Courtesy Reuters

The Clash at 20


The origins of “The Clash of Civilizations?” lie in the conjunction of a special scholar and a special time. By the beginning of the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington was already one of the most important social scientists of the second half of the twentieth century, having authored major works in every subfield of political science. The hallmarks of his efforts were big questions, strong answers, independent thought, and clear expression. The end of the Cold War, meanwhile, had ushered in a new era of international relations along with a host of questions about what would drive it. Drawn, as always, to the major practical and theoretical questions of the day, Huntington set himself the task of limning this new world.

The more he thought about it, the more he decided that most existing analyses were heading in the wrong direction. The future was not likely to be an easy run toward democracy, peace, and harmonious convergence, nor was it likely to be a return to the old games of traditional great-power politics or ideological rivalry. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural,” he concluded; “the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.”

Huntington was an intellectual fox rather than a hedgehog. He had worked with many variables and theories over the years, and was open to the idea that any of them might dominate in particular circumstances and that they might interact. In that context, he felt that cultural variables had been sold short, as recent scholarship often assumed that political actors were either homogenous, interchangeable players whose actions were driven by the structure of incentives they faced or distinctive players whose particularities would be sanded off by inexorable modernization. Questions of identity were fundamental to human behavior, he believed, and were likely to become more rather than less relevant in years to come—and civilizations, being the broadest and deepest form of culture, would thus play a crucial role in structuring future global Foreign Affairs—at which point it went viral.

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