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If Not Civilizations, What? Samuel Huntington Responds to His Critics

When people think seriously, they think abstractly; they conjure up simplified pictures of reality called concepts, theories, models, paradigms. Without such intellectual constructs, there is, William James said, only "a bloomin' buzzin' confusion." Intellectual and scientific advance, as Thomas Kuhn showed in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, consists of the displacement of one paradigm, which has become increasingly incapable of explaining new or newly discovered facts, by a new paradigm that accounts for those facts in a more satisfactory fashion. "To be accepted as a paradigm," Kuhn wrote, "a theory must seem better than its competitors, but it need not, and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it can be confronted."

For 40 years students and practitioners of international relations thought and acted in terms of a highly simplified but very useful picture of world affairs, the Cold War paradigm. The world was divided between one group of relatively wealthy and mostly democratic societies, led by the United States, engaged in a pervasive ideological, political, economic, and, at times, military conflict with another group of somewhat poorer, communist societies led by the Soviet Union. Much of this conflict occurred in the Third World outside of these two camps, composed of countries which often were poor, lacked political stability, were recently independent and claimed to be nonaligned. The Cold War paradigm could not account for everything that went on in world politics. There were many anomalies, to use Kuhn's term, and at times the paradigm blinded scholars and statesmen to major developments, such as the Sino-Soviet split. Yet as a simple model of global politics, it accounted for more important phenomena than any of its rivals; it was an indispensable starting point for thinking about international affairs; it came to be almost universally accepted; and it shaped thinking about world politics for two generations.

The dramatic events of the past five years have made that paradigm intellectual history. There is clearly a need for a new model that will help us to order and to understand central developments in world politics. What is the best simple map of the post-Cold War world?


"The Clash of Civilizations?" is an effort to lay out elements of a post-Cold War paradigm. As with any paradigm, there is much the civilization paradigm does not account for, and critics will have no trouble citing events-even important events like Iraq's invasion of Kuwait-that it does not explain and would not have predicted (although it would have predicted the evaporation of the anti-Iraq coalition after March 1991). Yet, as Kuhn demonstrates, anomalous events do not falsify a paradigm. A paradigm is disproved only by the creation of an alternative paradigm that accounts for more crucial facts in equally simple or simpler terms (that is, at a comparable level of intellectual abstraction; a more complex theory can always account for more things than a more parsimonious theory). The debates the civilizational paradigm has generated around the world show that, in some measure, it strikes home; it either accords with reality as people see it or it comes close enough so that people who do not accept it have to attack it.

What groupings of countries will be most important in world affairs and most relevant to understanding and making sense of global politics? Countries no longer belong to the Free World, the communist bloc, or the Third World. Simple two-way divisions of countries into rich and poor or democratic and nondemocratic may help some but not all that much. Global politics are now too complex to be stuffed into two pigeonholes. For reasons outlined in the original article, civilizations are the natural successors to the three worlds of the Cold War. At the macro level world politics are likely to involve conflicts and shifting power balances of states from different civilizations, and at the micro level the most violent, prolonged and dangerous (because of the possibility of escalation) conflicts are likely to be between states and groups from different civilizations. As the article pointed out, this civilization paradigm accounts for many important developments in international affairs in recent years, including the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the wars going on in their former territories, the rise of religious fundamentalism throughout the world, the struggles within Russia, Turkey and Mexico over their identity, the intensity of the trade conflicts between the United States and Japan, the resistance of Islamic states to Western pressure on Iraq and Libya, the efforts of Islamic and Confucian states to acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, China's continuing role as an "outsider" great power, the consolidation of new democratic regimes in some countries and not in others, and the escalating arms race in East Asia.

In the few months since the article was written, the following events have occurred that also fit the civilizational paradigm and might have been predicted from it:

-the continuation and intensification of the fighting among Croats, Muslims and Serbs in the former Yugoslavia;

-the failure of the West to provide meaningful support to the Bosnian Muslims or to denounce Croat atrocities in the same way Serb atrocities were denounced;

-Russia's unwillingness to join other U.N. Security Council members in getting the Serbs in Croatia to make peace with the Croatian government, and the offer of Iran and other Muslim nations to provide 18,000 troops to protect Bosnian Muslims;

-the intensification of the war between Armenians and Azeris, Turkish and Iranian demands that the Armenians surrender their conquests, the deployment of Turkish troops to and Iranian troops across the Azerbaijan border, and Russia's warning that the Iranian action contributes to "escalation of the conflict" and "pushes it to dangerous limits of internationalization";

-the continued fighting in central Asia between Russian troops and Mujaheddin guerrillas;

