Small Wars Journal

Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?”: Is the Clash Still Driving Conflict?

Sat, 06/14/2014 - 12:42am

Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?”: Is the Clash Still Driving Conflict?

Joshua Jordan

Recent events from congressional battles over defense spending, the size of a reduced future defense force and remarks by President Obama to the United States Military class of 2014 that “America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will”[i], have led to great debate on what the Department of Defense must do in order to prepare for future conflict in the face of shrinking resources.  To answer that question the President of the United States develops the National Security Strategy as a vision of America’s role in foreign policy, the latest of which due sometime this summer wherein the President will articulate “The new Strategy will update the vision I provided in 2010 and describe my Administration's national security priorities for the remainder of my term”[ii].  Yet even this key document must rest on some form of theoretical framework in order to understand both the problem and potential solutions in describing future operational environments.  A classic framework proposed shortly after the end of the Cold War was Samuel Huntington’s’ “The Clash of Civilizations”.  As we move forward with discussion and debate on how to situate the United States Military for future potential conflict a key question going unanswered is whether or not the frameworks proposed after the last shift in foreign policy environment are still valid; namely is “The Clash of Civilizations” still a driving force in current and future operational environments?

Huntington’s main thesis rests on the assumption that future conflicts will be between civilizations rather than focused on a specific ideology (e.g. communism vs. capitalism), national (USSR vs. USA) or economically driven (state vs. free market capitalism).  Further these cultural divides will be globally inclusive and not solely based on cultural differences between western civilizations.  Civilizations are defined as “a cultural entity” that is composed of “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species”.[iii]  Civilizations incorporate different ideologies, religious beliefs, geography, and other characteristics that differentiate the civilizations internally, however externally there is a level at which a broad label can be used to define an entire civilization.  Huntington identifies five civilizations and their sub-variants: Western, Latin American, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, African, Japanese, and Confucian.[iv]  However within these broad categories there is room for individuals to have different belief systems yet retain the overall civilization, or cultural, identity (e.g. Palestinian Christians, Spanish Muslims).[v]

The main thesis has six support arguments addressing the shift from the previous variables that led to conflict by showing how these factors feed into conflict with culture/civilization being the collective factor. These arguments cover a shrinking global landscape, deeply embedded cultural differences, modernization challenges to both economic and social structures, anti-Western sentiment, uncompromising cultural attachments, and economic regionalism that rests upon cultural fault lines that are exploited by an anti-Western fervor that subordinates intra-civilization differences by identifying Western civilization as the source of cultural woes.[vi]

The first and second arguments are similar in that the arguments address the global reach of culture and the fact that cultures are in more contact than in times past.   Cultural conflicts have happened since the times of the first neighboring civilizations.[vii]  The modern evolution to civilizational conflict occurred with the Treaty of Westphalia which divided the European landscape along newly formed national lines thereby encapsulating cultures within the context of national boundaries as well as tying in cultural/civilizational identity with a national identity.[viii]  Contact between these new culturally minded nations states became more likely; a shrinking global space and the primacy of the economic nation-state gave world leaders a peace via socio-economic rather than religious context yet did not completely expel cultural differences that ultimately trumped economic self-interest setting the conditions for World War I & II.[ix]  The argument has merit and is semi-persuasive.  A criticism is that the world has been a small place in regards to civilization since the Huns rode across the Asian steppes into Europe in the 5th century.[x]  Though these civilizations cultural are indeed centuries old multinational corporations employing a wide variety of talent across the corporations domain in a small world perhaps deflates the size argument as cultures are developing more commonalities (Lewis and Heckman 2006, 145).[xi]

Huntington’s third argument states that the post war environment led to economic, ideological and secular pressures that steered conflict away from nation state lines towards that of ideological lines.  This economic and ideological pressure saw the triumph of free market capitalism that led to explosive growth for the Confucian and Islamic civilizations leading to a cementing of cultural identities trumping economic and ideological identities resulting in the final argument in favor of cultural conflict due to the concentration of economic power within the sphere of cultural influence (e.g. Middle Eastern oil).[xii]   This economic emergence has led to cultural clashes across the middle eat as seen in the recent “Arab spring” in the countries of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.[xiii]  However, counter to Huntington’s argument of civilization clash this has been more of an internal clash of historical culture versus a culture based on economic and secular realities.  Huntington does address these as “fault lines” within the cultural conflict construct at the micro and macro levels based upon this his interpretation of civilization however the intended clash has come to be seen internally rather than externally.  Though persuasive Huntington is on the wrong side and level of where the clash has occurred.

