Clash of Civilizations

Clash of Civilizations


Clash of Civilizations: Challenging Samuel Huntington’s Thesis

In this article, I discuss Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations Theory. I review his arguments, as well as discuss the empirical findings by other scholars that have tested The Clash of Civilizations theory. As we shall see, the Clash of Civilizations theory does not hold up to empirical evidence.


The impact of culture and identity on interstate conflict has been highly written about by scholars in the field of international relations (Carment and James, 1995; Henderson, 1997, 1998, 2004; Henderson and Tucker, 2001). But no theory on culture has received more attention than Samuel Huntington’s (1993) famous “Clash of Civilizations” theory (Chiozza, 2002) which “has become the centerpiece of scholarly discourse on the impact of cultural factors on international conflict” (Henderson and Tucker, 2001, 318). In fact, Huntington’s book version of the clash of civilizations theory (1996) entitled “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” not only ranks amongst “the most influential recent books on international relations” (Russett, Oneal, and Cox, 2000, 584), but has also held the attention of many international relations scholars who have written and tested the COC thesis (Chiozza, 2002; Fox, 2001; Hansen, 2000; Henderson, 2004; Henderson and Tucker, 2001; Hussien, 2001; Matlock, Jr., 1999; Rubenstein & Crocker, 1994; Russett, Oneal and Cox, 2000; Russett & Oneal, 2000; Senghass, 1998). In addition, the book has also established itself on “fertile ground in Washington” (Hansen, 1999, 345).

According to Samuel Huntington in 1996, “[w]orld [p]olitics is entering a new phase” (22) where we are noticing a new paradigm in international politics towards a “civilization-based world order” which stresses categorizations of nations based on culture; states of the same culture will more likely “cooperate” with each other than with states of different “civilizations” (20). Huntington (1996) suggests “that culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world” (20) (Russett, Oneal, and Cox, 2000, 584). According to Huntington (1993b), culture is so important that it is something that people “will fight and die for” (194).


In his article The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington (1993) defines civilization as “a cultural entity…[in which] [v]illages, regions, ethnic groups, nationalities, religious groups, all have distinct cultures at different levels of cultural heterogeneity” (23-24). He says that although numerous villages within a country may be different, for example, they nonetheless share a common national identity. A civilization is therefore “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of culture people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species” (24).

Huntington (1993) argues that the post-Cold War world is made up of eight major civilizations: Confucian, Hindu, Islamic, Japanese, Latin American, Sinic, Slavic-Orthodox, Western, “and possibly African civilization” (25). Scholars take issue with such categorizations, citing them as simplistic and highly problematic (Chiozza, 2002; Russett, Oneal, and Cox, 2000). Russett, Oneal, and Cox (2000) suggest that Huntington’s classifications seem highly “arbitrary” (588), as Huntington does not clearly define the attributes of what defines a state under a particular civilization. Henderson and Tucker (2001) cite other “inconsistencies” with the categorizations of different civilizations laid out by Huntington (1996). For example, Huntington (1996) “is ambivalent as to whether there is an African civilization although he begrudgingly includes it in his list of major civilizations” (325). Furthermore, Huntington fails to label Judaism as its own civilization (Henderson & Tucker, 2001, 325).

Huntington (1993) expands his argument by suggesting that religion will be the “most important” component distinguishing one civilization from another. According to Huntington (1993), religion is taking the place of the nation state in terms of identity. Citizens are looking more to religion in the face of globalization and modernization. Huntington (1993) says that “[a]s people define their identity in ethnic and religious terms, they are likely to see an “us” versus “them” relation existing between themselves and people of different ethnicity or religion…Differences in culture and religion create differences over policy issues, ranging from human rights to immigration to trade and commerce to the environment” (29).

Senghass (1998) argues that the main flaw in the clash of civilizations thesis is that Huntington (1996) views culture as “constant” and unchanging. While Huntington (1996) focuses on different historical causes of conflict, he continues to maintain an underlying point of “civilizations as not adaptable and changeable over centuries” (129). Senghass (1998) represents Huntington’s view of the steadiness of culture by saying:

“Deep down, they [cultures] remain constant, and they tend to process external influences so as to guarantee continuity. The ahistorical assumptions concerning culture, especially about deep culture or the soul of culture, produce a view of variable events as something always predestined by the deep structure of individual civilization…A lack of proper analysis of culture thus develops into a predilection for culturalistic argumentation” (129).

By focusing primarily on a static base culture, one is missing the importance of examining the “individual” culture of a particular state or group of people. Huntington’s (1996) classification of culture, by arguing for the “comprehensiveness” and “lumping of distinct cultures under a broad classification of civilizations” (Matlock, Jr., 1999), misses the essential point of recognizing and placing importance on the individual differences between civilizations themselves (Senghass, 1998). Matlock, Jr. (1999) argues that by accepting Huntington’s (1996) categorization of civilizations only at the “the broadest level” (436), one is actually unable to recognize other characteristics of civilizations that may be common across many cultures. Furthermore, by classifying a group of religiously similar countries into one civilization, Huntington (1996) mistakes ethnic attributes of actions as religious. By placing all Muslim countries under one “Islamic” civilization, Huntington (1996) is essentially “assuming that all Muslims, for example, are part of a vast ethnic group whose primordial values lead them inevitably to persecute heretics, veil women, and establish theocratic regimes” (Rubenstein & Crocker, 1994, 118)

In reference to the different civilizations, Huntington (1993) strongly suggests that the most prominent clash of civilizations will occur between the Western and the Islamic civilizations. Huntington (1993) argues that the conflict between the “West” and Islam is not new; it has been occurring for over 1300 years. He cites the conquest of the Moors, the Crusades, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, conflicts between Israel and Arab states, France’s war with Algeria, the Persian Gulf War and the conflicts between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria as some examples of conflict between the Western and Islamic civilizations (33). While the emphasis is primarily on Islam and the West, Huntington (1993) also points out that Muslims are involved in conflicts with other civilizations in Sudan, Bosnia, Russia, and India. This leads Huntington (1993) to suggest Islam itself is the problem for the large amounts of violence (Senghass, 1998), arguing that “Islam has bloody borders” (35), with Muslims themselves having an “enthusiasm for war and readiness to use violence” (128).