-the confrontation at the Vienna Human Rights Conference between the West, led by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, denouncing "cultural relativism," and a coalition of Islamic and Confucian states rejecting "Western universalism";

-the refocusing in parallel fashion of Russian and NATO military planners on "the threat from the South";

-the voting, apparently almost entirely along civilizational lines, that gave the 2000 Olympics to Sydney rather than Beijing;

-the sale of missile components from China to Pakistan, the resulting imposition of U.S. sanctions against China, and the confrontation between China and the United States over the alleged shipment of nuclear technology to Iran;

-China's breaking the moratorium and testing a nuclear weapon, despite vigorous U.S. protests, and North Korea's refusal to participate further in talks on its own nuclear weapons program;

-the revelation that the U.S. State Department was following a "dual containment" policy directed at both Iran and Iraq;

-the announcement by the U.S. Defense Department of a new strategy of preparing for two "major regional conflicts," one against North Korea, the other against Iran or Iraq;

-the call by Iran's president for alliances with China and India so that "we can have the last word on international events";

-new German legislation drastically curtailing the admission of refugees;

-the agreement between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk on the disposition of the Black Sea fleet and other issues;

-U.S. bombing of Baghdad, its virtually unanimous support by Western governments, and its condemnation by almost all Muslim governments as another example of the West's "double standard";

-the United States listing Sudan as a terrorist state and the indictment of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and his followers for conspiring "to levy a war of urban terrorism against the United States";

-the improved prospects for the eventual admission of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia into NATO.

Does a "clash of civilizations" perspective account for everything of significance in world affairs during these past few months? Of course not. It could be argued, for instance, that the agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli government on the Gaza Strip and Jericho is a dramatic anomaly to the civilizational paradigm, and in some sense it is. Such an event, however, does not invalidate a civilizational approach: it is historically significant precisely because it is between groups from two different civilizations who have been fighting each other for over four decades. Truces and limited agreements are as much a part of the clashes between civilizations as Soviet-American arms control agreements were part of the Cold War; and while the conflict between Jew and Arab may be circumscribed, it still continues.

Inter-civilizational issues are increasingly replacing inter-superpower issues as the top items on the international agenda. These issues include arms proliferation (particularly of weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them), human rights, and immigration. On these three issues, the West is on one side and most of the other major civilizations are on the other. President Clinton at the United Nations urges intensified efforts to curb nuclear and other unconventional weapons; Islamic and Confucian states plunge ahead in their efforts to acquire them; Russia practices ambivalence. The extent to which countries observe human rights corresponds overwhelmingly with divisions among civilizations: the West and Japan are highly protective of human rights; Latin America, India, Russia, and parts of Africa protect some human rights; China, many other Asian countries, and most Muslim societies are least protective of human rights. Rising immigration from non-Western sources is provoking rising concern in both Europe and America. Other European countries in addition to Germany are tightening their restrictions at the same time that the barriers to movement of people within the European Community are rapidly disappearing. In the United States, massive waves of new immigrants are generating support for new controls, despite the fact that most studies show immigrants to be making a net positive contribution to the American economy.


One function of a paradigm is to highlight what is important (e.g., the potential for escalation in clashes between groups from different civilizations); another is to place familiar phenomena in a new perspective. In this respect, the civilizational paradigm may have implications for the United States. Countries like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia that bestride civilizational fault lines tend to come apart. The unity of the United States has historically rested on the twin bedrocks of European culture and political democracy. These have been essentials of America to which generations of immigrants have assimilated. The essence of the American creed has been equal rights for the individual, and historically immigrant and outcast groups have invoked and thereby reinvigorated the principles of the creed in their struggles for equal treatment in American society. The most notable and successful effort was the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1950s and 1960s. Subsequently, however, the demand shifted from equal rights for individuals to special rights (affirmative action and similar measures) for blacks and other groups. Such claims run directly counter to the underlying principles that have been the basis of American political unity; they reject the idea of a "color-blind" society of equal individuals and instead promote a "color-conscious" society with government-sanctioned privileges for some groups. In a parallel movement, intellectuals and politicians began to push the ideology of "multiculturalism," and to insist on the rewriting of American political, social, and literary history from the viewpoint of non-European groups. At the extreme, this movement tends to elevate obscure leaders of minority groups to a level of importance equal to that of the Founding Fathers. Both the demands for special group rights and for multiculturalism encourage a clash of civilizations within the United States and encourage what Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., terms "the disuniting of America."

