The second in a series of three essays celebrating the 25th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. Other contributors include Francis Fukuyama and Seth Cropsey & Harry Halem.
With his Clash of Civilizations thesis, Samuel Huntington intended to offer policymakers a “simplified map of reality,” an intellectual framework into which they could fit all the data that would otherwise accumulate on their desks in unsorted heaps. After 25 years, it is fair to say that Huntington failed at this. Despite its numerous impressive predictions, his thesis offers little concrete guidance beyond classic realist policy prescriptions. And his hopes for reinvigorating Western culture and a common Western civilizational consciousness have only grown more visibly quixotic, as the fault lines within Western culture have become ever harder to ignore.
Yet if Huntington’s “Clash” failed to deliver what he promised, it succeeded at something much more important. Huntington outlined an approach to studying contemporary international politics in light of the permanent motive forces of human social nature. He offered a compelling diagnosis of some of the most powerful trends that continue to shape modern geopolitics, although that diagnosis cannot be accurately condensed into any slogan or “simplified map of reality.” We could all forget the phrase “clash of civilizations” with no harm done to anyone. But to forget Huntington’s profound insights into the nature of our world would be disastrous. Indeed, if these insights do not make their way into American foreign-policy discourse, we will be very poorly equipped to handle what Huntington rightly identified as the gradual “fading of the West and the rise of other power centers.”
Nearly anyone would benefit from rereading Huntington’s attack on the instinctive American narcissism that impedes clear thinking about geopolitics on Right and Left alike. “The central thesis” of his book, said Huntington, is that “Western belief in the universality of Western culture . . . is false.” It is simply not true that everyone, deep down, wants to be just like us. In the 20th century it may have seemed that Western ideas had somehow conquered the world, but what had in fact happened was that a few Western countries had largely conquered the world. And they did this “not by the superiority of [their] ideas or values or religion . . . but rather by [their] superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.” The delusions of Western universalism are moreover becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. For as Huntington points out, the world’s military and economic capacities are becoming more and more widely distributed among non-Westerners, especially since the end of the Cold War.
Given Huntington’s later status as a bugaboo of the post-9/11 Left, it is ironic that his real thesis offered significant common ground with the Left in its attacks on Western self-importance (he even cites Edward Said’s Orientalism with approval). Non-Westerners, says Huntington, make a good point when they assert that all high-minded talk of the “world community” masks the Western pursuit of Western interests through Western-dominated international institutions. For example, he points out that George H.W. Bush’s proud coalition against Saddam Hussein in support of international law and the “new world order” was in fact comprised of Western countries plus an Islamic coalition of the coerced and the bribed. Even those Muslim governments who did move against Saddam were all acting autocratically, against fierce domestic opposition to what their populations saw as an act of Western imperialism.
Huntington points out that most human beings on this planet are not terribly moved by “Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, [and] the separation of church and state,” in the senses in which the average Westerner understands these terms. The “Westphalian separation of religion and international politics,” too, is “an idiosyncratic product of Western civilization” that the rest of the world never really accepted. “Western efforts to propagate” all these allegedly universal social-political values “produce instead a reaction against ‘human rights imperialism’ and a reaffirmation of indigenous values.” Put succinctly: “The non-Wests see as Western what the West sees as universal.”
It is true that these Western values are widely shared within what Huntington memorably calls Davos Culture, which besides many Westerners also encompasses millions of non-Westerners—amounting to probably “less than . . . 1 percent” of the latter. But the fact that non-Western “Davos people” wield (for the time being) enormous influence over their countries’ political and economic systems is no reason to confuse them for genuine representatives of the populations they dominate.
Huntington proposes that we stop making foreign policy on the assumption that the whole world will increasingly conform to the model of our contemporary Western societies—or rather, the more common and worse assumption that it will conform to the model of contemporary Western societies as these are described by their own politicians’ self-congratulatory rhetoric. Instead, Huntington bases his own analysis of contemporary politics on a description of how the forces of modernity interact with perennial characteristics of human nature that modernity is powerless to change.
