Is the “Clash of Civilizations", as predicted by Samuel Huntington, inescapable?

Essay, 2009

12 Seiten


Is the “Clash of Civilizations”, as predicted by Samuel Huntington, inescapable?

It was only after the end of the Cold War and the decline of former deep-seated concepts of enemies among the bloc powers that Foreign Affairs published „The Clash of Civilisations?“ by Samuel Huntington. Instead of “primarily ideological and primarily economic” (Huntington, 1993, p. 22) sources of conflicts, Huntington argues that the “principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations” (ibid.) such are “Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and possibly African” (Huntington, 1993, p. 25). Indeed, if one reconsiders the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the war in Iraq some might recognize “evidence of the clash of civilisations occurring, pitting Western and Islamic civilisations against each other” (Rajendram, 2002, p. 217). In order to underscore his rather pessimistic thesis, Huntington provides six causes of conflicts between civilisations such are different views and values, the growing awareness of different civilisations among the people, the weakening of nation states and the replacement of national identity by religion (Huntington, 1993, pp. 25–26). Furthermore, he argues that non-western countries will increasingly turn away from Westernization due to an increasing indigenisation and that “cultural characteristics and differences are less mutable and hence less easily compromised and resolved than political and economical ones” (Huntington, 1993, p. 27). Finally he points to the growth of economic regionalism contributing to the “cohesiveness of various civilisational groups” (O'Hagan, 1995, p. 20). It is because of these reasons that “the most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilisations from one another” (Huntington, 1993, p. 25). Huntington not only provided a prediction model for future conflicts, moreover he intends to introduce a new superior paradigm to the realist paradigm (Huntington, 1996, p. 34). There are only few theoretical models in the recent history of International Relations that received such a plethora of multidisciplinary response as the “Clash of Civilisations?” did. The intention of this paper is not to give a comprehensive review of the arguments for or against the “Clash of Civilisations?” nor will it refute the thesis of Huntington. Rather, this paper will analyze if the clash of civilisations as predicted by Samuel Huntington is necessarily inevitable or if the existing international structures can help to avoid this pessimistic prediction. In order to find a conclusion, this paper is separated in two sections. First it will outline major flaws and imprecise fundamentals in Huntington’s argumentation and thereby demonstrate that theory-immanent flaws do not support the prediction of a clash of civilisations. In a second section, this paper argues that multilateralism will prevent a clash of civilisation in order to provide a more optimistic view.

The core element of Huntington’s thesis is the concept of civilisations. However, it is this concept that received most criticism since it is considered to present an “oversimplified history and definition of the term” (Bowden, 2004, p. 27). Referring to civilisations as the “highest cultural level grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity […] defined by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people” (Huntington, 1993, p. 24). Huntington acknowledges that the “lines between them are seldom sharp” (ibid.). Nevertheless, he groups states around an arbitrary list of “seven or eight civilisations” ((Huntington, 1993, p. 24) such are Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-America and possibly an African. He recognizes that people “can and do redefine their identities and, as a result the composition and boundaries of civilisations change” (ibid.). In combination with his notion that “civilisations obviously overlap, and may include subcivilsations” (Huntington, 1993, p. 24) he acknowledges intracivilcational differences to an extent where “the image of civilization as a source of international order begins to dissolve.” (Russett, Oneal & Cox, 2000, p. 588).

Moreover, even though Huntington emphasizes civilisations as the main cause for future conflicts “very little can be learned about them” (Senghaas, 1998, p. 128). In fact, the only in-depth description of a civilisation concerns the Western one which is based on “the classical inheritance (Greek rationalism, Roman law etc) Catholicism and Protestantism, the variety of European languages, the division of Church and state power, rule of law, social pluralism, representative public bodies and individualism” (ibid.). Apart from this short description, Huntington puts relatively few efforts in the analysis of the remaining civilisations or the concept of civilisations at all. In the face of these poor theoretical fundaments it is astonishing that Huntington asserts “the fault lines between civilisations are replacing the ideological boundaries of the cold war as the flash points for crisis and bloodshed” (Huntington, 1993, p. 25). Therefore, “culture, not class, ideology or even nationality will differentiate the contending power blocs of the future” (Rubenstein & Crocker, 1994). However, Huntington fails to explain why people or states shift their identification to a civilisational level (Walt, 1997, p. 183), nor does he expose “why intercivilisational conflicts will shape the future” (Walt, 1997, p. 184). In contrast to Huntington, it is argued that “whatever the label, there is a distinct French civilisation, a German one, an Italian, an English one, each with its own characteristics and internal contradictions. To study them altogether under the heading of a Western civilisation seems […] to be to simple an approach” (Braudel, 1980, p. 219). Or in other words, the diversity of identities within one single ‘civilisation’ considered as a “convenient intellectual construct used to establish the boundaries of a field of topic or study” (Matlock, 1999, p. 439), prohibits the use of such an identity as a unitary actor in international relations.


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Is the “Clash of Civilizations", as predicted by Samuel Huntington, inescapable?
Macquarie University
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Civilizations, Samuel, Huntington
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MSc. M.A. Robert Fiedler (Autor), 2009, Is the “Clash of Civilizations", as predicted by Samuel Huntington, inescapable?, München, GRIN Verlag,


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