A critical analysis of Samuel P. Huntington's thesis that, after ideology, cultural differences now form the dynamics of international politics.

Essay, 1999

8 Pages, Grade: Good

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It was before the background of the end of the Cold War and the resulting instability, although accompanied by a decline of immediate (military) threat, that Foreign Affairs published Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial article on “The Clash of Civilisations”, which suggests that “the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic, [... but] cultural” while “the fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future”1, thus refuting the idea that the breakdown of bi-polarity has left the world in an anarchic, realist system of billiard ball-like, fully unrelated nations.2In sharp contrast to other scholars, notably Fukuyama’s end-of-history approach, it is assumed that the likely outcome of this will be a clash between civilisations for several reasons. First and foremost, Huntington argues that cultural distinctions are basic and fundamental as well as being rooted in centuries of identity development, thus making compromise between different civilisations difficult. Furthermore, the process of economic modernisation and its weakening effect on the nation-state is seen as a force that separates people from their traditional identities, and therefore leads to cultural and religious fundamentalism. Other factors mentioned by Huntington include the emergence of culture-emphasising regional (economic) blocks and the West’s assertive attempts to spread its own culture. Since ideology is no longer an important political force, it is concluded that cultural differences remain the last mobilising force against unwanted (Western) influence.

This essay addresses the question of whether Huntington’s approach is a valid explanation of post-Cold War politics. In the first part, it will be suggested that there are indeed some indications (such as Islamic fundamentalism or extremist identity politics, to name but two) that cultural differences are an important force to be reckoned with on the political agenda. The second part, however, will argue that economic globalisation, shared (economic) interests and political (or even military) cross-culture cooperation have already blurred or even overcome cultural differences to a large extent, so that an actual clash of civilisations, or, put more moderately, the emergence of cultural differences as major political driving force, is concluded to be somewhat unlikely, although cultural issues are clearly back on the political agenda.

The return of cultural issues in post-Cold War politics With bi-polar confrontation and diametrical ideological opposition determining the relations between the two super powers and their allies or satellites, Huntington seems right to suggest that during the Cold War, ideologies have been the dominant factor shaping politics. Equally, both super powers have gone to great lengths to ensure that their respective ideology would be perceived as part of their own national identity and, indeed, culture, and therefore given an additionalraison d’être,while the other’s ideology would be portrayed as hostile and dangerous.3Given the focus of world politics on the East-West confrontation, it is little surprising that ideology springs to mind as one of the most relevant factors underlying international politics after the second World War. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, however, this situation came to an abrupt end.

Subsequently, there was a re-emergence of often extreme identity politics and nationalism dominating politics in many of the newly independent states, leading to several ethnic conflicts within the former Soviet-controlled block. Cultural identity issues have been taken up - quite successfully - by extremist leaders to consolidate their power (which some of these have formerly held by dwelling on ideological principles) and to confront the spreading of democratic values. (The Yugoslav crisis is only one of many examples of this.) Equally, several African states are finding themselves in severe ethnic conflict with neighbouring states or internal minorities. However different from each other, both cases show that the emphasis on cultural difference has a strong effect on the perception of national identity in some countries, and that such notions are both capable of mass-mobilisation and very relevant in policy making. Even though the targeted area itself is fairly small in many cases, this can still be of major international concern, as NATO’s involvement in the current Kosovo crisis has made plain.

Furthermore, Islamic fundamentalism, the notion of ‘jihad’ (holy war) and the extent to which both are accepted by the people on the one hand, and officially supported by some governments on the other, also suggests that cultural considerations have an important impact on international political reality - especially as Islamic fundamentalism is probably one of the single most dangerous and militant challenges faced by the West. Clearly, for fundamentalists, the mere questioning of their cultural and, more importantly, religious foundations and the infiltration of their culture by foreign values is good enough a reason even to go to war (in the widest sense, including organised international terrorism) against almost anyone who is perceived hostile. Any response to this by the threatened entities is, by implication, at least indirectly also driven by cultural differences (because if cultural differences played no role in determining international politics, the problem would not even have arisen).

It has also been argued - by Huntington and many others - that the West has been too assertive in trying to spread its own culture and values, which has led to stronger resistance against the superimposition of further Western influence on non-Western countries in need of financial help from the West. Indications of such an approach, often dubbed ‘cultural imperialism’, can be found in the conditionality of many development aid programmes (as it is the case with the EU’s Lomé convention) or IMF loans, both of which normally insist on the respect of basic (Western) rules of democracy and human rights before aid is granted. While this is often regarded as attempting to consolidate democracy and market economy as the universally most efficient political and economic system, others argue that the imposition of the Western system elsewhere aims at little more than to spread Western culture as widely as possible.

