The Clash Of Civilisations

April 6, 2008

Far from being a post-Cold War Nostradamus prophesising for a global apocalyptic Armageddon on religious and doctrinal basis, Samuel Huntington is a very serious scholar from Harvard University who formulated one of the most controversial post-Cold War theories about the New World Order. The Clash of Civilisations theory says that within the new world order conflicts will occur between religious and cultural civilisations not between traditional ideological nation-states. Huntington’s thesis has proven to be wrong in many of its claims. Yet, it may be very relevant to explain some contemporary global issues.

In this paper, I would try to give a general overview of Huntington’s theory and multiple streams that have influenced it. Then, I would try to analyse different aspects of this theory based on nowadays’ global events, to demonstrate how they could be relevant or not to the future world order.

Samuel Phillips Huntington was born in 1927. He graduated from Yale at the age of 18, and had his PhD at the age of 23 from Harvard, where he still teaches Political Science. Huntington was first known during the 1960s for his researches on Coups d’état, Party System and Political Order, which he combined in his very well known book Political Order in Changing societies. His tough state-centred recommendations, made him hated by the 1960s liberal movements and the adviser of some Latin American transitional dictatorships like Brazil. During the post-Cold War period, Huntington elaborated his theory on The Clash of Civilisations, as the form of the 21st century global conflicts. Recently, another Huntington theory was subjected to controversy, as he argued that American identity is threatened by the huge numbers of Latin migrants, which can lead to an internal clash of civilisations and to a shift in the American identity.

In 1993 Samuel Huntington first published an article in the academic journal Foreign Policy an article entitled “The Clash Of Civilisations”, where he wrote “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. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”(Huntington 1993). This thesis generated a wide academic controversy, which pushed the Harvard Professor to explain his theory in depth in 1996 in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

To understand The Clash of Civilisations theory, we should put it into its historical setting of the end of the Cold War, and the beginning of the 1990s Globalized world era. After its publication, Huntington’s article was seen as the encounter of Francis Fukuyama’s theory in 1989 on The End of History. Fukuyama’s theory which he explains by saying, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” (Fukuyama 1989). Huntington’s theory challenges Fukuyama’s Global Liberalism theory by demonstrating that the western model won the ideological war but not the civilisational one.

In fact, Huntington’s theory based on fear of the Western civilization’s collapse and the Muslims and Sinic civilization’s rise, has been deeply influenced by many other thesis of that period. The term Clash of Civilizations was first used Bernard Lewis in 1990 in a research article called The Roots of Muslim Rage, where Lewis warns from Islamic fundamentalism. In addition to that, we can notice Huntington’s influence by Oswald Spangler’s theory on Western civilization’s fall because of the rivalry of other strong civilizations on the international scene. Some critics also see the influence of British scholar A.J Toynbee’s division of civilizations on Huntington’s work.

While preparing for this paper, I discovered with astonishment that the Moroccan visionary Mehdi El Manjra from Rabat University preceded Samuel Huntington in elaborating the theory of The Clash of Civilizations. El Manjra wrote in August 1991 after the first Gulf War in his book in Arabic The First Civilisational War “The Gulf War is only the first episode of a North-South conflict, which will be dominated now on by cultural considerations [translation mine]” (El Manjra 1991). It is also amazing to notice that El Manjra focuses on the same issues Samuel Huntington pointed out, which are as explained by El Manjra “The three main fears by the West are; The Fear of Demography, The Fear of Islam and The Fear of Asia [translation mine].”(El Manjra 1991). However, El Manjra’s work differs from Huntington in a way that the Moroccan advisor of the Japanese Emperor sees the possibility of peaceful interaction between different civilisations.

According to the book The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order, the world is divided into major civilisations on ethnic, cultural and religious criteria. Even if Huntington used many ethnological and historical studies to establish these divisions, it may still seem very ambiguous in some specific regions. The work came out with the following civilisations:

– The Western civilization, including North America, Europe, Australia…
– The Orthodox civilization, including Russia, Slavic countries and Eastern Europe.
– The Latin American civilization.
– The Muslim Civilization, including the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, Malaysia, South Asia and Indonesia.
– The Hindu civilization, including India and Nepal.
– The Sinic civilization, including China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan…
– The Sub-Saharan African civilization.
– Other hybrid countries like Japan or Lone countries like Israel and Haiti… (Huntington 1996)

Further more, Huntington explains the dynamics of relations between these civilisations and which are more challenging than the others. According to Huntington, the Sinic civilization is growing faster than the others economically and demographically, which constitutes a threat to the Western civilization. Especially that there is huge number of Sinic migrants installed in the West. In addition to luck of real hegemony in the Asian region, which will facilitate the task for China to dominate the whole region. The second potential challenger of the West according to the author is the Islamic civilization or what he calls “the Islamic Resurgence”, which has a strong young population and well impregnated cultural values that could clash with the West. For Huntington, Christianity which is the basis of the Western civilization and Islam are Missionary religions looking to expend its followers, which stimulates fundamentalism and hatred between the two blocks. The scholar even describes Islam as having “bloody borders” in his original article, in reference to the Islamic expansionism throughout Spain and Eastern Europe. However, what the American Political scientist fears the most is potential alliances between two big civilisations like the Sinic and the Islamic civilization to clash with Western values imposed on the world, or the alliance between the Islamic and the Orthodox civilization against the West…

