Review of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations

by Krista

Huntington, Samuel The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996; pp. 367)


Samuel Huntington’s highly organized approach in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, lends to his highly comprehensive analysis of modern day war. With the end of the Cold War marking a new era in world conflict, he asserts that global politics have been “reconfigured along cultural lines”. (19)  Expanding on his original article, The Clash which appeared in the July 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs, he successfully endeavors to demonstrate in Part I how global politics have become both multipolar and multi-civilizational, how the balance of power is shifting and possible ramifications of that shift in Part II and that conflict has become contingent upon cultural affinities in Part III. In Part IV, he elaborates on how the pretensions of the West, and their desire to impress these values on other cultures, inevitably have in the past and will in the future, bring it into conflict with other civilizations and finally in Part V, he concludes by saying that the West must not see their culture as universal as a means to preserving it against non-Western societies. 

When the Cold War came to an end some thought that Westernization was synonymous with modernization to the extent that many, like Francis Fukuyama, heralded the West as holding the key to a universalized civilization. This however, was never possible because the seeds planted in La Revanche De Dieu (95) were coming into full bloom. The 1970’s saw a great resurgence of religion. Within the core states of the world’s dominant civilizations people were looking for a sense of identity amidst unfamiliar modernization, and found it in religion. While Huntington is a political scientist he relies on this religious history to classify civilizations as they exist today. He argues that our identities are rooted in ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs and institutions, (27). From these identities, civilizations re-emerged or were strengthened and developed core-states which served as “sources of order within civilizations and, through negotiations with other core states, between civilizations.” (156) Consequently, where once rivalries were based on superpowers, they have become conflicts between these civilizations. (28)

After the Cold War, Huntington believes that culture replaced ideology (138) and the question turned from “Who’s side are you on?” to “What are you?” (127) According to Huntington, this reconfiguration resulted in two types of conflict. The first one is core-state conflict in which the major states of different civilizations go to war against each other. The other type is fault-line conflict in which neighboring states from different civilizations go to war. Within both types of conflicts interference from secondary and tertiary parties can provide support and constraints to mitigate conflict. (281) There is, however, also the risk of intensification should interfering states force their values and institutions on them. The evidence Huntington provides for this is extensive and reaches from the Orthodox-Muslim fault-line, which has seen multiple conflicts between Russia and the Serbs against Bosnia, Iran and Turkey to conflict between Asian and Western states as Sino based states resist Western values including, but not limited to human rights, proliferation and pluralism.

Hunting asserts that in order for specifically the West, to mollify conflict or at best avoid it, it must abstain from intervening in the affairs of other civilizations, work with other civilization to mitigate and contain fault-line conflict and they must reject the universalism of Western culture. Instead, they must focus on commonalities between civilizations. The United States has since 9/11, intentionally or not, seen the impact of Huntington’s premises as they have and continue to promote the “War on Terrorism”. As Huntington quotes Michael Walzer as saying, “What people have in common is ‘more the sense of common enemy [or evil] than the commitment to a common culture.’” (318)

What is unique about this publication is that it came out almost ten years ago so we are not only are we forced to examine Huntington’s arguments in the time that they were written but then we must hold them up against the backdrop of the 21st century and determine whether the assertions and predictions, which he boldly made hold true and/or came to pass in the last decade. What is indisputable however, is that we are in a time of civilizational clashes and the events of 9/11 are a testimony to that. What I found most compelling about this book was the emphasis that Huntington places on fundamental cultural differences between Christian, Muslim and Sinic cultures which inhibit full cooperation. An example of this is the Asians’ long term benefit strategy versus the promotion of immediate gains by the West (225) and the supremacy of collectivity (238) as opposed to the centrality of the individual we hold to in the West (108). With these values in mind it is interesting to note the diversity within a country such as the United States or Canada and our capacity for national unity and yet, contrary to mainstream political platforms, Huntington discourages the multiculturalism that Clinton so strongly endorsed and rather, advocates the reinforcement of US Military superiority. (312) While I would agree that an international world order based on civilizations would eliminate much of the conflict that we have today, I see it as an impossible feat. It is counterintuitive to the nature of humans as well as the religions we profess.