the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 April 7


The end of the Cold War was an excellent example of a historical event whose significance was apparent to those living it. The urge to pronounce the end of an era, heavily indulged at the time, looks almost as good more than a decade later. Whether historians of a century hence will neatly divide the world into Cold War and post-Cold War as we do will of course not be known for a hundred years. But for scholars of the present, there is an impatience to get on with the business, and sport, of history. Scholarly caution contends with scholarly excitement. Early out of the blocks with an analysis of the post-Cold War world, then just a couple of years old, was Samuel Huntington, with his cautiously-titled bold thesis, ‘The clash of civilizations?’, published in the influential Foreign Affairs magazine in 1993. It was followed by much debate, and only ten years later we are certainly not in a position to resolve the debate. But it depicts an interesting departure from our old world, and is worth re-examining.

Huntington suggested that the ideological division, and the resultant ideological conflict, of the Cold War then just ended would give way to a cultural, specifically civilizational, division of the world, with new conflicts resultant from that. A civilization, to Huntington, 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. It is defined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people.” The civilizations he identified are: “Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African”. His conclusion: “The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another.” The definition is quite defensible. The identification of civilizations is more problematic. The thesis was commendable in its reach, but, as was soon to be shown, rather difficult to sustain.

The criticisms began immediately in Foreign Affairs, including short responses by Jeane Kirkpatrick, Albert Weeks, and Gerard Piel, and longer responses from Fouad Ajami, Kishore Mahbubani, and Robert Bartley. The criticisms were both theoretical and empirical, challenging Huntington’s structures and classifications on the one hand, and challenging his illustrations on the other.

Kirkpatrick effectively disputes several of Huntington’s points, but she also offers her own disputable points, by characterizing Western culture as essentially cosmopolitan and modernizing. Her most successful arguments are for the inclusion of Huntington’s Latin American and Slavic-Orthodox cultures within Western civilization. She also correctly dispels the manufactured civilizational (religious) conflict between the West and Islam that was supposed to have taken place during the first Gulf War. According to Kirkpatrick, “the most important and explosive differences involving Muslims are found within the Muslim world ― between persons, parties and governments who are reasonably moderate, nonexpansionist and nonviolent and those who are anti-modern and anti-Western, extremely intolerant, expansionist and violent”. This sounds compelling, but so does Huntington’s itemization of Muslim-non-Muslim conflict, and the statement “Islam has bloody borders.” Kirkpatrick was writing without knowledge of the decade to come, including the extent of sanctions against Iraq, 2001 September 11, and the subsequent wars against Afghanistan and, again, Iraq. This conflict against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, as it is being presented, is so ill-defined by the Western governments responsible that it is quite easily portrayed as a new Crusade, as a war of Christianity (the West, of course) against Islam. Certainly it cannot be ignored that only Muslim terrorists and states have so far been of concern. Perhaps this is nothing but coincidental fact; but more likely it is because Western culture is, while perhaps at the leading edge of modernization, still parochial and partisan. It may be the point at which Huntington’s thesis is strongest.

Kirkpatrick’s view hints at the identity of Western culture and modernity. The champion of this emerges in Gerard Piel, identifying the West not only with modernity but also with basically all good cultural qualities existent in the world. Piel opens with a bogeyman analogy that almost suggests cynicism about the West, namely that it might conjure the apparition of an opposing civilization to rationalize its actions. But as he rejects Huntington’s theory for that reason, he offers his own rationalization for the West’s aggressive behavior, that it is possessor of the magic of modernity that all non-Western peoples aspire to. The Westernization of the world is not, for him, the result of historical accident, conquest, and colonization; the West is, just as its defenders have been arguing, the first culture to arrive at humanity’s ultimate destination. While some of this undoubtedly is true, much of Western culture is arbitrary, and yet this is being adopted (and promoted) along with the more defensible objects of cultural hegemony, like human rights and the rule of law.