The United States is becoming increasingly diverse ethnically and racially. The Census Bureau estimates that by 2050 the American population will be 23 percent Hispanic, 16 percent black and 10 percent Asian-American. In the past the United States has successfully absorbed millions of immigrants from scores of countries because they adapted to the prevailing European culture and enthusiastically embraced the American Creed of liberty, equality, individualism, democracy. Will this pattern continue to prevail as 50 percent of the population becomes Hispanic or nonwhite? Will the new immigrants be assimilated into the hitherto dominant European culture of the United States? If they are not, if the United States becomes truly multicultural and pervaded with an internal clash of civilizations, will it survive as a liberal democracy? The political identity of the United States is rooted in the principles articulated in its founding documents. Will the de-Westernization of the United States, if it occurs, also mean its de-Americanization? If it does and Americans cease to adhere to their liberal democratic and European-rooted political ideology, the United States as we have known it will cease to exist and will follow the other ideologically defined superpower onto the ash heap of history.


A civilizational approach explains much and orders much of the "bloomin' buzzin' confusion" of the post-Cold War world, which is why it has attracted so much attention and generated so much debate around the world. Can any other paradigm do better? If not civilizations, what? The responses in Foreign Affairs to my article did not provide any compelling alternative picture of the world. At best they suggested one pseudo-alternative and one unreal alternative.

The pseudo-alternative is a statist paradigm that constructs a totally irrelevant and artificial opposition between states and civilizations: "Civilizations do not control states," says Fouad Ajami, "states control civilizations." But it is meaningless to talk about states and civilizations in terms of "control." States, of course, try to balance power, but if that is all they did, West European countries would have coalesced with the Soviet Union against the United States in the late 1940s. States respond primarily to perceived threats, and the West European states then saw a political and ideological threat from the East. As my original article argued, civilizations are composed of one or more states, and "Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs." Just as nation states generally belonged to one of three worlds in the Cold War, they also belong to civilizations. With the demise of the three worlds, nation states increasingly define their identity and their interests in civilizational terms, and West European peoples and states now see a cultural threat from the South replacing the ideological threat from the East.

We do not live in a world of countries characterized by the "solitude of states" (to use Ajami's phrase) with no connections between them. Our world is one of overlapping groupings of states brought together in varying degrees by history, culture, religion, language, location and institutions. At the broadest level these groupings are civilizations. To deny their existence is to deny the basic realities of human existence.

The unreal alternative is the one-world paradigm that a universal civilization now exists or is likely to exist in the coming years. Obviously people now have and for millennia have had common characteristics that distinguish humans from other species. These characteristics have always been compatible with the existence of very different cultures. The argument that a universal culture or civilization is now emerging takes various forms, none of which withstands even passing scrutiny.

First, there is the argument that the collapse of Soviet communism means the end of history and the universal victory of liberal democracy throughout the world. This argument suffers from the Single Alternative Fallacy. It is rooted in the Cold War assumption that the only alternative to communism is liberal democracy and that the demise of the first produces the universality of the second. Obviously, however, there are many forms of authoritarianism, nationalism, corporatism and market communism (as in China) that are alive and well in today's world. More significantly, there are all the religious alternatives that lie outside the world that is perceived in terms of secular ideologies. In the modern world, religion is a central, perhaps the central, force that motivates and mobilizes people. It is sheer hubris to think that because Soviet communism has collapsed the West has won the world for all time.

Second, there is the assumption that increased interaction-greater communication and transportation-produces a common culture. In some circumstances this may be the case. But wars occur most frequently between societies with high levels of interaction, and interaction frequently reinforces existing identities and produces resistance, reaction and confrontation.

Third, there is the assumption that modernization and economic development have a homogenizing effect and produce a common modern culture closely resembling that which has existed in the West in this century. Clearly, modern urban, literate, wealthy, industrialized societies do share cultural traits that distinguish them from backward, rural, poor, undeveloped societies. In the contemporary world most modern societies have been Western societies. But modernization does not equal Westernization. Japan, Singapore and Saudi Arabia are modern, prosperous societies but they clearly are non-Western. The presumption of Westerners that other peoples who modernize must become "like us" is a bit of Western arrogance that in itself illustrates the clash of civilizations. To argue that Slovenes and Serbs, Arabs and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, Russians and Tajiks, Tamils and Sinhalese, Tibetans and Chinese, Japanese and Americans all belong to a single Western-defined universal civilization is to fly in the face of reality.

A universal civilization can only be the product of universal power. Roman power created a near-universal civilization within the limited confines of the ancient world. Western power in the form of European colonialism in the nineteenth century and American hegemony in the twentieth century extended Western culture throughout much of the contemporary world. European colonialism is over; American hegemony is receding. The erosion of Western culture follows, as indigenous, historically rooted mores, languages, beliefs and institutions reassert themselves.

