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Review of "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order" by


31 March 2013

In the years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the phrase “Clash of civilisations” was heard a great deal, particularly from right wing groups contending that Islam and “the West” were fundamentally incompatible with conflict between them being inevitable. It is this type of thinking that underlay Anders Behring Breivik’s view of the world and led to his terrible crimes.

My perception has been that the use of such language has declined significantly in recent years, particularly following the “Arab Spring” which has helped people to understand the complexity of political relations in Muslim majority countries. While writing this book review I tested my intuitive perception by carrying out a Google Trends search for the words Clash of civilisations . The result is quite interesting and confirms my intuitive perception that usage of the phrase has been declining steadily for many years.

The phrase Clash of civilisations in a modern context comes from the book by Samuel Huntington. I had not read the book (until recently) but had read Huntington’s original essay in the Summer 1993 issue of “Foreign Affairs”; a journal which is published by the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC. I subscribed to “Foreign Affairs” for about 17 years starting in the late 1970s and found it immensely informative. I only stopped reading it due to other time pressures.

My recollection of the original essay led me to believe that the Islam / West dichotomy was far too simplistic and ignored the complexity of Huntington’s essay which was much more focused on a multi-civilisational world. Accordingly I recently bought the book and read it.

Overview of the book

Samuel Phillips Huntington (1927 – 2008) was an American academic and political scientist, who also served as an advisor to the US and foreign governments according to his Wikipedia biography.

The book was published in 1996. I regard the date as very significant. It means that Huntington’s thinking was formulated in the years of chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union including in particular the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.


Huntington’s thinking can be seen by looking at the structure of his table of contents:

  1. A world of civilisations
    1. The new era in world politics
    2. Civilisations in history and today
    3. A universal civilisation? Modernisation and Westernisation
  2. The shifting balance of civilisations
    1. The fading of the West: Power, culture and indigenisation
    2. Economics, demography and the challenger civilisations
  3. The emerging order of civilisations
    1. The cultural reconfiguration of global politics
    2. Core states, concentric circles and civilizational order
  4. Clashes of civilisations
    1. The West and the rest: intercivilizational issues
    2. The global politics of civilisations
    3. From transition wars to fault line wars
    4. The dynamics of fault line wars
  5. The future of civilisations
    1. The West, civilisations and civilisation

Although the book is only 321 pages long, excluding footnotes and the index, it is very dense in ideas. It is helpful to look at some of Huntington’s concepts, many of which are genuinely interesting and illuminating.


Huntington begins by writing about flags and cultural identity.

“On April 18, 1994 two thousand people rallied in Sarajevo waving the flags of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. By flying those banners, instead of UN, NATO or American flags, these Sarajevans identified themselves with their fellow Muslims and told the world who were their real and not-so-real friends.”

Huntington explains that in the post-Cold War world, global politics had become multipolar and multi-civilizational.

“During most of human existence, contacts between civilisations were intermittent or non-existent. Then, with the beginning of the modern era, about A.D. 1500, global politics assumed two dimensions. For over 400 years, the nation states of the West – Britain, France, Spain, Austria, Prussia, Germany, the United States, and others – constituted a multipolar international system within Western civilisation and interacted, competed and fought wars with each other. At the same time, Western nations also expanded, conquered, colonised, or decisively influenced every other civilisation.”

Huntington goes on to explain that during the Cold War global politics became bipolar with conflict between a group of wealthy democratic societies led by the United States and somewhat poorer communist societies led by the Soviet Union, with much of the conflict taking place in the Third World outside these camps. This pattern of order collapsed with the end of the Cold War. Huntington asserts:

“In the post-Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political or economic. They are cultural. Peoples and nations are attempting to answer the most basic question humans can face: Who are we? And they are answering that question in the traditional way human beings have answered it, by reference to the things that mean most to them. People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilisations.”

Huntington draws three maps.

