Was Huntington right?

This post is going to be fairly academia/international relations-heavy, but I’ll try and keep it comprehensive and clear.

Basically, in 1993 a renowned academic named Samuel Huntington wrote a piece entitled The Clash of Civilizations. His argument was that, the decline of the threat of communism, the rise in global connections between states, and evidence of nationalist and ethnic alignments now reaching across state borders, meant conflicts in the next generations would occur not along state boundary lines, but between ‘civilizations’. He identified broad categories that could be used to delineate the world:


-Latin/Latin American




-Buddhist (sections of Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Bhutan, and even Tibet)

-Japonic (Japan)

-Sinitic (Chinese, inc. Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, the Chinese diaspora)

-Sub-Saharan African

As far as international relations theory is concerned, this was a rather unusual proposal. For those of you not from that background, in short there are two major defining paradigms (with subcategories) of international relations:
Realism proposes that the state is the highest actor; there is nothing above telling it what to do, and the state’s choices are defined entirely by its own selfish desires. Everything the state does is for its own benefit, even if that just means the detriment of others: alliances exist only to bolster the state’s security, while wars are waged because the state sees some benefit in doing so (either in deterring a potential threat or the potential gains it can make from winning a war). Power, and power over other states, is key. Realists also pay little attention to the ideological/ideational/cultural factors that influence people’s decisions.

Meanwhile, liberalism, and especially neoliberalism, proposes that states actually seek cooperation, and there are higher-level mitigating factors that can influence the actions of a state beyond its own power needs; specifically international organisations/international law and especially money.

Huntington fits into neither paradigm. Instead, his proposition is largely what IR theorists would call ‘social constructivist’ – which proposes that the international power situation and statistics ‘on paper’ alone don’t define what influences a state’s actions, but rather there are cultural and ideological factors (e.g. religion) specific to the actual people who run those countries, and (in a democracy) those cultural factors also extend to the voters those politicians have to answer to.

The thing is, social constructivism is almost universally seen as an insufficient theory. Cultural and ideational factors (e.g. “you believe in a different god to me, so I’m going to kill you”) alone simply cannot explain why conflicts and agreements between states emerge where they do. The quickest example of this that comes to mind is the USA’s enduring alliance with Saudi Arabia, throughout the 90s and 00s into the present despite Saudi Arabia being an absolute monarchy (not democracy) that is very emphatically a Muslim state (y’know, Mecca and Medinah, women can’t drive, and all that). The only explanation is Generally, social constructivism is extremely helpful to emphasise or reinforce what realist or liberal proposals have already demonstrated, but is otherwise not the first option .

For this reason, Huntington’s proposal – that it would be these cultural and ideational divides that defined the next conflicts that would arise – has, though far from fully discredited, broadly been used as fodder for people to disagree with.

Based on my general ‘appeal-to-authority’ tendencies, I also came to disagree with Huntington, mostly based on the fact that I was taught to disagree with him: it’s the prevailing view. There are certainly a lot of flaws in his proposal: for example, it simply overlooks/ignores any examples that counter the argument, such as the fact that you can’t really fit Russia, one of the biggest players on the world stage, neatly into any category. Nor, as any 15 year old geography student can tell you, should you ever treat ‘Africa’ as a single unit, especially given the continuing conflicts within this African civilisation grouping. Moreover, from a theoretical point of view, to imply that there are character traits specific to groupings of humans that ultimately sets them apart from others – what is called “essentialism” – is a fallacious, orientalist, and ultimately racist proposal. Historians have to shoot this kind of point of view down all the time – the idea that Europeans were somehow better predisposed by their character to modernise before the rest of the world, rather than the historical accident: their access to coal (that had been there for millions of years) that enabled the Industrial Revolution. Even in the modern day, we see this idea – that the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/1998 was bound to happen because of those nations’ historical predispositions to bureaucratic corruption. And yet the 2007 global crash, caused almost entirely by American (and British) greed, showed that such a thing was hardly a unique phenomenon. Where you have bureaucracy, you have people in a position to use and abuse their power discretely.

My point is, the general principle behind Huntington’s argument, that civilizations will clash because they have incompatible values with no possibility of compromise, is flawed.

But here comes the tricky part. It’s going to be a little hard to explain, but bear with me and I’ll try and make it clear.

This blog is written entirely from my point of view. It’s about what I believe, what I’ve learned, and what I’ve discovered. This means that I’m very likely to be proven wrong down the line about a number of things. And while I do not believe that Huntington was right, because his argument was flawed,* at the same time, in the sphere beyond my own point of view, he seems to be being proven right.

*This, I believe, is that rare logical bird known as a ‘fallacy fallacy’ : The fallacious idea that because someone’s argument contains logical flaws, they must be wrong overall.

