Sunday, November 16, 2008

Samuel P. Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations?": A Summary

The work of Samuel P. Huntington will act as a key source for our exploration of the civilization exclusivity question, raised above. His piece “The Clash of Civilizations?” analyzes contemporary and projected conflicts, suggesting that the clash of civilizations will create the fodder for all conflict to follow. He proposes that prior warfare and conflict transition from the work of monarchies, to the stuff of nation states, to the result of ideological differences. Huntington concludes his article with a prediction that civilization divisions and misunderstandings will fuel all debates to come.

To further this argument, Huntington reveals what attributes constitute a civilization. He suggests that civilizations share basic commonalities that have been established over time, and are unlikely to change quickly. These include language, history, religion, and customs – among other basic characteristics – that all members of that division intensely identify with. Civilizations may be large or small, and may overlap creating subcivilizations. A civilization is the broadest level of identification that one identifies with, and as individuals redefine their values and identities, so civilizations adapt and shift.

Upon completion of his analysis of civilizations, Huntington launches into an explanation of his claim that civilization identity will be increasingly important in the future due to the interactions that will unfold between the major civilization “players”, and that there are various reasons that a clash is inevitable. The first reason is that the differences in views between these groups are on a fundamental level. They contain basic questions, such as what the relationships are between man and God, individual and group, and parent and child. In addition, the interactions between these civilizations are increasing rapidly, causing people to become exceedingly receptive of these basic differences. Also, due to modernization, the nation is becoming less of a source of identity, and people are turning to other groups to create meaning, often through unsecularization. This is confounded by an anti-Westernization movement, under which the West is at the peak of its power, and faces a non-West that strongly opposes all association with it. Lastly, economic regionalization is increasing, causing common cultures to rally, and create an “us” versus “them” mentality.

These reasons for why the clash will occur function to emphasize a duality in how it will occur. Huntington argues that on a micro-level, groups that border one another on cultural “fault lines” will struggle; on a macro-level, states from different civilizations will compete on military and economic grounds. These fault lines often occur due to religious beliefs, and have led to Arab nationalist movements, as well as Islamic Fundamentalism. Fault lines have also erupted into conflict between Hindus and Muslims, Chinese and Buddhist Tibetans, Japan and the European and American West, and in the “new Cold War” between China and the United States. Although not all of these clashes will be characterized by violence, the conflicts occurring along Islamic fault lines appear most ominous.

Huntington also reveals the effects of “kin-country rallying” on the clash of civilizations. He reflects upon the examples of Islamic collaboration in Arab countries as well as in the former Soviet Union as a way of demonstrating the ways in which civilizations, regardless of national ties, will unite in order to fight under the “us” versus “them” mentality mentioned above. Huntington warns that this type of rallying has been limited to date, but has the potential to spread into further conflict in the near future.

These trends are certainly exacerbated by the West’s tendency to dominate in the international sphere, through such organizations as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and United Nations (UN). While the phrase “the world community” is often invoked, Huntington argues that international endeavors tend to favour the economic and political interests of the West; however, this dominance is not the only source of conflict facing the West. Fundamental Western values such as individualism, democracy, and the separation of church and state have little sway over many other world civilizations, causing strain between the West and non-West. Although other nations respond to this “West versus the Rest” mentality in different ways (such as through isolationist foreign policy or Western bandwagoning), these crucial civilization differentiations will continue to strain both domestic and international relations in the future. This is particularly true, as some countries defect from the West while others contain groups at odds with one another regarding how best to approach dominant Western culture.

Huntington asserts that some civilizations are better positioned to Westernize than others, and that Confucian and Islamic groups are among those that are least likely to embrace Western culture. As such, these groups have established a connection with each other, creating a significant challenge to Western interests through their alliance and through increased weaponization. As the West de-weaponizes, this civilization rallying may erupt in some of the most intense conflict to come.

As Huntington proves, the implications of civilization-consciousness are multitudinous and multifaceted, and serve to further differentiate groups rather than bring them together. This assessment may prove useful when considered in relation to the civilization exclusivity idea, as it not only suggests that civilizations are unable to truly understand one another, but that the results of different opinions are sometimes explosive.

To read Huntington’s article in full, visit this link.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


skram said...

I originally read both Huntington's essay and Fukuyama's in a first-year Political Science class; so these arguments, while occasionally dated by our standards, are pertinent to the discussion of civilisation and/or culture in other scholarly disciplines as well.


skram said...

Agreed. Although the examples do seem somewhat dated, at least in Huntington's case, they seem to have an eerie premonition-like foresight. In some ways, it seems that the superficial cause-and-effect details are irrelevant; it is the basic ideological differentiations that seem to be pertinent.


skram said...

FYI: The New York Times has a sub-section on articles by/about Huntington at the following link:

If you notice the dates of these articles, they range from March 1986 to April 2008! I think that this database demonstrates the relevancy of this debate in decades past as well as in our present time. As the current situation in Mumbai unfolds and details of the horrific attacks are revealed, we may be able to see yet another corroboration of Huntington's claims.


skram said...

On the topic of relevancy, dwellers of the Greater Vancouver area may have noticed articles in The Vancouver Sun over the last week surrounding the visit of the Aga Khan, the Ismaili Muslim leader, and their references to Samuel Huntington’s essay. The Aga Khan has an interesting way of looking at this “clash of civilizations”; he refers to it instead as a “clash of ignorance”. Although they could mean the same thing, in terms of Civilization Exclusivity, the use of the word “ignorance” would suggest that these clashes can be resolved with enough knowledge. I think that Huntington assumes that differences on a fundamental level are so great that we can’t gain enough knowledge of other civilizations to truly comprehend their view of things. But I was encouraged that the Aga Khan thinks these information gaps can be bridged. Read one of the relevant articles at this link:


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