  1. The West and the rest: 1920. This colours in the countries which form part of the West (as Huntington defines it) along with their colonies, primarily all of Africa (apart from Ethiopia), the Indian subcontinent and south-east Asia apart from Thailand.
  2. The Cold War world: 1960s. This shows the division of the world into three: Free World, Communist Bloc, and Unaligned Nations. However when it comes to detail Huntington is somewhat error prone. He properly includes Iran as part of the “Free World” given its relationship with the USA. However he puts Pakistan, which at that time also included East Pakistan, into the Unaligned Nations, despite Pakistan being at that time a member of CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation).
  3. The world of civilisations: post-1990. This colours the world into the following civilisations:
    1. Western consisting of the USA, Canada, Western Europe and central Europe including the Baltic states and Finland along with Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea.
    2. Latin American, comprising Mexico and everything south of it including the Caribbean apart from a few minor countries on the Atlantic coast north of Brazil.
    3. African being sub Saharan Africa excluding those regions along the eastern coast and in the Sahel which are primarily Muslim.
    4. Islamic which consists of North Africa, the eastern edge of Africa, Albania, the Middle East, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the southern part of the Philippines. As another error, Huntington fails to include Kazakhstan in the Islamic category despite the religious composition of the country.
    5. Sinic, consisting of China, Vietnam and North and South Korea and Taiwan.
    6. Hindu comprising India.
    7. Orthodox comprising Russia, Kazakhstan (erroneously in my view), Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus, the Balkans and Greece.
    8. Buddhist comprising Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Mongolia is coloured the same way although that seems to be another mistake as I would expect it to be classified as Sinic.
    9. Japanese, consisting of Japan.

Due to its small size, Israel is not identifiable in terms of its colour on the map. However Huntington's listing of non-Western holders of nuclear weapons includes Israel which would imply that, like Japan, it is a civilisation consisting of one country.

The allocation of countries to civilisations appears reasonably logical although I am tempted to question why Vietnam is classified as Sinic while Laos and Cambodia are classified as Buddhist.

Much more significant is the categorisation of Latin American as a separate civilisation. As this region is primarily Roman Catholic (by 2013 with a significant Protestant minority) and speaks Spanish and Portuguese, one can see a clear difference from the USA and Canada. However Spain and Portugal are classified as Western even though they have very strong affinities and close connections with Latin America. Furthermore, given the historical connections of Latin America with Europe and North America, the linguistic overlaps, the common religion and political history, I would not regard Latin America as a separate civilisation.

This issue is critically important to Huntington’s case later in the book since most of his evidence for “Western decline” becomes much weaker if Latin America and “the West” (as defined by Huntington) are taken together.

A universal civilisation?

Huntington strongly challenges the idea that humanity is converging on a universal civilisation. He dismisses “Davos Culture” which connects the thin veneer of senior businessmen, government officials, intellectuals and journalists who attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland each year. While recognising the use of English as a lingua franca, he emphasises the difference in cultures between those who speak different languages as their first language.

Ultimately each person is an amalgam of the cultural background of their parents and the culture that they absorb from the people around them that they interact with. The impact of interaction with people from different cultures varies from person to person. Huntington emphasises the difference between civilisations and gives less weight to interactions across the borders which he defines. The book was written in 1996 and therefore could not take into account the impact of the Internet in promoting international cross fertilisation of ideas.

The fading of the West

Huntington acknowledges that the rise of Western power took 400 years and that its decline could take as long. He mentions Oswald Spengler’s famous book “The Decline of the West” published in 1918. While I have not yet read that book, which is available free on the internet and on the Kindle store, I am aware that “declinism” is a long established complaint originally amongst Britons (since Britain dominated the world in the 19th century) and more recently amongst Americans.

As indicated above, Huntington’s decline statistics would look much less dramatic if Latin America was included as part of the West.

Furthermore, his table 4.6 of military manpower takes no account of qualitative differences. In 1991 the West is shown as having 21.1% of the world total of military manpower while Islamic countries have 20.0%, almost as much. This takes no account of the vast differences in military capabilities between North America and Western Europe on the one hand and countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Egypt etc. The near equality implied by Huntington's table is completely spurious.

