The Clash of Civilizations

The Clash of Civilizations Summary and Analysis of Part 2, Chapters 4-5 ("The Shifting Balance of Civilizations")


Now, after identifying the new civilizational paradigm in the first part of the book, Huntington turns in Part 2 to the place of the West in this paradigm. He begins by explaining that two general conceptions exist of the West in relation to the world today. From one perspective, the West is a fully dominant power. Those who support this view point to the fact that it is still the only civilization with interests in every other region of the world. The West has a number of substantial powers: it owns and operates the international banking system, is the main customer for all products, dominates markets, can pull off major military interventions, and has the most advanced technology. From the other perspective, the West is in decline, and is exhausted and worn out from its previous dominant era. This point of view corresponds to a belief in the shift of international economic power to East Asia. Along with economic power, military power and political influence would soon follow. Huntington believes that the real answer lies between these two perspectives: the West is still overwhelmingly dominant and will remain so for a while, but power is beginning to shift across the world. As Western power erodes, a lot of global power will simply disappear, but some will be spread out among the different major civilizations.

The decline of the West is defined by three major characteristics. It is a slow process, and is still proceeding slowly today. In general, Empires tend to decline slowly for a long time before switching to a sudden and quick decline. For example, the Soviet Union started out with moderate failures in its economy, and then very quickly bottomed out and failed later in the 20th century. This could happen with the West as well, but for now it remains in a slow phase of decline. Second, the decline is an irregular process. It can pause and reverse over time, even if it is generally a process of decline. This is partly true because the West has two major centers of power—in Europe and in the United States—which complicates its decline. Third, decline is defined partly by a loss of resources. Resources such as money and agricultural products are needed to influence other countries; they allow one country to coerce or extort another by offering or taking away resources that everyone needs. As the West’s share of resources declines, so does its general power across the world.

Resources can also refer to population, economic product, and military capability. All three of these are shifting toward non-Western civilizations. In terms of population, the West is declining relative to non-Western peoples. At the same time, these non-Western peoples are becoming healthier and more urban, literate, and educated. Societies that can socially mobilize, meaning they can rally around a political cause, are more powerful in general. In order to socially mobilize, a population needs to be educated. This allows them to have higher expectations and an understanding of the political situation. These shifts in population thus make non-Western societies more powerful in this sense. Moreover, the West is no longer economically dominant. China in particular is pulling ahead and going back to its historical role as the world’s largest economy. At the same time, military capacity is also shifting toward other civilizations. Military power includes the number of forces, the quality of technology, levels of organization, and whether a society is willing to apply force. So far, the United States remains dominant in terms of technology, but other categories of military power are becoming more dispersed.

In terms of military capability in particular, five trends stand out. First, after the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s its army also collapsed. One of the major world armies thus ceased to exist. Second, the decline in Russian military capability led the US to spend less on its military as well, since it had less of a challenge to confront. Third, countries in East Asia, by contrast, have generally increased military spending. Fourth, militaries now have more extreme weapons at their disposal, such as nuclear weapons; this is true for the whole world. Fifth, power has been regionalized. This means that countries tend to focus their military strength in their own regions, instead of attempting to expand far outward on other continents. Russia, for example, is more focused on Central Asia and the Caucasus. This means that, in order to predict future conflicts, it is more important to focus on the distribution of power in given regions than the worldwide balance of power. In the future, the world will not be controlled by a small group of politicians from Western countries who make all of the decisions concerning worldwide wars. Wars will not resemble World War I or II, for example. Instead, leaders of the seven or eight major civilizations Huntington identified will all have influence.

This trend in military capability corresponds to the general rise of non-Western cultures across the world. As military power shifts toward non-Western civilizations, these civilizations also gain cultural power. This has been true throughout history: when a civilization gains in power, it is able to promote and expand its own culture to less powerful places. Joseph Nye explains this relationship using the terms “hard power” and “soft power.” Hard power refers to concrete resources, such as military or economic capability. Soft power refers to cultural influence. Huntington believes that hard power is necessary for having soft power, as well, because a country needs resources and confidence in order to promote its culture. Today, the trend in soft power is known as “indigenization.” This term refers to the fact that non-Western civilizations are re-embracing their indigenous, or native, cultures. They can do so because they have gained in hard power as well, and can therefore challenge the West both militarily and economically as well as culturally. In fact, many leaders of non-Western countries have been pressured to indigenize their own personas and leadership styles because their people no longer respect Western values, and want a return to their ancestral cultures. These leaders tend toward appeals on ethnic, nationalist, or religious levels. For example, in Muslim countries, many leaders have embraced an Islamist style of government. As countries indigenize, they often also revive their national religions. This religious revival can also be attributed to the alienation that results from modernization; as people move into cities, are separated from their roots, interact with more strangers and occupy new kinds of jobs, they can feel cut off from a stable sense of identity and meaning. In response to this, they often turn toward religion to give them a new source of identity and meaning. A final factor in religious revival is often the rejection of secular values that define the West and can seem indulgent and corrupt to societies more accustomed to values of discipline and community.