Albert Weeks and Fouad Ajami dispute Huntington’s proposal of civilizations as significant actors in global affairs. The actors remain, as they were before, nation-states. Weeks’ argument is power realism. The states, which hold the actual power in the world, will act, as they always have, from naked self-interest. Weeks does not deny cultural and historical influences, but considers that the large number of defections from civilizational interests and affiliations renders them secondary at best. By implication, Weeks urges us to look for examples of defection of nation-states from their own direct interests, which he knows we are unlikely to find.

Ajami refutes Huntington playfully and pointedly. He concedes the persistent influence of civilizations and cultures, but doubts the certainty and cleanliness of Huntington’s thesis. The effect of modernization and Westernization on other cultures is not to be underestimated; the unwillingness of societies, most especially their middle classes, to give up their progress towards modern secularism for a rejuvenated and newly-liberated fundamentalism, Islamic, Hindu, or otherwise, is so strong that it is likely to overcome all but the most serious challenge. Ajami also emphasizes that reality does not support a ready identification of individuals with their “civilizations”, or a fooling of those individuals by claims on the part of states and politicians of civilizational imperatives. The reality, as individuals and politicians know, is that self-interest is pursued by those with power, which means the states. Ajami’s insight and his turn of phrase are here, as often, unsurpassed. Huntington is seduced by his own idea, as “with a sharp pencil and a steady hand” he carves up the world. Ajami correctly detects in Huntington’s essay a partisan guide to the West’s ultimate victory: “He has assumed that his call to unity will be answered, for outside flutter the banners of the Saracens and the Confucians.” Ajami is himself an advocate of modernism and liberalism, but can detect and discredit European chauvinism as well as Islamic or Hindu.

Kishore Mahbubani is quoted in Huntington’s original essay as an advocate of the thesis that Western and non-Western interaction would come to dominate world affairs. In his own response, Mahbubani makes the usual confusion between Western culture and modernity and liberalism, and proceeds to defend and attack modernity and liberalism at the same time. Mahbubani even shockingly defends the Chinese actions in Tiān Ān Mén Square in 1989, showing a realist sympathy with state power interests that he believes is recognized and felt in silence by all serious thinkers. He notes the evangelism of Westerners for their culture, and associates this with the promotion of liberalism, and then not only remarks on the expected resentment that chauvinism engenders, but candidly discusses his own doubts about democracy and freedom. His criticisms of democracy are accurate ― that it produces gridlock, punishes the tellers of hard truths, and leads to budgetary indiscipline ― but it is natural that autocrats would reject democracy. He offers no evidence that non-Western societies will democratically reject democracy. The problems he cites with personal freedom are a veiled defense of social and cultural totalitarianism, though certainly he has reasons to suppose that this, at least, has democratic support in non-Western societies. But that does not mean either that Western societies are free of this impulse or that Western proponents of liberalism should be more “humble” in their advocacy.

The case against expecting conflict, or for, as he says, optimism, is provided by Robert Bartley. Bartley views democracy and liberalism (including economic liberalism) as being characteristically Western and a product of the West, but distinct from Western culture. Those who oppose the spread of democracy and liberalism are opposing modernity, and they are acting in defiance of the interests and the wishes of their subjects ― for they are all rulers or would-be rulers. For Bartley, the creation of a middle class under capitalism, the demand of the middle class for democracy, and the phenomenon of the democratic peace should lead to a world much less troubling than Huntington depicts. Bartley argues for pursuing this vision and for believing in its possibilities; and while this is encouraging, it is only, as he concedes, one possibility. In the end it is a truncated argument, confined to reiterating a body of well-known theory.

Before addressing the remaining issues in Huntington’s original piece, it is worth noting his own response to his critics, ‘If not civilizations, what?’. The model he had proposed was just that, a model, a paradigm. Just as the Cold War paradigm did not explain everything during the Cold War, neither will the Clash of Civilizations paradigm. It is meant, he says, to provide a simple means of understanding most of the world, more than anything else available.* How does it fare?

