It is a rare event when a scholar makes an argument that garners widespread academic and popular attention—such can become the stuff of legend. In 1993, Samuel Huntington did just that when he penned an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Clash of Civilizations?” In it, he posited that the end of the Cold War did not herald the end of history, but rather a new age in which a “clash of civilizations” would come to define global politics. This clash would not be ideological or economic in nature, but cultural; as such, it would involve profound differences not easily reconciled.1
Huntington’s thesis has proven remarkably persistent, as academics and pundits continue to grapple with it a quarter century after its initial publication.2 It has not merely garnered attention, but provoked a remarkable degree of passion representative of the deep divisions of the present age. This makes engaging with the thesis in a truly scholarly manner somewhat difficult; academics are people, after all, with their own prejudices and passions. Yet when engaged in a thoughtful manner, the thesis can be remarkably thought-provoking. Of course, this does not mean that one simply subscribes to it, but rather that even on points of disagreement, one is compelled to ponder such points carefully. In sum, the thesis can be a rich catalyst for thought and discourse.
The following articles are ample evidence of this. They engage the thesis from different intellectual, disciplinary, and faith perspectives. The result is a rich set of insights. They not only suggest answers, but also questions, not just of the thesis, but ourselves. After all, our responses to the thesis suggest something about our assumptions, and how these play out in our scholarly and personal lives. Whether overtly or “between the lines,” each essay challenges the reader to consider issues of faith and international politics, virtues and practices, or values. In the process, each exemplifies an intellectual and professional engagement that represents the best of scholarship.
This essay will set the stage for the articles by providing a synopsis of Huntington’s argument, as well as its “history” since its initial publication. It will follow with a history of this panel, briefly summarize each article, and close with some observations.
A quarter century after its publication, the “clash of civilizations” thesis has a seeming prescience, and certainly has proven provocative and persistent. Yet for all the discourse, it is not necessarily well understood. In part, this is due to its controversial elements, notably about conflict, culture clashes, and Islam, which often prompt strong reactions as opposed to careful reflection. Oft overlooked is the matter of context.
While in later years some would charge that the thesis enabled reckless confrontation, when first penned in 1993, it was in fact a cautionary note. These were heady days; the end of the Cold War produced both a sense of euphoria and a profound yet simple question: now what? Perhaps nothing exemplified this more than Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, first presented in a 1989 article for The National Interest, and published as a monograph soon thereafter. Fukuyama asserted that events were trending toward “an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism,” ideas the West had championed and to which the rest of the world would have to adapt. This signaled not a new chapter in history, but the end of history, as the evolutionary process of human governance reached its “final form.”3Fukuyama’s credentials gave the idea intellectual credibility, but the underlying notion also appeared in popular culture. For example, Jesus Jones’ hit song “Right Here, Right Now” exulted that the world was “wak[ing] up from history,” while in “Wind of Change,” the Scorpions mused, “distant memories are buried in the past forever.”4 Moreover, as the decade progressed, the “Cold War dividend” and low energy prices would not only feed an economic boom, but also a certain complacency about world events. Amongst academics, there were concerns that the Cold War’s resolution had produced a “triumphalist” attitude in American circles that grossly simplified events past and present.5
Huntington challenged both complacency and triumphalism in his Foreign Affairs article. He opened it by criticizing the “proliferate” visions of the post-Cold War global order for overlooking a “central aspect” of things to come. The Cold War’s end did not portend the end of history, but rather a new age in which a “clash of civilizations” would define global politics. In this age, “the fundamental source of conflict…will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.” Western dominance of world affairs was at an end; its interactions with non-Western civilizations, who would now be “movers and shapers,” would be the linchpin of the new phase of history.