Economic, democracy and the challenger civilisations

Huntington has an amusing paragraph on the tendency of successful countries to lecture others.

“Powerful societies are universalistic; weak societies are particularistic. The mounting self-confidence of East Asia has given rise to an emerging Asian universalism comparable to that which has been characteristic of the West. ‘Asian values are universal values. European values are European values,’ declaimed Prime Minister Mahathir [of Malaysia] to the heads of European governments in 1996. Along with this also comes an Asian ‘Occidentalism’ portraying the West in much the same uniform and negative way in which Western Orientalism allegedly once portrayed the East. To the East Asians economic prosperity is proof of moral superiority. If at some point India supplants East Asia as the world's economically most rapidly developing area, the world should be prepared for extended disquisitions on the superiority of Hindu culture, the contributions of the caste system to economic development, and how by returning to its roots and overcoming the deadening Western legacy left by British imperialism, India finally achieved its proper place in the top rank of civilisations. Cultural assertion follows material success; hard power generates soft power.”

The above passage is even more amusing when one reflects that only two years after Prime Minister Mahathir made his speech, the Asian financial crisis had a climactic impact on the economies of the Asian countries concerned.

Huntington spends a number of pages on “the Islamic resurgence” and has some useful data on the demographics of Muslim majority countries, the increase in public religiosity etc.

The cultural reconfiguration of global politics

In this chapter Huntington explains a number of key concepts.

Core state

The core state of a civilisation is the most powerful and culturally central state (or states). While Huntington goes on to say “or states”, the concept of multiple core states does not really work very well in my view.

He points out that Japanese civilisation is virtually identical with the single core state of Japan. The Sinic, Orthodox and Hindu civilisations each have one overwhelmingly dominant core state, namely China, Russia and India. He sees the West as having two cores, the United States and a Franco-German core in Europe with Britain as an additional centre of power adrift between them.

Latin America, Islam and Africa lack core states. Huntington goes on to discuss Latin America, pointing out that Spain could have been its core state but chose to align with European civilisation while maintaining cultural links with its former colonies. In my view this discussion simply reinforces my question of whether Latin America is genuinely a civilisation distinct from the West.

Cleft countries

A cleft country is one in which large groups belong to different civilisations. Huntington gives several examples:

  • India (Hindu / Muslim)
  • Sri Lanka (Sinhalese / Tamil)
  • Malaysia (Muslim / Chinese)
  • Sudan (Muslim north / Christian south)
  • Ukraine (Ukrainians / Russians)

Huntington emphasises the likelihood of internal conflict and considers it much higher than when a country is divided between groups which belong to the same civilisation such as Belgium with its Flemish and French speakers.

Torn countries

A torn country is one in which the ruling elite have attempted to move the country from one civilisation to another, normally against the wishes of the great majority of the population. Huntington gives some examples:

  • Russia where the ruling elite for several centuries (before the Bolshevik revolution) tried to make Russia into a Western country.
  • Turkey with the drastic reforms brought in by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

While in the above examples the clash between the wishes of the ruling elite and the broad mass of the population is clear, Huntington then proceeds to apply this concept in many places where it does not really work. For example he considers the political reforms in Mexico in the 1990s to be in danger of producing a torn country although they were nothing like as drastic as what Ataturk did in Turkey. Similarly, he accuses the political leadership in Australia of seeking to redefine the country as an Asian country thereby taking it away from the West. This last complaint of Huntington's is almost laughable.

In both cases, I believe that the quality of Huntington’s analysis is very weak and comes from attempting to fit everything into the intellectual straitjacket of his view of civilisations.

Fault line wars

A fault line is the boundary between two civilisations, which may be the location of a war. An example of a fault line war is the conflict between Croatia (Roman Catholic and defined to be part of the West) and Serbia (Orthodox) in the early 1990s.

