The Clash of Civilizations

The Clash of Civilizations Summary and Analysis of Part 3, Chapters 6-7 ("The Emerging Order of Civilizations")


In this section, Huntington explains the structures that organize global politics on a civilizational model. He reiterates his central argument that politics are now aligned primarily along cultural lines. During the Cold War, countries could avoid being aligned with either side. Today, no country can avoid being culturally aligned in some way, because this alignment concerns not “whose side are you on?” but rather “who are you?” Huntington argues that this question of identity drives different countries to cooperate or to clash along civilizational lines. Cultural commonality facilitates cooperate, while cultural difference leads to cleavages and conflicts.

There are five main reasons to analyze cultural commonality and conflict. First, cultural identification is increasing in importance compared to other dimensions of identity; while everyone has multiple different levels of identity—including institutional, ideological, occupational, etc.—the cultural level has recently become most salient. Second, the increased importance of cultural identity is due to recent socioeconomic changes: modernization has led to a sense of dislocation and alienation that leads people to seek a new and stable source of identity, while the newfound strength of non-Western societies allows them to promote their culture with more confidence. A third factor increasing the importance of identity is the general importance of an “other”—in order to define oneself, one always needs an “other” to compare oneself to. The increased contact between cultures only reinforces this impulse. As people encounter more people who are culturally different, they come to value their own culture and its commonalities more highly by contrast. Fourth, sources of conflict between cultures can be much harder to resolve because they often involve a zero-sum choice. For example, Jews and Arabs cannot settle the issue of who should control Jerusalem, because neither is willing to compromise their cultural investment in this particular territory enough to reach an agreement. Fifth, conflict is a natural part of society and humans tend to hate those who are not like them. To some degree, difference will always lead to conflict in any given situation.

When these rules regarding conflict or cooperation are applied in practice, it is clear that single-civilization organizations are more effective than multicivilizational ones. For example, economic organizations such as NATO are most effective because they are made up exclusively of Western countries that share the same values and philosophical assumptions. This allows them to operate more efficiently, because all the countries involved tend to agree with one another on fundamental issues. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a multicivilizational organization involving Sinic, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim member states, is much less effective. ASEAN is meant to promote intergovernmental cooperation and facilitate economic, military, political, and cultural integration among its members. However, it has become a place for mere discussion, with no follow-through on actions. Most important issues are avoided because they would be too controversial to directly address amongst such a diverse crowd of member states. Economically, Huntington predicts that patterns of trade will now be influenced most by patterns of culture. In the past, trade tended to reflect the alliances that existed amongst different countries, no matter their culture. Today, given the importance of culture in shaping cooperation, it will reflect civilizational boundaries.

A civilization is made up of nations. But different nations have different kinds of relationships to the civilization of which they are a part. Huntington defines five major types of nations: member states, core states, lone countries, cleft countries, and torn countries. A member state is a country fully culturally aligned with one civilization. For example, Egypt in Arab-Islamic civilization or Italy with European-Western civilization. Core states are the most powerful and culturally central states of a civilization. There can sometimes be multiple, or none. For example, the West has the United States and Britain. But Islam, Latin America, and Africa do not have any core states because imperialism disrupted the process of developing one. A lone country is one that lacks cultural commonality with any other society. For example, Ethiopia is isolated because its primary language, religion, and imperial history separate it from the largely Muslim area around it. The most important lone country is Japan, since no other country shares its particular culture, but it has significant influence on global politics and economics. A cleft country, on the other hand, is one where large groups belong to different civilizations. For example, Sudan is split between a Muslim north and largely Christian South. Usually, cleft countries involve deep divisions and can separate or at least consider separation. Finally, torn countries are those that have a single predominant culture that places it in one civilization, but have a leadership that wants to shift it to a different civilization. For example, Russia has been a torn country since Peter the Great attempted to Westernize it in the 17th century.

The fate of torn countries helps to illustrate the importance of civilization. Huntington identifies three factors necessary for making a shift in civilizational identity possible: the political and economic elite has to approve of it, the public has to be willing to accept it, and important players in the new civilization have to be willing to accept the new member. These conditions are almost impossible to meet all at once. For example, Russian attempts to shift to a Western civilization in the 17th century were unsuccessful because the public resisted it and the West was unwilling to accept Russia as a fully Western country. Russia eventually resolved its torn nature by embracing Communism, which allowed it to feel that it had become different from but also superior to the West because it had adopted a more advanced ideology. Turkey’s experience as a torn country was very different. In the 1920s and ‘30s, it attempted to move toward the West. Its elite was supportive, its population was hesitant, but Western Europe refused to admit Turkey into the EU because Turkey was historically not a Western country. More recently, the Turkish public has re-embraced Islam and rejected efforts to Westernize the country; like the EU, the Turkish public has responded to Turkey’s torn status by emphasizing its civilizational ties. Today, even the elite tends reject the West, because it has become so unpopular. Mexico has been slightly more successful in its efforts to align itself with "Western"-identified North America, because of its closeness to the U.S. But Australia has run up against resistance in attempting to redefine itself as East Asian. On the whole, torn countries are always doomed to fail in their efforts to fully re-integrate into a new civilization. When countries want to modernize, they should attempt to do this without also attempting to become fully Western at the same time.

The core states of each civilization are now the most important players in global politics, as opposed to the previous two superpowers of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States. For alliances, countries tend to side with core states of their culture and to oppose core states that have a different culture. The only exception to this is when countries have a historically tense relationship with one another; for example, Georgia tends to resist Russian domination despite their shared Orthodox tradition because of its long history of political conflict. On the whole, no country has significant security interests in a global setting. Instead, countries tend to be involved with one another on a civilizational basis: core states have security interests in their own civilization and negotiate with other core states in different civilizations. A civilization can be thought of as an extended family, in which the core states are older relatives who provide others with both support and discipline, when necessary.

