Book Review

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

Samuel P. Huntington
Simon and Schuster, 1996, 367 pages


In Clash of Civilizations, the Samuel P. Huntington attempts to create a conceptual framework describing the post-Cold War global situation in terms of potential conflict among nine main cultural groups, namely Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox Christian (i.e. Russia), Buddhist, and Japanese. The book is an expanded version of the arguments presented in his 1993 article in Foreign Affairs.

Throughout the book, the author repeats his mantra of America and the West in "decline", confronted with adversaries it has no hope of reforming or defeating, because conflict will inevitably arise from cultural differences between the West and other societies. The beliefs and cultural norms of these other societies are treated as not only immutable but of equal validity and standing to those of the West. In this, the author reveals that his actual purpose in writing this book is as much to promote multiculturalism as to promote his concept of cultural tectonics.

Although some modern-day conflicts clearly fall across civilizational lines, in general the concept doesn't really work, and the examples he gives throughout the book do not really give credence to his thesis. For example, the supposed east-west divisions in the Ukraine, the patterns of voting that gave the 2000 Olympics to Sydney instead of Beijing, and the German legislation limiting the influx of refugees could all be better explained by many other factors besides cultural differences. The cross-cultural massacres in Lebanon and Yugoslavia could be better explained by the historical propensity of religious and ethnic groups to commit massacres rather than as a conflict of civilizations. The world today is divided along ideological lines as much today as it was during the cold war: what is fundamental Islam if not an ideology?

If people are divided by civilizations, it is because different civilizations automatically promulgate different ideologies. However, because ideologies, unlike civilizations, are infinitely flexible and adaptable, allegiances can change as ideolologies mature and evolve. To explain the world situation, something is needed that has greater explanatory power than a simple remapping of Cold War Manichaeanism onto postmodern multiculturalism. To view the world as an immutable, permanently-divided collection of incompatible cultures is as unnecessarily pessimistic and defeatist as it is unrealistic.

December 4, 2001 Back