The West and the rest: intercivilizational issues

Huntington rightly points out that the West is unique in having had “a major, and at times devastating impact on every other civilisation.” Consequently he finds it natural to see tension between the West and all other civilisations.

He expresses great concern about the levels of immigration into the West from non-Western societies. However he also points out the increasing tendency towards greater restrictions on immigration.

The global politics of civilisations

Huntington is quite pessimistic about the likelihood of war arising from changes in the global balance of power among civilisations. After looking at the history of conflict between the Greek city states, he writes:

“Similarly the history of Western civilisation is one of “hegemonic wars” between rising and falling powers. The extent to which similar factors encourage conflict between the rising and falling core states of different civilisations depends in part on whether balancing or bandwagoning is the preferred way in these civilisations for states to adjust to the rise of a new power. While bandwagoning may be more characteristic of Asian civilisations, the rise of Chinese power could generate balancing efforts from states in other civilisations, such as the United States, India and Russia… The dynamism of Islam is the on-going source of many relatively small fault line wars; the rise of China is the potential source of a big intercivilizational war of core states.”

Islam and the West

Huntington takes issue with those such as President Bill Clinton who argue that the West does not have problems with Islam but only with violent Islamist extremists. Instead he prefers to look back at the tensions that have historically existed between Muslim ruled countries such as the Ottoman Empire and Christian ruled countries.

Huntington points out that “By 1920 only four Muslim countries – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan – remained independent of some form of non-Muslim rule.” This was followed by most of these countries gaining independence. He writes:

“The violent nature of these shifting relationships is reflected in the fact that 50% of wars involving pairs of states of different religions between 1820 and 1929 were wars between Muslims and Christians.”

I have not attempted to check that statistic but it looks plausible. However it appears less dramatic when one considers which states were on the map during that period and their religious compositions. (For example Africa had almost no states in that period.)

After quoting comments from Bernard Lewis in 1990 in “The Roots of Muslim Rage” foreseeing a clash between Islam and the Judaeo-Christian West, [see my piece Triangulating the Abrahamic Faiths for my views on the term Judaeo-Christian] Huntington quotes some Muslim sources.

“Similar observations came from the Islamic community. ‘There are unmistakable signs,’ argued a leading Egyptian journalist, Mohammed Sid-Ahmed, in 1994, ‘of a growing clash between the Judaeo-Christian Western ethic and the Islamic revival movement, which is now stretching from the Atlantic in the West to China in the east.’ A prominent Indian Muslim predicted in 1992 that the West’s ‘next confrontation is definitely going to come from the Muslim world. It is in the sweep of the Islamic nations from the Maghreb to Pakistan that the struggle for a new world order will begin.’ For a leading Tunisian lawyer, the struggle was already underway: ‘Colonialism tried to deform all the cultural traditions of Islam. I am not an Islamist. I don’t think there is a conflict between religions. There is a conflict between civilisations.’

Huntington goes on to point out that in the past Muslim leaders often told their people “We must westernize” but that such comments are never heard today. Instead Muslim politicians stressed the differences between their civilisation and Western civilisation. He also points out the growing Western concern about Muslim extremism, nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

Asia, China and America

Huntington emphasises the growing economic power of China and “the likelihood of China reasserting its traditional hegemony in East Asia, thereby compelling other nations to either ‘bandwagon’ and to accommodate themselves to this development or to ‘balance’ and to attempt to contain Chinese influence.”

He points out the complexity of East Asia with many middle level powers coming from different civilisations and the danger of conflict this creates. He goes on to discuss America’s adaptation to the increasing power of Japan and China in particular, criticising American policy as making concessions which Asians do not reciprocate but exploit.