He then expanded on his concept of civilizations. A civilization, he explained, was “a cultural entity,” the “highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity.” It had “objective” elements (such as history, religion, customs), but also rested on subjective self-identification. It could be large or small, consist of one nation-state or many, overlap with each other, and include “subcivilizations.” He identified seven civilizations of immediate importance: Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, and Latin American. The most significant future conflicts would occur along the “fault lines” between these civilizations. This was due to a number of factors. For one thing, the world was becoming “smaller,” with people from different civilizations interacting to a greater degree than before, leading to a rise in “civilization-consciousness.” This brought to the forefront cultural differences, the “most important” being religion. These differences were fundamental, and thus would persist. While they might not necessarily lead to conflict, they historically had produced the longest and most violent clashes, and were not easily resolved. In fact, as the world became smaller, and the resulting changes disconnected many people from long-held associations (such as the nation), they would seek to reaffirm their identity in other ways. Perhaps the most appealing means of doing so was religion, especially in its fundamentalist form. An added factor was the “dual role” the West played in global affairs; as Western influences become increasingly pervasive, these would likely drive non-Westerners to seek to shape the world in non-Western ways.
Huntington then focused on the fault lines between civilizations, the most significant being the “eastern boundary of Western Christianity,” which butted up against the Orthodox and Islamic civilizations. Here, “the Velvet Curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology.” Western-Islamic relations had a particularly long and violent history. The collapse of Western imperialism had removed a vital check on this tendency, without the benefit of reducing Muslim resentment, which ongoing Western military dominance continued to fuel. In turn, the demographic boom in Europe’s Muslim populations was feeding a nativist reaction there. While such clashes were commonplace around the globe, the most violent involved the Islamic civilization and its neighbors; Islam, Huntington declared, “has bloody borders.”
In a broader context, certain realities would result from this new paradigm. For one thing, conflicts between civilizations would be exacerbated by a “kincountry syndrome” in which members of a civilization would tend to support each other against outside foes. In the former Yugoslavia, Islamic actors backed their fellow Muslims, while Europe supported Croatia and Slovenia, and Russia tacitly supported Orthodox Serbia.
Another reality would be that the conflicts would tend to pit “the West versus the Rest.” Western political, economic, military, and social dominance had lead some in the West to presume the existence of a universal civilization, or “world community.” While Western civilization had permeated the globe, many non-Westerners viewed it as an imposition, and their leaders were left trying to balance a desire for Western advances with a commitment to indigenous values. To this end, they would look to partner with others to check the West. The West’s response to this would play a key role in defining the clash.
Internal pressures would be yet another factor. While some people had a strong and deeply entrenched sense of identity, others were struggling to find theirs; they were in “torn countries.” One example of this was Turkey, which was linked to both the Western and Islamic worlds, yet not fully accepted by either. Such countries were ripe for internal conflict, which could spill into neighboring areas. It was vital that the effects of torn countries be mitigated, either by internal or external means.
Huntington closed the article with a prescription. In the short term, the West should seek civilizational unity, work to discourage the escalation of conflicts, and build on the ideas that made it a global power. In the long term, the West would have to learn to live with non-Western civilizations and their ideas. If the West acknowledged this new reality and acted accordingly, it would best manage potential conflict.6
Coming from the director of Harvard’s Strategic Studies program, the thesis was certain to attract scholarly attention, especially after it was published in monograph form. For example, the prominent economist and philosopher Amartya Sen referenced it in a 1999 article for the Journal of Democracy. Arguing that democracy had become a value that transcended regions and cultures, he criticized emphases on cultural differences for contributing to simplistic views. He noted that the Islamic world, like the West, had examples of tolerance, and that Western as well as Islamic thought had enabled authoritarianism. Huntington, he charged, credited the West with the former quality and the Islamic world with the latter primarily because he failed to appreciate the heterogeneous nature of these and all civilizations.7
The thesis also got attention outside of academia, as evidenced by a 1996 book review for the Washington Post entitled “When Cultures Collide.” In this, Michael Elliot admitted that it was hard to argue with Huntington’s work in light of the events then taking place in the former Yugoslavia. Yet, he continued, “the book begs so many questions that its central tenet must be in doubt.” For one thing, civilizations were not as cohesive as it suggested. For another, Huntington claimed that the imposition of cultural values invited conflict, yet also that nation-states must embrace a single culture to avoid being “torn”; these points were at odds. Finally, Huntington asserted that civilizations should not involve themselves in the internal conflicts of others. Elliott countered that nations could have allies across civilizational divides, noting that had the U.S. followed Huntington’s advice in 1990, it would have abandoned its Saudi allies to Iraq for no better reason than “civilizational principles.” He closed the review with this admonition: “Treat [the book’s] Big Idea with the skepticism with which, at the end, its creator invests his own progeny.”8
Elliott’s critique encapsulated much of would be said of the thesis over the years. It was a big idea, which was compelling in itself, and it had some seeming prescience in light of world events. Yet its broad sweep was a two-edged sword, as it contained arguments that could be self-contradictory or easily countered. Furthermore, to privilege culture over all other interests was susceptible to obvious exceptions. Elliott’s review evidenced something else others would share over the years: a certain discomfort with the thesis. Put simply, if Huntington was right, then there was a problem with the world.
