Commentary Magazine

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
by Samuel P. Huntington
Simon & Schuster. 367 pp. $26.00

The end of the cold war and the disintegration of the bipolar world have given rise to a flood of articles and books attempting to forecast the shape of the future. The earliest and best-known of these, by Francis Fukuyama, appeared first as an essay in the National Interest (Summer 1989) and then, expanded in book form, under the title The End of History and the Last Man (1992). Fukuyama adopted a Hegelian view of history as a universal and meaningful process which would end “when mankind had achieved a form of society that satisfied its deepest and most fundamental longings.” This did not mean that life would come to a standstill but that, in Fukuyama’s words, “there would be no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions, because all of the really big questions had been settled.”

First published just as the Communist bloc was beginning to fall apart, Fukuyama’s work exuded unbounded optimism. The victory of the West in the cold war, he contended, spelled the decisive triumph of Western values and “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” These words, too, echoed Hegel, who in his Philosophy of History had asserted that “Europe is absolutely the end of history.”

Although not presented as such, Samuel P. Huntington’s book is a response to Fukuyama. Tempered by five years of experience with post-cold-war international politics—years of ethnic and religious violence—it takes a rather somber view of the future. “The early years of the 21st century,” Huntington predicts, “are likely to see an ongoing resurgence of non-Western power and culture and the clash of peoples of non-Western civilizations with the West and each other.”

The thrust of Huntington’s argument concerns the progress of Westernization. He rejects the notion of universal history: the vision of a world inevitably succumbing to Western values, he argues, rests on superficial impressions gathered from the spread of “fizzy liquids, faded pants, and fatty foods,” or on the adoption of English as the global lingua franca. Neither of these, Huntington claims, has much to do with Westernization in any meaningful sense of the word. To the contrary, the West’s influence in the world is waning, because of growing resistance to its values and the reassertion by non-Westerners of their own cultures.

For Huntington, the basic units of the global chessboard are civilizations. “In the post-cold-war world,” he writes, “the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political or economic. They are cultural.” He divides the world into seven or possibly eight civilizations, each endowed with its own, internally cohesive, culture: Western, Christian Orthodox, Sinic, Hindu, Japanese, Islamic, Latin American, and (with hesitation) African. Except for Islam, each of these has a “core state” which defends and promotes its values.

Like the notion that world history has an “end,” Huntington’s view of history as made up of distinct civilizations also derives ultimately from Hegel, who regarded the progression of human history as occurring in phases, each dominated by a specific culture. The first theorist to translate Hegel’s philosophy of history into a philosophy of politics was Nicholas Danilevsky, a Russian Panslavist who in Russia and Europe (1869-71) saw world history as comprising ten to twelve distinct civilizations or “cultural-historical types,” each self-contained and defined by its religion, arts, politics, and economy. Parting company with Hegel, Danilevsky went on to assail the notion that Western civilization was the yardstick by which to judge world history. In his view, moreover, the ability of one civilization to influence another was minimal.

Danilevsky’s ideas were adopted, usually without credit, by Spengler, Toynbee, and other writers, and have now resurfaced in Huntington. Like Danilevsky, Huntington too believes neither in universal civilization nor in the ability of one civilization genuinely to influence another. Not only are the world’s civilizations not being amalgamated under the influence of Westernization but they are moving in separate directions: “Peoples and countries with similar cultures are coming together. Peoples and cultures with different cultures are coming apart.”



The great merit of this book is to shift discussion of the post-cold-war world from ideology, ethnicity, politics, and economics to culture—and especially to the religious basis of culture, a subject generally ignored in contemporary political science. Huntington is right to warn us against facile generalizations about the world’s becoming one; to point out the resilience of civilizations to foreign influences; and to underscore the ease with which religious values become secularized. I have long been struck by the degree to which, in Russia, Communism’s anti-capitalist ideology replicated the medieval hostility to Catholicism of the Orthodox Church, and by how the same attitude has survived in post-Communist Russia, reformulated now in xenophobic terms.