This contradiction can be seen in the final arguments in support of civilization clash advanced by Huntington: identity & economic regionalism.  In these arguments Huntington simultaneously tries to persuade his audience that the answer to “What are you?”, is immutable and one in which the wrong answer could bring you death.[xiv]  Yet in the same flow Huntington argues that economic regionalism is a growing reality fueling a civilizations realization of their cultural beliefs (nested in economic realities) and the civilizations belief about their place in the world.  This awareness is more likely to cause internal clashes versus externally.  Economic self-interest will trump cultural considerations and lead to nations identifying “common culture” amongst its neighbors and forging alliances based on those considerations.[xv]  However easy to follow Huntington fails to persuade based on these arguments that culture/civilization is the unifying factor in the potential for conflict.

The threat of conflict between civilizations lies along “fault lines” between the civilizations that are exploited in the name of civilization that include: religious, ideological, economic, and demographic.[xvi]  Religious conflict can be both internal and external to civilizations.  Huntington cites the Islam-Christianity conflict that started around the 8th century and continues to this day.  Most important however is Huntington’s introspective look at religious conflict, specifically within Catholicism (Latin vs. Eastern rite) and between Catholicism and Protestantism.  This threat is most recently seem in the clashes in Northern Ireland. Researchers Reilly, Muldoon and Byrne note that violence among young men in Northern Ireland focused around participants’ view of masculinity, that contained sub-themes related to territorial, political, and religious beliefs.[xvii]  However apparent beliefs along religious lines were not the overriding factors contributing to violence but a product of ones view on what it meant to be masculine.[xviii]  This is where the potential clash of civilizations was based on demographic (male), religious (catholic) and economic (poor) confluences.

Civilization used as rallying cry but underlying fundamental cause is more practical (i.e. economic, religious).[xix]  Huntington states United States involvement in the Gulf War as example where Islamic leaders (e.g. the Ayatollah of Iran) used civilization to call for conflict with the United States though the initial impetus for United States involvement was a response to conflict between members of the same civilization.[xx]  Similar conflicts between the Islamic-Judeo Christian fault lines with examples of both the Russian-Turkey conflict in the Caucuses as well as the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina give credence to this use of civilization as a rallying cry for conflict though the actual reasons for the conflict might be related to other variables (i.e. demographics, economics).[xxi]  These cases highlight where the rallying cry was set in civilization terms however upon closer examination religion was the driving factor.

Individuals have the opportunity to identify those cultures where faults exist and stress finding the civilizational commonalities along with desired civilization outcomes. This is seen both as opportunity for and threat against the United States.  As a threat Huntington outlines a military cooperation between the Confucian and Islamic civilizations that see Western (i.e. United States) civilization as the school bully and has forged military and economic links to combat Western primacy on the world stage.[xxii]  This challenges the west to keep up both militarily and economically at a time when defense expenditures in Western civilizations are in decline and the opposite is true for the Confucian-Islamic cooperative.[xxiii]

Civilization clash is more in reference to an anti western hegemony on world leadership.[xxiv]  However these same clashes can be seen as opportunities.  Turkey is a secular country in the Islamic civilization.  Huntington identifies this as a “torn country” along with Mexico that straddles fault lines.[xxv]  The opportunity and challenge for Western civilization is to support efforts for Turkey to navigate the fault lines between the Islamic-Western divide and to advance liberal and western socio-economic values while retaining the Islamic cultural identity.[xxvi]  The opportunity is to use an existing supranational structure based on a non-cultural variable to include Turkey in a forum in which other civilizations openly participate (i.e. European Union).  Turkey’s path towards European Union membership is the physical representation of this theoretical line of reasoning. Turkeys admission into the European Union would see three of Huntington’s civilizations coming together to manage the fault lines from which the clash of civilizations occurs.

