What We Get Wrong About the Clash of Civilizations

Few arguments about the shape of the post-Cold War international system have been met with as much passion and debate as the one articulated in Samuel Huntington’s 1996 The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. His core argument was that future conflicts would be shaped by cultural and civilizational differences rather than ideology. It seemed barbaric and out-of-touch during the 1990s, then all too prescient in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Yet until today, no administration has come close to embracing a Huntingtonian view of the world; both the Bush and Obama administrations rejected it, highlighting repeatedly that America was fighting violent extremists, not Islam itself.

Even as he took the oath of office, however, President Donald Trump committed to his campaign promise to explicitly link Islam and terror, using the Republican shibboleth “radical Islamic terrorism” in his inaugural address.[i] Many of the new president’s advisors appear to endorse a Huntingtonian view of the world, an impression confirmed by the administration’s earliest acts, executive orders which seek to reduce Muslim immigration and build a wall on the southern border.

Unfortunately, there is a key reason why prior administrations rejected Huntington’s worldview: it provides a remarkably poor guide to a complex world. Worse still, the way that Trump’s advisors appear to have absorbed Huntington’s work – by accepting his worldview, but not his policy recommendations – points to a particularly dangerous direction for U.S. foreign policy in the next four years.


Huntington and the Clash of Civilizations

Huntington’s argument itself is often oversimplified. After all, even the phrase The Clash of Civilizations is enough to form a rudimentary picture of a world of cultural strife. Yet Huntington was building on a much longer intellectual heritage, drawing from the writings of Toynbee, Bagby, and others. Huntington posited that, with the collapse of ideological struggle at the end of the Cold War, Western-style modernization is, in effect, the only game in town. Yet while Francis Fukuyama confidently predicted that this meant the ‘end of history’ was nigh,[ii] Huntington instead pointed to the growing salience of culture to argue that the wars of the future will be fought between civilizations. Indeed, for Huntington, culture was paramount. As he noted, cultural characteristics cannot be altered as easily as ideology, class, or other factors.[iii]

And while he made a few nods to balance-of-power considerations – he allowed that states may ally across civilizational lines when necessary – Huntington argued that future conflicts will be primarily found in civilizational borderlands and driven by opposition to Western economic and military dominance in the rapidly growing non-West. Many of the factors that he drew upon to build his argument are indisputable: the Western world is disproportionally wealthy, overrepresented in international institutions, and militarily powerful, though its dominance is declining.[iv] Too, his argument that economic modernization does not necessarily result in Western-style liberal democracy is all too apparent to observers of the failed Arab Spring. And there is likely something to his assertion that states which share a cultural background may be more likely to cooperate: similar arguments have been made by political scientists to explain alliances.[v] 

But for all that Huntington’s theory is well grounded in philosophy and history, his empirical evidence is surprisingly weak. As Jeane Kirkpatrick pointed out, most of the bloodiest wars of the twentieth century took place within civilizations rather than between them.[vi] Huntington relied heavily on evidence from the 1990s, particularly conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and the Persian Gulf, arguing that involvement in these conflicts was mostly driven by civilizational “kin-rallying.” Yet these cases tend to be unconvincing. The period since 2001 seems to bear him out more effectively: opposition to the West in the Middle East is certainly growing.[vii] Yet conflict in the Muslim world over the last decade, most notably the Arab Spring, has also been driven by internal factors. Today’s civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen were shaped by the tension between modernization and westernization, and worsened by intracivilizational conflict among Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other regional actors. 

And while Huntington largely dismissed realist views of world politics, the events he cited – most notably resistance to Western global dominance – could as easily be explained as a process of realist balancing by rising powers like China against the global hegemon. Huntington was correct that both Russia and China have attempted to build larger regional alliances, whether ideological, economic, or military. Yet both have been unsuccessful: the states of Central Asia have repeatedly pursued multi-vector foreign policies, seeking ties with Europe, the United States, and China, not a recreation of Soviet-era economic and political ties. Meanwhile, under pressure from China, Asian states have sought closer defense ties with the United States, most notably Vietnam. In both cases, these dynamics suggest less cultural or civilizational ties between states, and more the reaction of small states concerned about a rising regional hegemon.

Many of the worst flaws of Huntington’s argument – oversimplifying complex dynamics and demeaning the role of power politics – are replicated by today’s proponents of his theory. Just as Huntington’s book tortuously attempted to fit the Gulf War into his civilizational paradigm,[viii] overlooking the fact that half the region sided with external actors to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, so today we see arguments which attempt to link all violent actors in the Islamic world as one, from the Muslim Brotherhood, to Al Qaeda, to Hezbollah. In his book Field of Fight, Trump’s new National Security Advisor Michael Flynn makes this argument, presenting fragmentary evidence of occasional opportunistic contact between Hezbollah and al Qaeda as proof that Sunni and Shi’a extremists form a coherent and committed axis of opposition to the United States.[ix] Occam’s razor suggests instead that it is possible for these groups to dislike each other as much as the United States, and to work against the West for independent reasons.


