The Clash of Civilizations

The Clash of Civilizations Summary and Analysis of Part 4, Chapters 8-11 ("Clashes of Civilizations")


In this part of the book, Huntington takes a survey of the main conflicts in modern global politics. Chief among these is a three-way conflict between Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness. After the Cold War, the West assumed that the defeat of the Soviet Union meant that democratic liberalism had triumphed overall, across the entire world. In fact, numerous other ideologies had arisen to compete with it. Moreover, the United States has often been hypocritical in its engagement with global politics; it claims certain universal principles, but its practical interests often lead it to act against them. Islam and China are the most important contesters of this overconfident Western power because they also have rich cultural traditions they believe to be superior to those of the West. In some cases, Islamic and Sinic societies have joined together to balance the dominant power of the West.

In trying to maintain its dominance the West faces three challenges: maintaining military superiority, promoting Western political values and institutions, and protecting Western culture's integrity from immigrants and refugees. For the immediate future, the West will continue to dominate militarily. However, the existence of weapons of mass destruction is shifting the balance of power. During the Cold War, the US acquired nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet Union. Today, other countries acquire them to deter the US. China and Islamic countries have collaborated on making more advanced weapons possible for both sides. Soon, the US will be forced to stop trying to counter proliferation, and instead accommodate it and attempt to make it fit its own interests. In terms of promoting Western values, other civilizations have put up a strong resistance. In particular, Western countries and the Asian-Islamic block approach issues like human rights very differently. In more recent efforts to pressure other countries to conform to Western human rights standards, the West has been thwarted by alliances formed along civilizational lines. For example, other countries in Asia backed China when it came to human rights issues in Taiwan, to the dismay of the United States. Finally, Western views on immigration have been changing as well, and have recently become more negative. When labor was needed in the 20th century, Europe welcomed Turkish refugees. Today, Europeans fear the threat of immigrants from Muslim countries overrunning their continent. Westerners oppose immigrants from other civilizations, whom they view as a threat to their own culture. On all three issues, the West has a much harder time achieving its goals because of the changing balance of power among civilizations.

The conflicts between core states have also shifted to accommodate the new global balance of power. Core state conflicts are those that occur between major states of different civilizations. They are likely to arise if fault line conflicts between local groups lead to core states rallying to the support of these local combatants, or if there is a change in the global balance of power among civilizations. Today, Islam is the source of many small fault line wars that run the risk of involving core states. China’s rising power is the potential source of a major war of core states over this change in the balance of power. Huntington explains that Islam has always been in conflict with Christianity; wherever Muslims live near other religious groups, conflict is likely. This is partly due to the conflict-prone nature of Islam, which claims to be the only true religion, is monotheistic, and emphasizes missionary work. Even as Muslim anti-Western sentiment increases, the West has responded with concern to what it sees as the “Islamic threat.” Today, Islamic and Western countries continue to clash because they represent fundamentally different and opposed cultures.

China, on the other hand, represents a political threat as it grows in economic strength. Spheres of influence have shifted from Europe to East Asia; whereas international relations used to be concentrated within Europe, they now unfold mainly in Asia. However, East Asia has much potential for conflict among states; for example, relations between the two Koreas and between China and Taiwan have been tense for a long time. The United States’ relationship with Asian countries has also become increasingly antagonistic since the 1990s, and the US becomes less likely to prevail in a conflict as its global influence diminishes. This antagonism is rooted in cultural differences and mistrust. More recently, the US has conceded more and more to Asian demands; it has been more lax on Chinese violations of human rights, and has dropped most sanctions on Japan. In response, East Asian countries have increasingly banded together to counter US influence, making them an even stronger force to reckon with. Nevertheless, the US continues to have an interest in preventing the emergence of a dominant regional power in East Asia. At the same time, China has solidified its position as this emerging power by expanding territorially, intimidating its neighboring countries, and convincing many of them to bandwagon with it rather than oppose it. The US’s interests versus China’s growth mean that a major conflict between the US and China is a real possibility.

