International Relations · Third year

Was Huntington accurate to claim, in 1993, that conflict after the Cold War would largely occur between ‘civilizations’?

‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ by Samuel Huntington was published in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1993, and is a reaction to Fukuyama’s article ‘The End of History?’ published in 1989 which argues that ‘history in terms of humanity’s search for the optimum form of society’ (Adams, 2001, p.281) ends with the consensus on free-market liberal democracy. The end of the Cold War in 1991 was seen as the triumph of Western liberal democracy, relegating ideological controversies in the past. This Fukuyama summed up in the phrase ‘the end of history’ because he considered that humanity had reached a state which would not be challenged anymore. According to Huntington however, history and its conflicts are far from being over: the decline of ideologies only marks the entry of the world into a new kind of conflict. Thus wars between civilizations are supposed to chronologically and logically follow the wars between princes, nation-states and ideologies. In 1996, he subsequently expanded his ideas in the book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

Written more than two decades ago, it is worth asking what is left from the theory of the Clash of Civilizations today. Huntington’s thesis which was first criticised as being simplistic gained recognition and some legitimacy after the attacks of 9/11 because it provided a culturalist explanation of the world in line with the war declarations of George W. Bush which had a religious aspect (the ‘crusade against the axis of evil’). Then, the book became increasingly criticised, as it was understood as a propaganda tool legitimizing the intervention of the U.S. in a Middle East country endowed with valuable resources. Yet since the attacks against Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 in Paris, references to the Clash of Civilizations theory have been appearing again in the intellectual global debate (Hossein-Zadeh, 2015).

This essay ought to provide a particular insight on this theory by arguing that the Clash of Civilizations thesis is pseudoscientific, that is to say that empirical research have proven it wrong (Fox, 2002). To do this, the first part will analyse the definition of the concept of civilization in Huntington’s work, in order to understand how he divides the world into civilizational areas. We will focus specifically on the application of the concept of civilization to the categories of the West and Islam. The second part will focus on the effects of the Clash of Civilizations scenario in order to better understand the security challenges.



The concept of civilization remains an abstract category, designating a more complex reality. First, the identity of a civilization is neither homogeneous nor stable. It includes an official and dominant culture but also unorthodox alternative tendencies that exist within it. In a conference criticizing the approach of Huntington the Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Saïd explained that ‘no culture is understandable without some sense of this ever-present source of creative provocation from the unofficial to the official.’ (Saïd, 1997).

Secondly, human cultures are simply not isolated but constantly interact with each other. History is made of migrations, exchanges, interbreeding, conquests and alliances that bring people and cultures closer to one another. Indeed, many inter-civilization relationships are based on alliances and no only on conflicts. For example, the present U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance leads the two civilizations that Huntington describes as being intrinsically opposed to cooperate. Nowadays, the phenomenon of globalization transcends borders and favours widespread interaction between different parts of humanity. Capital flows around the world. Digital technology and the Internet network also allow to connect individuals ever further, to the point that the media talk about ‘digital culture’. International laws have also been refined since the end of World War II, although they remain limited in application. World cultures are far from being universal, whereas civilization tends to globalize. Therefore, civilizations are not isolated but rather complex, diverse and hybrid. Thus Huntington’s approach is based on abstract and reductive categories which essentialize civilizations into coherent, homogeneous, isolated blocks, and ignore their complexity.

Recognizing the difficulty of the multiple definitions of civilizations, the first stage of Huntington’s approach is to achieve consensus on what constitutes the nature of civilizations. He multiplies the citations of numerous authors, without specifically justifying the relevance of their work or the connection with his theory, and is satisfied with explaining that civilizations were ‘explored at length by distinguished historians, sociologists, and anthropologists’ (Huntington, 1996, p.39). In addition, the focus on the concept developed by Fernand Braudel, for whom civilization is ‘a space, a ‘cultural area’, a collection of cultural characteristics and phenomena’ (Braudel, 1995, p.177), allows Huntington to conclude that culture is ‘the common theme in virtually every definition of civilization’ (Huntington, 1996, p.42). Thus civilization is understood as the broadest cultural entity.