A Huntingtonian Administration?

Despite their flaws, Huntington’s ideas continue to resonate. The ongoing war on terror, the rise of ISIS, and America’s seemingly never-ending military presence in the Middle East all serve to drive the narrative of a war between civilizations. Previous administrations have, however, strongly resisted accepting the deeper themes of Huntington’s work, particularly the idea that modernization does not necessarily lead to democratization. Indeed, perhaps the most insidious idea in Huntington’s work is his belief that there is an inherent contradiction between non-Western cultures and liberal values.[x] The administration of George W. Bush, strongly influenced by neoconservative ideals, and that of Barack Obama, which tended towards liberal internationalism, both rejected this idea in the strongest terms. Yet while any attempt to divine the foreign policy direction of the Trump administration is little more than Kremlinology at this point, there is no denying that both he and his top advisors appear far more comfortable with the idea that non-Western cultures cannot accept liberalism.

Take Michael Flynn, a retired Lieutenant General, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and now Trump’s National Security Advisor. In a 2016 book co-authored with Michael Ledeen, Flynn argued that “We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam.”[xi] Flynn and his co-author paint a remarkably Huntingtonian picture: an anti-Western alliance of Islamic extremists (both Sunni and Shi’a), tied to China, North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela by arms sales, proliferation, and hatred of the United States. Like Huntington, Flynn believes that “Islam’s borders are bloody, and so are its innards.”[xii] But where Huntington used data to show this trend and argued that it is likely a temporary effect of demographic shifts, Flynn suggests that Islamism – by which he means Islamic political thought of any variant – is a violent and totalitarian ideology.

The president’s new Chief Strategist, Stephen Bannon, goes further in arguing that the United States should take an aggressive stance against radical Islam, placing it in the context of historic conflict between civilizations. In one 2014 interview, Bannon noted: “If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers… kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places.”[xiii] Indeed, Bannon’s comments often omit the “radical” modifier, describing Islam itself as a threat darker than fascism and communism.[xiv] Neither Flynn nor Bannon confine their civilizational worldview to the Islamic world. For both, China is viewed as an expansionist threat to the West, particularly in terms of trade.

And like Huntington – whose work on immigration a critic once pithily described as “Patrick Buchanan with footnotes”[xv] - Bannon appears to believe that immigration poses a direct threat to Western identity, no matter how economically successful the immigrants. Bannon has even praised Alexander Dugin, proponent of Eurasianism, a Russian strand of traditionalist, nationalist, far-right political thought.[xvi] Certainly, some in the administration have contradicted these sentiments, most notably James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, but there has been little internal opposition to the flurry of internal executive orders and decisions which appear drawn from this Huntingtonian worldview. In just over seven days, the new administration has sought to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and implemented draconian and potentially illegal new immigration restrictions.


A Warning, Not a Roadmap

Notably, Trump’s team has rarely made an explicit connection to Huntington’s work. Flynn’s book does not cite it, though he has used the phrase in (now deleted) tweets, while Bannon employs the language of Huntington – with frequent allusions to the “Judeo-Christian West” – but does not explicitly credit his ideas. And there is another major difference between Huntington’s work and the Trump administration’s apparent worldview. The original “clash of civilizations” article generated a furor among those who believed that Huntington was advocating this future. Yet as the author himself pointed out, the article title included a rarely noticed question mark.[xvii] Huntington was not advocating civilizational conflict; instead, he feared it, seeking to prevent an overextended United States from making crucial mistakes in the complex post-Cold War world.

Much of Huntington’s book focused on the concrete steps needed to prevent civilizational conflict. While some of these have not aged well – his argument in favor of NATO expansion now seems particularly poorly thought out – his central arguments remain pertinent. In addition to maintaining Western military and economic supremacy, Huntington argued that policymakers must recognize that Western intervention “is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world.”[xviii] Many of the ideas proposed by the new administration fly directly in the face of Huntington’s recommendations: the cancellation of the TPP may push Japan closer to China; Trump’s disastrous quarrel with Mexico undermines Huntington’s admonition to build better ties with Latin America: the intensification of the War on Terror will stir further popular opposition to U.S. intervention in the Middle East; and the choice to agitate on behalf of Taiwan will worsen relations with China.

Understanding these points of divergence does not require acceptance of Huntington’s theory. Indeed, many of Huntington’s ideas are inimical to liberal values, from his distasteful views on immigration and multiculturalism to his argument that the West should seek to hobble the economic development of countries elsewhere.[xix] But it is important to understand these ideas. Trump’s administration appears to bring U.S. foreign policy another step closer to embracing a Huntingtonian view of the world; senior administration members genuinely appear to believe the United States is engaged in an existential civilizational struggle. Yet they also seem unaware of Huntington’s cassandraic warnings against pursuing actions which are more likely to provoke conflict with other states than prevent them. If the administration continues down this path, the results may be grim.