Huntington’s view of the past is at times severely distorted. For example he writes: “For over 200 years the United States has attempted to prevent the emergence of an overwhelmingly dominant power in Europe.” This statement is simply not true. Until the beginning of the 20th century in the United States had no ability to influence power relations in Europe at all. ( Britain of course did indeed seek to avoid a single continental European power becoming dominant.) A few pages later Huntington writes:

“During the first part of the 20th century the United States made only minimum efforts to promote balances among European and Asian countries and as a result became engaged in world Wars to restore balances that had been disrupted.”

That sentence may just about be accurate in relation to the First World War, although it in my view understates American anger at German submarine actions such as the sinking of the Lusitania. However it is totally inadequate to describe the way in which the USA entered World War II after Pearl Harbor was bombed and after Germany chose to declare war on the USA.

His assessment of relative power is at times remarkable:

“Indonesia and Vietnam are the two countries of south-east Asia most inclined towards balancing and containing China. Indonesia is large, Muslim, and distant from China, but without the help of others it cannot prevent Chinese assertion of control over the South China Sea.”

While Indonesia clearly does not wish to see China control its locality, it does not have any meaningful power by itself to even attempt to balance China. Of course it can join in alliances with others as it did in 1995 with Australia.

Civilisations and core states: emerging alignments

Huntington expresses concern about the dangers of increasing cooperation amongst Iran, China, Pakistan and Kazakhstan leading to an informal Confucian-Islamist alliance.

He sees convergence between Latin American and Western civilisations, which I do not regard as surprising since I fail to see much distinction between them anyway. Conversely he sees Africa as moving away from the West.

He draws an interesting figure 9.1 which shows the interconnections between civilisations and his prediction for either greater conflict or less conflict. He sees:

  • increasing conflict: the West v Japan, Islam, China and India;
  • increasing conflict: Africa v Islam;
  • increasing conflict: Russia v Islam and China;
  • increasing conflict: India v Islam and China.

To summarise, Huntington sees a significant amount of conflict between most civilisations with the only declines being between:

  • Islam and China,
  • India and Russia,
  • China and Japan,
  • Latin America and the West,
  • Africa and the West.

The dynamics of fault line wars

Huntington discusses a number of fault line wars that had recently occurred before he wrote his book. In my opinion his coverage of the Bosnian conflict is extremely biased. For example, he never once mentions by name the massacre in Srebrenica in July 1995 although he writes:

“In the summer of 1995 the failure of the West to defend the safe areas against Serb attacks led Turkey to approve military aid to Bosnia and to train Bosnian troops, Malaysia to commit itself to selling them arms in violation of the UN embargo, and the United Arab Emirates to agree to supply funds for military and humanitarian purposes. In August 1995 the foreign ministers of nine OIC countries declared the UN arms embargo invalid, and in September the 52 members of the OIC approved arms and economic assistance for the Bosnians.”

In my view the mere passing mention of safe areas in the above paragraph shows unacceptable bias. The reader would easily conclude that the Muslim majority countries concerned were behaving badly if he did not already know that they were responding to a major humanitarian outrage.

Huntington describes the Dayton peace agreement but, writing in 1996, says:

“Enforcement of the agreement rests with an American dominated NATO force. If the United States withdraws its troops from Bosnia, neither the European powers nor Russia will have incentives to continue to implement the agreement, the Bosnian government, Serbs, and Croats will have every incentive to renew the fighting once they have refreshed themselves, and the Serbian and Croatian governments will be tempted to seize the opportunity to realise their dreams of a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia.”

In reality Huntington’s prediction has proved completely inaccurate up to 2013.

The West, civilisations and civilisation

Huntington is one of many people who write about civilisations. He mentions the work of Carroll Quigley ignoring Quigley's reputation as a conspiracy theorist. I was astonished to read the following footnote by Huntington:

“In a prediction which may be right but is not really supported by his theoretical and empirical analysis, Quigley concludes: ‘Western civilisation did not exist about A.D. 500; it did exist in full flower about A.D. 1500, and it will surely pass out of existence at some time in the future, perhaps before A.D. 2500.’ New civilisations in China and India, replacing those destroyed by the West, he says, will then move into their stages of expansion and threaten both Western and Orthodox civilisations.”