The thesis and supporting arguments creates a definition of civilization that consists of many variables to include socio economic, regional, and ethnic identity that will not mesh at the individual and group levels into the global system conflict free and thus on one, few, or all of these levels generate conflict of various magnitudes requiring engagement ranging from diplomatic efforts to military operations.[xxvii]

Using Huntington’s fault line theory as a reference point United States forces should deploy where these fault lines have the potential to erupt into full or guerilla scale conflict.  As identified by Huntington in 1993 and relevant today still are the “torn countries” of Mexico and Turkey.  The United States could benefit greatly from assisting the Mexican government in clearing out the drug cartels that control the northern Mexican states, especially those of Sonora Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon.[xxviii]  This cooperation could lead to decreasing the economic pressures that lead to Mexican citizens illegal United States immigration.[xxix]  Turkeys’ inclusion into the European Union and by extension the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could strengthen ties between the two countries as well as add legitimacy to United States forces operating in Islamic civilization nations.  Additionally the United States could send forces to monitor other clashes such as the Hindu-Islamic clash in the Kashmir region of Pakistan.  However this involvement is beset with pitfalls lest the Western involvement be seen to favor India over Pakistan.[xxx]

The type of enemy that will be faced in these proactive and future deployments in response to civilization conflict will depend on the originator of conflict.[xxxi]  Huntington describes the enemies’ nature in his 2003 book that expands upon this article:  The enemy could be a “state…non-governmental group” or a mixture of both.[xxxii]  Whatever the type of enemy the nature of the conflict will remain “struggles for control over the people…[where] the issue is control of territory”.[xxxiii]  The recent conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan show the complexity of influencing and winning a populace spread over a vast amount of inaccessible territory.  Adding to the complexity is the unknowns involving the host nations allegiance.  Here is where Huntington’s' clash is best viewed and understood: the individual.  What factors will the individual Afghani National Army Soldier place the greatest importance: Nation? Ideology? Religion? Ethnicity? Therein lies the true clash of civilization.


Davis, Paul K. 1999. 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present: The World’s Major Battles and how they Shaped History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friedman, Thomas, and Robert L. Pfaltzgraff. National Strategies and Capabilities for a Changing World: Globalization and National Security. (accessed February 1, 2014).

Frum, Daivd. 2014. Obama at West Point: A Foreign Policy of False Choices. The Atlantic, May 28. (accessed May 28, 2014).

Huntington, Samuel. 1993. The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (Summer): 22-49. 2003. The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Keegan, John.  2000. The First World War. New York, Vintage.

Khalidi, Rashid. 2011. The Arab Spring. The Nation, March 3, (accessed February 1, 2014).

Lewis, Robert E., and Robert J. Heckman. 2006. Talent Management: A Critical Review. Human Resource Management Review 16: 139-54.

“Mexico Drug War Fast Facts.” (accessed February 1, 2014).

Obama, Barrack. 2013. Message to the Congress -- Update on the Whole-of-Government Vision in the President’s National Security Strategy of 2010. The White House, November 29. (accessed May 20, 2014).

Perlez, Jane. 2012. Continuing Buildup, China Boosts Military Spending More Than 11 Percent. New York Times, March 4.

Reilly, Jacqueline, Orla T. Muldoon, and Clare Byrne. 2004. Young Men as Victims and Perpetrators of Violence in Northern Ireland: A Qualitative Analysis. Journal of Social Issues 60, no. 3: 469-84.

Spielvogel, Jackson J. 2012. Western Civilization. 8th ed. Boston: Wadsworth.

United States Department of Defense, Joint Publication 3-0: Joint Operations. Washington D.C.: Joint Doctrine Support Division, August 2011.

United States Joint Forces Command. The JOE 2010 Joint Operating Environment. Norfolk, VA: USJFCOM Public Affairs. February 2010.

End Notes

[i] David Frum, “Obama at West Point: A Foreign Policy of False Choices,” The Atlantic, May 28, 2014, (accessed May 28, 2014).

[ii] Barrack Obama, “Message to the Congress -- Update on the Whole-of-Government Vision in the President’s National Security Strategy of 2010” The White House, November 29, 2013, (accessed May 20, 2014).

[iii] Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (Summer 1993): 24

[iv] Ibid., 25

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” 25-8

[vii] Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization, 8th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), 27-8.

[viii] Ibid., 502.

[ix] John Keegan, The First World War. (New York: Vintage, 2000), 10-9.

[x] Paul K. Davis, 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present: The World’s Major Battles and how they Shaped History. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 87-91.

[xi] Robert E. Lewis, and Robert J. Heckman, “Talent Management: A Critical Review,” Human Resource Management Review 16 (2006): 145.

[xii] Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” 45-7.

[xiii] Rashid Khalidi, “The Arab Spring,” The Nation, March 3, 2011, (accessed February 1, 2014).

[xiv] Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” 27.