Huntington focuses in particular on Asia and Islam as the two major challengers to the West. He points out that Asia has undergone significant economic development after the second half of the twentieth century. Asia’s new cultural and political assertiveness can be traced back to this recent economic growth. At the same time, Muslim countries’ confidence stems from their social mobilization and population growth. Huntington analyzes recent political trends in China to demonstrate that Chinese leaders have been looking for legitimacy in their common Chinese culture. This differs considerably from earlier eras, when they turned to imported Western concepts to legitimize their leadership. When it comes to Asian attitudes toward global politics, Huntington highlights four major points. First, they are confident that East Asia will maintain its rapid economic development and will surpass the West, making it more powerful than the recent global leader. Second, they believe their success is due to their unique culture and the ways it differs from that of the West. Third, they believe there are commonalities among Asian societies; these include values of thrift, family, work, and discipline. These commonalities are the base for their shared economic success. Fourth, they believe these values should serve as a model for other societies seeking to replicate their economic success. All of these points lead Asia toward greater cultural self-confidence. They also result in an Asian civilization that seeks to make its values universal. This goal has been common to all successful civilizations, and is now a key component of East Asian actions on the world political stage.

Huntington believes Muslim countries, on the other hand, find confidence in their improved social mobility and their increasing identification with Islam. The Islamic resurgence is not a fringe movement, but has rather become a mainstream feature of most Muslim countries. In fact, Huntington compares the Islamic Resurgence to the Protestant Reformation in importance and scope. He explains that Islam became a powerful force for social mobilization because it was able to exist underground even when authoritarian governments repressed most opposition in the 20th century. Because of this, it has become more powerful today than liberal opposition movements, which were more effectively crushed. He points to three major consequences of the new size and social mobilization of the population in Muslim countries. First, it is mostly focused around young people. The youth are historically the focal point of protest, reform, revolution, etc., and this remains true of youth in Muslim countries today. However, the youth in Muslim countries are at the forefront of the Islamic resurgence. Second, the rapid expansion of literacy has led to a gap between the literate younger generation and an older generation. This affects the balance of power across the population and may put a strain on political systems. Third, a larger population needs more resources; this means that Muslim societies will push outward to occupy more surrounding territory. Like East Asia, Islamic civilization will continue to expand outward and make its mark on the world.

Huntington concludes this section with a reflection on how East Asian and Islamic growth will proceed. He predicts the Asian economic boom will level off early in the twenty-first century. The Islamic Resurgence will also eventually fade. Relations between Islam and the West will become less conflict-ridden and reach a cold kind of peace. However, these two movements will lead to greater confidence and influence in East Asia and Muslim countries. This will continue to destabilize the dominant position of the West.


Huntington begins this section by establishing a duality that will guide his argument. He states, “two pictures exist of the power of the West in relation to other civilizations.” He then goes on to explain these two different sides before showing why one triumphs over the other. By introducing the topic of “the West and the rest” in this manner, Huntington makes clear that it is a central component of his main argument. How is the West regarded in the world today, and what is its actual status? Huntington implicitly raises this question by beginning this section with this statement; if two pictures exist, then this must be a controversial topic with a number of potential answers. In fact, Huntington will go on to provide his own answer: the West is regarded either as dominant or failed, while in fact, it in the process of a slow internal decline.

Huntington structures his argument throughout this section with numbered lists. For example, he lays out the “three major characteristics” of the decline of the West, which include: it is a slow process, it is irregular, and the West’s share of resources is currently dwindling. He makes use of this tactic throughout the text in order to bring attention to a particularly important point. Here, he emphasizes the decline of the West by splitting it into separate, more easily digestible parts for his readers. This structure also allows Huntington to make his argument more systematic; for example, he can return to the numbered lists when providing evidence in order to check off all of these conditions as they apply in a given situation.

When discussing the Islamic religious revival, Huntington refers to the Protestant Reformation. This was a religious movement in 16th century Europe, in which Protestants split from the Catholic church and revived greater enthusiasm for their faith. Huntington compares the two religious movements in his analysis of Islam. This comparison helps Huntington to emphasize the importance of the Islamic revival by connecting it to a historical event universally accepted as a major influence on the world today. The comparison also allows Huntington to situate his own argument historically; he believes that, over time, it will come to have the same historical importance as the Protestant Reformation. It gives readers a reference point for understanding his larger point: the revival of Islam is having a revolutionary effect on the structure of governments in Islamic societies.

In this section, Huntington also includes a number of graphs and tables. He charts economic growth in China and the demographic changes in Islamic societies through such figures. By adding figures in addition to his written summaries, Huntington gives his readers a more concrete visualization of the points he is making. Through his prose, he guides readers towards conclusions about patterns in data. But he also allows readers to see the data themselves, in the form of these figures, so they can follow his logic. Referring to this information helps to support the points he is making about the magnitude of the East Asian economic boom and the Islamic shift toward a younger population. Readers can see for themselves that these trends are represented as objective facts, in addition to the more subjective analysis provided in the prose.

At the end of this section, Huntington ends with a prediction. He concludes his observations of current trends by noting, “in any event, during the coming decades Asian economic growth will have deeply destabilizing effects on the Western-dominated established international order.” This represents a shift in his tone. He moves from analyzing data to interpret the present, to extrapolating what it may tell us about the future. Huntington will continue to provide predictions in the sections to follow. In this one, however, he begins on a more general level. He ends by noting, “the early years of the twenty-first century are likely to see an ongoing resurgence of non-Western power and culture and the clash of the peoples of non-Western civilization with the West and with each other.” His first set of predictions is thus general enough to reflect that his analysis is not yet complete; only in later sections will he be able to provide more specific hypotheses regarding the fate of particular countries.