Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
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 interactions. He laid out his argument in a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, turned that into an occasional paper for the Olin Institute of Strategic Studies at Harvard (of which he was director), and from there it evolved into the lead article in the Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs—at which point it went viral.
The “Clash” article struck a nerve because it raised important and uncomfortable subjects in direct and powerful ways. It seemed to speak some obvious truths about differences between human communities that mainstream discussion had ignored or silenced, rudely putting those differences front and center and demanding that they be addressed. In the subsequent hubbub, however, many of the nuances and subtleties of Huntington’s argument got stripped away, as did some of his most important points—namely, that civilizational clashes were a risk rather than a certainty and that they could and should be minimized by the adoption of an appropriately humble and sensitive American foreign policy.
During the 1990s, the article was often attacked, with critics claiming that its intellectual framework obscured rather than clarified global trends and that its vision of civilizations in conflict risked becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. After 9/11, in contrast, the article was often praised, with supporters seeing it as a prescient analysis of the dynamics underlying a “war on terror” that had taken much of the world by surprise. Two decades later, the jury is still hung, with agreement emerging only on its enduring significance.
We believe that readers should make up their own minds about how well it does and doesn’t hold up, so we are delighted to publish this twentieth-anniversary collection devoted to the article and its author. The package includes the original article; a broad range of responses from prominent commentators; Huntington’s reply to his critics; a recent retrospective by Richard Betts on grand theories of the post–Cold War era; eulogies of Huntington from Stephen Peter Rosen, Eliot Cohen, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Henry Rosovsky; and a video of a celebration of Huntington’s career featuring reminiscences from students of his including Cohen, Francis Fukuyama, and Fareed Zakaria.
A good way to measure the power of a theory is to look at the scale and intensity and quality of the debate it provokes; on those grounds, “Clash” is one of the most powerful theoretical contributions in recent generations, and we are proud to have been present at its creation.