The Clash of Civilizations?

An Illiberal International? Or a World of State Power?

Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory, as Paul Musgrave reminds us, is not a well respected academic theory. The fact that none of my co-contributors here chose to actually defend Huntington’s theory is an excellent indicator of how serious the flaws in his argument are. I’m grateful to all the contributors for their thoughtful responses to my essay, particularly for highlighting the daylight between some stances that the Trump administration has taken – notably on Russia and Asia – and Huntington’s book.

It’s also true – as Alina Polyakova notes – that it is probably premature to impute a coherent Trump Doctrine from the administration’s chaotic first few weeks in power. Indeed, while I cited the writings of Trump’s new National Security Advisor Michael Flynn in my initial essay, he has already departed after the shortest tenure of any National Security Advisor in history. While his replacement, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, is far closer to the mainstream on these issues, new exposés in the media highlight that another senior Trump advisor,  Sebastian Gorka, appears to share similar views to Flynn and Bannon.  Meanwhile other top jobs remain unfilled, and some of Trump’s existing appointments seem increasingly to differ from him on key issues, notably Mattis and Tillerson.

Yet I would argue that even in this few short weeks in office, the new administration has taken steps on staffing and issued executive orders which imply that President Trump will bear a strong resemblance to the opinions of candidate Trump. Dissenting cabinet members thus far appear to have had little influence on policy, while the Breitbart faction, most notably Steve Bannon, appears ascendant.

And while we can all agree that Huntington doesn’t present a sound academic thesis, I believe it is still a good first cut at understanding this administration’s incipient worldview. If, as Musgrave argues, Huntington is effectively preaching to the nationalist, nativist choir, the choir is now well-positioned to play a role in policy formation.

A key theme that emerges across all the response essays are the areas where the new administration diverges from Huntington, raising the question of whether other global visions may be a more accurate representation of the Trump Doctrine. Both Polyakova and Musgrave raise the tensions between liberalism, multiculturalism, and traditionalism in this context, with the former arguing that “the great struggle facing the world [according to the Trump administration] is first and foremost an intra-civilizational struggle… between the stabilizing forces of traditionalists… and the chaotic forces of modern Western liberalism.”

Nowhere is this more evident than the Trump administration’s apparent embrace of Putin’s Russia. Where Huntington argued that a traditionalist Russia and a liberal West would conflict, the new administration appears keen to embrace Russia as an ally in the fight against terror. Rather than a clash of civilizations, therefore, perhaps the new administration’s approach can be better explained as part of a rising tide of nationalist, traditionalist movements across the world, a type of “illiberal international.”

Yet there are hints that Trump’s advisors view Russia less as an ally and more a partner of convenience. As Polyakova herself notes, Bannon has been alternately critical and praising of Putin’s government in his public remarks. Under pressure over Russian involvement in the election, Trump’s own stance towards Russia has become steadily more negative since his inauguration. And this traditionalist theory also seems to break down in regions outside Europe, in particular the Middle East. The growing numbers of personnel within the Trump administration who appear to consider Islam itself a threat to the United States – as Vox outlines here – implies that they are not advancing ideological ideals so much as cultural ones.  

Asia offers another challenge to the idea that Trump’s advisors are guided by a civilizational view of the world. As Zack Cooper notes, both the Obama administration and the Bush administration attempted to conduct a pivot to the rising Asia-Pacific region, a shift driven by realist concerns about great power politics. Perhaps the Trump administration’s actions might be better explained by a classic, balance-of-power view of the world, rather than a civilizational clash.

But if Trump’s foreign policy is being driven by realpolitik, he is doing a remarkably poor impression of Bismarck. Trump has taken a massively inconsistent approach to U.S. allies in the region, such as his alternating praise and castigation of Japan. He has taken adversarial stances towards friendly nations like Australia for no apparent reason, and inexplicably questioned stabilizing policies like the One China policy. And while Cooper rightly points out that U.S. leaders seeking an Asia pivot have often been pulled into the Middle East against their will, Trump and his advisors seem determined to prioritize low-threat actors like ISIS over great power politics.

Ultimately, it is no surprise that there are inconsistencies between Huntington and Trump’s foreign policy approach; after all, Huntington’s book was published two decades ago, when Japan was a rising economic powerhouse, Russia was democratic and impoverished, and most Americans were unaware that al Qaeda existed.  Huntington’s vision was even somewhat internally contradictory, arguing that the West was defined by liberal values, but advocating nativist policies that were themselves profoundly illiberal.

