Samuel Huntington / The Clash of Civilizations
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, many analysts of the political
scene turned to a piece written for the summer 1993 edition of
Foreign Affairs by Samuel P. Huntington, a professor at Harvard.
Titled "The Clash of Civilizations?" it has become the
catchphrase for many of us commenting on the current war
I recalled reading the original article and I finally got around to
plowing through my 20+ years of Foreign Affairs (stored in a
closet) to find it so consider what follows as something akin to a
book report. Huntington''s thoughts are now almost 9 years old
but much of what he wrote has, or has the potential to, come to
pass. This week we''ll examine his thesis and next time look at
the opposing side, as revealed shortly after the controversial
original work appeared in the quarterly.
[The only way to properly review the Huntington piece is to
quote him quite extensively. What follows, however, is a
fraction of the entire article.]
The Clash of Civilizations: The Next Pattern of Conflict
"It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in
this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily
economic. The great divisions among humankind and the
dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will
remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the
principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations
and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations
will dominate global politics. The fault lines between
civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."
Huntington writes about the evolution of conflict in the world,
and how beginning with the French Revolution the "principal
lines of conflict were between nations rather than princes." He
quotes R.R. Palmer from 1793: "The wars of kings were over;
the wars of peoples had begun."
After World War I, conflicts of nations gave way to conflicts of
ideologies; first, communism, fascism-Nazism and liberal
democracy, then, communism and democracy.
All of the prior battles, whether between princes, nation states or
ideologies were within a Western context, "Western civil wars."
Today we group countries in terms of culture and civilization
(like Arabs, Chinese and Westerners). But the key is how we
define the latter.
"A civilization is...the highest cultural grouping of people and
the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that
which distinguishes humans from other species."
Huntington adds that a civilization can include several
nation states, as in the West or Arab civilizations, or only one,
as in Japan. The fault lines, however, are caused by the following:
First, "Differences among civilizations are not only real; they are
basic." [For example: history and language.]
Second, "The world is becoming a smaller place." [North
Africans migrating to France generate hostility among many
Third, "The processes of economic modernization and social
change throughout the world are separating people from
longstanding local identities."
Fourth, "The growth of civilization-consciousness is enhanced
by the dual role of the West." ["A West at the peak of its power
confronts non-Wests (sic) that increasingly have the desire, the
will and the resources to shape the world in non-Western ways."]
Fifth, "Cultural characteristics and differences are less mutable
and hence less easily compromised and resolved than political
and economic ones." [Russians can become rich or democrats,
but Russians can''t become Estonians.]
Sixth, "Economic regionalism is increasing." [Economic trade
blocs, a la NAFTA and the E.U.]
In summarizing the "fault lines," Huntington writes, "As people
define their identity in ethnic and religious terms, they are likely
to see an ''us'' versus ''them'' relation existing between themselves
and people of different ethnicity or religion."
"The clash of civilizations thus occurs at two levels. At the
micro-level, adjunct groups along the fault lines between
civilizations struggle, often violently, over the control of territory
and each other. At the macro-level, states from different
civilizations compete for relative military and economic power,
struggle over the control of international institutions and third
parties, and competitively promote their particular political and
While Huntington''s essay delves into all kinds of relationships,
including that between Russia and the U.S., I''m going to focus
on his theories regarding the West''s relationship with Islam. He
cites Indian Muslim author M.J. Akbar, who says that the West''s
"next confrontation is definitely going to come from the Muslim
world. It is in the sweep of the Islamic nations from the
Maghreb to Pakistan that the struggle for a new world order will
begin." Bernard Lewis came to a similar conclusion in a 1992
article for Atlantic Monthly.
"We are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the
level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue
them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations - the perhaps
irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against
our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the
worldwide expansion of both."
Huntington notes that you could draw a fault line down from
Russia through current-day Belarus, Ukraine, Romania and into
the Balkans to get an idea where clashes have taken place
between Western and Islamic civilizations over the past 1,300
years. [In the Balkans, for example, the line is drawn between
the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires.]
The professor also has some extensive thoughts regarding
Turkey, what he describes as a "torn country" (he gives the same
label to Mexico and, most importantly, Russia). These are cases
where the leaders want to make their countries members of the
West, but the history and culture of these nations is non-Western.
In the case of Turkey, since the days after World War I and
Ataturk the leaders have defined it "as a modern, secular,
Western nation state. They allied Turkey with the West in
NATO and in the Gulf War; they applied for membership in the
European Community (still a ways off). At the same time,
however, elements in Turkish society have supported an Islamic
revival and have argued that Turkey is basically a Middle
Eastern Muslim society. In addition, while the elite of Turkey
has defined Turkey as a Western society, the elite of the West
refuses to accept Turkey as such." Huntington quotes former
Turkish President Ozal on the problems with the West. "We are
Muslim and they are Christian and they don''t say that."
The clash of civilizations in general can be boiled down to the
premise that "Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, human
rights, rule of law, often have little resonance in Islamic or
And when one looks at the post-9/11 world, you can see how
prescient Huntington was back in 1993.
"The conflict between the West and the Confucian-Islamic states
focuses largely, although not exclusively, on nuclear, chemical
and biological weapons, ballistic missiles and other sophisticated
means for delivering them, and the guidance, intelligence and
other electronic capabilities for achieving that goal."
While the West promotes non-proliferation, the non-Western
nations, "assert their right to acquire and to deploy whatever
weapons they think necessary for their security. They also have
absorbed, to the full, the truth of the response of the Indian
defense minister when asked what lesson he learned from the
Gulf War: ''Don''t fight the United States unless you have
Speaking of the current conflict in terms of a ''clash of
civilizations'' isn''t politically correct and, one can argue, that we
are dealing more with extremist elements rather than a whole
people. But it has always been the goal of the bin Ladens of the
world to turn the battle into one between civilizations and if
rational Islamic leaders don''t begin to carry the day, a true clash
is what we''ll have.
Next week, the other side, as presented in 1993.