The second stage of Huntington’s approach is to identify the most relevant cultural component that will define and cement a civilization. He uses cultural elements that have been referred to since the Antiquity such as blood, language, religion and lifestyle. However according to him religion is the most important element (Huntington, 1996, p.42). The author then establishes what could be considered as a simplistic causal relationship: civilizations are identifying themselves to a religion, so religion is the foundation of civilizations. This far from being obvious causal relationship allows Huntington to ignore all other characteristics, moral and technical, shaping civilizations. He reduces the identity of a civilization to its majority’s religious beliefs, because he views civilization as being pure, homogeneous and above all essentializing the identity of a complex human situation to a religion supposed to represent it. However, the Clash of Civilizations thesis is different from a religious war, since these are not religions clashing on theological criteria, but states, groups and men who defend their values. Religion here replaces the role of political ideologies, but from a culturally deterministic angle.

Using Huntington concept of civilization to categorize today’s societies makes identification of the different civilizations difficult. Huntington admits that they have no clearly defined boundaries in time or in space. The problem is the changing and necessarily complex nature of civilizations: ‘People can and do redefine their identities and, as a result the composition and shapes of civilizations change over time’ he acknowledges (Huntington, 1996, p.43). The problem of the number of current civilizations arises and Huntington admits that experts often disagree (Huntington, 1996, p.44). In his book, he is unable to give a precise figure: Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Western, Latin American and possibly African civilization. He proposes a world map that shows the different civilizations, coarsely reduced to juxtapositions of nation-states.

Looking more specifically at ‘the West’, one realises that it is an imaginary construction that is geographically invalid. For example, Mungiu-Pippidi and Mindruta (2002) argue that Eastern European countries such as the Balkans can hardly fit into the Western civilization because in recent history both Orthodox and Islamic civilizations had a strong influence on them. Moreover, Huntington’s representation of the world is still based on a bipolar representation of the world reminiscent of the Cold War. The West is presented as a coherent and solidary block because it is opposed to the ‘non-West’: it is also defined by the image of itself referred by non-Western, for example through the idea of a colonizing West and exploiter of wealth in the Third World. The Orient/Occident distinction is a complex process that goes in both directions, each defining itself through the perception of the other. Western powers have also been instrumental in creating an imaginary Orient, that is to say, a ‘European material civilization and culture’ (Saïd, 2003, p.2). In addition, the concept carries the connotation of the modern, developed and democratic West which mystifies the West as a civilization, even though Europe for example has never been homogeneous. The concept of ‘the West’ is therefore subjective and strategic in presenting other civilizations such as the Islamic civilization in a negative way by focusing on its heterogeneity and internal divisions. The concept of Islam is an essentialisation because it is on the contrary extremely diverse, both religiously and politically. For example, Nobel Prize scholar Amartya Sen recalls that India, which is supposed to be in the Hindu civilization, is the third largest Muslim country in terms of citizens (Sen, 2007, p.60). The assumption by Huntington of the presence of a single and united Islamic civilization, acting as a coherent block is also invalidated. There is no solidarity between the various Islamist movements, and therefore nothing allows to predict a future homogenisation of the Muslim world, like the concept of an Islamic civilization in Huntington’s theory of the Clash of Civilizations implies.



We demonstrated that the theory of the clash of civilizations was pseudoscientific because it uses little rigorous methodology by essentializing and isolating so-called coherent civilizational blocks. We will now show that Huntington’s worldview produces an appeal to fear, which generates an adhesion to the political solutions he suggests. First, the description of the decline of the West provokes a sense of urgency. By playing on the fear of both decline and foreign invasion, Huntington establishes a terror effect that persuades the general public that it is high time to react. He accentuates the effect of terror by showing that immigration threatens Western civilization, and regrets the failure of the cultural assimilation of immigrants, which is meant to transform the ‘other’ and protect the cultural model of the hosting civilization. The author defines assimilation by adhering to Western civilization’s general principles, such as ‘democracy, the rule of law, human rights and cultural freedom’ (Huntington, 1996, p.311). Moreover his conception of the host culture is objectionable, since he explains that Christianity is the essential foundation of Western civilization (Huntington, 1996, p.458), and then insists that the Americans are believers and see themselves as a religious people. Religious identity is therefore central to Huntington’s definition of assimilation.

