The Clash of Civilizations

The Clash of Civilizations Study Guide

In 1992, Samuel Huntington first presented the central argument of what would become The Clash of Civilizations in a lecture. Huntington was the first scholar to argue that cultural identity would be the most important factor in shaping global politics after the Cold War. The next year, he developed this idea into an article in the magazine Foreign Affairs, entitled “The Clash of Civilizations?” It was only in 1996, after further developing his thesis and defending it from criticism, that Huntington expanded his idea into a full book.

When Huntington first conceived of the argument in the early 1990s, the Cold War had only recently ended. With the end of this conflict—in which the United States and the Soviet Union were pitted against one another on the basis of their capitalist and liberal democratic versus communist and socialist ideologies—political scientists confronted an entirely new balance of power. Without these two superpowers dominating the patterns of conflict and cooperation across the world, it was unclear what would happen to international relations. This context shaped Huntington’s ideas; his book responds to the uncertain and changing political climate of the 1990s, and attempts to provide a new structure to explain how global politics will unfold into the 21st century. With the development of his initial article into a full book, Huntington incorporates more precise historical examples and predictions about the future direction of global politics. It is important to keep in mind the historical context in which Huntington wrote: it was a time dominated by resurgent ethnic conflicts and the recent end of the Cold War, and it was before the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The international political climate was significantly different from the one we face today.

Huntington’s idea regarding the importance of civilizations was formed largely in response to his former student, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama proposed his own theory for how international relations would progress after the Cold War in 1989. He argued that the West was facing “the end of history.” By this, he meant Western liberal democracy had been proven to be the most advanced system of government. With the defeat of the Soviet Union, the West had proved that liberal democracy was better than communism. Indeed, with liberal democracy now exported across the world through imperialism, Fukuyama believed that it had definitively triumphed and won the title of “most successful ideology.” This represented an “end” to history in the sense that progress toward newer and better ideologies would no longer be necessary. Western liberal democracy would simply be universalized as the primary and superior system of government across the entire world. Huntington fundamentally disagrees with this theory, on the basis that no one civilization is empirically superior to others. In many ways, his argument as a whole is formulated as a rejection of Fukuyama’s idea. According to Huntington, Western civilization is subject to the same patterns of external and internal decline that led to the end of the Roman Empire. Much of his book details why other civilizations are in fact rising, to the detriment of the West, in this post-Cold War world.

Huntington’s argument faced a wide variety of criticism. Some objected to his claim that Western democracy was simply one amongst many equally valid ideologies across a variety of civilizations. These critics emphasize the ways in which democracy is actually a particularly successful and desirable system of government. The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, for example, lists the rise of democracy as the most important development of the 20th century. However, he also dismisses its association with the West, on a cultural basis; instead, he argues that it happened to rise first in Western civilizations according to historical circumstances, but should not be considered to be a uniquely “Western value.” Others point to the ways in which Huntington’s argument justifies Western conflicts with other civilizations. By advocating for the preservation of each unique civilization, some scholars believe Huntington also advocates for actions otherwise considered immoral; for example, turning away refugees because they come from a different culture that is “incompatible” with Western culture. The most famous proponent of this criticism is Noam Chomsky, the American linguist and political activist. Others, like the public intellectual Edward Said, dismissed Huntington’s argument as a problematically reductive one. Said emphasized the complicated nature of intercivilizational relations, which he believes Huntington overlooks by separating cultures into seven distinct civilizations. He also argues that Huntington’s claim that Islamic societies pose the greatest threat to Western culture encourages fear and mistreatment of Arabs and Muslims.

Today, Huntington’s ideas continue to resonate with many and generate criticism from others. On the whole, they have proven foundational to the ways in which Western nations approach foreign affairs and have contributed to a continuing, heated debate. In particular, his focus on the economic rise of China and demographic changes in Islamic societies is reflected in the United States’ foreign policy priorities: China and the Islamic world these have become two major, controversial issues for the nation. Many American politicians refer to Huntington’s ideas as a justification for their approach to foreign policy. The debate continues regarding Huntington’s portrayal of Islamic civilization, in particular. Many scholars and politicians embrace Huntington’s argument that the West is at war with Islam itself, and believe this conflict can never be reconciled because it is a battle between two different, incompatible civilizations. Others, however, point to the ways in which this argument itself generates conflict by emphasizing the differences between people.