In addition, there are also some theoretical arguments supporting Huntington’s thesis. Oswald Spengler, for example, observes that historically speaking, it can be seen that “mature civilisations do clash” because “at advanced stages, [they] tend to become hermetically sealed [...and] resist learning from each other”4. From this point of view, the fact that “mature civilisations are abundant at present [...] could be a very dangerous situation”5and supports Huntington’s warning of a potential clash of civilisations. Furthermore, as Geertz argues, culture and ideology are often interlinked, since it is “a loss of [cultural] orientation that most directly gives rise to”6the latter. Hence, if there is an overall decline in ideology, it seems reasonable to predict a resurgence of cultural orientation in return: ideological confrontation having ceased to replace strictly cultural identity politics, these are now logically on their way back into international politics. This does in fact not necessarily lead to outright confrontational politics, but even when trying to avoid a “clash”, politics are in fact driven by cultural concerns.

Among all the political uncertainties caused by the end of the Cold War, there is, however, one uncontested fact, namely that the end of bi-polarity has been followed by the creation of scores of newly independent states and the mounting of claims of sovereignty by ethnic minorities within and across states, all of which points to growing cultural awareness and the rise of identity politics, not only in (Eastern) Europe, but also in Asia and Africa. Consequently, one of the major challenges in world politics is to accept that there will be “a world of different civilisations, each of which will have to lean to coexist with others”7, because it seems likely that there will be a progressive re-emergence of non-Western cultures, many of which may have experienced colonial suppression and therefore share a desire to limit Western influence.8

The blurring of cultural differences and cross-cultural cooperation Nonetheless, there are several strong arguments suggesting that although cultural concerns are becoming more important in the formulation of international politics, Huntington overestimates their significance and is likely to be overly pessimistic when predicting a full scale civilisational conflict, given the powerful economic and political incentives for states to set aside cultural differences and cooperate to their mutual benefit.

To start with, Rosencrance points out that Huntington’s approach is methodologically problematic as there is empirical evidence that the coexistence of different cultures in itself is not a reason for conflict to emerge.

This is indicated by the fact that most modern states comprise several cultures within their society without causing major conflicts between different groups. More importantly, the enormous number of wars and conflicts within one civilisation (as for example in Western Europe history), which is far greater than the number of cross-cultural conflicts, suggests that the causal correlation between cultural differences and conflicts is fairly low.9This is strongly supported by the fact that the vast majority of the present potential for conflict lies within one, rather than between two civilisations.10Examples for this are numerous: the Middle East, for a start, is a hugely unstable region with scores of conflicts taking place within the Islamic civilisation (Iran-Iraq war, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Egypt’s problem with internal fundamentalist terrorism, etc.). As Kerr points out in support of Rosencrance’s argument that civilisations do not usually act as coherent units, but often produce “as many conflicts within cultures than between them”, conflicts within the Arab world “are just as common as the common hostility to Israel”11. Similarly, hostilities between Pakistan and India also fail to coincide with Huntington’s fault lines between civilisations.

Furthermore, where there is a conflict involving two or more cultural groups, Huntington’s claim that “groups and states belonging to one civilisation that became involved in war with people from a different civilisation naturally try to rally support from other members of their own civilisation”12is not an adequate account of the state of affairs either. While there have been no Islamic warriors rushing to the support of Muslim forces in Bosnia, the second Gulf war has seen an anti-Iraq alliance of the West, Russia and, significantly, Turkey (whose membership of NATO as a country with a strong Islamic community is quite telling in itself) and several Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. According to Ajami, this gave a clear indication of general national interests and “showed the lengths to which [states] will go to restore a balance of power”13within the region. Quite clearly, cultural differences with the West have not been strong enough to prevent Western-Arab cooperation against another Arab country. Even more significant is the fact that this alliance is still largely intact, taking into account that Iraq receives little, if any, support from fellow Islamic countries, even in the face of US and British unilateral military action, thus suggesting that shared political interest is still considered more important than cultural allegiances.

In addition, the undisputable threat which is coming from (mainly Islamic) fundamentalist groups is more of a terrorist nature than being a real demarcation line between civilisations - partly because moderate forces within its own culture are as much seen as their enemies as members of other cultures, and partly because strong as it may be, the movement cannot claim to be representative of the entire Islamic community.

Furthermore, the general development of states in the world shows that the overall number of democracies is increasing. However, Huntington himself suggests that “democracies don’t go to war with each other”14, thus in a way deconstructing his own argument of an increased likelihood of international or intercultural conflict.

Nonetheless, what is probably the strongest indicator against Huntington’s vision of cultural divides becoming the “battle lines of the future” is the degree of world-wide and cross-cultural economic and thus political interdependence, cooperation and communication brought about by the globalisation process and assisted by modern IT facilities and the Internet offering easy contact and access to information, thus facilitating mutual understanding. Virtually all countries have a vested interest in enjoying peaceful economic relations with trading partners of any culture, no matter how different. While cultural concerns may play a role in international politics, it is in the basic, shared interest most countries to achieve and maintain economic prosperity. In an increasingly globalised world, however, this is hardly possible if a government isolates its country from the world market by leading overly confrontational identity policies. Consequently, as the highly multi-cultural membership of the WTO shows, the tendency is to overcome cultural differences in economic dealings rather than to emphasise them in an attempt to assert one’s own identity against foreign influence. This achieved on an economic basis, a spill-over effect into political areas is not unlikely, so that a civilisational clash is fairly improbable.