Given the pace of change in human society I am astonished that someone like Quigley can aspire to make such predictions running 500 years into the future and even more astonished that a writer like Huntington can give them any credence.

Huntington is particularly concerned about the dangers of multiculturalism in the United States. In this he reminds me very much of Anders Behring Breivik writing about Europe. Huntington writes in apocalyptic language:

“The multiculturalists also challenged a central element of the American Creed, by substituting for the rights of individuals the rights of groups, defined largely in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, and sexual preference.… What happens then to United States if that ideology is disavowed by a significant portion of its citizens? The fate of the Soviet Union, the other major country whose unity, even more than that of the United States, was defined in ideological terms is a sobering example for Americans… Rejection of the Creed and of Western civilisation means the end of the United States of America as we have known it. It also means effectively end of Western civilisation.”

The West in the world

Continuing his complaints about how the USA is going wrong, Huntington writes:

“Although Europeans universally acknowledge the fundamental significance of the dividing line between Western Christendom, on the one hand, and Orthodoxy and Islam, on the other, the United States, its Secretary of State said, would ‘not recognise any fundamental divide among the Catholic, Orthodox and Islamic parts of Europe.’ Those who do not recognise fundamental divides, however, are doomed to be frustrated by them. The Clinton administration initially appeared oblivious to the shifting balance of power between the United States and East Asian societies and hence time and again proclaimed goals with respect to trade, human rights, nuclear proliferation and other issues which it was incapable of realising. Overall the US government has had extraordinary difficulty adapting to an era in which global politics is shaped by cultural and civilizational tides.”

In passing many in Western Europe do draw a dividing line with Islam, thereby seeking to keep Turkey out of the European Union. However in decades of press reading I have come across almost nothing about the dividing line between Western Christendom and Orthodoxy. This is a line prominent only in Huntington's world view.

Continuing his theme, Huntington is keen to expel Greece and Turkey from NATO.

“The realities of a multi-civilizational world suggest that NATO should be expanded to include other Western societies that wish to join and should recognise the essential meaninglessness of having as members two states each of which is the other’s worst enemy and both of which lack cultural affinity with the other members.”

He is also keen to tear up the US-Japan security treaty.

Fundamentally, Huntington’s view is “Culture, as we have argued, follows power.” Accordingly he sees no scope for cultural interchange between civilisations other than through what is normally described as hard power.

“In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous. That it is false has been the central thesis of this book, a thesis well summed up by Michael Howard: the ‘common Western assumption that cultural diversity is a historical curiosity being rapidly eroded by the growth of a common, Western oriented, Anglophone world culture, shaping our basic values… is simply not true.’ The reader not by now convinced of the wisdom of Sir Michael’s remark exists in a world far removed from that described in this book.”

Civilizational war and order

In this section, Huntington goes on to discuss the scope for wars between civilisations by role-playing a fantasy war in 2010 involving the USA, China, Japan, Pakistan, India etc.

I will not attempt to summarise how the war starts and develops. However it is worthwhile reading the fantasy in detail, complete with its racist overtones, to get an insight into Huntington’s mind-set.

Is the author right?

As with Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai’s famous (and apparently incorrectly quoted comment) about the French Revolution, it is too early to tell! However, the book was written in 1996 and from the vantage point of 2013 we have the benefit of approximately 18 years of subsequent experience.

It is of course easy to list instances of conflict across the civilisation boundaries which Huntington demarcates. Examples would be:

  • The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent Western invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • The separatist conflict in Kosovo when the Muslims Kossovars achieved independence from Serbia with the assistance of NATO.
  • The growing tensions between China and neighbouring countries over the demarcation of territorial claims in the seas which they share in common.
  • The continuing dispute over Kashmir and linked terrorist attacks by Muslims against India.

