The Grim Fantasia of a Civilizational War

Emma Ashford lays out Samuel Huntington’s work, its flaws, and its relevance to the current moment. But a puzzle remains. Ashford shows that, despite having been repeatedly debunked, fact-checked, and picked apart, the clash of civilizations and cognate ideas remain more influential than ever. Put another way, “Clash” is the thesis that just won’t die. Given that Clash is bad history and worse social science, why are we still talking about it?

The longevity of Huntington’s thesis becomes more explicable when we treat it not as scholarship aimed at skeptics but as a sermon preached to the faithful. The creed that Huntington and his audience share holds that civilizations exist as unchanging cultural organisms, that the rise of other regions threatens Western civilization, and that a successful Western response requires purity at home and separation from the rest. These are not factual assertions—they are unfalsifiable axioms. Trying to “fact-check” Huntington’s more specific claims is useful but shouldn’t lead us to miss the larger point of his project.

Despite a passing panegyric to “multiculturality” (pp. 318-21), Clash of Civilizations is a cry to preserve an exclusive vision of “Western civilization,” not to explain world politics.[i] Whereas Ashford finds Huntington’s myriad bigotries to be “distasteful,” they are not deviations from a generally sound approach—rather, they sit at the heart of the book’s appeal. Huntington’s civilizational paradigm complements his nativism, his hostility to social change, and his profound disinterest in economics and politics. As long as a constituency that subscribes to its axioms can be found, Clash-style logic will survive, no matter how costly or dangerous its prescriptions may be.


Neither Respected Nor Respectable

Not a few members of the public seem to believe Clash of Civilizations (and the “Clash” thesis itself) distills the insights of many scholars into a rigorous treatment, and that the book (and Huntington himself) stands in high esteem among academics (see also). Nothing could be farther from the truth. Hardly any historian or political scientist has found the book’s core thesis—that civilizational heritage, instead of economic, political, or security-driven competition, will shape 21st century politics—to be a useful starting point for a research program. Most articles that take the work seriously do so to demonstrate its weaknesses.[ii]

True, the book (and the 1993 Foreign Affairs article) continue to appear on college syllabi. Almost universally, however, they are assigned to teach students how to tear this paper-thin argument apart. Consider Huntington’s operationalization of the concept of a “civilization” as being relatively immutable. The reality is that civilizations change profoundly over time. In 1750, defining the “West” in terms of its political culture would have led Huntington to conclude that competitive monarchies, the marriage of church and state, and a balance between aristocracy and bourgeois defined the West, not secularism, democracy, and egalitarianism.

Moreover, as Ashford notes, the book’s empirical record has proven weak. Even though Huntington mocks those who believe that the post-Cold War world will be relatively peaceful and describes instead the “chaos” model as more likely, the years since Clash appeared have been among the most peaceful in history. Even the recent uptick in the global military death rate since the eruption of ISIS, Boko Haram, and other groups has not changed this plain fact. The central prediction of the Clash hypothesis—that there will be more conflict along civilizational lines—does not correspond to reality.


A War Without Foundations

The lack of empirical support for the theory’s predictions should not be surprising. Despite promising to elaborate a theory about how differences will lead to competition among seven (or is it eight?) civilizations,[iii] Huntington never explains why a shift from the intense, totalizing rivalry of the Cold War will lead to violent conflict. The answer seems to lie in the idea that the West’s enchantment with its universal values will lead it to keep intervening in the rest of the world, and that this will provoke conflict—at the extreme, a Third World War.

Make no mistake: Clash is all about conflict. In the book’s most bizarre passage [pp. 312-316], Huntington argues that a Sino-American war (in the far-flung year of 2010!) could break out from a U.S. intervention to defend Vietnam from Chinese aggression. This local conflict quickly becomes a bellum omnium contra omnes, leading to a worst case scenario in which (to recount only a few highlights):

  • “the Hispanic-dominated states of the southwestern United States … attempt to opt out on the model of New England in the War of 1812”
  • Algeria launches a nuclear strike against Marseilles
  • Croatia and Serbia jointly invade Bosnia (??) where NATO has secretly deployed nuclear IRBMs (????) and consequently Greece and Bulgaria invade Turkey (?????)
  • In the war’s aftermath, India seeks to “attempt to reshape the world along Hindu lines” while the discrediting of the WASP establishment in the United States brings “Hispanic leaders to power buttressed by the promise of extensive Marshall Plan-type aid from the booming Latin American countries” and Africa “disgorges hordes of socially mobilized people to prey on the remains” of Europe.

Huntington disingenuously appears to distance himself from his own scenario: “If this scenario seems a wildly implausible fantasy to the reader, that is all to the good.” But he immediately asserts that his scenario is actually the most plausible: “Let us hope that no other scenarios of global civilizational war have greater plausibility.” In a jarring shift, he then returns to his academic tone to argue that, because the root of any such war would involve disputes between core states over peripheral states within other civilizations and spiral because of fears over control of raw materials (especially oil), therefore core states should abstain from intervening in other civilizations (the “abstention rule”) and pursue joint mediation whenever possible to avoid conflict.

