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Samuel Huntington and the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ Thesis

What groupings of countries will be most important in world affairs and most relevant to understanding and making sense of global politics? Countries no longer belong to the Free World, the communist bloc, or the Third World. Simple two-way divisions of countries into rich and poor or democratic and nondemocratic may help some but not all that much. Global politics are now too complex to be stuffed into two pigeonholes. Civilizations are the natural successors to the three worlds of the Cold War. At the macro level world politics are likely to involve conflicts and shifting power balances of states from different civilizations, and at the micro level the most violent, prolonged and dangerous conflicts are likely to be between states and groups from different civilizations. As my earlier article pointed out, this civilization paradigm accounts for many important developments in international affairs in recent years, including the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the wars going on in their former territories, the rise of religious fundamentalism throughout the world, the struggles within Russia, Turkey, and Mexico over their identity, the intensity of the trade conflicts between the United States and Japan, the resistance of Islamic states to Western pressure on Iraq and Libya, the efforts of the Islamic and Confucian states to acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, China’s continuing role as an “outsider” great power, the consolidation of new democratic regimes in some countries and not in others, and the escalation arms race in East Asia.

[More current examples include… confrontations in Human Rights Conference between the West, denouncing “cultural relativism”, and Islamic and Confucian states rejecting “Western universalism”; confrontatioins between China and the United States over shipments of nuclear technology to Iran by China; realignment of the Philippines away from the United States and towards China; the conflict in Ukraine; the war against ISIS; the expansion of NATO to the borders of Russia; Israel’s conflict with its neighbors and internal conflict with Palestinians; mass immigration into Europe and the United States; Brexit]

Does a “clash of civilizations” perspective account for everything of significance in world affairs during these past few years? Of course not. But… inter-civilizational issues are increasingly replacing inter-superpower issues as the top items on the international agenda. These issues include arms proliferation (particularly of weapons of mass detsruction and the means of delivering them), human rights, and immigration. On these three issues, the West is on one side and most of the other major civilizations are on the other. The extent to which countries observe human rights corresponds overwhelmingly with divisions among civilizations: the West and Japan are highly protective of human rights; Latin America, India, Russia, and parts of Africa protect some human rights; China, many other Asian countries, and most Muslim societies are least protective of human rights. [The Trump administration even threatened to pull the United States from the UN Human Rights Council because of its bias in favor of some of the more flagrant violators of human rights.] Immigration from non-Western countries is provoking great concern throughout Europe and North America and has been shown to have been a major factor in the decision of Brits to vote for a withdrawal from the European Union. Walls are going up at borders and even within Europe. In the United States, massive waves of unrestricted immigration seem to have played a significant part in the election of President Trump.



One function of a paradigm is to highlight what is important (e.g., the potential for escalation in clashes between groups from different civilizations). Another is to place familiar phenomena in a new perspective. In this respect, the civilizational paradigm may have implications for the Unites States. Countries like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia that bestride civilizational fault lines historically tend to come apart. The unity of the Unites States has historically rested on the twin bedrocks of European culture and political democracy. These have been essentials of America to which generations of immigrants, even non-European ones, have assimilated. The essence of the American creed has been equal rights for the individual, and historically immigrant and outcast groups have invoked and thereby reinvigorated the principles of the creed in their struggles for equal treatment in American society. The notable success effort was the civil rights movement led by Martin L. King, Jr. in the 1950s and 1960s. Subsequently, however, the demand shifted from equal rights for individuals to special rights for certain groups. Such claims run directly counter to the underlying principles that have been the basis of American political unity. They reject the idea of a “color-blind” society of equal individuals and instead promote a “color-conscious” society with government-sanctioned privileges for some groups. In a parallel movement, intellectuals and politicians began to push the ideology of “multiculturalism” and to insist on a rewriting of American political, social, and literary history. At the extreme, this movement tends to elevate the historical importance of obscure leaders of minority groups. Both the demands for special group rights and for multiculturalism encourage a clash of civilization within the United States and encourage what Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., terms “the disuniting of America.”

In the past the United States has successfully absorbed millions of immigrants from scores of countries because they adapted to the prevailing European culture and enthusiastically embraced the American Creed of liberty, equality, individualism, democracy. Will this pattern continue to prevail? Will new immigrants be assimilated into the hitherto dominant culture of the United States? If they are not, if the United States becomes pervaded with an internal clash of civilizations, will it survive as a liberal democracy? Will the de-Westernization of the United States, if it occurs, also mean its de-Americanization? If it does and Americans cease to adhere to their liberal democratic and Western-rooted political ideology, the United States as we have known it will cease to exist and will follow the other ideologically defined superpower onto the ash heap of history.


A civilizational approach explains much and orders much of the “bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion” of the post-COld War world, which is why it has attracted so much attention and generated so much debate around the world. Our world is one of overlapping groupings of states brought together in varying degrees by history, culture, religion, language, location, and institutions. At the broadest level these groupings are civilizations. To deny their existence is to deny the basic realities of human existence.

The unreal alternative is the one-world paradigm that a universal civilization now exists or is likely to exist in the coming years. There is the assumption that increased interaction — greater communication and transportation — produces a common culture. In some circumstances this may be the case. But wars occur most frequently between societies with high levels of interaction, and interaction frequently reinforces existing identities and produces resistance, reaction, and confrontation. [And while the internet has flung wide the doors to global communication, it can be argued that it has helped solidify the differences between groups of people rather than unite us into a more unified global culture.] There is the assumption that modernization and economic development have a homogenizing effect and produce a common modern culture closely resembling that which has existed in the West in the 20th century. Clearly, modern urban, literate, wealthy, industrialized societies do share cultural traits that distinguish them from backward, rural, poor, undeveloped societies. But modernization does not equal Westernization. Japan, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia are modern, prosperous societies but they clearly are non-Western. The presumption of Westerners that other peoples who modernize must become “like us” is a bit of Western arrogance that in itself illustrates the clash of civilizations. To argue that Slovenes and Serbs, Arabs, Hindues, and Muslims, Russians and Tajiks, Tamils and Sinhalese, Tibetans and Chinese, Japanese and Americans all belong to a single Western-defined universal civilization is to fly in the face of reality.

A universal civilization can only be the product of universal power. Roman power created a near-universal civilization within the limited confines of the ancient world. Western power in the form of European colonization in th e19th century and American hegemony in the 20th century extended Western culture throughout much of the contemporary world. But European colonialism is long gone, and Amercan hegemony is in fast retreat. The erosion of Western culture follows, as indigenous, historically rooted mores, languages, beliefs, and institutions reassert themselves.