While hardly ignored in the 1990s, the thesis was not a central concern for many. History may not have been at an end, but with the end of the Cold War and the relative prosperity of the decade, any clashes seemed remote to most Americans. The events of September 11, 2001, shattered this complacency. The “War on Terror” with its interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as various domestic manifestations, suddenly bequeathed the thesis with a renewed interest and certain prescience. Even so, it did not go unquestioned, particularly in academic circles. In an October 2001 article entitled “The Clash of Ignorance,” the eminent social scientist Edward Said decried the model for juxtaposing the “West” against “Islam,” and thus engendering a false sense of certainty. On the one hand, Muslims who denounced some things “Western” embraced other things “Western.” On the other, Christianity as well as Islam had engaged in holy wars, and there are voices of moderation on both side. Far from being distinct, both cultures were “swimming in [the] waters” of tradition and modernity.9 His was but the first of a number of cautionary notes.
The war weariness that would typify George W. Bush’s last years in office reshaped opinions of Huntington’s thesis. Popularly associated with an unpopular war, it took blame for the policy. The election of Barack Obama promised a policy shift, one that seemingly signaled the demise of the thesis. In both speech and action, the administration shied away from implications of a “clash,” emphasizing common interests and diplomatic dialogue.10 Yet events soon took another turn. The rise of the Islamic State, with its modus operandi of attacking other sects and faiths, to the point of even endeavoring to erase their history through the destruction of ancient edifices and artifacts, revitalized the thesis. This has been evident by a new round of articles critiquing it. One, entitled “The Fusion of Civilizations,” appeared in Foreign Affairs in 2014. Co-authored by Lawrence Summers, this argued that while clashes were indeed taking place, the overall trend in global affairs was toward a “fusion” of civilizations, with the vast majority of people from a wide array of societies embracing a common set of expectations.11 Since 2016, concerns over the Trump administration’s foreign policy has revived popular critiques of the thesis in a variety of media outlets.12 Being associated with this administration, perhaps never has the thesis been more controversial.
It is in this current context that the following articles address the thesis. Like the thesis, they have a longer history. Months after the September 11 attacks, a panel of historians and political scientists addressed the thesis at the 2002 Conference on Faith and History. These presentations were eventually published in the journal Fides et Historia in 2004. As both the conference and journal were dedicated to the intersection of faith and history, the articles addressed the thesis from faith perspectives. Yet their views were not necessarily exclusive, often echoing those of such scholars as Sen and Said. They acknowledged that Huntington had posited a big idea with some seemingly prescient points. Yet the thesis had significant flaws and disturbing implications. As one contributor suggested in his title, it seemed to point the way to Armageddon.13
This series of articles stems in part from the general renewal of interest in recent years. As one reads various critiques of the thesis, one naturally is prompted to reflect on one’s own views and their evolution over time. Yet this series is also the result of the passage of time. Put plainly, the inspiration to “get the band back together,” so to speak, was the realization that 2018 would mark the 25th “anniversary” of the thesis. This led to a series of email exchanges, with most of the original participants eagerly agreeing to reprise their earlier contributions. Yet there was a desire for a broader perspective, both in terms of contributors and audience. Discussions soon led to a “pitch” to the Christian Scholar’s Review; Editor Mark Bowald and the editorial board graciously consented. To effectively mesh the reprised panel with a new journal, I and Jim Halverson were tasked with co-editing the work. Ultimately, the lineup would consist of three of the original contributors, joined by two new scholars who offered disciplinary and research breadth. The result is a series of articles that as a whole greatly advance the discourse about the thesis.
