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Death of “Clash of Civilizations” theorist

28 December 2008
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Samuel P. Huntington, a political scientist best known for his views on the clash of civilizations, died Wednesday on Martha’s Vineyard. He was 81.
Mr. Huntington argued that in a post-cold-war world, violent conflict would come not from ideological friction between nations, but from cultural and religious differences among the world’s major civilizations.

He identified those civilizations as Western (including the United States and Europe), Latin American, Islamic, African, Orthodox (with Russia as a core state), Hindu, Japanese and “Sinic” (including China, Korea and Vietnam).

He made the argument in a 1993 article in the journal Foreign Affairs and then expanded the thesis into a book, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” published in 1996. The book has been translated into 39 languages.

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Though Cold War terminology persists (people still speak of “First World” and “Third World”), Huntington’s thesis seems to have been borne out by the reality of post-Cold War conflicts. From the Gulf War to the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the elements of the clash of civilizations could be discerned.

Some people objected to Huntington’s thesis on the grounds that it was not a pleasant idea, but this rather misses the point, which is that if one is to prevent conflict, one should also be able to analyse the causes. Huntington’s thesis may not account for every aspect of every conflict in the world today, but it generally has helped to explain what happens.

My attention was first drawn to Huntington by a friend who had been an American Protestant missionary in Romania, who converted to Orthodoxy and went back as an Orthodox missionary. He remarked that Huntington’s book was execrated in Romania, because it showed a map with the boundary between the Western and Orthodox civilizations passing through the middle of Romania. Huntington’s book was seen as a manifestation of and blueprint for Western imperialism generally, and, in particular, Hungarian revanchist designs on Transsylvania.

So I approached the book with considerable prejudice, and was expecting to find propaganda for Western imperialism, or at least an apology for it.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not so, and that Huntington’s description of the political, economic and cultural forces that were shaping the post-Cold War world was pretty accurate. Far from defending Western imperialism, Huntington actually exposes it, especially in the wars of the Yugoslav succession. The conflict in Bosnia, for example, vindicates his thesis, being an example of a three-way clash between Western, Orthodox and Islamic civilizations. And the following analysis (Huntington 1998:282) can hardly be seen as a defence of or justification for Western imperialism:

The breakup of Yugoslavia began in 1991 when Slovenia and Croatia moved toward independence and pleaded with Western European powers for support. The response of the West was defined by Germany, and the response of Germany was in large part defined by the Catholic connection. The Bonn government came under pressure to act from the German Catholic hierarchy, its coalition partner the Christian Social Union Party in Bavaria, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other media. The Bavarian media, in particular, played a crucial role in developing German public sentiment for recognition. ‘Bavarian TV’, Flora Lewis noted, ‘much weighed upon by the very conservative Bavarian government and the strong, assertive Bavarian Catholic Church which had close connections with the church in Croatia, provided the television reports for all of Germany when the war began in earnest. The coverage was very one-sided’… Germany pressured the European Union to recognise the independence of Slovenia and Croatia, and then, having secured that, pushed forward on its own to recognize them before the Union did in December 1991.

Huntington cannot be blamed because political leaders, in the West and elsewhere, have failed to learn from his analysis and so failed to take action to mitigate or minimise the clashes that have occurred.

Not all of Huntington’s political analysis has been as astute as his “clash of civilizations” thesis, though. He made some recommendations on the Western approach to the apartheid regime in South Africa which were shameful — and the present South African government seems to have been taking a similar approach to Robert Mugabe’s dictatorial regime in Zimbabwe.


A good response to those who have criticised Huntington’s thesis may be found at Reza Aslan is a putz. Note: I’ve never encountered Reza Aslan and have no idea whether he is a putz or not (I’m not even sure what a putz is), but his reported critique of Huntington’s thesis certainly misses the mark.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 December 2008 5:40 pm

    Thanks for posting this – I have posted a brief comment on my site. It is I think a shame Huntington’s legacy will forever be tied to the clash thesis.

  2. Porlock Junior permalink
    31 December 2008 11:40 am

    A putz, if I may, and because it’s desirable to know these things, is a Yiddish prick. The fine points of distinction versus a schmuck, I leave to those who are native to that culture.

    As to Huntington, it seems his thesis is of great interest, and he’s on my list of authors I must read some day to find out what they actually said. Having performed that experiment with the notorious Guns, Germs, and Steel, I am appalled, if not entirely surprised, by how many experts attack him for saying the exact opposite of what he did say; so I take nothing for granted.


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