But while the incoming administration’s worldview is not entirely consistent with any theory of international relations or approach to grand strategy, I believe that so far Huntington’s nativist, civilizational worldview comes closest. Only time will tell for sure.

The Clash of Asian Civilizations?

Response Essays
February 16, 2017

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.

Emma Ashford, Paul Musgrave, and Alina Polyakova have written important critiques of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations – exploring its many theoretical, empirical, and ethical weaknesses. Ashford and Musgrave worry that some in the new administration might embrace Huntington’s thesis and thereby draw the United States deeper into military and ideological conflicts in the Middle East. Polyakova warns against those that might see Huntingon’s logic as an argument for embracing Russia, despite the threat it poses to U.S. interests and values. These are serious concerns, some of which Michael Hirsh has also explored in an article entitled that warned: “The Clash of Civilizations is Back.”

This essay builds upon those critiques by arguing that Huntington’s theory, if taken seriously, should imply a U.S. focus not on the Middle East, but on Asia. After all, Huntington believed that conflict was most likely to emerge between civilizations, and the greatest confluence of civilizations (as Huntington defined them) occurs in Asia. Thus I focus not on whether Huntington provides a useful guide for policymakers, but on whether supporters of the Clash of Civilizations have overlooked its implications for security risks in Asia.


The West vs. the Rest?

The phrase “clash of civilizations” first emerged in a 1990 Bernard Lewis article entitled, “The Roots of Muslim Rage: Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified.” When Huntington borrowed this phrase for his 1993 Foreign Affairs article and 1996 book, he expanded on Lewis’s discussion of the conflict between the “West” and what he termed an “Islamic civilization.”[1] Huntington argued that “The central axis of world politics in the future is likely to be, in Kishore Mahbubani’s phrase, the conflict between ‘the West and the Rest.’”[2]

In his 1993 article, Huntington suggested, “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations… The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”[3] Huntington separated civilizations by their cultural identity, which he described as including “common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people.”[4] Huntington then identified up to nine separate civilizations across the globe.

Although many of Huntington’s readers have focused on the clash between “Western” and “Islamic” civilizations, his underlying theory suggests that conflict might be more likely in Asia than the Middle East. After all, Asia includes seven of Huntington’s nine civilizations, whereas the Middle East was described as largely united under an Islamic civilization.[5] In Asia, however, Huntington saw multiple civilizations locked in competition, including the Western civilization (in Australia), Islamic civilization (in Indonesia), Confucian/Sinic civilization (in China), Hindu civilization (in India), Buddhist civilization (in Thailand), Japanese civilization (in Japan), and Slavic-Orthodox civilization (in Russia). Numerous countries in Asia also exhibit aspects of multiple civilizations and therefore represent “cleft” countries, according to Huntington.

If one follows Huntington’s theory to its logical end, then one might expect a far-reaching clash of civilizations to occur in Asia. Emma Ashford concludes that “Trump’s administration appears to bring U.S. foreign policy another step closer to embracing a Huntingtonian view of the world.” If Ashford is right, might the Trump administration be forced to refocus on Asia?


The Return of History in Asia

The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations both began their tenures with dreams of turning U.S. attention to the Asia-Pacific region. The Bush administration started with senior leaders determined to focus on great power competition, particularly the rise of China. As Nina Silove has recently documented, U.S. defense officials launched a Defense Strategy Review that was intended to initiate a “long-term shift in focus” toward Asia.[6] Yet the events of September 11, 2001 forced the Bush administration to reorient its strategy. The subsequent U.S. engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere distracted the Bush administration from its original focus on Asia.

The Obama administration also sought to focus on Asia. While seeking to draw down U.S. combat forces in the Middle East, Obama stated that the United States had “made a deliberate and strategic decision” to turn its “attention to the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific region.”[7] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the coming years as “America’s Pacific Century.”[8] Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell argued that history would “be largely written in the Asia Pacific,” but that Asia “had not been accorded a policy prominence commensurate with its true importance.”[9] Yet the Obama administration was also eventually pulled back toward the Middle East.

These experiences suggest that although the two previous administrations largely rejected Samuel Huntington’s premise of conflict with Islam, they could not escape underlying tensions in the Middle East. Might the reverse happen in the Trump administration? Could the tensions that Huntington described in Asia force the Trump administration to turn its gaze west?