That is to say, I don’t believe he was right, but everyone else (outside the academic world) seems to be buying into his ideas, and in doing so they make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The rhetoric about foreign policy, around the world, is increasingly turning towards this debate about ‘civilizations’ or indeed ‘values’. In Britain, we have people on Question Time asking “what does it mean for British values when Mohammed is one of the most popular names in Britain?” This question ignores what the facts, the law, and sociology all say – that one’s ethnic and religious background has nothing to do with one’s citizenship. There are a great number of British Muslims who fulfil all the criteria of being both British and Muslim. And yet at the same time, the very fact that this question of ‘British values’ in apposition to Islam is being entertained indicates that people are increasingly aligning themselves along these lines of ‘values’ that are somehow inherent to society.

The rise of the so-called Islamic State is probably the most concrete example of this. They define themselves as a new Caliphate, claiming all of Islam (and therefore Huntington’s ‘Islamic civilization’) under their rule. More generally, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism across Asia further demonstrates this: terrorist attacks range from western China to Bangkok all the way down to Australia. While some terminologies see this as the rise of terrorism as a ‘transnational actor’ (as opposed to the ‘national actors’, nation-states), this may also be seen as civilizations across borders aligning themselves against each other. Indeed, the very fact that the media covers ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ as pretty much synonymous with ‘terrorism’ today shows the extent to which our one civilization is aligning itself against another.

Similarly, we in the ‘West’ have a strong tendency to view ourselves as one civilization; as Akala recently pointed out to Frankie Boyle, we don’t even call Australians, Americans, and Canadians ‘immigrants’ or ‘foreigners’; we treat them as ‘expats’.  When Anders Brevik when on a killing spree in Norway, explicitly motivated by a religious fundamentalist ideology, it took far too long for anyone to first refer to him as a “terrorist”. When a white South African comes to the UK to work, she’s a “South African” who “has immigrated”. When a black South African, Nigerian, Zambian or take-your-pick from-dozens-of-other-distinct-nations arrives, she’s from “Africa”, “Bongo-bongo land”, or simply, “an immigrant”. The difference between “has immigrated” and “immigrant” is slight, but the impact it has is huge.

The migrants/refugees situation has demonstrated a similar tendency to align ourselves as European. Aside from those pricks who simply refuse to help these needy people at all, following politics will tell you that even the staunchest UKIPpers generally concede that we, as Europeans (I hate to say it but the thinking seems to be “we, as white Europeans”) have a certain responsibility to take on migrants, to ‘allow’ to them the ‘benefits’ of our society. Objectively, and I’m not saying I believe this, an equally pertinent option would be to put significant pressure on other Middle Eastern (“Arab”) states, especially those on the peninsula, to take in as many refugees as they can. But there is an undercurrent to the thinking of politicians across Europe: it’s “them” coming and hoping to join “us”. Even in Hungary, where the debate rages furiously over closing borders vs. welcoming, the discourse remains the same: it’s people from another “worse” civilization who want to join us, and it’s all about whether we should let “them”. The multinational status of the refugees, as well as the multinational approach of the European union, demonstrates that this isn’t a state-based consideration, but rather seemingly civilization based.

Most often the far right in Britain likes to point out, when complaining about immigration, that they’re not racist, as the immigrants are white. The use of the word “racist” still applies here, I feel, as I’m going to cover in another blog post: but in the meantime, it serves to highlight the continuing divide between “them” and “us”, as you wouldn’t hear them saying those things about Italians, Danish, or German immigrants; just anyone east of the Czech Republic. That is, the former USSR and eastern Orthodox countries, that the Anglosphere considers to be “Eastern Europe” – another civilization divide that Huntington has pointed out.

This post has focused mostly on the West and Islam, as those are what I’m most familiar with and what the discourse focuses on most heavily, respectively. But there is evidence of this beyond my own sphere: the way American politicians refer to the “hispanic” (as opposed to black/white) vote; naturalized US Spanish-speaking citizens are lumped into the same category as those who’ve immigrated from Latin American countries. Malaysia, meanwhile, is torn between ancient Buddhist influences, a modern-day Islamic demographic, and a large portion of the most influential and well-off citizens being Chinese. These divides are starkly highlighted in the politics and media of the country.

Though I haven’t covered them all, examples seemingly abound. But everything I’ve covered has been about how different communities talk about and view each other, rather than a surge in violent conflict between them. Ultimately, this is a question of discourse (see: Foucault). I don’t think there are inherent insurmountable boundaries between ‘civilizations’ in the world; but I do believe it is possible that we are creating and perpetuating these superficial boundaries with the way we see ourselves and define others.

Was Huntington right? Are people destined to clash along ‘civilization’ boundaries now? I still don’t believe so – I don’t think that’s a logical prediction. But enough people seem to be, unconsciously or not, agreeing with him that they may yet create a world in which he is right.