With global economic interaction increasing quickly, there are very few hints to suggest that cultural barriers are a limit to trade. This is shown by the relevance of economic considerations as opposed to cultural ones in terms of foreign investment, which has an almost excessive cross-cultural pattern. Much of German FDI, for example, goes directly to China, Eastern Europe and East Asia, while the US invest heavily in Latin America, China and Europe, and largest share of Japan’s FDI is targeted at the US and Europe. Since the invested capital is fairly immobile (due to investment in production and manufacturing plants in foreign countries which cannot be easily moved), there is a high level of economic interdependence, and any confrontation on mere cultural grounds would be economically devastating for all participants.. Political leaders and business managers alike can therefore be expected to avoid excessive emphasis on cultural differences.

The final indicator that economic considerations can easily override cultural differences can be seen in the set-up of some regional economic blocks. Huntington suggests that these stress borders between different civilisations. However, it can be argued that he is wrong on two accounts: firstly, ASEAN, for example, is culturally highly diverse, comprising, among others, Islamic, Christian and Buddhist communities. Secondly, the economic interaction between these blocks is fairly intense and successful and not normally hampered by cultural differences, since economic considerations and benefits usually take precedence.


In conclusion, one can argue that cultural distinctions clearly play an important role in international politics, and indeed a more significant one than most ideological considerations, which have become somewhat redundant after the end of the Cold War. However, they are not the most important dynamics in politics: as Ajami argues, “civilisations do not control states, [but] states control civilisations”15. Equally, “the task for most countries is not to demarcate civilisations but to mix and meld them”16in order to promote their economic well-being, which implies closer cross-culture economic ties normally leading to more political dialogue. In view of increasing global competition, it therefore seems adequate to suggest that economic concerns are the strongest driving force of politics - although the cultural element remains significant, especially where extremist governments or non-state actors who are prepared to sacrifice economic prosperity for power and identity politics are involved. These, however, are in a striking minority, and to isolate cultural divisions as the single most dominant factor determining international politics seems somewhat ignorant of the complicated, cross-cultural network of common economic and political interests and interdependencies.


Fouad Ajami:The Summoningin Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 4, 1993, pp. 2-10

Robert L Bartley:The case for optimism, in Foreign Affairs , Vol. 72, No. 4, 1993, pp. 15-18

Liu Binyan:Civilisation Grafting, in Foreign Affairs , Vol. 72, No. 4, 1993, pp. 19-21

Clifford Geertz:Chapter 8: Ideology as a Cultural Systemin The Interpretation of Cultures , Fontana Press, New York, 1973, pp. 193-233

D R Gress:The Subtext of Huntington’s“Clash”in Orbis , Vol. 41, No.2, 1997, pp. 285-299

Samuel P. Huntington:

The Clash of Civilisations?in Foreign Affairs , Vol. 72, No.3, 1993,p p. 22-50

J B Miller:Review: Huntington’s“The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order”in

Journal of Comparative Economics, Vol. 26, No. 4, 12/98, pp 833-835

D J Puchala:International encounters of another kindin Global Society, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1/1997, pp. 5-29

R Rosencrance:The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order reviewin American Political

Science Review, Vol. 92, No. 4, 12/98, pp. 278-280


1Huntington,The Clash of Civilisations?in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No.3, 1993, p. 22

2 Cf Rosencrance in American Political Science Review, Vol. 92, No. 4, 12/98, p. 278

3 Cf Geertz, The interpretation of cultures, chapter 8, pp. 193-233

4 Spengler, quoted in Puchala,International encounters of another kindin Global Society, Vol. 11, No.

1, 1/1997, p. 27

5Puchala,International encounters of another kindin Global Society, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1/1997, p. 28

6Geertz,The interpretation of cultures, p. 219

7Huntington,The Clash of Civilisations?in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No.3, 1993, p. 50

8 Cf Puchala, International encounters of another kind in Global Society, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1/1997, p. 28

9Cf R Rosencrance in American Political Science Review, Vol. 92, No. 4, 12/98, p. 280

10Cf Bartley,The case for optimismin Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 4, 1993, p. 16

11 Cf Rosencrance in American Political Science Review, Vol. 92, No. 4, 12/98, p. 279, quoting from

Kerr’s The Arab Cold War

12Huntington,The Clash of Civilisations?in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No.3, 1993, p. 35

13 Fouad Ajami, The Summoning in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 4, 1993, p. 7

14 Cf R Bartley, The case for optimism in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 4, 1993, p. 17

15Fouad Ajami,The Summoningin Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 4, 1993, p. 9

16 L Binyan, Civilisation Grafting in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 4, 1993, p. 19

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A critical analysis of Samuel P. Huntington's thesis that, after ideology, cultural differences now form the dynamics of international politics.
University of Canterbury
Philosophy and Methodology in International Relations
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Samuel, Huntington, Philosophy, Methodology, International, Relations
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Gunnar Matthiesen (Author), 1999, A critical analysis of Samuel P. Huntington's thesis that, after ideology, cultural differences now form the dynamics of international politics., Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/105226


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