Some early administration officials appeared to embrace Huntington’s thesis and see a civilizational struggle emerging. For example, in a book focused on “radical Islam,” recently departed National Security Advisor Michael Flynn wrote (with Michael Ledeen), “I don’t believe all cultures are morally equivalent, and I think the West, and especially America, is far more civilized, far more ethical and moral, than the system our main enemies want to impose on us.”[10] Yet, as the Bush and Obama administrations learned, U.S. global responsibilities can quickly force leaders to reallocate time, attention, and resources. Although some may want to focus on Huntington’s expected clash between “Western” and “Islamic” civilizations, others in the administration might be pulled back toward Asia. After all, Asia is home to a larger set of neighboring civilizations and the tensions that come along with those interactions.[11]

It is important that critics discuss the theoretical, empirical, and ethical issues with Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. But those that embrace his work should beware not only the clash of civilizations in the Middle East, but also the return of history in Asia.


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

[2] Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993), 41.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Ibid., 24.

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

[6] Nina Silove, “The Pivot before the Pivot: U.S. Strategy to Preserve the Power Balance in Asia,” International Security, vol. 40. no. 4. (Spring 2016): 55.

[7] Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama to the Australian Parliament” (speech, Canberra, November 17, 2011).

[8] Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011.

[9] Kurt M. Campbell, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia (New York, 2016), p. 4.

[10] Michael T. Flynn and Michael Ledeen, Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War against Radical Islam and Its Allies (New York: Griffin, 2017).

[11] For a discussion of some of the major risks to Asian security and prosperity, see Michael R. Auslin, The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

Huntington’s Prescient Warning

Response Essays
February 13, 2017

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.

In her lead essay, Emma Ashford proposes the provocative hypothesis that President Trump’s closest advisors, including National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Senior Counselor Stephen Bannon, and perhaps Trump himself, appear to have embraced a “Huntingtonian view of the world.” Huntington’s thesis, Ashford points out, is often boiled down to an oversimplified notion that the inimical relationship between Western liberalism and non-Western civilizations will drive future conflict in the world. “The central axis of world politics in the future is likely to be…the conflict between ‘the West against the Rest,’” wrote Huntington in his 1993 Foreign Affairs essay. The Islamic civilization, according to Huntington, is likely to pose the greatest existential challenge to the West, leading to major global struggle in which countries will eventually have to choose sides: join the West or compete with the West. Ashford rightly stresses this version of Huntington’s theory is a caricature of what is actually a more complex (though flawed) vision of 21st century conflict. Ashford’s key point, however, is that it is exactly this caricaturist version of foreign policy that key members of the Administration appear to have adopted.

If we assume, for the sake of a thought experiment, that Ashford’s hypothesis is true, then it could help explain one of the most puzzling foreign policy ideas of the new administration: the desire to build a closer relationship with Russia based on the allegedly shared goal of fighting Islamic terrorism and ISIS in the Middle East. But while it may be tempting to look for a clear expression of the administration’s worldview, it seems premature to impute a theory of international relations onto a nascent administration that has nominated key Cabinet officials with strikingly divergent backgrounds and policy views and has yet to fill key foreign policy positions, articulate a coherent strategy, or – beyond a couple initial Executive Orders – translate campaign rhetoric into actual policy decisions.

To be sure, multiple senior officials and the President have identified the battle against “Islamic terrorism” as the top national security priority. But a closer look at Bannon’s public statements reveals a different vision of the dividing lines between “us” and “them” than that proposed by Huntington. Moreover, Huntington himself had a rather different, more skeptical view of Russia, which should serve as a warning to those in the Administration seeking a closer partnership with Putin.


The West Versus the Rest?

Ashford paints Flynn and Bannon as having this clichéd Huntingtonian vision of the world: Western liberalism versus radical Islamism. However, a closer look at Bannon’s few public statements gives reason for doubt. The most extensive and often cited public statement was a 2014 conference speech at the Vatican, which Ashford also refers to. In that speech and interview, Bannon outlined his view of future conflict and the lines of alliances. He says that world is at the “very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” but the nature of the conflict he describes is not between the West and Islam – it is far bigger than that. Rather, the key wedge according to Bannon is the division between traditionalists and the modern secularist West. When asked if the greatest threat to Judeo-Christian civilization is secularism or the Muslim world, Bannon’s answer is secularism – a tenet of the liberal international order many so-called Huntingtonians would view as a defining characteristic of the West.

