How Geopolitics Doomed the Clash of Civilizations
Image Credit: flickr/World Economic Forum

How Geopolitics Doomed the Clash of Civilizations


Foreign Affairs has published a new ebook to mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” essay.

I have mixed feelings about the Clash of Civilizations. On the one hand, it was an important essay that has helped frame the debate on the post-Cold War era which reflects on the genius and importance of Huntington himself. On the other hand, the popularity of the essay outside of academia has meant that it has come to completely overshadow Huntington’s more impressive works, like The Solider and the State and Political Order in Changing Societies. It’s a shame, in some sense, that Huntington’s legacy won’t be defined by his best works.

Make no mistake, although Clash of Civilizations has been popular, Huntington’s bold thesis has not proven correct. Back in 2010 Richard Betts argued that three books more than any others have shaped the debate about the post-Cold War era: Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man Standing, and John Mearsheimer’s Tragedy of Great Power Politics. It seems indisputable that Huntington’s has been the least accurate, and will be in the decades to come. 

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No universal ideological challenge has been put forth to challenge liberal democracy, and even the most illiberal states in the world still adopt aspects of liberal democracy like (unfair) elections to enhance their legitimacy. Similarly, while the U.S. has failed to act as an offshore balancer during unipolarity, there are already myriad signs that China’s rise will mark a return to the tragedy of great power politics (Mearsheimer’s updating the book to include a new concluding chapter on China’s rise).

While Huntington’s thesis may have seemed prescient in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, that was an illusion. Al-Qaeda was always more a battle within a civilization than one between them, and the dozen years since 9/11 have made that unmistakably clear. This is not to say that nothing from the “Clash of Civilizations” has come to pass. Recent events in Libya and Syria have demonstrated that the West and the rest often come out on different ends on the question of whether sovereignty is absolute or can be trumped by human rights abuses.

 More notably, Huntington’s acknowledgment that none of the conflicts in the post-Cold War era at the time of his writing had constituted a “full-scale war between civilizations, but each involved some elements of civilization rallying,” has often continued to hold true. Still, the clash of civilization has not dominated world politics in the post-Cold War world and the fault lines between civilizations have not been the battle lines of the era, nor do they appear likely to be in the future.

So why was Huntington’s thesis so off-mark? A number of factors had an impact. For instance, the spread of communicative technology has resulted more in the decentralization of power than in the centralization Huntington foresaw, and upon which a theory of civilization required.  

But one factor more than any other doomed the clash of civilizations: geopolitics.

The old scourge of geopolitics has not been retired to the dustbin of history but rather has remained a central if not the central feature of contemporary international relations and, in many cases, domestic relations. For all the talk of globalization, people’s principal interactions continue to be with people in their own societies as well as neighboring ones. As thinkers like Rousseau understood so well, but which so many liberal philosophers have refused to accept, interaction and interdependence form the basis of conflict or at least the potential for it. That is because people who interact and depend on each other inevitably compete, and as most generally accept, competition of some sort is what usually leads to conflict.

Thus, many of the battle lines in the post-Cold War era have been within societies where different groups were competing for political and economic power. These different groups were sometimes defined by their ethnicity, such as in Rwanda and Bosnia, sometimes by religion, such as in Syria, Nigeria, and Myanmar today, and sometimes by a combination of ethnicity and religion like in Iraq where Sunnis, Shi’as, and Kurds battled for power. Some have been based on ideological or political terms, such as Muslim countries where a battle for political power is ensuing between the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists on the one hand, and fellow Muslims who support monarchy, military rule, or liberal democracy on the other.  Others have been more nakedly about resources, such as the diamond conflicts in Africa. In reality, all are about political and economic power with the actually dividing lines important in determining how intractable the conflicts will be (as Huntington would expect).

Interstate war and competition in the post-Cold War has also been defined by geopolitics. The possible exception one might raise to this is the U.S. interventions across the globe. In the extreme, some may paint these as civilization conflicts between the West and the Islamic world. This ignores that the West has sometimes intervened on behalf of Muslims under threat from non-Muslims, such as in Bosnia, and in other cases the West has almost always teamed up with fellow Muslims in invading Islamic societies. This was true in the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Libya. Indeed, most of the conflicts the U.S. has been involved in have been internal conflicts either before or after American troops arrived.

Elsewhere we see interstate competition often most intense within Huntington’s civilization. For instance, just as Huntington predicted, a regional trading block has more or less taken hold among the Confucian societies of eastern Asia. China has risen partly as a result and has become an extremely attractive commercial partner for many Southeast Asian countries. This has not made these countries any less concerned about China’s potential to abuse its newfound power in ways that disadvantage them. Thus, they have largely been calling for nations from other civilizations—such as the U.S., Russia, India, and Japan— to play a more active role in the region in order to balance against their fellow civilization hegemon.

Similarly, Latin American countries can sometimes unite together in opposition to the U.S. or certain U.S. policies. But this shouldn’t detract from the fact that they remain mired in a series of different competing blocs as expressed through leftist and moderate governments, different international organizations, and good old fashion bilateral competition. Ditto for Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East and even increasingly (at least economically) Europe.  

The continued primacy of geopolitics in the post-Cold War era underscores just how little the essence of international relations changes over time. It’s fashionable and tempting for pundits and serious thinkers alike to proclaim a new epoch has arrived at various intervals in history. Skepticism is always warranted in these cases, especially if these alleged new epochs don’t bear strong resemblances to the past 3,000 years or so. 

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