The more Huntington discusses the West, the more clear is it that he really means the industrialized First World, specifically that Japan belongs and that former members of the Second World do not. This is the conventional West, and it is a civilization of sorts, industrial civilization, but it is not in accord with his established boundaries. His boundaries also miss the fact that not only has Western culture heavily influenced all of the others, but that it is the chief element in Latin American cultures and the only common element to the various African cultures. Looking beyond material culture (that is, setting aside the affinity of Japan to the West), the inclusion of Anglophone and Francophone North America (as well as the presumed inclusion of Australia and New Zealand) in Western (id est, European) civilization is appropriate, given that the idiosyncrasies of those cultures deriving from aboriginal influence are not terribly significant and not fundamentally different from corresponding influences in Europe itself (from the Celts, for instance). But there is, as Kirkpatrick agrees, no particularly-good reason for excluding Latin America from this categorization. The differences between North and Latin America are largely based not on differences of extent of aboriginal influence but on the pre-existing differences between northern and southern European culture. It is true that aboriginals and their languages and cultures survive in greater numbers in Latin America. But México alone is home to two distinct aboriginal civilizations. It would be difficult to argue that Perú and México have the same culture as each other but different culture from Andalucia, owing to the absence of aboriginal influence in Iberia but the presence of aboriginal influences, however unrelated, in Latin America.

No one questions that the most influential culture in the world is Western, though its definition is not thereby less problematic. Near the top of other influential cultures are Chinese, Indian, and Islamic. The last, though, is still clearly multifocal, with Arab, Persian, and Turkish influences. This culture then overlies others, most notably Indian culture, for the duality of culture among Muslims of the Indian subcontinent is especially pronounced. And Western culture is not only a product of the same seed culture (in the Ancient Near East) that produced much of Islamic culture, but has absorbed influences from so many cultures that in many cases it is merely recirculating influences to those cultures.

Japan may have produced a civilization of its own, but modern Japanese culture and civilization is an amalgam of Japanese, Chinese, European, and Indian civilizations. While that may create a special space, Japan is hardly the only place where such a distinction is necessary. The correct interpretation would be to see Japan as an independent culture that became first a client culture of China and then a client culture of Europe.

While Huntington allows that religion is an element of culture connected to civilization, he attributes the conflict in Yugoslavia to civilization, not religion. There is no evidence that anything other than religion distinguishes the Serbs, Croats, and Bosniacs (also known as ‘Muslims’, tellingly). While they may have had different masters during late medieval and early modern times, that influence did not amount to a completely-different set of shared experiences. The Yugoslavs lived in proximity, and they experienced the same history. Most even spoke, and still speak, the same language, and the dialectical divisions cut across national identities. Huntington’s citation of the Serb-Albanian conflict is similarly an assertion that Serbs and Albanians belong to different civilizations. In fact, the most significant heritage for either one is the European. When Kirkpatrick weighs in on this issue, she limits Serb motives to “territorial aggrandizement”. This may be true, but the fact that, as she notes, Serbia first attacked Slovenia and Croatia does not remove the religious element; it merely suggests that Serb motivation was not specifically anti-Muslim. The more complicated answer is that the divisions in Yugoslavia were national in the most limited way, defined by the minimum possible difference (in this case, religion), and that territorial ambition was nationalistic and xenophobic, specifically other-directed. But it was not civilizational.

And the emphasis that Huntington places on his divisions in Yugoslavia is stretched when considering the Western sympathy towards Slovenia and Croatia (early recognition, and in Croatia’s case, a double standard regarding later actions in Bosnia). Almost nothing divides Catholic and Orthodox societies, supposedly of different civilizations, but religion; and even so, not much divides them, for both are Christian. The same division, of somewhat later generation, exists between Catholic and Protestant societies within the West, and the motive of Lutheran states to favor Catholic states over Orthodox states is unlikely to be religious. In fact, the early recognition was a product of early action by Slovenia and Croatia (bolder in secession because they were less multinational than Bosnia), and the pro-Western identification of those states. While that, too, is probably oversimplifying, we see (though Huntington could not) that the West gives the same sympathy to the pro-Western Montenegro, and to the pro-Western government established by the now-deceased Zoran Đinđić in Serbia.

