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(March 2002)

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order


Samuel P. Huntington


Title: The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

Author: Samuel P. Huntington
Publisher: Simon & Schuster , New York
Copyright © 1996 Samuel P. Huntington
Total Number of Pages: 368


The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order


Samuel P. Huntington


Samuel P. Huntington's potentially important book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is a provocative analysis of the state of world politics in late 20 th and early 21 st centuries. This international bestseller asserts that the conflicts that have erupted since the fall of communism offer a portrait of a future world driven not by ideologies or economics, but by ethnicity, religion, and culture. In nutshell, The Clash shifts discussion of the post-cold-war world from ideology, ethnicity, politics, and economics to culture - and especially to the religious basis of culture.

The book is based on author's seminal article published in Foreign Affairs in summer of 1993. The article generated discussion to a level not seen since George Kennan's “X” article on containment published in the 1940s by the same periodical.

The title of the book, "The Clash of Civilizations" actually comes from a Bernard Lewis essay. Lewis is known to be a narrow-minded intellectual who claims to understand Islam from the Western point of view. Like Huntington , Lewis also believes that East and West cannot resolve their differences and that they are eternally doomed to conflict. Both are popular with the right wing radicals in the West. On the other hand, men like Osama bin Laden use their writings to urge their followers on. They claim that the West really believes this stuff, and that it is a proof that West is bracing itself for a battle against Islam.

The Clash of Civilizations is a well-written theoretical work. It does provide some insight in the nature and dynamics of civilisation and its history. The book categorises cultures into civilisations and sub-civilisations.

Huntington aspires to present a framework, a paradigm, for viewing global politics that will be meaningful to scholars and useful to policy-makers. In very broad terms, he succeeds in focusing attention on the diverse major cultures world-wide, their relationship with each other, and the inconsistency of Cold War policies to a post-Cold War world.

There is no gain saying that understanding and accepting other cultures is a difficult struggle. But it does not mean that one should throw up hands and claim that their respective traditions and societies make the clash between any two cultures or civilisations inevitable. Huntington errs here.

On “the Clash”

Huntington essentially explains how "civilisations" have replaced nations and ideologies as the driving force in global politics today. He offers a controversial but brilliant analysis of the current climate and future possibilities of international conflicts. Huntington examines the growing influence of a handful of major cultures - Western, Islamic, Chinese, Eastern Orthodox, Latin American, Japanese, Buddhist, Hindu, and African - in current struggles across the globe.

He argues that the nations of the world no longer define themselves according to idealogies such as Democracy and Communism but instead according to various cultural components that constitute unique civilisations. In the post-cold-war era, nations increasingly identify themselves and their friends by civilisation-based traits that include language, religion, and social customs. In the process, they are heading towards, a conflict, or “the Clash” , with other civilisations. He also opines that some of the civilisations are newly defined.

Huntington acknowledges that civilisational groupings are based on broad theoretical qualifications and that in some cases he may be wrong.

He argues that Western Civilisation, led by its core state - the US , has been and continues to be in a period of relative decline versus other civilisations. Amongst these civilisations, some, particularly Sinic (Chinese) and Islamic, perceive themselves superior and aspire to dominate the world over the long run. The demographic and economic forces propelling these civilisations are discussed and backed by arguments which are interesting but not compelling. Huntington 's analysis of the threatening potential of Sinic and Islamic civilisations to the West is exaggerated and bordering on xenophobia.

Huntington , however, is not very categoric. Instead of formulating a grand theory and emphatically defending it, Huntington explores the weaknesses of his argument and deliberates upon alternative points of view. For example, Huntington concedes that civilisations are constantly changing entities depending on cultural developments, external influences, or trans-civilisation alliances; or he admits that his formulation of African civilisation may altogether be incorrect.

One can disagree with his views about the inevitability of “the Clash”, but Huntington 's framework is useful, in certain ways, towards understanding broad regional developments such as the decline of the West and the increasing influence of Chinese civilisation from the Western point of view. He believes that these developments occur over a long period of time. For example, the decline of Western power, according to him, started from roughly 1920 until the present when broad categories such as population and territorial reductions are considered. Thus while the West may be the most powerful civilisation today, in a broader sense it has been in a state of decline for over eighty years. It is obviously not a very correct assumption. In fact, West is more powerful and unchallenged today then ever.

Huntington also predicts the re-alignment of civilisations. His claim that the West and Russia would ultimately unite against Islam, and Islamic and Chinese civilisations will join hands together. However, he does not respond to certain basic questions such as whether the cultural divides and civilisational differences are being promoted from grassroots or from elites; or more importantly, whether it is culture and religion or money and interests that shape the clashes.

Huntington counsels that, in the future, avoidance of major inter-civilisational wars requires core states within each civilisation to refrain from intervening in conflicts within other civilisations. However, Huntington's assessment of the so-called militaristic legacy of Islam, the "indigestibility" of Muslims and the "bloody borders" of Islam points to an obvious bias against Islam. Huntington also argues that the absence of a strong "core state" within the Islamic civilisation is "destabilizing."

Looking at the book logically, the paradigm about the eight civilisations mentioned by Huntington are cross civilisations. None of them offer a great deal of unity and they find allies in others. Hardly any civilisation is a whole. One can look at the West; it may itself does not qualify as a single whole. The North America and the Western Europe contain many people of many different origins and often actively oppose each others' policies and strive to be different from each other. In Islamic world, we need only look at most of the Muslim world, pulling in different directions, to discredit his thesis. Islam is not uniting under one common banner to rival the West. The book provokes a rivalry between Western states and Islam which may not necessarily exist.

Distinction between Civilisations

A problematic part of Huntington 's argument is the insubstantial distinction he makes among some civilisations. For example, while one can perceive, to some extent, differences between Western, Orthodox, Latin, Hindu, and Islamic civilisations, the distinction between Chinese, Buddhist, and Japanese civilisations is more obscure. Chinese civilisation, according to Huntington , is Confucian and largely influenced by Chinese culture. Buddhist civilisation encompasses people who practice Buddhism as a religion and accept its influence on the state apparatus. The difference between Buddhist and Chinese civilisations appears to be more political than cultural; thus it is not civilisation-based. Buddhism is practiced in most of the Chinese civilisation and Confucianism is a way of life in most cultures that encompass Buddhist civilisation.

Also, regional cultural differences probably play a more powerful role in Asia than common civilisation traits. Vietnam prides itself on centuries of successful resistance to Chinese domination. Korea struggles to show how its culture is distinctive from China and Japan . While stronger Muslim nations may go to the aid of weaker ones (such as Turkey to Bosnia or Pakistan to Kashmir ) no Confucian/Buddhist nation is likely to go to the aid of another one on religious grounds.

Universal Values vs. Western Values

Huntington warns the reader against generalisations about the world becoming one. He points out the resilience of civilisations to foreign influences and underscores the ease with which religious values become secularised. He advocates that the West should give up the idea of universalising its values and rather ensure their survival within a stronger European-North American alliance to offset the “emerging” Sino-Islamic grouping.

He writes, "The non-Westerns see as Western what the West sees as universal. What Westerners herald as being global integration, such as the proliferation of worldwide media, non-Westerners denounce as nefarious Western imperialism.” The non-Westerners see the Western advances as a threat.

Although Huntington 's new world order is multipolar and multicivilisational, but according to him, the West will remain the most powerful civilisation for some time into the future. Though it will face increasing rivalry from Islamic societies and the Confucian society led by China . Huntington , however, advice that the West should refrain from intervening in civilisational conflicts it does not understand.

Is China a Threat?

Huntington portrays China as an immanent threat to the West. Huntington describes a scenario where China would threaten the world peace in 2010. His concerns about China , however, seem overstated and premature. While in the long run China may emerge as a pre-eminent power, in the medium term it is unlikely that China could reach a level of development that would enable it to challenge the supremacy of the West. Huntington does not mention a number of issues that could become set backs for China . For example, China will confront the crisis of an aging population in a few decades as a result of its 'one child' policy. Or that the economic prosperity of the Chinese people and their exposure to the Western values may affect the attitude of the Chinese people in many ways.

Rise of English Language

Huntington disagrees with the thesis that the spread of English is a serious phenomenon of westernisation. He argues that English does not threaten indigenous languages, rather it is more likely to be accepted as language of wider communication, because English has not been widely or deeply seen in a single ethnic or ideological context for the past quarter century. Huntington declares that in inter-cultural communication English helps to maintain and reinforce peoples' separate cultural identities since people want to preserve their own culture when they use English to communicate with peoples of other culture.

Also, Huntington explains that in non-western societies two opposing trends are under way. First, English is increasingly used at the university level to prepare the graduates to effectively meet the global competition for capital and customers. Secondly, societal and political pressures increasingly lead to the more general use of indigenous languages. This assumption is, however, not convincing to most intellectuals in the non-English speaking world. There is a broad consensus that many of the minor languages in the world are now being oppressed by English and other colonial languages.

Diversity in the US Society

Huntington is anxious about the “dangers” the US faces from internal diversity and multiculturalism. He outlines how this trend will eventually cause the Balkanisation of the United States . Just as the Soviet Union broke apart when the cement of a unified ideology - Marxism - was abandoned, so will the United States break apart as liberalism, the "core" American culture, is shoved aside as competing groups fight for rights based on group interests. All great civilisations die when they fail to understand what made them great in the first place.

Huntington seems to be overly apprehensive about the affects of growing diversity in the US society. The core values of the American society are more or less intact and does not show any significant sign of retreat.

Turkey as an Outsider

Huntington defines Turkey as a torn country between Western civilisation and Islamic civilisation and then lumping her to Islamic civilisation. Interestingly, he advocates the expulsion of Turkey (and Greece ) from NATO, "NATO... should recognize the essential meaninglessness of having as members two states each of which is the other's worst enemy and both of which lack cultural affinity with the other members."

The secular intellectuals reacted negatively to Huntington 's classification of Turkey as an Islamic country. They argued that the share of votes of Islamist parties declined substantially since 1996. Also, the so-called fundamentalists openly supported Turkey 's application to the membership of the European Union.

Decline of the West

Huntington 's contention that Western civilisation is in decline is not convincing. It is true that its territorial dominance declined since 1900s. The author shows this as an evidence of the decline, but this really does not show a decline. Technologically, militarily and scientifically West is superior to any other “civilisation”, and particularly Islamic states, than it was in 1900. Muslim countries were able to defeat and end the dominance of the West in the 1900's, today this does not look possible. It did not happen in Iraq in 1991 and in Afghanistan in 2001.

Islam and Terrorism

The most problematic part of the book is the section explaining the links between Islam and terrorism. Huntington has attempted to prove this "link" by quoting numbers.

About the Islamic civilisation, and the way it is evolving he refers to a study of the militant leaders of Egyptian Islamist groups that found that they had five major characteristics, which appear to be typical of Islamists in other countries. They were young, overwhelmingly in their twenties and thirties. Eighty percent were university students or university graduates. Over half came from elite colleges or from the intellectually most demanding fields of technical specialisation such as medicine or engineering. Over 70 percent were from lower middle class, modest but not poor backgrounds, and were the first generations in their family to get higher education. They spent their childhoods in small towns or rural areas but had become residents of large cities. A number of conservative commentators in the West consider this as the profile of Atta (the first pilot who rammed the hijacked plane in the first tower of World Trade Center) and his colleagues and thus felt that this validated the claims of links between Islam and terrorism and the Nine-Eleven incidents. ( Huntington made it to best-selling list after 11 September, 2001.)

9/11 was caused by a group trying to come to grips with its increasing marginalisation in a non-democratic society (Middle-East) than any "clash" theory coming to fruition. No doubt there are problems with the Islamic world, but these problems are rooted in lack of democracy and economic reforms and not faith and culture.

Asian Values

Huntington 's arguments seem weaker when he discusses Asian culture, history, thinking and politics. His description of Japan as “fickle-minded”, that it would sway between US alliance and Chinese alliance, seemed a little too simplistic. He does not discuss the very sensitive Sino-Japanese relationship due to the invasion of Nanjing and the horrific slaughter of the Chinese. The Japanese are not making any particular efforts to address the Chinese sensitivities in this regard.

Similarly, Huntington tends to judge the Chinese with the Western yard-stick. Chinese, all over the world, tend to do quite well for themselves, part of Chinese mentality is to build on wealth. Chinese in Muslim world were not met a particularly good treatment at times of economic hardship. For example, they had been subjected to killings and rapes in 1970s in Malaysia and 1990s in Indonesia . It is a little far fetched that the Chinese will side with the Muslim world when “the Clash” occurs. Chinese usually do not take sides in a confrontation which is not theirs.

State vs Civilisation

Huntington , though he is a realist, understates the importance of states in favour of civilisations. The international system, specially the realist paradigm, is about struggle for survival among states, not civilisations. Furthermore, civilisations do not control states, but rather, states control civilisations.

Westernisation and Modernism

Huntington separates Westernisation from Modernism. One of his more interesting insights is that Modernity, itself dislocating and alienating people, creates the need for new meaningful identities and accentuating the civilisational awareness of people “to replace the weakened local village, town, or tribal awareness”. In this way, as well as in the increased communications between civilisations, modernity heightens the clash of civilisations. He states, "If non-Western societies are to Modernize, they must do it their own way not the Western way and, emulating Japan, build upon and employ their own traditions, institutions, and values." Huntington 's mindfulness of the distinction between the West and Modernity leads him to the conclusion that the "Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous."

Huntington points out the phenomenon of cultural indigenisation which occurs during or after the process of modernisation and generally necessitates the rejection of foreign cultural influences.

Movement against Westernisation

Huntington argues that there is an increasing movement against Westernisation all over the world. He specifically mentions references towards "Asianization" in Japan , “re-Islamization" of the Middle East "Hinduization" of India , and “Russianization" of the former Soviet Union . Huntington 's assertion in this regard is an attempt to support his “Clash” paradigm.

West's Double Standards

Huntington criticises the West for its double standards. He points out that the West uses a double standard with regard to allies and enemies. Why did the West fail to protect Bosnian Moslems against the Serbs? And why did Israel get away with violating UN sanctions?

Some Omissions

Huntington omitted a number of major issues which were directly linked to his paradigm. For example, he never addresses why Islam can thrive in Western nations, even though the values that Islamic nations seek differ widely from Western ones. Moreover, he never deals with countries with strong multiethnic populations, like Eastern Europe and India . The role of Globalization and multinational corporations is not mentioned either. Also, the chapter on inter-civilisational issues is the weakest in the book; weapons proliferation is not attributed to the West; and the section on human rights and democracy is superficial.


Huntington 's thesis is intensely provocative. But as he himself admits in his introduction, “the Clash” is an over-simplified conceptual model.

Huntington draws on the works of finest writers, including Spengler, Toynbee, Braudel, Weber, and Quigley, to support and illustrate his analysis. He provides an important perspective that is correct in many ways and inaccurate in several others. For those interested in international affairs, Huntington has certainly initiated a debate.

However, the thesis espoused in this book is narrow, one-dimensional view of conflict in the contemporary world. In effect, it attempts to relate conflicts straight and simply to cultural differences between peoples. It then relates peoples to predominant cultures; and groups all cultures into various major civilisations. It disregards or downplays any evidence that may contradict the paradigm of "the Clash".

While asserting the pre-eminence of “the Clash”, Huntington ignores the integration/interdependence that has taken place amongst nations due to the globalization of the world economy. He also ignores the fact that West has good relations with many non-western states. He ignores the effects of democracy and the development of the economy on international relations as well. Due to some of the shortcomings in his paradigm, he appears xenophobic and chauvinistic. He appears to have the urge to define and lash out against an easily identifiable enemy.

At times, Samuel Huntington appears to play to the gallery of America's foreign policy elite. He is known to have done so earlier. In 1960s, in his book Political Order in Changing Societies, Huntington recommended that America should prop up authoritarian regimes. Even earlier, in his 1957 book The Soldier and the State , he had advocated the militarization of American society on Prussian model. The tradition of political theory he is following could be traced directly to Carl Schmitt, one of Nazi Germany's leading legal architects. Like Schmitt, Huntington believes that state power can be defined only with respect to an external enemy.

The political implication of Huntington 's thesis for the US is isolationism. His advice for the Western powers is to draw closer together, maintain their strength, and, above all, recognise - and here few can disagree with him - "that Western intervention in the affairs of other civilisations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world."

However, one can not quarrel with the linear logic followed by the author if the basic premise of the book is accepted.

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is an interesting book and despite its intellectual discourse is not a sleeper.






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