The facts about human nature that Huntington finds most relevant to contemporary geopolitics are the following. He takes for granted that human beings are motivated in large part by their material interests, including security, wealth, territory, and rule over others. But people “cannot calculate and act rationally in pursuit of their self-interest until they define their self. Interest politics presupposes identity.” In order to act collectively, a society of human beings must know the answer to the question, “Who are we?”—and “we know who we are only when we know who we are not.”
Our society’s collective and exclusive identity, Huntington shows, must give us a reason to be “committed” to its survival: It must tell us why our common “way of life” is better than those of other societies, and hence worth defending against them. Our collective identity must even “justify” and “legitimate” the wartime killing of others who seem to threaten the common way of life: It is therefore helpful, although not strictly necessary, for the common identity to contain some religious element that allows its people to think of their enemies as “‘godless’ forces.” Our collective identity must unify us “linguistically and morally” if we are to survive as a multigenerational society of humans who feel “at home” together. It must give us “certain primary structuring ideas around which successive generations have coalesced.” And our common identity must give us some basis for automatically according each other the “trust” that common life, especially economic life, continuously presupposes. We find it much easier to place such trust in people whose “language,” “assumptions,” and “social practices” are familiar to us, because it is always hard to trust people whom we do not understand.
This collective identity, necessary to the survival of any society, is what Huntington calls “culture.” A culture is “the overall way of life of a people” and includes our common mores, social-political institutions, and “modes of thinking.” A culture is transgenerational, and it governs matters of “primary importance” for the individuals who constitute it, including “relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife.” Besides “religion. . . .values, customs, and institutions,” cultural identity also includes “ancestry,” “language,” and “history,” because these too are an important part of what “means most to us” as human beings. “Faith and family, blood and belief, are what people identify with and what they will fight and die for.”
Culture is therefore an independent factor motivating human political behavior, one that cannot be reduced to ordinary material interests. “Values, culture, and institutions pervasively influence how states define their interests.” People will even risk their material interests to fight over mere symbols of their cultural identity, including flags, forms of dress, and particular territory that they regard as “sacred land.”
Some individuals find a substitute for traditional cultural identity in a merely ideological affiliation (“communist”) or a transnational class affiliation (Huntington compares Davos Culture to the old European aristocracy!). But when ideologies become discredited or aristocratic classes fall—and this has been quite the century for discredited ideologies and fallen aristocracies—people tend to revert to the “old standbys of ethnicity and religion.” In any case, it is educated elites who are more likely to be attracted by ideological, class, or other cosmopolitan quasi-cultural affiliations. To the extent that the common people have a say in the matter, “ethnic, nationalist, and religious” appeals tend to carry the day, now and always.
All this has been roughly true for as long as human beings have walked the earth. “‘Who are we?’” has always been “the most basic question humans can face,” and “peoples and nations [today] . . . are answering that question in the traditional way human beings have answered it, by reference to the things that mean most to them.” But culture takes on a new form of relevance to contemporary politics because of its interaction with the “processes of social, economic, and cultural modernization that swept across the world in the second half of the twentieth century.”
Modernization of course “involves industrialization, urbanization, increasing levels of literacy, education, wealth, and social mobilization, and more complex and diversified occupational structures.” It is “a revolutionary process” without parallel since the beginning of civilization itself, and involves tremendous upheavals in “attitudes, values, knowledge, and culture.” In a modernizing country, “longstanding sources of identity and systems of authority are disrupted. People move from the countryside into the city, become separated from their roots, and take new jobs or no job. They interact with large numbers of strangers and are exposed to new sets of relationships. . . . These developments undermine traditional village and clan ties and create alienation and an identity crisis.” Meanwhile, the “secularism, moral relativism,” “egotism, and consumerism” fostered by this social atomization appear to threaten traditional “values of order, discipline, work, mutual help, and human solidarity.”
Modernization with its “psychological, emotional, and social traumas” thus “generates feelings of alienation and anomie as traditional bonds and social relations are broken.” “In a world that has lost its meaning and become amorphous, . . . newly felt human needs” appear. These needs include above all “a way of coping with the experience of chaos, the loss of identity, meaning and secure social structures.” “People caught in the traumas of modernization” “need new sources of identity, new forms of stable community, and new sets of moral precepts to provide them with a sense of meaning and purpose.” They are “looking for roots and connections to defend themselves against the unknown.” In short, modernity erodes and undermines many traditional cultures but cannot eliminate the deep human need for a common cultural identity. When “established identities dissolve, the self must be redefined, and new identities created.”
