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'The Clash of Civilizations?' at Thirty

Samuel Huntington’s 1993 essay was a prophetic warning to all would-be nation-builders.

(Free Wind 2014/Shutterstock)

In April, the American public received two assessments of what went wrong with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan twenty months earlier. The White House blamed the previous administration for the fiasco. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, John F. Sopko, was more circumspect, identifying systemic factors that were concisely captured in a single statement: "the tragic events of August 2021 have their roots in decisions that were made by policymakers, diplomats, aid officials, and military leaders decades earlier."

Depending on your opinion of the forty-third or forty-fourth presidents, the number of decades may be one or two. The truer answer is three.


In 1989, Francis Fukuyama asked whether the world was witnessing the End of History; in 1992, he answered in the affirmative. Fukuyama contended that the collapse of the Soviet Union had ratified liberal democracy as an ideal that "could not be improved upon." The End of History thesis provided a philosophical justification for Western triumphalism and seemingly validated Western civilization as a “universal civilization.”

Four years later, and thirty years ago, in 1993 Samuel Huntington instead asked whether the world was poised for a Clash of Civilizations; in 1996, he, too, answered in the affirmative. Huntington contended the basis for conflict would shift from ideological to civilizational. The Clash of Civilizations thesis warned the West was poised for a decline and its hubristic assertions of a “universal civilization” were risking confrontation with an ascendant Sinic civilization and a bitterly adversarial Islamic civilization.

Two questions emerge in this summer’s thirtieth anniversary of Huntington’s essay. Would the past three decades of American foreign affairs have differed if decision-makers had adopted Huntington's worldview rather than Fukuyama’s? And does his thesis remain relevant today?

The End of History inspired American leaders and thinkers to issue a succession of audacious foreign policy pronouncements, from "a new world order," "the unipolar moment," "the indispensable nation," to "the global war on terrorism," and "ending tyranny in our world." Meanwhile, Huntington foresaw an "old world order." The central actors in Huntington’s worldview were not the relatively young democracies emerging from the Cold War but rather centuries-old civilizations, the summations of shared histories, cultures, and religions. Instead of multilateral institutions uniting the globe, Huntington saw boundaries—"fault lines"—that would demarcate the next era of conflict.

Therefore, Huntington’s future was a multipolar one, civilizationally speaking. Huntington acknowledged the West’s supremacy in the last decade of the 20th century but concurrently argued the once-dominant civilization was in decline. Meanwhile, civilizations once subordinate to the West—the Sinic in East Asia and the Islamic in North Africa and Southwest Asia—were defiantly rejecting the premise that modernization required Westernization. In turn, Western decline and Sinic ascendancy exposed the notion of indispensability as speciousness.


The United States and Western institutions may have cultivated globalization, but it was China that proved indispensable by becoming the world’s “factory floor.” American self-regard resulted in the shattering of the Middle East in 2003 and the destabilization of the global economy in 2008, while China proceeded to establish its own regional institutions and negotiated the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Embarking on a global war on terrorism galvanized global resistance to America, and the American invasion of Iraq enraged disaffected Muslims already incensed by Westernization and modernization. The Afghan Republic fell to the Taliban within days, royal absolutism survived the Arab Spring, and "spin dictatorships" have thrived beneath a thin veneer of democracy. Tyranny persists, and will do so regardless of the era or the civilizational circumstances.

Had American leaders adopted a Huntingtonian prism, they would have recognized the provocation of stationing forces in the holy cities of Islam, the futility of peacekeeping along the Western-Orthodox fault line in the Balkans, the impracticality of regime change in the Middle East, the delusion of expecting liberalization in China, and their own naivete in the face of historical Russian security prerogatives. By the end of the Obama administration, American power had been reduced to declaring pastel "red lines," inaction in response to "little green men," practicing “hashtag diplomacy,” and “leading from behind.”

Undoubtedly, the past thirty years could have been different.

History has affirmed Huntington’s thesis. The United States and China have indeed become global rivals, each espousing its respective governing system as superior to the other’s and worthy of imitation. The Sinic and Islamic civilizations have aligned in the form of the alliance between China and Iran. Nevertheless, the civilization cycle may be nearing its conclusion. The pertinent questions are when and how it will conclude.

Huntington’s greatest fear entailed America’s continued insistence that the West constituted a “universal civilization,” one to be emulated, or if need be, compelled. Such hubris would leave the West isolated—a “West versus the Rest.” This fear has been realized in the form of the Chinese-Iranian-Russian alignment in opposition to the U.S. Should this configuration become entrenched, the multi-sided clash of civilization will devolve into a geo-economic duel between democratic capitalism and authoritarian mercantilism.

The impetus to decouple the American and Chinese economies marks the beginning. Its global scale is evident in the divisions between the West and the Rest regarding the imposition of sanctions on Russia. In the near term, its persistence severely complicates the rebuilding of the global supply chains undone by the pandemic. America’s implementation of a high-technology industrial policy and China’s attempts to de-dollarize the economy signifies the next phase. An industrial policy may be domestically popular, but they are rarely successful, and it runs the risk of antagonizing American allies. De-dollarization, however, even if incremental, would potentially harm a United States already burdened with a debilitating debt-to-GDP ratio and teetering entitlement programs.

Accordingly, one last civilizational gambit could diminish these risks.

Huntington perceptively noted that Russia is a "torn" country, oscillating between its Eurasian origins and Western aspirations. In the immediacy of the Cold War’s end, early post-Soviet Russian leaders sought deeper integration with the West for both economic and security reasons, of which China factored partly in the latter. After 9/11, Russia signaled its readiness to actively partner with United States in confronting Islamic extremism.

Russia has always feared encirclement and, sharing the Eurasian continent, China and Russia should not be allies. The alignment is a product of coinciding interests, not values. By 2050, Russia will be demographically encircled by an assertive China to its west, and an Islam to its south, with which it has a long bloody history. (A “Eurabia” to its West would complete the encirclement; little wonder Russia has been supporting anti-immigration parties in the West.)

After the death of the Soviet Union and the rebirth of Russia, American decision-makers cognizant of prevailing civilizational circumstances should have seized the opportunity to cultivate a Western-Orthodox alignment to counter the emergent China-Islamic coalition. Instead, Western leaders tantalized by the End of History drove Russia away, but the path to détente with Russia runs through Kiev.

Russia is a reluctant junior partner to China, and before it lapses into complete subservience the West should move expeditiously to end the war in Ukraine—before China does—and to exploit every possible fissure between the two powers. Interdependence did not save a multipolar Europe in 1914, but segregated blocs did make for a convenient and effective division of labor. Each superpower policed its own sphere and acted diligently to prevent minor crises from escalating into major war.

The conceit of Western triumphalism blinded America to the clash of civilizations underway. Thirty years later, those who respect history and human nature can only lament the folly. Revisiting Huntington thirty years late is a step toward repair.