However there have been equally violent, if not more violent, instances of conflict within civilisations. A few examples are:

  • The single most deadly conflict in the intervening period has been the large-scale war in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire. Millions of people have died in this conflict despite it getting very little television coverage in Europe or North America. This war is of course internal to African civilisation.
  • The short war between Georgia and Russia which was internal to Orthodox civilisation.
  • The significant levels of terrorism which are entirely internal to Muslim majority countries such as within Pakistan or Kurdish separatism within Turkey.

Overall each conflict is best assessed on its merits. I see little evidence for the accuracy of Huntington’s key proposition which is that conflict between civilisations is much more likely than conflict within civilisations.

Concluding comments

In my view the book is based upon a real, although rather trivial, insight which has been stretched far beyond the appropriate point.

The insight is that each of us feels more affinity with people who share our ethnicity, our cultural background, our language, and our religion than we do with people who do not share these characteristics. That insight is so obviously true that I regarded as “trivial” in the same way that a mathematician regards any self-evident proposition as trivial.

The insight is extensible to contacts between citizens of two different countries to the extent that each country is homogeneous and different on the above characteristics. English speaking British Christians will initially find Japanese speaking Shinto practising Japanese citizens strange and difficult to relate to until they find things that they have in common.

However it is not self-evident that countries belonging to different civilisations (using Huntington’s definitions) are more likely to come into conflict than countries belonging to the same civilisation. That is something that requires to be proved, and Huntington does not adequately do so in his book. For example both Europe and Latin America have a long record of internal wars.

Furthermore, Huntington underestimates the linkages between countries belonging to different civilisations that arise from permanent migration, temporary relocation (such as students and expatriate workers) and modern communications such as use of the Internet. To take one small example, the “Gangnam style” YouTube video by the Korean rapper PSY had been watched over 1.4 billion times when checked on 31 March 2013. The viewers will not all have come from Chinese civilisation.

Normally when I read a book I find myself developing some level of intellectual affinity with the author. That did not happen in this case. From reading the book I concluded that the author was a grumpy old crank, and somewhat racist.

Signs of racism run throughout the book if one "reads between the lines" but become quite explicit in the comment “Africa, on the other hand, has little to offer to the rebuilding of Europe and instead disgorges hordes of socially mobilised people to prey on the remains.” which he makes when discussing the aftermath of his fantasy intercivilizational war. Accordingly when I read in his Wikipedia biography that during the 1980s Huntington served as an adviser to the apartheid regime in South Africa, I was not surprised.

The book is worth reading primarily because doing so should inoculate the reader against the risk of believing that Huntington’s proposition has any merit.



A exchange with a reader who knew Huntington

Masood Alexander Razaq is one of my Facebook friends who I also know in the real world as both of us were at the Concordia Forum together. After I posted a Facebook status update about my book review, we had a dialogue on my Facebook timeline. Masood has consented to that being reproduced here as I believe it is of wider interest.

It is reproduced verbatim, except that I have added some paragraph breaks to make it easier to read on screen.


I worked on this book in 1994 as a research assistant. I also took a post-graduate seminar about the course with SPH, and Huntington was my undergraduate thesis advisor. You have to remember that the world has also changed a lot (e.g. internet, migration, YouTube, mobile communications, social networks) since the early-mid 1990s (starting with the Foreign Affairs article). At that time the main challenge was for political scientists to try to predict the post-Cold War paradigm of international affairs, and this book is very much part of that context. Culture as a key *potential* determinant of conflict has not been the worst paradigm offered to date.


I don't know how you found Huntington in person. I of course have never met him, but from reading his work find him an unpleasant person. The word "crank" in my review was carefully chosen. Predicting the future is of course a hard task, and Huntington is not to be blamed for being wrong. However his book, and especially the way it has been popularised, has been damaging.


His personality. I didn't find him unpleasant or racist, but he was very nerdy and a bit socially awkward. I can see why you might think he was a crank, and he indeed did appear to get crankier as he got older (his ideas on immigration in his last book did not go down well, but I haven't read his last book). He was an old school WASP that perhaps was confounded by the rate of change in the US, where WASPs are on the retreat, and Hispanics and other minorities (not to mention Jews in the past 60 years) are on the rise.