After 9/11 events which chocked the West, Samuel Huntington’s theory gained widespread attention again, as he declared to the press “Clearly, Osama bin Laden wants it to be a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. The first priority for our government is to try to prevent it from becoming one. But there is a danger it could move in that direction. The administration has acted exactly the right way in attempting to rally support among Muslim governments. But there are pressures here in the US to attack other terrorist groups and states that support terrorist groups. And that, it seems to me, could broaden it into a clash of civilisations.”(The Guardian 2001). The events that followed 9/11 (Iraq War, Madrid bombing, Iranian Nuclear issue…) were all considered as being the signs of achievement of Huntington’s prophecy about the clash between Western and Islamic civilisations. But in this case the Crusades were a Clash of Civilisations with all the war before Westphalia. From an other point of view, it is legitimate to ask to what extent can transnational terrorist groups or isolated militias be representative of the whole Islamic civilization, to be able to judge about are we clashing or not.

Paul Berman in Terror and Liberalism argues that, in nowadays global world there is no more distinct cultural boundaries between civilisations. We may agree with Berman that the information revolution and the cross-borders interactions are huge between civilisations, but within this interaction there is a dominant Western culture which rule over the initial cultures that may revolt under the pressure. And as Huntington says “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.”(Huntington 1996), as he explains in his theory that the West should forget about “democratic universalism” and “incessant interventionism”, because the United Nations model and Human Rights clauses are the fruit of the Western mind not of the growing challenging cultures, which will ask for reforms sooner or later, even if Modernization, in some exceptions worked very well like in East Asian Tigers or in Japan, as can explain Mehdi El Manjra.

The Arabic thinker and Columbia University Professor Edward Said “The Clash of Civilizations thesis is a gimmick like The War of the Worlds, better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical understanding of the bewildering interdependence of our time.” (Said 2001). What Edward Said means is that Huntington’s theory is nothing but an academic framework to justify the United States interventions against China and the Islamic World, or to keep Said’s words in his long answer to Huntington’s theory entitled The Clash of Ignorance” An imagined Geography to legitimate certain policies”. Said also highlights the effect of cultural Interdependence between civilisations, which fits into Joseph S. Nye Complex Interdependence theory, who describe Huntington’s vision as “suffer[ing] from trying to fit the post-Cold War world into one or other pattern. But one size does not fit all… not only are there multiple cultures, but there are very different types of states in terms of economic modernization” (Nye 2005). In fact, Nye points out a very important weakness of Huntington’s theory, which is the internal tensions and conflicts between the same civilization. Since the civilisational new actors can’t get rid of the legacy of the Nation-States, these components of one civilization will struggle within the same system. And even inside one state there are still heterogeneous identities; this is maybe what made Huntington turn to analyze the impact of internal clashes in his new work about migrant societies in United States.

The Clash of Civilization’s theory has many weaknesses in perceiving the dynamic movement of identity within one civilization and between one civilization and an other. Yet, it offered an important framework, which revealed how much a unipolar universalism can stimulate cultural hatred and so civilisational clashes. Some persons around the world like, former Iranian President Mohamed Khatami or Un Secretary General Kofi Anan already have understood the importance of the initiation of a real Dialogue between Civilisations and created the Alliance of Civilisations’ initiative, for a better understanding of the others.


-El Manjra, Mahdi. 1991. La première guerre civilisationelle, ed. Oyoun. Casablanca: 27-218.
-Fukuyama, Francis. 1989. The end of history. The National Interest. Summer:2-19.
-Huntington, Samuel. 1993. The clash of civilisations. Foreign affairs. Summer:21-45.
-Huntington, Samuel. 1996. The clash of civilisation and the remaking of world order, ed. -Simon & Shuster. New York.
-Huntington, Samuel. 2001. Civilisations at war. Interview in The Guardian. October, 21.
-Nye, Joseph S. 2005. Understanding international conflict, ed. Longman Classics in Political Science: 242-252.
-Said, Edward. 2001. The clash of ignorance. The National Interest. Fall:1-5.
-Wikipedia. On-line Encyclopaedia.



  1. Great blog/CONTENT. I love deep thinkers.
    As a note, check out this blog: http://blogrdie.wordpress.com (not my blog)! Thought that you or readers may like to read it???? What is the WORLD is this blog all about? End of the World type stuff (Armageddon), WAR, Politics, Religion, Time Travel?! Or someone is driking too much!! (LOL) Again good content!

  2. oh thx LuvLife sounds great i’ll go check it right now. i’m very intrested in the End of times and Armageddon as well 😀

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