Amazingly, Ajami cites India as evidence of the sweeping power of Western modernity. "India," he says, "will not become a Hindu state. The inheritance of Indian secularism will hold." Maybe it will, but certainly the overwhelming trend is away from Nehru's vision of a secular, socialist, Western, parliamentary democracy to a society shaped by Hindu fundamentalism. In India, Ajami goes on to say, "The vast middle class will defend it [secularism], keep the order intact to maintain India's-and its own-place in the modern world of nations." Really? A long New York Times (September 23, 1993) story on this subject begins: "Slowly, gradually, but with the relentlessness of floodwaters, a growing Hindu rage toward India's Muslim minority has been spreading among India's solid middle class Hindus-its merchants and accountants, its lawyers and engineers-creating uncertainty about the future ability of adherents of the two religions to get along." An op-ed piece in the Times (August 3, 1993) by an Indian journalist also highlights the role of the middle class: "The most disturbing development is the increasing number of senior civil servants, intellectuals, and journalists who have begun to talk the language of Hindu fundamentalism, protesting that religious minorities, particularly the Muslims, have pushed them beyond the limits of patience." This author, Khushwant Singh, concludes sadly that while India may retain a secular facade, India "will no longer be the India we have known over the past 47 years" and "the spirit within will be that of militant Hinduism." In India, as in other societies, fundamentalism is on the rise and is largely a middle class phenomenon.

The decline of Western power will be followed, and is beginning to be followed, by the retreat of Western culture. The rapidly increasing economic power of East Asian states will, as Kishore Mahbubani asserted, lead to increasing military power, political influence and cultural assertiveness. A colleague of his has elaborated this warning with respect to human rights:

[E]fforts to promote human rights in Asia must also reckon with the altered distribution of power in the post-Cold War world. . . . Western leverage over East and Southeast Asia has been greatly reduced. . . . There is far less scope for conditionality and sanctions to force compliance with human rights. . . .

For the first time since the Universal Declaration [on Human Rights] was adopted in 1948, countries not thoroughly steeped in the Judeo-Christian and natural law traditions are in the first rank: That unprecedented situation will define the new international politics of human rights. It will also multiply the occasions for conflict. . . .

Economic success has engendered a greater cultural self-confidence. Whatever their differences, East and Southeast Asian countries are increasingly conscious of their own civilizations and tend to locate the sources of their economic success in their own distinctive traditions and institutions. The self-congratulatory, simplistic, and sanctimonious tone of much Western commentary at the end of the Cold War and the current triumphalism of Western values grate on East and Southeast Asians.

Language is, of course, central to culture, and Ajami and Robert Bartley both cite the widespread use of English as evidence for the universality of Western culture (although Ajami's fictional example dates from 1900). Is, however, use of English increasing or decreasing in relation to other languages? In India, Africa and elsewhere, indigenous languages have been replacing those of the colonial rulers. Even as Ajami and Bartley were penning their comments, Newsweek ran an article entitled "English Not Spoken Here Much Anymore" on Chinese replacing English as the lingua franca of Hong Kong.› In a parallel development, Serbs now call their language Serbian, not Serbo-Croatian, and write it in the Cyrillic script of their Russian kinsmen, not in the Western script of their Catholic enemies. At the same time, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have shifted from the Cyrillic script of their former Russian masters to the Western script of their Turkish kinsmen. On the language front, Babelization prevails over universalization and further evidences the rise of civilization identity.


Wherever one turns, the world is at odds with itself. If differences in civilization are not responsible for these conflicts, what is? The critics of the civilization paradigm have not produced a better explanation for what is going on in the world. The civilizational paradigm, in contrast, strikes a responsive chord throughout the world. In Asia, as one U.S. ambassador reported, it is "spreading like wildfire." In Europe, European Community President Jacques Delors explicitly endorsed its argument that "future conflicts will be sparked by cultural factors rather than economics or ideology" and warned, "The West needs to develop a deeper understanding of the religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations, and the way other nations see their interests, to identify what we have in common." Muslims, in turn, have seen "the clash" as providing recognition and, in some degree, legitimation for the distinctiveness of their own civilization and its independence from the West. That civilizations are meaningful entities accords with the way in which people see and experience reality.

History has not ended. The world is not one. Civilizations unite and divide humankind. The forces making for clashes between civilizations can be contained only if they are recognized. In a "world of different civilizations," as my article concluded, each "will have to learn to coexist with the others." What ultimately counts for people is not political ideology or economic interest. Faith and family, blood and belief, are what people identify with and what they will fight and die for. And that is why the clash of civilizations is replacing the Cold War as the central phenomenon of global politics, and why a civilizational paradigm provides, better than any alternative, a useful starting point for understanding and coping with the changes going on in the world.

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