[xv] Friedman, Thomas, and Robert L. Pfaltzgraff. National Strategies and Capabilities for a Changing World: Globalization and National Security. (accessed February 1, 2014).

[xvi] Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” 29.

[xvii] Jacqueline Reilly, Orla T. Muldoon, and Clare Byrne. 2004. “Young Men as Victims and Perpetrators of Violence in Northern Ireland: A Qualitative Analysis,” Journal of Social Issues 60, no. 3 (2004): 475-7.

[xviii] Ibid., 480-2.

[xix] Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” 35.

[xx] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 250-251.

[xxi] United States Joint Forces Command, The JOE 2010 Joint Operating Environment (Norfolk, VA: USJFCOM Public Affairs, 2010), 43.

[xxii] Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” 44-5.

[xxiii] Jane Perlez, “Continuing Buildup, China Boosts Military Spending More Than 11 Percent,” New York Times, March 4, 2012, accessed February 1, 2014, Google Scholar; United States Joint Forces Command, The JOE 2010 Joint Operating Environment, 40-1.

[xxiv] Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” 39.

[xxv] Ibid., 42.

[xxvi] Ibid., 42-3

[xxvii] United States Joint Forces Command, The JOE 2010 Joint Operating Environment, 38-9; United States Department of Defense, Joint Publication 3-0: Joint Operations (Washington D.C.: Joint Doctrine Support Division, 2011), I-5.

[xxviii] “Mexico Drug War Fast Facts,”, (accessed February 1, 2014).

[xxix] United States Joint Forces Command, The JOE 2010 Joint Operating Environment, 47-8.

[xxx] Ibid., 45-6

[xxxi] United States Joint Forces Command, The JOE 2010 Joint Operating Environment, 61-2.

[xxxii] Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order, 252.

[xxxiii] Ibid.


About the Author(s)

Major Joshua Jordan is a doctoral candidate in the University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development.  He is currently serving as an instructor/writer for the support operations course, Army Logistics University.  His research areas of interest are engagement, talent management, leadership, and national security strategies.


The author, above, asks if the "Clash" (of civilizations) still drives conflict:

I suggested -- in my original comment below -- that it does not.

What appears to have driven conflict during the Cold War was (1) the Soviet's desire to gain power and influence (via the expansion of its ideas, etc.) and (2) the West's determination, via containment, to deny the Soviets such gains.

What appears to drive conflict today is (a) the West's desire to gain power and influence (via the expansion its ideas, etc.) and (b) Russia, China and Iran's determination to deny, via containment, etc., the West this objective.

It is only INCIDENTAL to these expansionist/containment great power efforts, I suggest, that not so much civilizational but, rather, traditional v. modern conflict occurs.

This because for the Soviets/communists (then) and the United States/the West (now) to expand, both determined that they must cause others to adopt -- and then conform to -- their (distinctly different) version of modernity.

Based on the information provided above, would it be reasonable to suggest that the "operational environment" of the Cold War -- and the "operational environment" of today -- are, in effect, somewhat similar/the same?

(With the roles of the various great powers, of course, being reversed.)

Bill C.

Mon, 06/16/2014 - 12:37pm

What we have today, it appears, is something more akin to (1) great power politics in (2) a reversal of the dynamics of the Cold War.

During the Cold War:

a. It is the Soviets who sought to "redefine" the identity of various states and societies -- in that case -- along communist political, economic and social lines.

b. While the United States -- working with the conservative elements in these states and societies -- sought to preclude, limit, and/or roll back such redefinitions. This, so as to limit the power and influence of the Soviet Union.

With the Cold War over,

a. It became the West who sought to redefine the identity of various states and societies; in our case, along modern western political, economic and social lines.

b. Now it became China, Russia and Iran that, working with the conservative elements within these states and societies, sought to preclude, limit, and/or roll back the redefinition of these country's identity. This, so as to limit the scope of power and influence of the United States.

Thus in both cases referenced above (the Cold War and our current era), it would seem that Mearsheimer's "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics" -- rather than Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" -- might be the better framework for describing, discussing and addressing our current and future operational environments.


Sun, 06/15/2014 - 10:07pm

While I am a big fan of Huntington, this book is far out of date. The ideas in it are behind the times.

There is much to be gained from looking at Social Identity Theory, Inglehart and Welzels' work on values, as well as Schwartz' work on the same. While Huntington had much to offer at one time, he is a good thirty years behind the times.