Modernization, then, produces not a decrease in the relevance of culture to political life, but a set of pressures that channel individuals into new cultural identifications and affiliations. For one thing, by vastly increasing people’s contact with cultures alien to their own, modernity imbues them with a “deeper consciousness of [cultural] differences and of the need to protect what distinguishes ‘us’ from ‘them.’” This makes them suddenly aware of their cultural commonalities with groups they had previously considered more alien. Huntington’s observation looks only more prescient today: “North African immigration to France generates hostility among the French and at the same time increased receptivity to European Catholic Poles.” Or as he memorably quotes Donald Horowitz, “An Ibo may be . . . an Owerri Ibo or an Onitsha Ibo in . . . the Eastern region of Nigeria. In Lagos, he is simply an Ibo. In London, he is Nigerian. In New York, he is an African.” The dislocations of modernity cause a broadening in cultural identifications—up to and including identification with one’s civilization, which Huntington claims is the “broadest level of cultural identity.”
In addition, the pressures of modernity have caused what Gilles Kepel called la revanche de Dieu, that is, the reawakening of religion as a major social and political force in the world even as secularization theory was announcing its impending irrelevance. “For people facing the need to determine Who am I? Where do I belong? religion provides compelling answers, and religious groups provide small social communities to replace those lost through urbanization.” Where “old village ways” and weak “state bureaucracies” can meet neither the psychological nor the socioeconomic needs of those traumatized by modernization, religious beliefs and religious organizations step in to meet those needs (the Muslim Brotherhood is one famous example). And where ancestral religions (Korean Buddhism, Latin American Catholicism) fail to “meet the emotional and social needs of the uprooted,” new religions begin to take their place (Korean Christianity, Latin American Protestantism).
This is the basic analysis of the nature of modern social life on which Huntington rests his Clash thesis. I regard this analysis as essentially true, extremely important, and woefully neglected by the American political establishment, whose recent rediscovery of what it calls “tribalism” cannot be compared to Huntington’s political psychology in its depth and sophistication.
Huntington combines his analysis with a handful of related observations about the post-Cold War world in order to arrive finally at his Clash thesis. Modernization, he points out, has also caused a recent spike in “economic, military, and political power” among non-Western societies, which then naturally increases their “self-confidence, arrogance, and belief in the superiority of [their] own culture.” Autocrats and imperialists (both Western and Soviet) had managed to run states along lines that paid less attention to their people’s culture, but mid-century decolonizations followed by late-century democratizations shifted power to the global masses and hence increased the political importance of cultural differences. And to all this he adds a handful of other facts, such as the “second-generation indigenization phenomenon,” in which the earlier generation of Western-educated decolonizers and modernizers often come to be seen by their descendants as sellouts, provoking a backlash that reinvigorates the traditional culture jettisoned by those earlier “Kemalists” (a process that has continued apace in Turkey and elsewhere these past 25 years).
Huntington thus clearly shows that cultural similarities and differences remain a major factor in determining political friendships and enmities, both across state borders and within them. He also shows that modern conditions favor certain cultural identities over others, including the broader-based over the merely local, and the religious over the merely traditional.
But how does all this establish the “Clash of Civilizations” as a helpful geopolitical paradigm for contemporary policymakers?
Huntington’s analysis allowed him to predict ongoing, widespread, and serious clashes of culture: violent inter- and intrastate conflicts along fault lines of cultural identity. This prediction is by now incontestable, although for that reason also rather less exciting than his famous title. The reason he chose to focus particularly on the broadest, “civilizational” level of culture was that he wanted to examine the phenomena that pose “the greatest dangers to stability” and “the greatest threat to world peace.” And conflicts between “states or groups from different civilizations,” he asserted, are the ones “most likely to escalate into broader wars” and even into “global wars.” This was because “other states and groups from these civilizations” risk getting pulled into such intercivilizational conflicts when they “rally to the support of their ‘kin countries.’”
To prevent these escalations, Huntington proposes something like traditional balance-of-power politics with a civilizational twist. The “core states” of each civilization (the United States for the West, Russia for Orthodoxy, and so on) should acknowledge each other’s responsibility for policing disputes within their respective civilizations. And whenever their respective kindred decide to start fighting each other, the core states should negotiate an end to the conflict and restrain their kin so as not to be drawn into a devastating world war. Hence the conclusion to his book: “The world will be ordered on the basis of civilizations or not at all. . . . An international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war.”
The Huntingtonian alternative to global chaos is thus that “core states” should recognize and accept their responsibility as civilizational mini-hegemons. Unfortunately this advice will be of little value in “civilizations” that by Huntington’s own account lack a core state (Islamic, Latin American, Buddhist, African), or whose civilizational borders extend barely if at all beyond their core state (Hindu, Japanese). That already eliminates some 60 percent of the world’s current population from the hoped-for “international order based on civilizations.”
Huntington himself admitted that his new world order of core states was “most clearly visible” with respect to China, Russia, and the United States, in conjunction with that minority of the world that shares some civilizational kinship with them (Sinic, Orthodox, Western). Yet at this point the whole civilizational paradigm dwindles to insignificance. Huntington deserves credit for predicting in 1996 the future breakup of Ukraine. But one need not have read a word of him to see that, should hostilities there escalate tomorrow, NATO would be well advised to negotiate directly with Russia in order to prevent things spiraling out of control. One similarly does not have to call North Korea “Sinic” to see that China will be a linchpin of any eventual solution to the ongoing problems there.
Nor, for that matter, does one have to accept any civilizational paradigm in order to agree with Huntington’s admonition that we would be risking world war by intervening in some future China-Vietnam dispute in the South China Sea. In fact, although his thesis admonishes that China must be permitted to work out its own intra-civilizational disputes with its kin “Sinic” state, he could have made virtually the same point about a non-Sinic “Buddhist” state like Laos, Myanmar, or Cambodia. Huntington even documents how East Asian countries have been seeking to unite around areas of cultural commonality that they share in opposition to Western culture—this despite the fact that these countries overlap six different “civilizations” according to Huntington’s schema. We can expect such East Asian bandwagoning to continue into the future, given the rise of China in all its anti-Western cultural assertiveness (which Huntington naturally predicted). Since the “civilization” thus turns out not to be the highest level of cultural commonality as Huntington asserted it was, the Clash paradigm looks even weaker. Within the world of core states, at least, the Clash paradigm offers no obvious improvement on the traditional statecraft of great-power competition.
Even without a core state, Islamic civilization could become involved in a Huntingtonian “clash” if Muslim peoples were indeed developing a strong enough sense of common civilizational kinship to affect geopolitics, as Huntington claimed they were. He was struck that Islamic governments from Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and Malaysia had all set aside their differences to help support the Bosnian Muslims, and he predicted that Muslims throughout the world would be increasingly motivated by what they saw themselves as having in common over against non-Muslims. Yet he also shows extensive parallels between Europe’s Protestant Reformation and the massive late-20th-century sociopolitical movement that he rightly calls the Islamic Resurgence. That historical parallel alone should be enough to cast suspicion on any prediction of newly harmonious civilizational kinship among Muslims. And the subsequent 25 years have confirmed this suspicion. The Muslim world shows no evidence of coalescing around some stronger civilizational identity, even as it abundantly vindicates Huntington’s more general prediction of continued identity-based conflicts (in this case sectarian and/or ethnic).
There is then little reason to narrow our attention from clashes over cultural identity to the small subset that we could call clashes of civilizations. Huntington argued in 1996 that “the bloody clash of tribes in Rwanda has consequences for Uganda, Zaire, and Burundi but not much further,” whereas “the bloody clashes of civilizations in Bosnia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, or Kashmir could become bigger wars.” Yet in the end, it was the Rwandan conflict that spiraled into humanity’s deadliest war since World War II. None of the other conflicts Huntington named there has escalated significantly. The Iraq War went poorly for many reasons, but civilizational “kin-country rallying” by other Muslim states was not one of them. The horror of Syria’s intra-Islamic civil war has so far done more to threaten the stability of neighboring Europe than has Western/Orthodox inter-civilizational fighting in Ukraine.