He also said some pretty harsh words about Western colonialism in his book. Overall he was a realist (in the political science sense) and empiricist, not a liberal political scientist. No normative ideas, but just trying to explain what is going on through empirical observation and trying to synthesize into a grand theory of post-war world order.

Some of his civilizational delineations seemed a little off, and it's often hard to draw neat lines in a complex world. He was often criticized for this by political scientists. To be fair though, his original FA article ended in a question mark (The Clash of Civilizations?), and in his book he clearly says "this is not a work of political science." I look at it more like a trendwatching book and trying to extrapolate from there. Conflict between Islam and the West was not the overarching theme of the book, and I don't quite blame SPH for how (a lot of ignorant) people might have hyped up the book and made it out to be something that it is not.

Obviously the world has changed a lot since the early 1990s, but I am not sure how "wrong" SPH was in saying that most conflicts would be between opposing parties belonging to two different cultures, or civilizations. I think he could have given more attention to non-state actors, but again, he has a Cold War mindset where states are the primary actors of international affairs. To establish how right or wrong he was, I would like to see a complete list of armed conflicts over the past 20 years, including:

  1. state vs. state (Israel-PA, US-Iraq, US-Afgh, Serbia-Bosnia, Russia-Georgia)
  2. state vs. non-state (Sri Lanka, Turkey v Kurds, Serbia-Kosovo, Syria v. FSA, Sudan, Congo, Morocco-Sahara, etc.), and
  3. non-state vs. non-state (Somalia, Rwanda).

I don't know what the complete list would look like, and whether each conflict should count the same or you could do a weighted average of conflicts by casualties. I think in many of these you would find opposing parties belonging to different civilizational groups as per Huntington's framework, but more importantly (and perhaps he didn't give enough attention to this), between different groups who are culturally distinct (Kurds and Turks, Hutus and Tutsis etc.). Would be interesting to do this analysis and see what comes out.


I think I terms of conflicts over the last 20 years, I would weight them by fatalities primarily, as that data is most available. You could also weight by monetary cost / property damage, but the data is hard to get and seems unfair; why should destruction in Beirut count more than destruction in African villages? Looking at cultural differences within civilisations risks giving SPH too much credit. His thesis was about conflict between civilisations, and my review questions that. In my view intra-civilisation conflicts have taken far more lives in the last 20 years.

What did you think of my review?


I liked your review; was pretty nuanced.

I would like to see some data about conflicts and casualties. I think SPH would have just looked at absolute number of identifiable conflicts, rather than weighting them. Having said that, US invasion of Iraq cost a lot of Iraqi lives.

I think the main thing to take away from the book, which is related to the purpose of the book is this: is a paradigm of world affairs where civilizational alignments of states are a useful principle to understand international order, fault lines, conflicts, alliances etc. USEFUL? it is not only about predicting conflict, but trying to determine whether culture is an important determinant for state behavior.

I would argue it's somewhat useful. For example, in his book he said that if Turkey aligned itself more with other Muslim majority countries instead of trying to gain admission to the EU white Christian club, they could "do a South Africa" and go from pariah to leader of fellow Muslims. In my opinion, Turkey under Erdogan and Davutoglu has done precisely that.

Al Qaeda has also accentuated a latent fault line between the US and Muslim countries - look at their defense spending, immigration policies, special registration for Muslims, extraordinary rendition policies targeting Muslims anywhere etc, and the suspicion of ordinary Muslims everywhere (NYPD), state legislation against sharia law (!) shrill bloggers etc. none of this would have happened if Al Qaeda was a homegrown terrorist organization.

You can also see that the new US national security "pivot" is all about China. Relations with Russia have also been frosty. It just so happens that the major fault lines in world affairs, and some conflicts, are between large states of different civilizations. Maybe.

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