At points Huntington casually undermines his own argument by omission. The conflict between Russia and the Turkic peoples of Eurasia is presented without so much as a word to link the Turkic peoples to their Islamic kin. Nor is there a link; while religious differences augment the national differences for both sides, in no way does this conflict have anything to do with Arabs or Javanese or any other variety of Muslim. He mentions conflict between China and the US, including the idea that it may be a new Cold War, seemingly without considering the ideological differences that might (and do) dominate the story. He mentions Chinese conflict with Tibet, the latter given no civilizational assignment at all. Oddly, he labels the Tibetans as Buddhists, suggesting that the conflict is purely religious; but the China-Tibet issue may be a genuine civilizational, more than religious, conflict. It merely illustrates the need for a broader, looser understanding.

The larger self-weakening effort of Huntington is to show just how inapplicable the theory is, by admitting that Western-non-Western interaction will play an important (he in fact implies, in self-contradiction, the most important) role in global affairs, and by offering up several key examples of what he calls ‘torn countries’. These torn countries, Turkey, México, and Russia being cited, have identities divided between the West and their respective Huntington-assigned civilizations, which is particularly distressing considering that Russia is unquestionably the dominant sub-culture in Slavic-Orthodox civilization, if it exists. México is either the first or second state (behind Brazil but not Argentina) of Latin American civilization, if it exists. What this suggests is the need to defy the confusion of Western with modern, or Western with liberal, and to see that Turkey, México, and Russia are torn between traditional and modern or liberal, a point that could be made about western European or even North American cultures. The supposed Western-non-Western issues are conflicts on the one hand between tradition and modernity, and on the other between local culture and European hegemony. Either conflict is understandably passionate, and in the latter case, sympathetically passionate.

The notion of civilizational rallying, that states and peoples from one civilization are more likely to support, and less likely to contend violently with, their fellows, and the reverse with other civilizations, is supported quite selectively with examples, for which counterexamples are readily to hand. But the culminating prediction is decisive and unambiguous, and will be decisively and unambiguously proven right or wrong: “The next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations.”

By ‘Confucian’, Huntington clearly means China and nothing else, since Confucianism has been China’s least-successful export. In other cultural areas China has been a huge influence on neighboring cultures, including not only Japan, but also Korea, Mongolia, and Việt Nam, and even the most Confucian, Việt Nam, is not predominantly so. The closing suggestion by Huntington is an axis between Confucian and Islamic civilizations targeted at the West and focusing on military build-up and weapons proliferation. But another reading of this is that China as a state resents the existence of any superior state power, meaning at present the United States, and that Islamic society resents the dominant and advancing power of Christianity, and this gives China and numerous Islamic states common cause against the current geopolitical power structure.

Sub-Saharan Africa, which Huntington is hesitant to classify, barely appears in this debate at any point. While that may be a reflection of its failure to produce the kind of history that interests political theorists, Huntington’s negligence is more likely due to its defiance of his scheme. Africa has produced indigenous civilizations, but none has an existence or influence today beyond the local. The closest thing to a common indigenous African culture is the Bantu language sub-family, and that doesn’t extend into the populous West Africa. To group native African religions is generally to make the same mistake as grouping native American religions, producing a romanticized, idealized, fictional belief set. The same goes for African material culture. The commonalities throughout Sub-Saharan Africa are almost all a result of European colonialism and later Western hegemony. The one exception is also foreign, Islam.

