unclear; does it help to contain and deter China? Without a clear purpose, it should be rethought. Thirdly, and most importantly, the West must recognize that its culture is not universal.

This is a key point for Huntington. Western belief in the universality of Western culture is false, immoral, and dangerous. The falsehood of this idea is one of the core arguments of this text. But Huntington concludes by showing that it is also immoral and dangerous. It is immoral because it would necessitate imperialism; in order to spread Western culture, Western countries would have to forcefully occupy other countries that are resistant to adopting its values. Moreover, it is a dangerous attitude because it could help to start an intercivilizational war between core states. If the US continues to insist on making its values universal, for example, it will worsen its tensions with the newly powerful China. At the same time, it is also dangerous to the West, specifically, because it would help to exacerbate internal decay. If the West does not focus on preserving its culture, it will lose sight of the importance of this culture and be less willing to defend it. With low morale, it would follow the course of previous civilizations and face a slow decline. Thus, Huntington ends on a cautionary note: the US “can neither dominate nor escape the world,” and must instead promote its culture at home and collaborate with other Western countries abroad.

Globally, major intercivilizational war can only be avoided if core states refrain from intervening in the conflicts of other civilizations. This kind of intervention is what caused wars like the Soviet-Afghan War and the Bosnian war to escalate; the involvement of core states from the civilizations locally represented in these conflicts helped to drag them out and make them global. Huntington proposes that, moving forward, core states respect an “abstention rule” that leads them to negotiate with each other to contain or halt fault line wars between states from their civilizations. This will be difficult to accept for countries like the US, which have historically favored intervention to protect their own interests. But it will be crucial to respect in this newly multicivilizational world. Similarly, each major civilization should be given a permanent seat on the Security Council, in order to reflect the real balance of power in the world. While preserving Western culture requires renewing Western identity and rejecting multiculturalism at home, the security of the world requires an acceptance of global multicivilizationism. This does not necessarily lead to cultural relativism, meaning a belief that all values are equal. It is still important to look for commonalities across cultures and focus on the values that are universally accepted amongst them. But the most important guarantor for world peace will be an international order based on civilizations.


Huntington begins his final section with the ironic statement, “History ends at least once and occasionally more often in the history of every civilization.” At this point in the text, readers are familiar enough with his argument to understand that he is being facetious. Huntington generally dismisses those who believe that, since the end of the Cold War, we have reached the “end of history.” As he goes on to point out, civilizations that think this way are those that are about to decline. This attitude that history has “ended” stems from a given civilization’s perspective that current events seem to be entering an unprecedented time of peace. In fact, it corresponds to the Western arrogance that Huntington repeatedly criticizes; the West assumes history is ending only because its own power is waning. Huntington’s tone in this first sentence is thus playful, as it serves to point out the absurdity of believing in the “end of history.” His paradoxical statement, “history ends at least once,” makes this irony immediately clear.

After this first paragraph, Huntington proposes a question: Is the West an exception to the historical pattern of civilizations? In other words, is there a chance that Western civilization will survive, even though other civilizations before it have eventually crumbled? This question embodies the kind of critical thinking he hopes to have instilled in readers throughout the text so far; given everything Huntington has said so far, the question remaining is whether the West will prove an exception. This question guides the conclusion of the text. Huntington indicates, by introducing it at the beginning of his last section, that he intends to end on the note of suggesting an answer to this looming question.

Huntington is also careful to clear up loose ends by dismissing the premise of the multiculturalists. He brings up this school of thought for the first time in his conclusion. He has already established his own set of arguments, and it is easier for him to debunk this new theory more quickly when working from such a basis. In fact, Huntington uses a number of pithy statements to refute multiculturalism, such as “a multicivilizational United States will not be the United States; it will be the United Nations.” However, the simplicity of his dismissal does not mean that Huntington doesn’t take the multiculturalists seriously. In fact, by addressing their theory in his concluding section, he shows that one of his last and most important points is a refutation of these ideas.

This leads to another important question, one he raises in the last two pages of the text: “Does the vacuousness of Western universalism and the reality of global cultural diversity lead inevitably and irrevocably to moral and cultural relativism?” In other words, if universalism is rejected as an arrogant approach, and we know that the world is incredibly diverse, is our only option to accept that each culture’s values are worth the same as every other's? For Huntington, there is some ambiguity about this question; he notes that “the answer to these questions is yes and no.” At this point in the text, Huntington is raising questions that he wants to leave his readers with. He does not definitively answer all of them, because some are meant to be contemplated and addressed further by scholars to come. This reflects part of the purpose of Huntington’s text: to reshape thinking and give future scholars a new basis from which to approach global politics.

Huntington also expands his scope in this last section. He considers the general course of civilization as compared to “barbarism,” or the absence of organized societies. This represents a shift in scale; whereas previously he was looking at the differences between individual civilizations, now he looks at the difference between civilization and its absence. Given everything discussed regarding the statistics and patterns in civilizations, Huntington challenges readers to consider how civilization as a general concept stands up against the absence of civilization. Thus far, readers have only been encouraged to think about individual civilizations, their merits, and their potential for conflict with others. But they leave the text wondering: is civilization, itself, "good" in the first place? While Huntington doesn't definitively answer this question, the whole of The Clash of Civilizations is mean to give the reader a new way to understand what civilizations are, and so to reevaluate the meaning and value of civilization in the first place.