Can Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ model explain trends in foreign affairs after the 9-11 attack?

(C) Kapok Tree Diplomacy. Feb 2011. All rights reserved. Jeff Dwiggins.

The conduct of international relations post 9-11 has certainly been dramatically shaped by the US. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, in the former as a pre-emptive attack to remove WMD and the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein, and in the latter to hunt down al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists and eliminate the training bases that harbored these non-state actors. In both cases, massive reconstruction projects have been undertaken to prevent Iraq and Afghanistan from becoming failed states and help them adopt political and economic reforms of a Western orientation.

But these U.S. interventions are not the only factor explaining the conduct of IR after 9-11. Paul Diehl notes that the demand for peace operations and subsequent escalation in third party interventions rose dramatically following the Cold War due to “superpower retrenchment in providing aid to other states,” an explosion of failed states and civil wars that spawned out of the power vacuum, an increased advocacy for democracy and free markets, greater international concern for human rights, and globalization (52-55).

Bercovitch and Jackson add that many of these intrastate conflicts are characterized by one or more of the following features: spillover into regional states, a flux of refugees (Sierra Leone), humanitarian catastrophes (Rwanda), ethnic and tribal battles over political power, cultural and identity issues, corrupt political regimes, resource scarcity, pervasive poverty and serious human rights violations (3-5). The result has been interventions into places like Somalia, Rwanda, Angola, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Haiti, Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo (Bercovitch & Jackson 107). Many of these developed into robust peacebuilding operations.

Huntington seems to ignore many of these other factors in his efforts to painstakingly categorize the entire planet into civilization and cultural definitions based on “language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people” (24). The world is becoming a smaller place; regionalism seems to be increasing; Islamic fundamentalism has gained a stronger voice with non-state actors and terrorists, and globalization has exacted profound changes in IR. I can agree with him there. I cannot agree that culture has replaced political ideology and systems in importance.

Dr. Telhami explains, “American elites have come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the advocacy of democracy is connected with American national security” (22). While that statement may be disputed, the use of force in these states has elicited strong response from the members of the international community. It has been perceived as “East vs. West” or “Muslim vs. Christian” by many observers, especially by Islamist groups in the Middle East. But this is a sweeping generalization and distorted label that erroneously separates the cultural issue from its political and economic context

The article by McFaul is a good example of why we can’t eliminate the political context. His article concentrates on regime transitions in the “postcommunist” world, not the “cultural” world or the “civilizations-at-each-other’s-throats” world. He details the struggles for power in 28 states that “abandoned communism,” an ideology not a cultural trait (212). His delineation of these power struggles is one of hard-liners, soft-liners and moderates not Christians, Muslims and Catholics, while citing “imbalance of power” as the main issue underlying non-cooperative regime changes.

McFaul gives more credence to territorial border disputes and “proximity to the West” as factors driving conflict than he does ethnicity and culture (241-242). Certainly, ethnicity and culture can be cited as powerful variables in many of these power struggles (Bosnia, Kosovo), but ideology, political power plays, and the presence or lack of democratic principles have to be in the equation too.

To reduce the entire argument to purely political variables would be a mistake as well. Ottaway talks about the “rise of the Shia” in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and the specters of Kurdish nationalism in Iraq and Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world (3). These are very real factors that play into the conduct of IR. But these cultural factors seem to be embedded in a web of political and economic factors that are just as important. Speaking of Jordan and Yemen, Schwedler says, “the [political] processes aren’t going forward, so in both countries, with an important difference, you are seeing the emergence of Islamic-leftist cooperation” (6). In Palestine, the lack of political and economic reforms has given rise to Hamas as a major political player (Ottaway et al. 17).

Bernard Lewis makes the case that while “issues of national identity are becoming more significant,” autocratic governments, lack of economic development, high illiteracy rates, subjugation of women, and the proliferation of media sources have played major roles in fueling the “rise of radicals,” Iranian power, and Shiite ascendancy (2009). Statements like these lend credence to the idea that the problem is not strictly cultural or Islamic fundamentalism, but the democratic deficit of truly representative government, civil rights and economic and political reforms. As Lewis points out, there is genuine disagreement over the diagnosis of what ills the Middle East – the West or not enough of the West – that plays out in limitations on what the West can do to help the Middle East and how that help is perceived by the population.