[i] Trump, Donald. “Inaugural Address.” Speech, January 20, 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural-address.

[ii] Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History.” The National Interest, Summer 1989.

[iii] Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993).

[iv] Huntington identifies seven civilizations: Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Slavic-Orthodox, Western, and Latin American. Notably, he argues that neither Russia nor Latin America is Western despite their European heritage.

[v] See, for example, Haas, Mark L. The ideological origins of great power politics: 1789-1989. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.

[vi] Kirkpatrick, Jeane J. “The Modernizing Imperative: Tradition and Change.” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 4 (1993).

[vii] Wike, Richard, Bruce Stokes, and Jacob Poushter. “America’s Global Image.” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. June 23, 2015. http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/06/23/1-americas-global-image/.

[viii] Huntington, Samuel P. The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996: 246-252.

[ix] Flynn, Michael T., and Michael Ledeen. The field of fight: how we can win the global war against radical Islam and its allies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016.

[x] Huntington (1996): 58.

[xi] Flynn (2016):8.

[xii] Huntington (1996): 258.

[xiii] Feder, J. Lester. “This is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World.” Buzzfeed News, November 16, 2016. https://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/this-is-how-steve-bannon-sees-the-entire-world.

[xiv] In a January 2016 radio interview, Bannon commented: “This is in 1938. This is when Europe’s looking down the barrel of fascism – the rise of Mussolini in Italy, Stalin and the Russians and the communist Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union. And obviously Hitler and the Nazis. I mean you’re looking at fascism, you’re looking at communism. And to say that – what so blows me away is the timing of it. You could look in 1938 and say “Look it’s pretty dark here in Europe right now, but there’s something actually much darker. And that is Islam.” See “Breitbart News Daily.” January 6, 2016. https://soundcloud.com/breitbart/breitbart-news-daily-dr-thomas-williams-january-6-2016?in=breitbart/sets/breitbart-news-daily-january-6.

[xv] Wolfe, Alan. “Native Son: Samuel Huntington Defends the Homeland.” Foreign Affairs 83, no. 3 (2004).

[xvi] It is, however, interesting to note that neither Flynn nor Bannon are as friendly towards Russia as recent media coverage implies. Both interpret Russia as a potential ally in the fight against jihadism – though Flynn doubts Russia can make a substantive contribution here – but not as a longer-term ally or indeed a member of the West. In this, Huntington’s portrayal of Russia as both the core of its own civilization and a state torn between joining the West and reasserting its own Slavic identity again seems prescient.

[xvii] Huntington, Samuel P. “If Not Civilizations, What? Samuel Huntington Responds to his Critics.” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 5 (1993).  

[xviii] Huntington (1996): 312.

[xix] Huntington’s views on immigration are laid out more explicitly in Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Emma Ashford reviews the thesis of Samuel Huntington’s 1996 The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. She also looks at some of the responses it has received, both positive and negative. She finds that Huntington’s thesis, while rough in itself, is apt to be simplified still further by policymakers. Above all, she urges us to remember that Huntington did not mean to champion the West within a clash of civilizations; he hoped, rather, to avert any such clash in the first place. Huntington viewed Western intervention as potentially destabilizing and apt to precipitate a clash of civilizations, by no means necessary, that he sought to avoid. We simplify his message at our own peril.

Response Essays

  • Paul Musgrave finds in clash of civilizations theory little more than an unseemly fantasy. Why, he asks, are we still talking about this? Empirically, the supporting evidence is weak. The world is becoming more peaceful, not more violent, over time. And Huntington’s theoretical framework hasn’t been the starting point for significant research breakthroughs. Rather, it’s more commonly used as target practice in teaching students how to recognize weak arguments. In a sense, however, we are stuck with the clash of civilizations, because it is a politically popular idea, and because some version of it seems to inform an a growing share of American foreign policy. We must take care, Musgrave agrees, that its description of civilizational conflict does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • The Trump administration is not precisely Huntingtonian, says Alina Polyakova, and the differences matter more than one may appreciate at first. Stephen Bannon has described the key conflict in the world today as the one between traditionalist nationalism and secular, modernizing globalism. Yet that’s a conflict taking place within the West, not across Huntington’s civilizational lines. Intriguingly, Huntington cautioned that if Russia ever became ascendant as a champion of tradition and nationalism, its interests would fail to align with ours, and in that case Russia would make an inappropriate ally, even for a conservative United States. Polyakova finds this an apt warning for our own time.

  • Zack Cooper looks at Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and asks: Where’s Asia in all of this? He notes that Huntington did have an answer. Asia contains many different civilizations in the Huntingtonian paradigm. It therefore makes for a natural site of conflict. U.S. administrations have repeatedly tried to focus their foreign policy on Asia, only to be detoured by events in the Middle East. But it mischaracterizes Huntington’s work to imagine that conflicts in the Middle East were the necessary upshot of his theories.