Most readers seem to have focused on the relatively sober analysis of Huntington’s proposed conflict-avoidance and dispute-resolution mechanisms. But that hardly seems to be the point of the passage. For Huntington, the real tragedy in this war is not that millions (or maybe billions) of people will die, but that Hispanics will win the U.S. presidency and Africans will move into Paris. (I challenge anyone to re-read this passage and disagree.) In the hands of a less sophisticated writer, this scenario would appear to be a Camp of the Saints–esque fantasia of a race war.[iv] In Huntington’s prose, it appears to be merely a careful thought experiment—until we unpack it.


Huntington’s View of the West and the Rest: Separate and Unequal

The fear that conflicts over identity will ultimately lead to war fits with Huntington’s anti-rationalist view of human nature. As Huntington asserts (p. 97), “People do not live by reason alone. They cannot calculate and act rationally in pursuit of their self-interest until they define their self.” Religions, among other identities, help orient relations between “a superior in-group and a different and inferior out-group.” Huntington goes to some lengths to show how these factors operate in Islamic and Sinic (Chinese) civilizations as they define themselves against the West, but he curiously never admits that, by his own logic, the West must be doing the same.

Huntington is not ignorant of this implication of his argument. The entire point of Clash of Civilizations is to persuade Americans (and therefore Westerners) of how to reaffirm their superiority but avoid clumsy and risky entanglements with lower orders. Anything less, Huntington argues, threatens world peace. Consequently, Huntington argues, “The preservation of the United States and the West requires the renewal of Western identity.” Renewal against what? Huntington is equally clear: multiculturalism at home and universalism abroad.

The Clash of Civilizations, then, endorses a literally segregated world. It arrives at this conclusion not from deduction but by construction. As such, its empirical success is irrelevant to its attractiveness. Its function is to supply arguments against those who believe any combination of the following: that individuals (or social groups) matter most, that positive-sum cooperation is possible over the long term, and that greater integration makes societies richer, safer, and healthier.

By coincidence or design, these are the issues on which Donald Trump and his most prominent advisors agree with Huntington and disagree with both traditional Republican and Democratic foreign-policy thinking. The emerging “Trump doctrine” of abstaining from providing global public goods (like security and trade) and cutting “deals” with great powers over issues like Ukraine’s sovereignty look like the abstention rule and the mediation rule in action.[v] Certainly domestic audiences in the United States and in other great powers will find a closed world attractive. This is especially true for  second-tier great powers, who will find the prospect of retreating U.S. power will give them far more influence in their near abroad. As Ashford notes, the great risk is that Huntington’s thesis may prove a self-fulfilling prophecy.



[i] All references are to (Huntington 1996) unless otherwise specified.

[ii] .Rosecrance 1998; Aysha 2003; Senghaas 1998; Henderson 2005; Norris, & Inglehart 2009; Marks, & Huntington 2000; Fox 2005. One exception is Charron, who sees some evidence for greater inter-civilizational clashes, although this mainly seems to be driven by West-Islamic conflicts which may not fit the “civilizational” argument (e.g., the U.S. invasion of Iraq): Charron 2010.

[iii] Fox (pp. 421-3) describes the numerous problems in keeping Huntington’s definitions of civilizations straight and the complications introduced by minority groups (Fox 2002).

[iv] In a survey of right-wing extremist fiction, the scholar George Michael finds that Huntington’s scenario echoes this 1973 French novel about an invasion of Europe by the global poor, abetted by the forces of multiculturalism and a liberal pope from Latin America (although this one, ironically, is named Benedict XVI). Michael, 2009: 152-153.

[v] The great discordant note here is the line pushed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others on China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Seas, although it remains to be seen if this is a bargaining ploy or a serious policy statement.



Aysha, E.E.-D., 2003, Samuel Huntington and the Geopolitics of American Identity: The Function of Foreign Policy in America’s Domestic Clash of Civilizations, International Studies Perspectives, 4(2), pp. 113-32.

Charron, N., 2010, Deja Vu All Over Again: A Post-Cold War Empirical Analysis Of Samuel Huntingtons Clash of civilizations theory, Cooperation and Conflict, 45(1), pp. 107-27.

Fox, J., 2002, Ethnic Minorities And The Clash Of Civilizations: A Quantitative Analysis Of Huntington’s Thesis, British Journal Of Political Science, 32(03), pp. 415-34.

Fox, J., 2005, Paradigm Lost: Huntington’s Unfulfilled Clash of Civilizations Prediction into the 21st Century, International Politics, 42(4), pp. 428-57.

Henderson, E.A., 2005, Not Letting Evidence Get In The Way Of Assumptions: Testing The Clash Of Civilizations Thesis With More Recent Data, International Politics, 42(4), pp. 458-69.

Huntington, S.P., 1996, The Clash Of Civilizations And The Remaking Of World Order, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Marks, R. 2000, Journal of World History, 11(1), pp. 101-4.

Michael, George. 2009, Blueprints and Fantasies: A Review and Analysis of Extremist Fiction, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33, pp. 149-170.

Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. 2009, Islamic Culture and Democracy: Testing the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ Thesis, in M Sasaki (ed), New Frontiers in Comparative Sociology, Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, pp. 221-49.

Rosecrance, R., 1998, American Political Science Review, 92(4), pp. 978-80.

Senghaas, D., 1998, A Clash of Civilizations. An Idee Fixe?, Journal of Peace Research, 35(1), pp. 127-32.


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.