Classical great-power conflict, and “clashes” between sub-civilizational cultural identities, both matter more to contemporary world politics than any supposed clash of civilizations. That will not fit on any bumper sticker. But Huntington’s own arguments for the “Clash” give us no reason to have expected any different outcome.
The civilizational identity that matters most to Huntington is clearly that of Western civilization. For most of its history, the West’s “innards” were at least as “bloody” as those that Huntington infamously attributed to contemporary Islam. But after the exhaustion of two world wars, Westerners largely decided to stop killing one another wholesale for the foreseeable future. Perhaps, then, Huntington’s resounding calls for a renewal of Western civilization, with its concomitant strengthening of peaceful Transatlantic ties, could seem to be one practical conclusion from the Clash thesis that will stand even if the others may fall.
Yet here we encounter what seems to me the biggest blind spot of Huntington’s thesis, and the weakest point in his otherwise acute analysis of modernity. Although Huntington briefly mentions the Enlightenment as one of the formative historical experiences of the West, his discussions of the unique character of Western civilization never mention the Enlightenment principles—social, political, moral, and religious—that have now become deeply embedded in our Western DNA. “The West was the West long before it was modern,” he insists, arguing that our civilization remains distinguished by the unique combination of characteristics that already distinguished it in the Middle Ages (representative institutions, rule of written law, the Classical heritage, Western Christianity, and so on). He asserts that these are the true characteristics of Western or, as he would have preferred to call it, “European” civilization. He also admits in passing that significant chunks of Europe have at times been Muslim or Orthodox, so that the most descriptive term would really have been “Western Christendom.” For some reason he chooses not to repeat this fact during his clarion calls for a revival of “Western civilization.”
There is an obvious reason why not even Huntington could call outright for a revival of Western Christendom. It is that nobody in the modern West actually wants a revival of Western Christendom. The Enlightenment, with its roots firmly planted in early-modern political and religious thought, taught us to reject the role that ethnicity and religion played in the politics and culture of the premodern West—a role that ethnicity and religion still play in the culture, and to varying degrees the politics, of most non-Western countries to this day. No American politician, and few European ones, will call outright for the preservation of Christian and Euro-ethnic culture over against non-Christian and nonwhite culture. It is an article of faith for modern Western culture that we have put serious cultural clashes behind us, and we are prepared to clash with any culture that denies that faith.
This helps explain why the term “Huntingtonian” carries such opprobrium among the American political class. People assume that a defender of “Western civilization” must be an Anglo-Christian jingoist. Huntington was of course the opposite of a jingoist, at least in intention. His explicit conclusion was that “the security of the world requires acceptance of global multiculturality.” He was adamant that the “Western belief in the universality of Western culture” is “false,” “immoral,” and “dangerous,” since the “Western arrogance” that follows from that belief “could lead to a major intercivilizational war.” Our ideas of “individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and cultural freedom” are what “make Western civilization unique, and Western civilization is valuable not because it is universal but because it is unique.”
This civilizational pluralism would sound lovely if it were not so utterly implausible. If Huntington honestly did not believe that individual liberty, the rule of law, and self-government are objective goods that are desirable for human beings as such, then he was the only Westerner I have ever encountered who held that view. The term “human rights” itself gives the game away: Who believes that human rights are not “universal”? In its premodern Christian form, the West thought it was morally superior to all non-Christian cultures; in its post-Enlightenment modification, the West thinks it is morally superior to all pre-Enlightenment cultures, including premodern Western culture. Huntington may well have been right that “Western universalism” threatens “world peace,” but his hope that the West could ever abandon that universalism is as futile as…well, the hope for world peace.
Of course, Huntington was correct to point out major commonalities between premodern and modern Western culture. On points where premodern Western traditions are most at odds with later Enlightenment principles, modern Western societies remain conflicted (each in its own way) between their inherited past and their hopes for a yet-unachieved Enlightened future—as elections within some of those societies have been reminding us recently. This means that the clash within Western culture cannot be reduced, as Huntington wanted to reduce it, to a clash between a valuable patrimony and a “small but influential number” of pointy-headed multiculturalists who wish to put it on the auction block. Westerners’ confusions and disagreements about our own heritage—about what it means to be Western—are essential, consequential, and ineradicable. They will continue to produce serious political conflict within the West, most obviously between Davos Culture and ethno-nationalist movements. They will foreclose any hope for the civilizational unity Huntington desired. And they will produce, for better and for worse, transcivilizational alliances that neither Huntington nor our conventional wisdom would have predicted (as we are starting to see, for example, between rightist European parties and Putin’s Russia).
