Spring - 2013 Wilsher1

Published on April 10th, 2013


Civilizations in the 21st Century – Does Samuel Huntington’s Theory Hold Water?

By Lars-Erik Wilsher

When the biggest conflicts and wars end, they are usually followed by a change of paradigms in international politics. This was the case after World War II, which resulted in a division of power between the West, led by the United States, and the East, led by the Soviet Union. The Cold War was characterized by an absence of direct confrontation between the United States and Soviet Russia; however, both states sponsored what they saw as “friendly” regimes, often in remote locations like Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.

The Cold War ended with the collapse of Soviet Russia and its communist allies in the late 1980s. This was followed by an academic discussion concerning how the new paradigm for international politics would play out. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama suggested in his book «The End of History», that liberal international theory had won the ideological battle against totalitarian ideologies like communism and fascism. He predicted that the result would be an international community based on the liberal values of personal and economic freedom, international trade, mutual dependency and absence of war.

Samuel Huntington (1927–2008)

Samuel Huntington, in turn responded to Fukuyama’s utopian vision, by suggesting that war and conflicts in the post-cold war era would be dominated by people’s identification with civilizations. A theory on this was put forward by Huntington in his 1996 work «The Clash of Civilizations, and the remaking of the world order». Huntington dismissed «The end of History», and claimed that cultural differences will be the prime instigators of conflict in a Post-Cold War world. According to Huntington a civilization is the broadest cultural entity to which humans has a sense of belonging, short of being human.

Huntington calls civilizations the ultimate human tribe, and identifies 9 major contemporary civilizations. These are the West, Latin America, the Slavic Orthodox civilization, the Chinese civilization, the Hindu civilization, the Muslim civilization, the Japanese civilization, the Buddhist civilization and the African civilization (In his theory, Huntington is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the Buddhist states of Southeast Asia constitute a civilization in their own right or if they are simply a part of a broader Chinese civilization).

So after the cold war, cultural and ethnic traits will define allies and enemies. In the latter part of the 20th century, what states believed in regards to ideological and economic ideas, decided their alignment. According to Huntington, Post-Cold War alignment will be decided, not by what you believe, but by who you are. This means that alignments cannot change so easily. In a civilizational world, deep cultural changes are needed to realign in a new civilization. Huntington claims that states like Mexico, Turkey and Russia have tried, but not succeeded, showing how hard it is.

Huntington also predicts other areas where conflicts involving more civilizations will differ from conflicts within one civilization. For example Huntington states that conflicts between civilizations will have a tendency to include a higher level of intensity and lead to more violence and destruction than conflicts within one civilization. He also claims that minor conflicts will have a greater chance of escalating to greater conflicts or full scale wars, if the involved parties belong to different civilizations.

Since being published, the «Civilizations» theory has attracted massive attention, and resulted in extensive criticism due to its untraditional and controversial view of the playing rules of international politics. On multiple occasions, the theory has been subjected to empirical testing. Most of the time, the conclusions are that no «civilizations» pattern can be found in conflicts after the cold war. However, most of these tests fail to address the broader elements of the Civilizations theory, focusing exclusively on the number of inter-civilizational conflicts compared to the number of conflicts within civilizations.

It is true that data material on the Post-Cold War era does not support the claim that conflicts between civilizations are more frequent than conflicts within; however, that does not dismiss the entire theory. For instance, data also suggests that conflicts with more civilizations involved are on average three times more violent than conflicts with only one civilization. The data also supports the claim of inter-civilizational conflicts escalating easier than intra-civilizational ones. Nearly half of the minor violent conflicts involving more civilizations have escalated to a full size war on some point. By comparison, minor conflicts involving only one civilization escalate to full size wars roughly 30 percent of the time.

These results suggest that perhaps one should not be in such a hurry to dismiss the theory. Despite the fact that the main hypothesis may not be supported by the data, other elements of the theory are. Furthermore change does not happen over night, and in the future, a civilizational pattern in international conflict might emerge. At first glance the theory does seem to fit quite nicely to certain hot potatoes in international politics. Some examples include; Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the subsequent impasse between Iran and the US and Israel, the less-than-friendly relationship between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and current turmoil in Mali. In all these conflicts the civilizations theory can help shed some light.


Further reading:

Huntington, Samuel P. (1993) “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, 72(3): 22–49.

Huntington, Samuel P. (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.


*Rome photo by Russel Yarwood

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Back to Top ↑