I am fairly exhausted that this framework gets brought back to life every few years. Yes, it has an exciting historical sweep, but it is conceptually a mess and empirically doesn’t really work very well.
This essay is a re-post of an article I wrote for 1945.com, based on a Twitter thread I wrote in response to a column by Ross Douthat from the New York Times. Lots of other people have criticized Huntington over the years. My concerns below are mostly conceptual – I don’t think Huntington’s civilizations hold up very well – but here is an empirical evaluation of Huntington’s troubles by a friend of mine.
In brief, my concern is that Huntington’s civilizations are just not convincingly aggregated or monolithic enough to be coherent actors. He says in the essay that conflict in the future will occur between civilizations. This means that civilizations acting en bloc will either supplement or displace states as the primary conflict actors in world politics. But this just isn’t convincing, because the divisions inside many of his civilizations are so deep and serious that they cripple his civilizations from acting as coherent agents.
Here are some intra-civilizational wars and conflicts which undercut civilizational agency (i.e., sink Huntington’s concepts of civilizations):
– Russia vs Ukraine in Orthodox civilization
– Rwandan genocide and ‘WWI of Africa’ after Zaire’s fall in African civilization
– Sunni-Shina contestation in the Persian Gulf in Islamic civilization
– Chinese contestation with Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, plus inter-Korean competition in Confucian civilization
In fact, a Confucian civilization so obviously doesn’t work – because there is so much conflict within it – that Huntington doesn’t propose a Confucian civilization, enough though that’s what his framework demands! Instead he kludges: he hives off Japan as its own civilization (?) in order to, unconvincingly, accommodate Sino-Japanese competition, now can now be read as ‘inter-civilizational.’ But even that dodge doesn’t explain China-Taiwan, China-Vietnam (in the South China Sea), S Korea-NK. What a mess.
Here’s that 1945 essay:
In The New York Times recently Ross Douthat suggested that Samuel Huntington’s famous theory of global politics, the clash of civilizations, could help explain the Ukraine War and other contemporary world conflicts. This is a curious choice because academic international relations theory does not much use the clash of civilizations in research or teaching because it is riddled with conceptual and predictive errors.
It does not, in fact, explain the Ukraine War, and it woefully exaggerates the importance and coherence of ‘civilizations’ as conflict actors.
Modern Conflict is Not Always ‘Civilizational’
The most basic problem with the framework is its insistence that conflict has moved away from political, ideological, territorial, and other sources of competition to civilizational clashes.
Huntington defines civilizations via culture, especially religion, in part because he first worked it up in response to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. There the Serb-Croat-Bosnia split overlapped with an Orthodox-Catholic-Islamic division. And the harshness of that war seemed to justify Huntington’s religious pessimism.
Read the rest here.