Overall, the example of China’s growing influence illustrates that relations between civilizations and core states can be complicated, ambivalent, and subject to change. Although countries fall along civilizational patterns of loyalty, the relations between them and the countries of a second civilization are not identical. Common interests or enemies can often stimulate cooperation between countries of different civilizations, but this cooperation lasts only as long as the common interest exists. Conflicts do occur within civilizations, as well—particularly in Islamic countries. On the whole, the West has less conflictual relations with Latin America, Africa, Japan, and Orthodox Russia. It has the most conflictual relations with Islam and China. The bipolar arrangement of the Cold War has led to a much more complex set of relationships in a multipolar, multicivilizational world.

Huntington analyzes the nature of recent wars he terms “transition wars” or “fault line wars.” Transition wars are those that mark a change in warfare, generally. For example, the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989, which began as a straightforward invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, became an important transition to the post-Cold War era. It became a civilizational war when other Muslim countries got involved on behalf of Afghanistan, joining together on the basis of their shared culture to resist their Orthodox Christian enemy. After the Soviet-Afghan War, conflict shifted to be primarily along ethnic lines and involve fault line wars between groups from different civilizations. A second important transition war was the Gulf War. It originated when Iraq invaded Kuwait. But the United States chose to become involved on behalf of Kuwait, and this led Muslims to rally behind Iraq while Westerners supported the US. It became a war of East versus West, which further mobilized groups along civilizational lines. The Gulf War was the first one to involve conflict over resources; Kuwait was originally invaded because of its oil supplies, and the US defended it partly for the sake of this oil.

Fault line wars are communal conflicts between states or groups from different civilizations. They can occur virtually anywhere—within the same territory, in adjoining territories, etc.—as long as two groups from different civilizations are living in close proximity to one another. They involve a struggle for control over people or territory, and often involve ethnic cleansing as a means of reclaiming this territory. Violence between people of different civilizations has greater ramifications and consequences than intracivilizational violence. It is more likely to spark retaliation, since it plays into civilizational divides; for example, a Sunni gunman killing Shi’ite worshippers in Karachi in 1995 created a minor problem for Pakistan, but a Jewish settler killing twenty-nine Muslims in Hebron disrupted the entire Middle Eastern peace process and created a major problem for the whole world. The majority of fault line conflicts have taken place along the boundary in Eurasia and Africa that separates Muslims from non-Muslims. Most conflicts are between Islam and “others;” the same elements that make Islam more prone to conflict in general make it more prone to sparking fault line wars, in particular. Huntington identifies five other factors that make Islam prone to fault line conflicts. First, it has traditionally glorified military virtues. Second, Muslims have historically conquered and converted many peoples, and the legacy of this process remains. Third, Islam is “indigestible,” meaning that it does not tolerate other religions and is difficult for other religions to tolerate, in turn. Fourth, its lack of a core makes it more unstable. Finally, the demographic explosion in Muslim countries has left a younger and more rebellious population in charge. On the other hand, this last factor could mean that violence will soon decrease, as this population ages over time.

Fault line wars are particularly tricky because they can worsen over time, as identities become focused and hardened. Over the course of a fault line war, different sides become even more loyal to their own cultural identity, in response to the attack on them. Fault line wars are also often seen as “identity wars” for this reason. The identity that comes to dominate is the one that seems most meaningful in relation to the conflict. This is often a religious identity, since religion provides the strongest justification for struggling against an enemy. Fault line wars can be understood as “local wars between local groups with wider connections” and for this reason they “promote civilizational identities among their participants.” Ironically, in these wars between different cultures, it is the basis of each culture that is attacked; historical monuments and other important cultural artifacts tend to get destroyed. Fault line conflicts also tend to escalate because of “civilization rallying,” or “kin-country syndrome.” These two terms refer to the phenomenon of other countries from the same civilization joining in defense of a local group at war with a group from a different civilization. This also means that such conflicts often require intercivilizational cooperation to contain or resolve them. Whereas conflicts in the Cold War flowed from above—meaning that the two superpowers were engaged in conflict with one another, and with the conflict often spreading to the local level in the countries affiliated with them—conflicts now bubble up from below, beginning at a local level but often having global consequences.