This having been said, however, I question Huntington’s lack of confidence both in the future of Western civilization and in its ability to influence the rest of the world.

For one thing, resistance to Western ideas in many places around the globe is inspired not so much by the desire to cling to one’s own values as by fear, on the part of indigenous elites, of the social and political consequences of Westernization. When the Communist bureaucrats running China reject the concept of “human rights” as alien to their national culture, they do not mean that Chinese culture calls for oppression but that the slogan threatens their own power and privileges. The same holds true for much of the anti-Westernism in the Islamic world. We are dealing here not so much with cultural values as with vested interests disguised as a defense of cultural values. Whether these vested interests can maintain their status in the face of economic globalization and the spread of communications is an open question.



But I find myself in even more fundamental disagreement with Huntington over the notion of Western civilization itself. In defining its attributes, he stresses the classical legacy of Greece and Rome; Catholicism and Protestantism; the multiplicity of Western languages; the separation of spiritual and secular authority; the rule of law; social pluralism; representative institutions; and individualism. These categories leave out what is most decisive in the rise of the West to world hegemony: namely, private property with its corollaries, political freedom and economic growth. It is these that make Western civilization unique. Any country that wishes to attain prosperity and power in the modern world has no choice but to emulate these Western ways with all their attendant consequences.

Some contemporary economic historians have demonstrated that the unprecedented growth of the Western economy has been due first and foremost to the creation of a juridical base favorable to enterprise, with private property as its centerpiece. As Douglass C. North and Robert P. Thomas put it in The Rise of the Western World (1973):

Efficient economic organization is the key to growth; the development of efficient economic organization in Western Europe accounts for the rise of the West. Efficient organization entails the establishment of institutional arrangements and property rights that create an incentive to channel individual economic effort into activities that bring the private rate of return close to the social rate of return.

If this hypothesis is correct—and the close correlation between the per-capita wealth of countries and the degree to which they guarantee private property and individual freedom suggests that it is—then it follows that economic growth, which is the foundation of prosperity, social stability, and international influence, entails Westernization. Huntington is worried that China’s economic rise may mean that that country and its civilization will supplant the United States and Europe as the world’s leading power and perhaps even succeed in having its language replace English as the international means of communication. The question is, rather: can China accomplish this without adopting Western values? The experience of the Soviet Union would suggest that the answer is no.



At the beginning of his book, Huntington provides maps which graphically depict the shrinking control of the world’s surface by the Western powers since 1920. Indisputably, the West’s physical presence has drastically diminished. But this fact does not necessarily mean a diminution of its cultural influence, which is the real focus of Huntington’s concerns. In fact, the mounting hostility to Western values, for which Huntington offers a great deal of evidence, can be interpreted as proving that Western cultural influence is increasing. One hundred years ago, when Europeans ruled most of the Muslim Middle East, they left local cultures undisturbed and hence met little cultural resistance. Today, even as the West’s political presence has become a thing of the past, its ideas penetrate and threaten; the reassertion of local values would be unnecessary if Western ideas were not upsetting and altering them.

Though he denies it, the political implication of Huntington’s thesis is isolationism: the recommendation that the West in general, and the United States in particular, refrain from conflict with other civilizations as well as involvement in their internal quarrels. His advice for the Western powers is to draw closer together, maintain their strength, and, above all, recognize “that Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world.” On this premise, Huntington retrospectively condemns U.S. intervention against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war. In a world in which the United States has interests scattered around the globe, and the unique capability to stop aggression and subversion, this strikes me as a very risky prescription.

I suspect that the truth lies somewhere between Fukuyama and Huntington: the two books complement each other. Fukuyama seems to me correct in predicting the ultimate triumph of Westernization, but he is oblivious of the immense difficulties which the West will have to overcome—difficulties which Huntington spells out in a very persuasive manner.


About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.