The first, by Robert Joustra, an international relations specialist at Redeemer University College, focuses on Huntington’s conceptualization of religion vis-àvis foreign affairs, which Joustra finds “both prophetic and deeply troubling.” It is hard to argue with a number of Huntington’s points about religion in light of world events (such as the increasingly politicization of religion). Further, Joustra suggests, Huntington rendered a valuable service in “recover[ing] religion as a constitutive rather than merely causal factor in global affairs…” Even so, his concept is lacking, and he ultimately resorts to religious categorizations that are “banal,” missing an opportunity to posit a more profound understanding of the matter. Seeking to remedy this, Joustra puts him in dialogue with Abraham Kuyper, whose understanding of the matter Joustra draws from for guidance. Still, Joustra concludes, Huntington is to be lauded for bringing the “religious problem” back into the discussion.
The next article is by Scott Waalkes, a political scientist at Malone University, who was one of the original contributors. He acknowledges that the passage of time has given him a deeper appreciation for Huntington’s “bold vision.” Huntington had challenged the conventional wisdom of the day, anticipating the decline of secularist thinking and the revival of religion as a driving force, and the key role identity would play in today’s global discourse. Yet his vision was lacking; as Miroslav Volf puts it, the thesis was “good for fighting, but not for living together in peace.” Thus, there is a need to go “beyond” it and offer both hope and a prescription for action. Waalkes points to Volf’s model of “hermeneutical hospitality” as a viable option. He is careful to note that this will not lead to a “universal” (Western) civilization, nor an absolute reconciliation of faith differences. Rather, it would facilitate interfaith dialogue and co-existence through mutual acts of hospitality (such as meal-sharing) and hermeneutical engagement. The latter would involve exploring each other’s beliefs to find common truths and ground. Far from an idealistic fantasy, this approach would follow well-established diplomatic practices. It simply needs to be intentionally pursued. Like Waalkes, Gregory Miller (a historian at Malone) authored one of the original articles. He begins his essay by hearkening back to these, and recalls being concerned that the thesis could become a “self-fulfilling prophecy” if subscribed to by policy makers. While he finds himself being more “charitable” to Huntington this time around, he cautions, “even if the primary thrust of Huntington’s thesis is not erroneous, it can still be dangerous.” He continues,
This is particularly the case with governmental officials sensitive to evangelical Christian popular opinion concerning Israel and the Palestinians. For these evangelicals, even if they have never heard of the book “Clash of Civilizations,” Huntington’s general understanding of the world makes sense because it is congruent with a deep stream in Protestant thought that understands Islam in eschatological terms as an End Times enemy whose destruction was predicted in biblical prophecy. One of the reasons why Huntington’s thesis has had such staying power is due at least in part because of the resonances it has with these deep evangelical impulses.14
Miller sees clear manifestations of this affinity in recent developments in American politics and U.S. policy toward Israel. He traces the history of eschatological thinking from the Reformation through the rise of modern dispensationalism. He concludes that there is a need to recognize the dangers of such a perspective, and for evangelicals to exercise more care in grappling with complex global issues.
The next essay is authored by Hyunjin Deborah Kwak, a specialist in sociology and peace studies at Malone. She credits Huntington’s thesis for serving as a catalyst for discussion about the role of religion in global affairs. Yet, she continues,
What is clear from these conversations is that religion matters. But how does it matter? The problem with grand theories like Huntington’s “clash” thesis is that the actors engaging in action are invisible. Huntington’s unit of analysis is the state, which is less useful when we are trying to understand how differences in religion lead to and facilitate conflict.15
When considering the role of religion in global affairs, she asserts, the question that must be asked is: “How does religion exacerbate conflict or promote peace and justice?” She reviews scholarly work to date that addresses both elements of this question, and then supplements this with her own research, a number of case studies of collaborative initiatives to bridge religious divides between Christians and Muslims in the Philippines. She shows that contrary to what Huntington suggests, religion can aid in such endeavors.