An important example of a fault line war is the Bosnian war. This conflict took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s, between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. Bosnian Muslims were supported by other Muslim countries, which allowed them to go from a ragtag army to a well equipped military force. Russia tended to support the Serbs while the West supported Croats. Overall, this war showed that primary participants in fault line wars can count on receiving substantial help from civilizational kin. Second, this help can significantly affect the course of the war. Logically, governments of one civilization will not expend resources to help people of a different civilization fight in a fault line war. It is important to note that fault line violence rarely concludes; it merely achieves periodic truces. It is always possible for it to break out again because the underlying civilizational tensions will remain. Sometimes, in order to bring peace, secondary actors in a fault line war will have to betray their kin; for example, Israeli leaders denounced West Bank settlers in order to help bring some peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This kind of betrayal is often strongly denounced by the people of that civilization, who can sometimes react violently to leaders who take initiative in this way. On the whole, fault line violence is deeply rooted and resists peaceful, permanent solution. Only fundamental changes in the cultures or their relations can ameliorate it, and this is difficult and unlikely.


This section is the longest of the text. It provides a more detailed breakdown of the ways in which civilizations have been clashing so far, and how they will continue to do so in the future. Huntington is able to move into this level of detail after having established his argument in the first three sections of the book. Now, this section presents a new kind of analysis: a close look at a number of scenarios that reveal how these civilization structures interact in real life. This section can be seen as an illustration of the points made in the previous three.

Huntington concludes his first paragraph of this section by predicting, “The dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness.” Here, he repeats a point made earlier about the characteristics of these three civilizations. However, he now presents these characteristics to readers in the form of adjectives appended to each of their titles. He provides his readers with a keyword they can attach to each of these three main civilizations: the West is “arrogant,” Islam is “intolerant,” and Sinic civilization is “assertive.” This boils down the more nuanced explanations of how these civilizations behave to a few broad stereotypes. It allows Huntington to quickly remind his readers of his main points, though it also runs the risk of reducing each country to a simplistic picture of its political reality.

Huntington structures the first chapter of this section to address each of the different issues facing the West today. These include: weapons proliferation, human rights and democracy, and immigration. Here, the analysis shifts from considering the characteristics of each civilization, to discussing the broader issues over which they clash. In particular, he is refocusing on the security issues facing the West. This section generally addresses the struggles and future prospects for Western success, and his structure reflects that approach. In each of these subheadings, he explains the nature of the issue, the ways in which Islamic societies contribute to it, the ways in which East Asian societies contribute to it, and what the West should do moving forward. He has shifted to a more policy-oriented section of his argument.

Huntington begins his second chapter of the section by writing, “Civilizations are the ultimate human tribes, and the clash of civilizations is tribal conflict on a global scale.” This statement represents another shift in tone, as he moves back toward a conversational and allegorical explanation of his points. After providing a breakdown of issues, Huntington again reminds readers of his main point in a more simplistic way: the clash of civilizations can be thought of the same way we think of wars between tribes. He employs scales to explain a concept that can be difficult to grasp because it involves such a general and macro level; conceptualizing the behavior of tribes is easier than immediately trying to imagine the civilizational level. This tone shift and more casual metaphor gives readers another easy set of keywords to hold on to before they are plunged back into greater detail.

At the end of this chapter, Huntington provides a visual representation of the relationships between civilizations. Again, he offers a different kind of evidence to give readers variety in their approach to his argument. He has cycled through metaphors, simple keywords, lists of issues, analysis of specific situations, and broader discussions of the nature of conflict. He ends by putting all of these pieces together into an easy illustration. In the figure, he shows the lines that connect different civilizations in a set of relationships—either very tense or mostly peaceful. This image helps readers to concretely grasp the idea that these relationships are all tangled and messy. Civilizations do not relate to one another in a simple back-and-forth, like a debate about one issue. Instead, there are numerous competing sets of relationships that exist on different levels.