The fear of Western decline is combined with distrust towards competing civilizations (for example the Confucian-Islamic axis). Fear of decline and fear of neighbours engender a vicious circle. A state will fear its neighbour because decline has made it vulnerable, and fear the decline because its neighbour is threatening. The relationship between ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’ is particularly analysed in the Clash of Civilizations theory, and is clearly calling for mistrust. Huntington therefore built the threat of the Muslim enemy by culturalising conflictual relations between ‘the West’ and Muslim countries, while promoting a violent representation of Islam. The Clash of Civilizations scenario is actually a security scenario, which relies on the idea that the announced disaster will produce adherence to force a political solution, that is to say, a policy of containment, intervention (through ‘international institutions that reflect and legitimate Western interests and values, and to promote the involvement of non-Western states in those institutions’ (Huntington, 1993, p.49)) and armament increase. These solutions are justified by the terror effect that the diagnosis of the book produces: the West is in decline, in a civil war, and the Confucian-Islamic axis increases its threat potential. Paradoxically the Clash of Civilizations theory produces a relief effect because the author alerts of the disaster and provides the solution to prepare for it. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasing the potential for aggression actually diminishes security as it is encouraging neighbours to increase their own, as explained by the security dilemma (Hertz, 1986). Huntington refuses imperialist and military policy which could turn to the disadvantage of the West (because the West is challenged, and the opposing civilizations seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction). However, it seems unlikely that the containment and militarization political solution proposed by Huntington would lessen the threat he describes.

The problem of a prophetic scenario like the Clash of Civilizations is that whoever believes it may be tempted by a subjective validation: each event that goes along the lines of Huntington’s theory will confirm its validity (while contradicting events will be forgotten), therefore the terror effect of a threat is encouraging many to say that Huntington‘s claim, in 1993, that conflict after the Cold War would largely occur between ‘civilizations’ is accurate. The influence of the Clash of Civilizations thesis in the media treatment of the news, for example the attacks against Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 in Paris, is recurrent and has grown in intensity. The media and political framing of the events defined two opposing camps: the barbarian jihadists against the ‘civilization’ embodying liberty, that is to say Islamism versus Western democracies. Western countries have expressed solidarity and felt that their common values were targeted and as a consequence a war scenario was adopted to describe the event. Islam has been linked to the attacks, as evidenced by the government’s desire to reform Islam in France after the attacks, which have revived a debate about the compatibility of Islam with the Republic, sometimes suggesting a connection between violence and Islam.

However, there are also differences with the Clash of Civilizations thesis. First, although civilization has been used as a reference, it was in a less pluralist than universal conception because civilization was opposed to violence and barbarism, as humanity’s ideal. Second, religious identity has not been mobilized to define Western common values, that is to say it is the secular Western democracy that has been put forward, and not the Christian roots of millennium Western civilization. As for Islam, it is more religion than civilization that has been mentioned, although there was a much supported effort not to confuse Muslims and terrorists. The Clash of Civilizations theory has been used as a safeguard, for example head of the French National Front Party Marine Le Pen said she wanted to avoid the gearing of the Clash of Civilizations (Galiero and Boni, 2015), but it did not stop a climate of suspicion towards Muslim populations. Moreover this theory is acknowledged not only in the media but also largely by politicians such as former President of the European Commission Jacques Delors who said that ‘the West needs to develop a deeper understanding of the religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations, and the way other nations see their interests, to identify what we have in common.’ (Delors cited in Huntington, 2013, p.68).

Finally, the political solution diverges from Huntington’s proposals: the terror effect did not lead to an arms policy or a containment strategy, but to an increase of interior information. Presumably this political reaction can be explained by the fact that the killers were not just Islamists but also French, therefore the enemy was not the ‘other’ from the East but ‘the enemy within’. In this, we find the terror effect of ‘cultural suicide’ prophesied in Huntington, assuming an immigrant invasion would destroy the culture of the host country. To conclude on the similarities and differences between the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Clash of Civilizations theory, the civilizational reading grid defined by Huntington was not scrupulously reproduced, nevertheless the imagination of a clash of civilizations between a violent Islam and a democratic West, embodying freedom, has largely influenced media coverage of the events. Above all, the security dimension of the disaster scenario has been used by some media to spread ideas or to sell, and by politicians to exploit the threat which can be illustrated by the law project on Intelligence which, as a political solution, shows the collective paranoia engendered.