She reviews scholarly work to date that addresses both elements of this question, and then supplements this with her own research, a number of case studies of collaborative initiatives to bridge religious divides between Christians and Muslims in the Philippines. She shows that contrary to what Huntington suggests, religion can aid in such endeavors.
The final article is by Stephen Hoffmann, an emeriti faculty at Taylor University, where he taught political science. Using Russian relations with the West as a focal point, he assesses Huntington’s argument that civilizational differences preclude a global consensus on political values. Hoffmann traces European efforts to limit conflict back to the Peace of Westphalia in the 1600s. This established a system in which European nations privileged state sovereignty over obligations to an international community bound by universal (Christian) values. This lasted until the twentieth century, when the idea of a global community sharing Western values of democracy and human rights emerged. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, Russia seemed to be drawn into a global consensus based on these values. However, the resurgence of Russian nationalism under Vladimir Putin has disproved this notion and demonstrated the persistent cultural differences between the West and Russia. In sum, history has proven Huntington generally right, and it would be wise to follow his prescriptions for managing potential conflicts. Moreover, a Christian perspective on international politics ought to include a commitment to order as well as justice. Thus, Hoffmann concludes, the best policy option for the West at this time is to respect Russian sovereignty and rely on diplomacy to defend existing democracies and promote democratic values. Pursued under the auspices of a U.S.-led coalition of states, this is likely to be more effective in promoting both order and justice than an internationalist effort premised on universal values.
As the reader will see, these articles are decidedly thought-provoking. As the co-editor of this series, I have enjoyed the opportunity to preview them. They have presented me with a number of insights, which I will now take the liberty of sharing.
In Hoffmann’s essay, one sees the complexity of the matter. He treats the thesis as having a remarkable degree of validity, while at the same time redefining it to incorporate the two competing political cultures of the Cold War. In making this case, Hoffmann posits not only a different reading of history and the thesis, but of how a “faithful” global citizen ought to act in an imperfect world.
Like Hoffmann, Kwak also highlights the complexities of the matter, while showcasing a unique approach. She critiques the thesis for its lack of nuance, and substantiates this with particular examples that, as she puts it, make the actors visible. While the thesis has been subject to many anecdotal criticisms, Kwak demonstrates that a more systematic compilation of case studies could provide a more complete perspective.
Waalkes’ application of the concept of hermeneutical hospitality to Huntington presents a credible alternative to either seemingly inevitable clashes or simplistic Western universalism. It represents a sustainable approach in which people of different faiths can find common ground while remaining “faithful.” This reflects a nuanced understanding of the matter, but also invites further thinking not only from one’s own faith tradition, but others as well.
Miller’s cautionary essay is decidedly provocative. He points to an oftoverlooked danger—the thinking the thesis might enable. Perhaps no foreign policy issue is more susceptible to this than the U.S. relationship with Israel, a proverbial “sacred cow” in evangelical circles that is deeply intertwined with an eschatological mindset. On the whole, this exemplifies the need to avoid simplistically staking out “Christian” policy positions.