The failure to include all peoples and cultures may be a conclusion that they will not affect world politics. But the breadth of exclusion is startling. The “possible” inclusion of an African civilization is the possible exclusion, as well. Southeast Asia is excluded, other Buddhist cultures are excluded, Korea is excluded, the Pacific is excluded, native American cultures are excluded, Siberia is excluded, Caucasian Christian cultures are excluded. And in consideration of those apparently-unimportant cultures, it becomes even more obvious that the categories are too broad, that the primary influences of hundreds of millions of the world’s people are simply left out of the equation.


Huntington’s analysis is a political scheme, but even more importantly it is a geography. He is dividing up the world into civilizations that cover a particular expanse of land, that end somewhere. In fact, he makes much of the dividing lines between civilizations, labelling the eastern boundary of the West as a ‘Velvet Curtain’. He is, therefore, using region geography, when he ought to be using point geography. A region has boundaries, and under idealized geography (but only idealized geography) the regions fit together neatly as puzzle pieces. International politicians tend to think of regions, and specifically to think of those regions that appear on a map as internationally-recognized states. Statisticians, on the other hand, look at human settlement as multicentral. Cities are best (though by no means always) defined by their central points. It is possible to draw a line on a map showing the extent of New York municipal control. But of course, the New York metropolitan area goes beyond the five boroughs. Over time, the influence of New York ― centered, of course, in downtown Manhattan ― has spread further into Long Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, the Hudson Valley, and in some ways incorporates the entire eastern-seaboard megalopolis.

A civilization is a point phenomenon. It radiates influence from a center. The fact that this center may move geographically ― so that Western civilization, which originated in Mesopotamia, is now also centered in downtown Manhattan ― is not an issue to those in its sphere of influence. They are looking more to a set of cultural ideals which, because they are ideals, may be represented in no single person or place, but are in fact the center of gravity of a shifting collection of persons and places. Los Angeles, Washington, London, and Paris, and, I would argue, México and São Paulo, are to New York in a cultural sense what Brooklyn, Newark, Hartford, and Yonkers are in a settlement sense: different, lesser foci of influence subsumed under the larger phenomenon. But even so, culture does not reside in a place, and cultural influence emanates from within culture, not within space.

The positive contribution Huntington has made has been to underline the importance of culture in shaping our world, which he agrees has always existed but was suppressed under the ideological divisions of the Cold War. But he is looking for a model that resembles the Cold War (albeit more complicated), and he is not going to find one. He has artificially restricted the playing field. The cultural forces in the world may indeed be the most powerful actors, but if so they are not as Huntington defines them, not in extent, not in composition, and not in strength. A diverse world of countless overlapping cultural influences of varying strengths in constant competition and shifting alliance is a more accurate picture, though harder to reproduce on a map.


* In a rather cheeky defense of his theory, he claims that the debate it has generated, both for and against, proves its supremacy as a paradigm: “it either accords with reality as people see it or it comes close enough so that people who do not accept it have to attack it”. Or, as Han Solo said, “I must have hit it pretty close to the mark to get her all riled up like that.”.

Fouad Ajami, ‘The summoning’. Foreign Affairs, 1993 September-October, v72, n4.
Robert L. Bartley, ‘The case for optimism’. Foreign Affairs, 1993 September-October, v72, n4.
Samuel P. Huntington, ‘The clash of civilizations?’. Foreign Affairs, 1993, v72, n3.
Samuel P. Huntington, ‘If not civilizations, what?’. Foreign Affairs, 1993 November-December, v72, n5.
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, ‘Tradition and change’. Foreign Affairs, 1993 September-October, v72, n4.
Kishore Mahbubani, ‘The dangers of decadence’. Foreign Affairs, 1993 September-October, v72, n4.
Gerard Piel, ‘The West is best’. Foreign Affairs, 1993 September-October, v72, n4.
Albert L. Weeks, ‘Do civilizations hold?’. Foreign Affairs, 1993 September-October, v72, n4.



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