To conclude, opinions diverge from every parts of the world about Huntington’s thesis in the political and intellectual sphere, which indicates that this simplistic approach has had the positive effect of creating a debate around the nature of international conflicts and the importance of cultural differences in a new world order. Many authors oppose him by highlighting the problems in his argument, his classification of civilizations, claiming that conflicts between the West and the Confucian-Islamic civilizations were only a small minority compared to the other ethnic conflicts of the post-Cold War era (Fox, 2002). Some authors also argue that Huntington was ‘half right’ in that there is a rejection of certain Western values, but centred on issues around sex rather than religion and democracy (Inglehart and Norris, 2003). However, several authors also acknowledged Huntington’s model accuracy about globalization, religious radicalization and his expertise in U.S. foreign and security policy (E-International Relations, 2014). The analysis of Huntington’s theory shows that it is based on essentialized conception of civilizations, reduced to consistent and distinct religious blocks. This simplification leads the author to provide a strictly religious interpretation of conflict, disregarding the manipulation of religion as a mobilizing resource – for political purposes rather than cultural. The theory does not follow a scientific method, and uses arguments of authority or even a biased interpretation of statistics to justify the worldview he proposes and his strategic implications.

The Clash of civilizations is not a scientific theory but a security scenario. By announcing the end of the West and by making Islam a millennium threat, Huntington calls for terror and produces a sense of urgency pushing the Western reader to react and to accept the proposed solutions. Armament and containment policies suggested by the author actually intend to revive a Cold War strategy that is to say leading to an arms race and an escalation of tensions. Far from seeking to prevent the rise of clash of identities, Huntington seeks instead to exploit it in the interests of the US, who must find their place and alliances in a new multipolar world. In this perspective, Huntington’s work in a post-Cold War world provides scientific coating to legitimize a new U.S. strategic era and aims to generalise consent about the new forms of conflict.

Reference list

Adams I. (2001) Political Ideology Today. Manchester University Press.

Braudel F. (1995) A History of Civilizations. New York: Penguin Books.

E-International Relations (2014) The Clash of Civilizations: Twenty years on. Available at: (Accessed: 04/01/16).

Fox, J. (2002). ‘Ethnic Minorities and the Clash of Civilizations: A Quantitative Analysis of Huntington’s Thesis’. British Journal of Political Science, Vol.32 (3), pp.415-434.

Fukuyama F. (1989) ‘The end of History?’. The National Interest, Summer, pp.3-18.

Galiero E. and de Boni M. (2015) ‘Marine Le Pen désavoue Aymeric Chauprade après ses propos sur les musulmans’. Le Figaro. Available at: (Accessed: 31/12/15).

Hertz J. (1986) Political Realism and Political Idealism. University of Chicago Press.

Hossein-Zadeh I. (2015) ‘The Charlie Hebdo Paris Terrorist Attacks and the ‘Clash of Civilizations’’. Global Research. Available at: (Accessed: 09/01/16).

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

Huntington S. (1996) The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York, Simon & Schuster.

Huntington, S. (ed.) (2013) The Clash of Civilizations? The Debate 20th Anniversary Edition. New York, Foreign Affairs.

Inglehart R. and Norris P. (2003) ‘The True Clash of Civilizations’. Foreign Policy, n°135, pp.63-70.

Mungiu-Pippidi, A. and Mindruta, D. (2002) Was Huntington Right? Testing Cultural Legacies and the Civilization Border’. International Politics, 39(2), pp. 193-213.

Saïd E. (2003) Orientalism. Penguin Books.

Saïd E. (1997) The Myth of ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ [Lecture] University of Massachusetts.

Sen A. (2007) Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Penguin Books India.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s