Western Europe continues to define itself primarily along historical boundaries. For centuries, a line has separated Western Christian peoples from Muslim and Orthodox peoples, running along the borders between Finland and Russia, down through Bosnia in the South. Europe has traditionally ended where Islam and Orthodoxy begin. Today, NATO still falls along these lines, demonstrating the importance of historical boundaries between civilizations. Russia has continued to wield particular influence in its own civilizational bloc, which also parallels its tsarist and Soviet boundaries. China, too, is now reordering its sphere of influence along historical boundaries. In the Islamic world, on the other hand, loyalties have always been primarily about tribes and clans and, most broadly, religion (Islam); there is no core state that has historically dominated the Islamic world. In fact, national identity largely did not exist until recently.

For the Islamic world, moving from a general Islamic consciousness to a more cohesive organizational unit involves two major paradoxes. First, different power centers are competing to promote Islamic cohesion under their own leadership. The tension caused by this competition is further driving the Islamic world apart. Second, the concept of an ummah, or Islamic community as a whole, is based on the idea that nation states are illegitimate; however, the ummah can only be unified in the first place by one or more strong core states. The lack of an Islamic core state contributes to the internal and external conflicts that define Islam today, and this issue is not likely to be resolved anytime soon because of the paradoxes involved. The strongest contender for becoming an Islamic core state would be Turkey: it could abandon its secularism and take on a strong leader with both religious and political legitimacy, to go from a torn country into a core state.


Huntington begins this section by reminding readers of his central point: “Spurred by modernization, global politics is being reconfigured along cultural lines.” He provides a concise summary of his general argument thus far in the first paragraph of this chapter. This serves as an important reminder to readers of what the first two sections attempted to establish: cultural communities are now the most important territories for either cooperation or conflict in global politics. Huntington provides this reminder before getting into more specific examples in order to give his readers a starting point for approaching this more detailed evidence. With his general point in mind, the examples to come can more easily be contextualized.

In this section, Huntington offers more specific examples from recent conflicts. He moves from general statements of his ideas to specific analysis of how these ideas are reflected in certain situations. At times, this transition from broader statements to details about various conflicts and political situations can seem abrupt. Huntington assumes a certain basis of knowledge from his readers when it comes to the history behind the wars and politics of the 1990s. These sections on recent examples read like a different kind of text—one that closely analyzes historical scenarios, as opposed to one that offers hypotheses about modern global politics. It is important to consider this shift in style in context of the period Huntington was writing in. The 1990s were marked by ethnic conflicts in Yugoslavia and Chechnya, among other countries, and the rise of new forms of terrorism. The details of this violence would have been fresh in the minds of his readers. Explaining these events in context of his broader argument would have allowed Huntington to better connect his general ideas to concrete and relatable evidence. Today, he might employ a different set of examples from the more recent past to prove his point.

Huntington’s analysis of cleft countries, for example, provides more quantitative evidence for the importance of culture. He discusses the existence of both Western and Orthodox culture in Ukraine as an example of recent events relating to the clash of civilizations. He mentions the 1994 presidential elections, in particular, in which the non-nationalist candidate won. On the whole, these details about Ukraine’s situation help Huntington to illustrate his argument about cleft countries. In 1992, one-third of Russians in the western part of Ukraine said they suffered from anti-Russian animosity, while in Kiev, in the east, only ten percent did. This reflects the fact that Ukraine does not suffer from ethnic polarization, as much as the dominance of different cultures in different regions. This means that Russians are not discriminated against in the country as a whole, but rather only in those areas where Western culture is more dominant. Ukrainians are not pitting themselves, as an ethnicity, against Russians; they are struggling against Russian culture in those areas that identify more with Western culture. Huntington’s use of this more specific example allows him to provide concrete evidence for the general patterns he observed earlier in this section. Despite all of these extra details, Huntington’s basic thesis still stands out: culture is now the most important factor in defining identity.

Huntington also offers a number of specific predictions regarding future conflicts. For example, he focuses on Turkey and how its status as a torn country could develop. If Turkey redefined itself once again as an Islamic country, it could potentially take a leadership role in Islamic civilization. Because Turkey experienced both Eastern and Western culture at different points, Huntington predicts that it could change itself from “a pariah state” to “the leading state” of its civilization—much like South Africa did after abandoning apartheid. By ending the section with a number of predictions based on evidence, Huntington shows how much power his arguments have to help explain post-Cold War global politics. In his first section, he established the importance of being able to make predictions using a paradigm. Now, he shows how his paradigm can explain current events, and makes predictions about how these current conflicts will play out in the future. For example, the usual fate of torn countries and the importance of civilization lead him to conclude that Turkey could surmount its torn nature to lead Islamic civilization. It is important to note that Huntington values the predictive nature of paradigms. Throughout the rest of the text, he will continue to offer a cycle of general arguments about how global politics are changing, which will lead to more specific conclusions about relations between states.

Huntington’s reliance on predictions also reflects one of the main purposes of his text. In his original article for Foreign Affairs, he clarified his approach to the subject: “This is not to advocate the desirability of conflicts between civilizations. It is to set forth descriptive hypotheses as to what the future may be like.” In other words, Huntington’s text does not seek to make value judgments about conflict. He is not arguing for whether or not conflicts between particular civilizations should take place; in other words, he does not represent the interests of any given country. Instead, he aims to offer a more objective description of what is actually happening around the world today. Part of this aim includes “hypotheses.” His text offers not only a description of current affairs, but also how these relationships could develop. Being able to make predictions about the potential for conflict in different parts of the world is thus a central goal of Huntington’s text. He returns to this discussion of whether or not a given situation could become violent throughout his discussions of various civilizations.