Bannon does not even refer to Islam until prompted by the questioner at the very end. And then, his response is vague: one “should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam,” he says. Throughout that speech and interview, Bannon paints a vision of the world in which traditionalist forces of nationalism and Judeo-Christian values must unite against rotten modern Western institutions: unbridled capitalism, global elites, and centralized government. Bannon appears to see a modern Western civilization, based on liberal democratic principles, as a civilization in crisis and lacking an organizing principle. Thus, the great struggle facing the world is first and foremost an intra-civilizational struggle (to use Huntington’s parlance) between the stabilizing forces of traditionalists (such as Putin and European nationalists like Marine Le Pen) and the chaotic forces of modern Western liberalism – economic, cultural, and political. The conflict between the West and radical Islam – the clash of civilizations per Huntington – seems secondary to this internal struggle of restorative traditionalism.

There are other differences. Whereas Huntington saw nation states inevitably becoming subordinate to the broader, emerging civilizational conflict, Bannon has said that he would want to reassert “strong countries and strong nationalist movements.” In 2013, Bannon reportedly likened himself to Lenin, telling the Daily Beast that Lenin “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” In this process of creative destruction, a hapless modern state beholden to elite interests, globalization, and multilateral organizations, would ostensibly be replaced by a strong nation state, beholden to the people.

We should, of course, take Bannon’s statements with a grain of salt: most of his public comments date back prior to his involvement with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and may not accurately the reflect the views of the President or other close advisors. And while many critics have sought to draw a direct line between Putin and Bannon, in his public remarks, Bannon has been both critical and full of praise of Putin: calling Putin a kleptocrat and an imperialist but also favorably acknowledging Putin’s vision of traditionalism and nationalism.


Heeding Huntington’s Warnings

Rather than speculating what the overarching vision of the administration might be, it may be more productive to think about what specific policy decisions it is likely to face and what the implications of such policy decisions would be. One consistently expressed desire by the Trump Administration, just like its predecessors, has been to seek improved relations with Russia. And this is where Huntington’s policy prescriptions continue to be useful and prescient. Writing in 1993, Huntington predicted that if Russia were to take a traditionalist nationalist path, it would have far different goals than those of the United States and the West. It would be impossible, wrote Huntington, for a Western democrat to have an intellectual debate with a Russian traditionalist because their interests would be in direct opposition to each other. A traditionalist Russia, in other words, cannot be an ally to the West as long as the West continues to be defined by democratic values and principles of self-determination and equality. And of course, under Putin, Russia has taken this exact path toward illiberalism, authoritarianism, revanchist imperialism, and nationalism.

Indeed, Putin’s Russia seeks to undermine Western interests around the world. Putin may talk the talk of “national sovereignty,” but in practice he has flagrantly violated the national sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors by invading Georgia and Ukraine and interfering more obliquely in the internal affairs of other neighbors. In the Middle East, where the administration may seek to engage Russia as a partner against ISIS, Russia has acted not to destroy ISIS but to bolster Syria’s Assad while largely ignoring ISIS. Russia has also supported the radical Islamic Republic of Iran, which advocates enduring hostility to the West, as well as Death to America and Death to Israel.

While it may be tempting to see Putin’s revival of so-called “traditionalist values” in Russia, many analysts view these as little more than a charade used to justify Russia’s military interventions and rally nationalist sentiment at home that distracts from the privation and economic malaise inherent in Putin’s Russia. Putin’s consolidation of power at home and revanchism abroad has taken place at the expense of the Russian people – the Russian economy is stagnant, Russians are leaving the country by the thousands for the West, and Russian journalists and others who criticize the regime often meet a brutal fate. It is something of a stretch to therefore embrace such a corrupt and cynical ruler as a defender of Judeo-Christian values or a Western ally against Islamist radicalism.

Thus, before praising Putin as a traditionalist, policymakers in the new administration would be wise to read Huntington’s prescient warning: as long as the United States sees itself as belonging to the Western civilization, and Russia remains on its current path, our interests and values will remain inimical to each other.

The Grim Fantasia of a Civilizational War

Response Essays
February 8, 2017

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.

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.


What We Get Wrong About the Clash of Civilizations

Lead Essay
February 6, 2017

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.

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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

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