Joustra too challenges the reader to consider the matter more carefully. Perhaps his most provocative point appears in the following passage:
“What about … the presumptive religion of the modern age, “capitalism and progress”…? These, arguably, are as religiously defining of the so-called Christian West [as] historic Christianity … could not the same argument be made for Dubai or Qatar, whose banks and legislatures are very busy accommodating capitalist logic out from under Islamic laws on finance? Could the bankers of Qatar, though Muslims, have more religious affinity with the Christian hedge fund managers of Wall Street than the Wahhabis down the road in Riyadh?16
In arguing for economic values that transcend Huntington’s “fault lines,” Joustra is positing a criticism of one of the key precepts of the thesis. Yet he also suggests the thesis might be a starting point for conceptualizing a different set of cultural fault lines. If the banker in the Middle East has more in common with the hedge fund manager in New York than the Wahhabi in the proverbial street, then the “flip side” of this is that the Wahhabi may have more in common with the “hillbilly” in rural America. What if we re-imagine the fault lines as vertical (such as between the towers and the street) rather than horizontal (such as boundaries on a map)? The key cultural divides would be within countries, and largely economic in nature. The recent advent of scholarship aimed at understanding the American white working class already points to the central role economics plays in this culture, most notably as it involves a sense of decline in economic fortunes in recent decades and the resulting political, social, and economic implications.17 Further study of this could yield fruitful insights about the recent populist backlash against globalism as embodied in such developments as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
These are but some of the insights and inspirations one can find in these articles. Revisiting the thesis over a decade after the publication of the first set of articles might have been an exercise in pouring old wine into new skins, yet this has not been the case. The fresh perspectives of the new contributors blended well with the refined perspectives of the original contributors, giving new life to a discussion that is not likely to end any time in the near future.
Cite this article
- Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs 72.3 (Summer 1993): 22-49; Huntington later expanded on this in a book titled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).
- For example, see Kishore Mahbubani and Lawrence Summers, “The Fusion of Civilizations: the Case for Global Optimism,” Foreign Affairs 95.3 (May/June 2016); Ishaan Theroor, “Donald Trump’s Real Foreign Policy: a Clash of Civilizations,” The Washington Post (April 28, 2016).
- Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?,” The National Interest 16 (Summer 1989): 3-18; Fukuyama later expanded on this in a book titled The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).
- According to Billboard Music, “Right Here, Right Now” peaked at #2 on the U.S. music charts in 1991, while “Wind of Change” peaked at #4. (https://www.billboard.com, accessed March 5, 2018).
- This concern would find expressions in such works as Cold War Triumphalism: the Misuse if History After the Fall of Communism (New York: The New Press, 2004). Ironically, much of this concern would come from the political left, which has hardly been fond of Huntington’s thesis.
- Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” 22-49.
- Amartya Sen, “Democracy as a Universal Value,” Journal of Democracy 10.3 (July 1999): 16.
- Michael Elliott, “When Cultures Collide,” Washington Post (1 December 1996).
- Edward W. Said, “The Clash of Ignorance,” The Nation (October 22, 2001).
- Barack Obama, “A New Beginning” (speech, Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-cairo-university-6-04-09.
- Mahbubani and Summers, “The Fusion of Civilizations.”
- Theroor, “Donald Trump’s Real Foreign Policy”; Emma M. Ashford, “Trump’s Team Should Ditch the ‘Clash of Civilizations’” The National Interest (December 7, 2016).
- The series appeared in Fides et Historia 36.2 (Summer/Fall 2004). They are as follows: Erik Benson, “A Bleak Prospect,” 99-103; Scott Waalkes, “Prescience and Paradigms,” 104-109; Gregory Miller, “Toward Armageddon?,” 110-115; Stephen Hoffmann, “Civilizations and World Order,” 116-119.
- Gregory J. Miller, “Still Headed Toward Armageddon,” Christian Scholar’s Review 48.3
- Hyunjin Deborah Kwak, “Revisiting Huntington’s Thesis: A Peace Scholar’s Response and Conversations from the Peacebuilding Field,” Christian Scholar’s Review 48.3 (2019): 269-270.
- Robert Joustra, “A Clash of Rival Apostasies? The Religious Problem and the Clash of
Civilizations at 25,” Christian Scholar’s Review 48.3 (2019): 229-30.
- The proverbial “bible” of this scholarship is J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (New York: Harper Press, 2016). That said, there are a number of studies that have sprung out of this, such as Eleanor Krause and Richard V. Reeves’ “Rural Dreams: Upward Mobility in the American Countryside,” published in September 2017 by the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.