Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations Thesis: An Overview

By Bhaso Ndzendze

Credit: Foreign Affairs and Intervention.

Samuel Huntington’s article ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ published in 1993 in Foreign Affairs and later developed into a book. A response to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) who has since himself distanced from more literal interpretations of his work and has recently published a book with striking Huntingtonian overtones titled Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment in which he makes an assessment of the role of growing inequality in people retreating to group identities and thus the. Not only has the idea of a ‘clash’ of civilisations shaped the debate following the events of 9/11, but it is also shaping much of the contemporary discourses regarding terrorism, immigration, the refugee crisis, and so much else. 

“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” (Huntington, 1993: 22). To be sure, “nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world politics, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between civilisations and groups of civilisations” (Huntington, 1993: 22). 

Huntington’s Genealogy and Analysis of Conflict 

Huntington observes that in Europe, after the French Revolution, it was no longer the case that wars occurred between rulers and their agents and their mercenaries who fought wars, but between peoples with the advent of nationalism. This lasted until WWI. Then the wars of ideologies followed between 1919 and 1989, phase one of thiswas characterised by Communism vs Fascism-Nazism vs Liberal Democracy which culminated in World War II. The second phase was defined by a clash between Communism and Capitalism, also known as the Cold War. “During the Cold War, this latter conflict became embedded in the struggle between the two superpowers, neither of which was a nation state in the classical European sense and each of which defined its identity in terms of its ideology” (Huntington, 1993: 23).

But in a sense, all of these were “western civil wars” as Huntington puts it. Indeed, Marxism was conceived and refined in Germany and England by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, though this may be an overlooking of other sites of the Cold War as communism proliferated in other parts of the world and gained localised expression. Moreover, the Cold War was characterised by proxy wars. Thus, the reduction of the Cold War, and all preceding conflicts, to mere western civil wars is simplistic and averts a variety of historiographies which infuse the colonial and imperial components of these wars (such as the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, and the contributions of troops from Africa and Asia during both world wars). Nonetheless, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, Huntington asserts that a new phase characterised by an interaction between west and non-western civilisations emerges.

The Post-Cold War Order According to Huntington 

As Huntington sees it, the world is no longer arranged according to 1st, 2nd and 3rd worlds. Moreover, “political and economic systems are now irrelevant,” somewhat echoing Fukuyama’s end of history thesis. Rather, what was now relevant was civilisation. But what do we mean by civilisation? For Huntington, we mean “distinctness.” Civilisation is “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes them from other species” (Huntington, 1993). In practical terms, we mean language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and subjective self-identification. Thus, for example, for an Italian individual the highest cultural grouping is being a westerner as follows:

  • Westerner
  • European
  • Christian
  • Catholic
  • Italian

The above also demonstrates Huntington’s assertion that there exist subdivisions of civilisations. For example, western civilisation is subdivided into North American and European variants. Similarly, Islamic civilisation is subdivided into Arab, Turkic and Malay variants. Overall, then, Huntington argues for the existence of 8 civilisations:

1. Western

2. Islamic

3. Confucian

4. Japanese

5. Hindu

6. Slavic-Orthodox

7. Latin American

8. African 

Why Civilisations Will Clash

Overall, Huntington offers eight reasons as to why civilisations will clash.

1. Civilizational self-understanding is ontological and therefore (despite what many sociologists, anthropologists such as Benedict Anderson may claim) are real.

2. The world is becoming smaller. Thus, there is a growing self-consciousness and distinctness. In other words, the more one is exposed to the other, the more one accentuates their difference from them. “It’s a very short step from this to outbreaks of clashes,” he argues.

3. Economic regionalism is on the rise. Regional trading blocs are an important factor; thus, if they prove successful, they will lead to accumulations of reginal identities.

4. The dual role of the west. The west is at its height of power in the world, while there is a return to roots by non-westerners (indigenisation).

5. Cultural characteristics and differences are less mutable and hence less easily compromised and resolved than political and economic ones. Thus, communists can become democrats and capitalists, but Russians cannot become Westerners.

6. Erosion of local identities has or will lead to the pursuit of larger, grander, more stable forms of identity – something more “fundamental”; fundamentalists tend to be middle- class, college-educated. 

Nearly thirty years on, the paper remains a point of reference, with varying degrees of embrace and scepticism over its assertions. While some see the events of 9/11 as vindication of Huntington, some state that this is an over-interpretation and that rather than being a civilizational clash, the events were the actions of a non-state actor. This may be the element Huntington missed; many of the identarian clashes have taken place within countries rather than between them, with possible exception of the Saudi-Iran rivalry. Huntington also speaks of a “Confucian-Islamic connection” which has emerged to challenge western identities, values and power. This remains to be seen, however.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the thesis is its lack of clarity of how these clashes will take shape and whether clashes between actors from different “civilizational” backgrounds can only be understood within the frame of a clash of civilisation. In other words, Huntington offers no grounds for the falsification of his thesis.