Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations

by James Graham

Published: May, 2004

In the post Cold War world few articles have influenced how Western and especially American policymakers view the world more than Samuel P. Huntington's 1993 article, "The Clash of Civilizations?". Published in the influential Foreign Affairs journal the article suggested the world was returning to a civilization dominated world where future conflicts would originate from clashes between 'civilizations'. The theory has been broadly criticised for oversimplification, ignoring indigenous conflicts and for incorrectly predicting what has happened in the decade since its publication. The claim made by many that September the 11th has vindicated Huntington is simply not supported by the evidence. Published while a post Cold War world was searching for a new prism to view international relations through ensured it has however proved influential.

Who was Samuel P. Huntington?

- Born: April 18, 1927
- Based at Harvard University from 1950-2007
- Founder and co-editor of the quarterly journal, Foreign Policy
- C.V. reads like a description of the US foreign policy machinery
- Recieved $US 4,719,832 over 15 years from the John M. Olin Foundation, a right wing think tank that grew out of a chemicals and munitions business.
- Policy adviser to U.S. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter

Huntington's thesis outlines a future where the "great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural" (Huntington 1993:22). He divides the world's cultures into seven current civilizations, Western, Latin American, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu and Slavic-Orthodox (Huntington 1993:26). In addition he judged Africa only as a possible civilization depending on how far one viewed the development of an African consciousness had developed. These civilizations seem to be defined primarily by religion with a number of ad hoc exceptions. Israel is lumped together with the West, Buddhist states and the whole religion is completely ignored.

Huntington argues that the end of ideological confrontation between liberal democracy and communism will see future conflict occurring along the borders between civilizations at a micro level. At a macro level he predicts conflict occurring between states from different civilizations for control of international institutions and for economic and military power (Huntington 1993:29). He views this mix of conflict as normal by asserting that nation-states are new phenomena in a world dominated for most of its history by conflicts between civilizations. This is a dubious statement as inter-civilizational conflict driven mainly by geo-political factors rather than cultural differences is an equally if not more persuasive way to view much of history.

The theory at least differentiates between non-Western civilizations rather than grouping them together. He also explains how the West presents pro-Western policies as positive for the entire world and that the very idea of a universal culture is a Western idea. This he argues is evidenced by most important Western values like human rights often being the least important values to other civilizations.

His escape from a Eurocentric bias is however only temporary. He completely fails to account for indigenous cultures even though one can argue they collectively comprise a separate civilization (Fox 2002:430). The article also predicts future conflicts will be started by non-Western civilizations reacting to Western power and values ignoring the equally plausible situation where Western states use their military superiority to maintain their superior positions. The policy prescriptions he suggests to counter this perceived threat equate to increasing the power of the West to forestall any loss of the West's pre-eminence. Thus he suggests the Latin American and Orthodox-Slavic civilizations be drawn further into the Western orbit and the maintenance of Western military superiority (Huntington 1993:47).

By simplifying the world Huntington's theory ignores culture's inclination to be fast changing and multi-dimensional (Herzfeld 1997:116). Most Western states are now multi or bi-cultural and becoming more so. They are thus potentially part of multiple civilizations, a situation he brushes over by designating religion as the deciding factor. A secular Arab immigrant living in an Arab community in England is just one example where this designation is inappropriate. Indeed situated in a highly religious country with a significant number of Christian fundamentalists he states confidently that the world is becoming un-secularised. His evidence to backup this claim is circumstantial a common fault with most of his supporting evidence and thus is as best highly tenuous.

Like many sweeping theories Huntington's suffers from being too vague to address many specific issues. His anecdotal approach is simply not robust enough to account for the explanations and arguments he presents (Fox 2002:423). A systematic quantitative analysis conducted by Jonathon Fox for the period 1989-2002 concluded that the exact opposite of what Huntington predicted actually occurred (Fox 2002:425). Not only did Fox find that civilizational conflicts were less common than noncivilizational conflicts but the end of the Cold War had no significant effect on the ratio between the two (Fox 2002:426). Traditional methods like the level of discrimination in a society and the characteristics of a regime proved more useful in analysing ethnic conflict than Huntington's Clash of civilizations. Most damning of all was the finding that where civilizational conflict did occur it was more likely to be between groups that were culturally similar (Fox 2002:429), that is within the same civilization and not between them. These findings directly contradict Huntington's theory.

The danger of the Clash of Civilization thesis is presented by the term "clash of civilizations" which is intuitively understandable. This has ensured the theory has been used to increase the fear in the West of an Islamic movement perceived as increasingly powerful and anti-Western. It is this fantasy that has provided much of the rationale for trying to limit and control the expansion of the Islam and Confucian civilizations of which the war on terror is but the latest and most extreme example. These policies were advocated by Huntingdon in the article to reduce the threat specific civilizations were perceived to hold (Huntington 1993:47). A reasonable argument can thus be made that this article and the storm of interest it created, generated a self-fulfilling prophecy. The power to make real what one merely theorises is immensely dangerous. When that theory is based on flawed and circumstantial evidence it is disastrous.

The clash of civilizations thesis while original and persuasive distorted reality. Its many flaws have been exposed by events since its publication. The theory has however forced people to examine more seriously non-Western cultures. Unfortunately the conclusions many have drawn from these examinations have been the wrong ones as they were conducted from the starting premise of a 'clash of civilizations.' Such is the power of a well written and persuasive article to distort individual's perception of culture and conflict.

References Cited

Fox, Jonathon, Ethnic minorities and the clash of civilizations: A quantitative analysis of Huntington's thesis. British Journal of Political Science, 32(3):415-435.

Herzfeld, Michael, 1997. Anthropology and the politics of significance. Social Analysis, 4(3):107-138.

Huntington, Samuel, 1993. The clash of civilizations. Foreign Affairs, 72(3):22-49.

Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations

Profile of Samuel P. Huntington