First year · International Relations

Summary: Huntington S. (1993) ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ in: Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3, pp. 22-49.

In this article, Huntington gives a first map of the division of the world into nine civilizations.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the identity of a nation is less defined by belonging to a single nation. Several quite recent events illustrate this new collective behaviour. In January 1992 just after the end of the USSR after Russian and American scholars had a meeting in a Moscow government building the statue of Lenin was removed and the Russian Federation new flag was presented upside down. This can be understood as a sign of the shift in the way people now define their identity. Another event demonstrating this blurring of belongingness happened in April 1984 when 2,000 people gathered in Sarajevo showing flags of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as symbols of cultural identity. Finally, during a demonstration in October 1994 in Los Angeles against legislation for stopping financial help to illegal immigrants, the protesters used Mexican flags and not the American flag.


Huntington shows that we have moved from a bipolar world to a multipolar world which is divided into three parts: the democratic and rich Western world, the poorer Communist world, and the Third World.

The Third World countries were the place of clashes between the West and the Communist Block during the Cold War. In a multipolar world, oppositions are not so much ideological, political or economic, than cultural. To define the nature of their identities, civilizations define themselves in terms of religion, language, history, values, customs and institutions. The nation-state is still the center of the world organization, but cultural and political groups are changing the nature of international relations. Thus, ethnic wars in Rwanda had consequences in Uganda, Congo and Burundi but not beyond, while the Balkan conflicts created more tensions between the West, the USSR and Muslim countries. Thus for Huntington, future conflicts will be more and more cultural and less ideological and economic. Because philosophical principles, values, social relations, and customs differ between civilizations, cultural conflicts are more probable. According to Huntington, the economic success of the Far East is due to its origins in Asian culture, but so is it inability to develop stable democratic systems. The Muslim culture explains in large part the failure of democracy in much of the Muslim world. Then, Huntington indicates that cultures derived from Christianity are more economically well-off whereas orthodox and Muslim cultures are less prosperous. For him, there is no universal civilization, so identifying different civilizations would help us to understand the differences and limit impacts.


Huntington’s article has generated a lot of criticism, for example from Amartya Sen (1999) who disagrees with the fact that democracy is a Western political tradition, not applicable and not effective in “underdeveloped countries”. Moreover, Edward Said (2001) has argued that Huntington’s way to characterize “civilizations” ignores the interdependence and interaction of cultures.


To conclude, the world after the Cold War has nine major civilizations with cultural similarities and differences which determine the relations and associations between nation-states. The two most influential countries, namely the USA and Russia, have very different cultures, and local conflicts are more likely to happen between different civilizations. Forms of economic development differ for each civilization, and the West is not the only one to be powerful: international politics has become multipolar and multicivilizational.


Reference list:

  • Huntington, Samuel: ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ in: Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3, Summer 1993, pp. 22-49.
  • Said, E, (October 4, 2001) “The Clash of Ignorance,” The Nation
  • Sen, A (1999). “Democracy as a Universal Value”. Journal of Democracy 10, pp. 3–17.

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