At this point Huntington would surely object that every paradigm for viewing world politics “omits many things, distorts some things, and obscures others.” The goal of his admittedly “highly simplified” Clash paradigm was merely to “account for more important phenomena than any of its rivals.” His professed model was the Cold War paradigm, which had described the whole world in terms of the “ideological, political, economic, and, at times, military competition” between the Free World and the Communists, and so provided “an essential starting point for thinking about international affairs” from 1947 to 1989. “The rivalry of the superpowers,” he asserts, has now been “replaced by the clash of civilizations.” Any quibbles with his Clash thesis must then face his simple rebuttal: Do you have an alternative paradigm that can do better?
I for one do not. Nor do I see why I should. Whatever may be said for and against the Kuhnian theory of “paradigm shifts” that Huntington appeals to here, that theory was never intended to describe a practitioner’s understanding of the art of politics. Great statesmen have little use for bumper-sticker slogans.
Huntington seems to think that the success of the “Cold War paradigm” proves that we now need a new paradigm to take its place. But was the Cold War paradigm such a success? George Kennan, often thought of as its originator, would later publicly lament how his ideas had been butchered by the “simplified map of reality” for which Huntington seems unaccountably nostalgic: Kennan thought that the popular Cold War paradigm had confused ideological with military competition and had distorted our relations with Third World countries by viewing them primarily as battlegrounds with the Soviets. Huntington himself mentions that the seemingly new “identity wars” of the 1990s had already been a major feature of non-Western politics since decolonization, but that this fact had “attracted little attention” at the time because those wars “were often viewed through the prism of the Cold War.” Why on earth should we want to imitate the “paradigm” that blinded American policymakers to, among many other things, the actual motivations of belligerents in conflicts from El Salvador to Afghanistan to Vietnam? Is this a record to be proud of?
In just one respect, Huntington seems to have fallen prey to the post-1989 triumphalism that he so eloquently criticized. He seems to have assumed that since one “paradigm” of foreign policy had apparently won us the Cold War, we must now find a new paradigm for our new circumstances. He of course could not know then how long we would be living with the consequences of the foreign-policy blunders into which that Cold War paradigm had led us.
Really, Huntington sells himself short by claiming to offer merely a replacement for the Cold War paradigm, as if his own work would become equally obsolete in 42 years or so. Huntington’s basic insights into the political importance of cultural identity have applied for centuries, including during the Cold War itself. Every American child knew that we were fighting the Cold War in defense of our cultural identity, against the “godless Communists.” The “ideology” of liberal democracy was just one of the essential elements of American culture, as social-political institutions are in any culture. Self-proclaimed Communist leaders, for their part, managed to “adapt” Marxist ideology to their own purposes, which included cultural nationalism (as Huntington mentions in passing). Moreover, culture always matters more to the common people than to elites: it will therefore be less relevant to the politics of despotisms and colonized peoples, and will acquire greater relevance as a society achieves self-government.
The Clash paradigm was obsolete before it was published. But the insights behind it will remain valid until we see some essential change in the nature of modernity or of human beings. Those insights cannot be summarized in any “highly simplified” paradigm. They will inevitably be misunderstood and distorted by our political process. Perhaps a statesman like Kennan should have anticipated this and attempted to simplify his own views into election-ready policy slogans. But our democracy also needs political scientists who leave that necessary rhetorical task to others. The formation of statesmanly prudence has very little to do with Kuhnian paradigms, and a great deal to do with reading good books—books that tell the unvarnished truth about the nature of politics and our contemporary world.
Huntington wrote books of this kind, and the Clash is emphatically one of them. It deserves to be read by statesmen and imitated by political scientists. But we can and should reject the Clash as a “paradigm” without offering some equally crude paradigm in its place. We honor Huntington’s work the better when we do.
George Kennan, American Diplomacy (University of Chicago, 2012), pp. 170–75.