However, Henderson and Tucker (2001) argue that Huntington (1996) incorrectly suggests that Islamic civilizations are different than Western civilizations of democracy, and that Islam is unable to accept ideals of the West (332). They say that Islam and democracy are not naturally separate from one another, and that it is possible for Islamic countries to become democratic (332). Citing the effectiveness of the joint democratic peace proposition, Henderson and Tucker (2001) argue that if Islamic countries become democratic, then the amount of conflict between “Islamic states and Western democracies would diminish significantly” (332). And interestingly, with the Arab Spring, we saw Muslims protest Western backed authoritarian regimes for democracy and human rights.

Empirical Studies on the Clash of Civilizations

Several empirical studies have been conducted to test the clash of civilizations theory proposed by Huntington (1993, 1996). Among the first quantitative tests to specifically examine the clash of civilizations theory was conducted by Russett, Oneal, and Cox (2000). Using the Militarized Interstate Dispute (MID) data from the Correlates of War, Russett, Oneal, and Cox (2000) focus on conflict between two relevant dyads for all interstate conflict that occurred from 1950-1992. This timeframe is important because while a large focus of Huntington’s (1993, 1996) thesis is related to post-Cold War conflict (Huntington, 2000), Huntington (1993, 1996) also mentions intercivilizational conflicts that occurred prior to the Cold War (Oneal & Russett, 2000). Russett, Oneal, and Cox (2000) used two primary independent variables in relation to militarized disputes. The first independent variable measured is whether a pair of conflicting dyads in a given year were from within the same civilization or not. Furthermore, they tested for geographical proximity. Russett, Oneal, and Cox (2000) included both “realist” and “liberal” control variables in their empirical study. Among other realist control variables (besides contiguity) was the relative power of the pair of dyads, along with the measurement of alliances between dyads. They also included “liberal” control variables such as joint democracy, along with a control for interdependence (Russett, Oneal, & Cox, 2000).

Russett, Oneal, & Cox (2000) found that “differences in civilization tell us little about the likelihood that two states will become involved in military conflict” (Russett, Oneal, & Cox, 2000, 602). Their analysis showed no sign that disputes or conflicts of force were more common among different civilizations, thus disproving the clash of civilizations theory (1993, 1996). In fact, according to their findings, four out of the eight civilizations examined showed an increase in conflict from within their own civilizations than with other civilizations. Furthermore, disputes containing the Western civilization and every other civilization were also no more likely to occur. Moreover, they found no support for Huntington’s (1996) theory that conflicts between civilizations will increase following the end of the Cold War. They found that “realist” predictors such as geographical proximity, relative capabilities and alliances were statistically significant and positively associated with the onset of MIDs (Russett, Oneal, & Cox, 2000). Russett, Oneal, & Cox (2000) found no evidence that intercivilizational dyads were more likely to fight one another, regardless of contiguity between the different civilizational dyads. Examining “liberal” predictors, Russett, Oneal, & Cox (2000) found that joint democracies “were the most peaceful type of dyad” and thus less likely to cause militarized disputes (595).

Similar to Russett, Oneal, and Cox (2000), Henderson and Tucker (2001) also examined Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory. Two main differences existed between Henderson and Tucker’s (2001) study of the clash of civilizations from the test conducted by Russett, Oneal, and Cox’s (2000). First, Henderson and Tucker (2001) specifically included only observations that resulted in the onset of war, whereas Russett, Oneal, and Cox (2000) included in their dataset militarized disputes (Russett, Oneal, & Cox, 2000). Second of all, Henderson and Tucker’s (2001) time period of study ranged from 1816-1992. When controlling for factors such as contiguity, regime type, and military capabilities, Henderson and Tucker (2001) also found no significant relationship between intercivilization dyads and an increase in the likelihood of war.

Recognizing that previous quantitative tests on the clash of civilizations were limited to mostly Pre-Cold War and Cold War data, Chiozza (2002) retested Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis with data from the Kosimo militarized dispute dataset which contained observations of military disputes as late as the year 1997. Chiozza (2002) used a similar dependent variable of dispute/absence of dispute for a pair of dyads, considering 3,142 dyad years (720-721). While also controlling for contiguity, regime type, the balance of military capabilities, Chiozza’s (2002) study confirmed previous findings that “intercivilizational dyads are not more likely to find themselves embroiled in international conflict, not even in the post Cold War period, when civilizational conflict dynamics should be more prominent” (730). In fact, Chiozza (2002) found that dyads within the same civilization were generally more likely to fight one another than dyads categorized from different civilizations” (730).


The Clash of Civilizations theory has been one of the most controversial in the field of international relations in the past two decades. While some still point to the clash of civilizations to explain international relations, as we see, the Clash of Civilizations theory is not supported by the empirical evidence. Thus, we should look at other theories and explanations to help us understand international politics and international conflict.


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