The Clash of Civilizations

The Clash of Civilizations Quotes and Analysis

“The crucial distinctions among human groups concern their values, beliefs, institutions, and social structures, not their physical size, head shapes, and skin colors”


This quote reveals the kinds of arguments Huntington stands behind, and those he does not. Huntington believes that the biggest distinguishing factors between people are their “values, beliefs, institutions, and social structures.” In general, he refers to these as “culture” and defines civilizations as areas in which these factors are unique. Huntington does not believe that physical attributes have a significant impact in distinguishing different peoples from one another. For him, “culture” is more important than ethnicity. Huntington does subscribe to the belief that people are fundamentally separated along certain lines. This quote specifies exactly what kinds of lines he believes in; throughout the text, he will go on to analyze the origins and implications of these cultural or civilizational differences.

“It would, as Braudel observes, almost ‘be childish’ to think that modernization or the ‘triumph of civilization in the singular’ would lead to the end of the plurality of historical cultures embodied for centuries in the world’s great civilizations. Modernization, instead, strengthens those cultures and reduces the relative power of the West. In fundamental ways, the world is becoming more modern and less Western.”


This quote summarizes Huntington’s main argument in this third chapter of his first section. Huntington believes modernization has been falsely equated to Westernization. In other words, he thinks people have wrongly assumed that as countries become more modern they will also become more “Western” in their values and outlook. Instead, Huntington actually believes the opposite: modernization makes other cultures stronger by allowing them to define themselves against what they are not. As they gain strength in general, they gain influence internationally and are able to assert their own values over Western ones. Thus, Huntington concludes that as the world becomes more modern it actually becomes less Western. The influence of the West is declining worldwide.

“More broadly, the religious resurgence throughout the world is a reaction against secularism, moral relativism, and self-indulgence, and a reaffirmation of the values of order, discipline, work, mutual help, and human solidarity”


In this quote, Huntington attempts to explain the resurgence of religion across the world. Namely, it represents a rejection of values that he identifies with the West. Thus, by reviving religion as an important force for social mobilization—particularly in Muslim countries—populations are turning against Western power, and gaining confidence in their own traditional cultural values. These values tend to emphasize solidarity over individualism, discipline over moral relativism, and faith over secularism.

“The distribution of cultures in the world reflects the distribution of power. Trade may or may not follow the flag, but culture almost always follows power. Throughout history the expansion of the power of a civilization has usually occurred simultaneously with the flowering of its culture and has almost always involved its using that power to extend its values, practices, and institutions to other societies”


This quote reflects a central argument in Huntington’s text. He traces cultural trends because he believes that they reveal the distribution of power in global politics. This means that Huntington tends to focus on details and some subjective facts about a given population’s beliefs; he connects this cultural information to its political relevance. For example, he traces how the resurgence of religion in Muslim countries reflects the increased size and mobilization of their populations. Throughout the text, Huntington continues to draw on information about cultural trends in order to build his argument about the future of international politics. Overall, he argues that the flowering of East Asian and Islamic culture corresponds to the expansion of power of these two civilizations, as well.

“While a country could avoid Cold War alignment, it cannot lack an identity. The question, ‘Which side are you on?’ has been replaced by the much more fundamental one, ‘Who are you?’ Every state has to have an answer. That answer, its cultural identity, defines the state’s place in world politics, its friends, and its enemies”


Huntington defines the difference between pre- and post-Cold War global politics as one based in ideological alignment versus cultural identification. Whereas the Cold War required countries to choose a “side”—either that of liberal democracy or that of Communism—this new world order emphasizes each country’s identity. A country can avoid choosing sides in an ideological conflict, but it cannot avoid confronting its identity. In this sense, every state has to provide an “answer.” This answer corresponds to a political alignment, as well, because cultural identity is tied to political alliances. Today, countries of similar cultures tend to stick together, while those from different cultures are more likely to conflict. No state is exempt from aligning itself in this general, culturally-defined order.

“A core state can perform its ordering function because member states perceive it as cultural kin. A civilization is an extended family and, like older members of a family, core states provide their relatives with both support and discipline. In the absence of that kinship, the ability of a more powerful state to resolve conflicts in and impose order on its region is limited”


In a world order based on culture, a core state is the dominant member of a given civilization. Core states are historically or politically the most stable and powerful countries in a given civilization. They are also typically completely aligned with that given civilization and its culture. We can think of a civilization as a “family,” and of core states as important, leading members of this family. As such, core states are both supportive and help to maintain order and discipline over their “younger relatives,” or weaker member states. This allegory helps readers to understand Huntington’s conception of how civilization shapes global politics in a regional direction; core states are most concerned with controlling their own regions, much the same way an older relative might have a particular concern with his extended relatives’ behavior.

"The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world."


This quote clarifies the real reasons for conflict in a world built along civilizational lines, according to Huntington. It is not institutions that are in conflict with one another. In other words, it is not Islamic fundamentalist groups or the CIA that are directly engaged in conflict. The conflict is much deeper, and more basic. Islamic civilization and Western civilization have historically been pitted against one another, and they continue to butt heads today. This implies that the ongoing conflicts between Western and Muslim countries can only be resolved by addressing the underlying cultural differences that cause them.

"The relatively simple bipolarity of the Cold War is giving way to the much more complex relationships of a multipolar, multicivilizational world."


Huntington explains that the relationships among core states of different civilizations are more complicated today than they used to be. In the course of the Cold War, the global power dynamic was clearly divided between the Soviet Union and the United States. These were the two major players on the world stage, and other countries tended either to bandwagon with them or oppose them. Today, however, relationships are more complicated across the board because there are multiple competing centers of power. For example, China is an important core state in East Asia, while Japan is the core state of its own civilization, and the West continues to concentrate power in the United States and Britain. These three core states all have different relations with one another. Even within civilizations, different countries interact with a second civilization in very different ways. Overall, this makes global politics more difficult to predict and more complicated.

"A multicivilizational United States will not be the United States; it will be the United Nations."


Here Huntington explains the major problem with the US embracing multiculturalism. He believes that America is defined by its Western heritage. By rejecting this heritage in favor of becoming a multicultural country, the United States would be turning away from its own unique culture. It would no longer be a country, which is defined by a holistic culture and set of values. Instead, it would become an institution more like the United Nations, which represents the interests of several different civilizations. No country can exist in which a multitude of cultures are represented equally; one culture must always triumph over others.

"Societies that assume that their history has ended, however, are usually societies whose history is about to decline."


Huntington returns to the idea that every civilization is arrogant in its own way. Each civilization tends to believe that it represents the pinnacle of human achievement. They also tend to assume that their civilization will not come to an end, because it is simply superior to all others that have come before. This applies to the West, as well; today, most Westerners believe that their "history has ended," meaning that conflict and struggle are only in the past. While this may be true for a short period of time, it usually precedes the fall of a civilization. In the past, civilizations that go through a "golden age" in which they experience unprecedented peace and prosperity then begin to spiral toward their decline shortly thereafter. This is an important lesson to keep in mind for the West, if it wants to avoid a similar fate. Instead of maintaining its arrogant stance and pretensions to universalism, the West should begin protecting its own culture and recognize the new multicivilizational reality of the world.