Ibrahim adds, “awful as it was, the [Iraqi] war may have some unintended consequences that are positive,” citing increased pushback against autocratic rule as one of them, and acknowledging that support of dictators, even tacit support, provides fuel for extremists (10-11). Again, this goes to the argument that good governance may be able to transcend cultural differences. Ibrahmi notes that Islamists perform many social services, detest political corruption and have “substantial constituencies” (11).Thus, including them in political representation would seem reasonable; not including them would seem to be a recipe for conflict.

Many autocratic rulers in the Middle East chide the West over various issues like the Israel/Palestine issue to deflect attention over their own lack of political and economic reforms, not merely to take a cultural swipe at the West. Egypt is proof positive that is becoming harder and harder to do as a means of disguising your own faults and illegitimacy. Even Huntington admits that “conflicts and violence will also occur between states and groups within the same civilization” (38).

Certainly, there is a balancing process taking place geopolitically with the rise of China and some regional organizations. There is more economic competition these days. Resource scarcity might up the ante in that regard. But this is not entirely or even mostly driven by culture. Look at Turkey and Japan. Turkey may be somewhat torn ethnically and religiously, but it is even more torn politically as to how to treat its domestic issues and enhance its economic production. The Kurds are a big issue. No doubt about it. But the challenge is to include them somehow politically and economically, not the differences between Turkish and Kurdish culture.

Huntington’s argument that Japan, for example, is in the West but not of the West refutes his own argument regarding the divisiveness of culture. The Islamic-Confucian partnership does not appear to be as strong in reality as it is in Huntington’s mind. I do agree that nuclear proliferation is a major problem. Iran does seem to be driven by religious ideology purposely seeking to confront the West, but I think this is an exception and not the rule. If a major conflict erupts with Iran, this would not prove the basis of Huntington’s thesis. Rather, this would be another attack by small group of crazy, religious fanatics (9-11) outside the norms of what the average Iranian wants for his or her life.

Huntington’s generalizations and cultural assertions about the inferiority of Islam do not seem very flattering to its adherents. There are Muslims all over the world, not just in the Middle East. They’re in Europe, Asia, America … everywhere. It is only in this minority, radical strain of extreme Islam that we find the violent and narrow struggle for political power at the expense of peace and eradicating poverty and societal suffering. Unfortunately, many of the Muslim countries have been subjected to the most autocratic, freedom squelching regimes devoid of good governance and civil liberties on the planet. That is the real IR challenge – reforming governance, not reforming cultural identities. This is what his made humanitarian interventions and post-conflict reconstruction (PCR) so difficult along with security and, yes, the cultural issues as well. Having said that, there are many other factors besides culture and civilization that can explain the conduct of IR interventions into failed or fragile states post 9-11. Culture is but one of those factors.


Bercovitch, J., & Jackson, R. (2009). Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century | Principles, Methods, and Approaches. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: The University of Michigan Press.

Diehl, P. F. (2008). Peace Operations. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Huntington, S. P. (1993). The Clash of Civilizations. Foreign Affairs , 72 (3), 22-49. Web. Academic Search Premier. Retrieved from Norwich University Library.

Lewis, B. (2009). Free at Last? Foreign Affairs , 88 (2), 77-88. Web. Academic Search Premier. Retrieved from Norwich University Library.

McFaul, M. (2002). The Fourth Wave of Democracy and Dictatorships: Noncooperative Transitions in the Postcommunist World. World Politics , 54 (2), 212-244. Web. JSTOR. Retrieved at Norwich University Library.

Ottaway, M. S., Schwedler, J., Telhami, S., & Ibrahim, S. E. (April 22, 2005). Democracy: Rising Tide or Mirage? Middle East Policy Council (pp. 1-27). Washington D.C.: Blackwell Publishing Limited.

The posts, views and opinions expressed in this post and on this site are completely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of the Navy (DON) or any of the Armed Forces.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: