Skip to main content
The Conflict of Civilizations
Jan 1, 1994

World politics is entering a new phase, and commentators have not been slow to express their visions of what it will be–the ‘end of history’, the return of traditional rivalries between nation states, and the decline of the nation state from the conflicting pull of tribalism or globalism , among others.

One argument is that the fundamental source of conflict in this new phase will not be political or economic ideology. The great divisions among humankind and the dominant source of conflict will be civilizational or cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful agents in world politics, but the principal conflicts will occur between groups of nations and peoples of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.

A civilization is the broadest notion of identity people have of themselves, short of that which distinguishes humans from other species. It is composed both of objective elements, such as religion, language, customs, institutions, and of subjective elements, subjective notions of belonging.

Civilizations are meaningful entities, and while the lines between them are seldom sharp, they are nonetheless real. Civilizations are dynamic: they rise and fall; they divide and merge.

Civilizational identity will be increasingly important in the future, and the world will be shaped in large measure by the interactions among seven or eight major civilizations. These include the Islamic, Western, Japanese, Confucian, Hindu, Slav-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African, civilizations. The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another.

Why will this be the case?

Civilizations are differentiated from each other by history, language, customs and tradition, and, most important, religion. Differences do not necessarily mean conflict, and conflict does not necessarily mean violence. Over centuries, however, differences among civilizations have generated the most prolonged and the most violent conflicts.

The world is becoming a smaller place. The interactions between peoples of different civilizations are increasing; these increasing interactions intensify civilization consciousness and awareness of differences as well as commonalities.

The processes of economic modernization and social change throughout the world are alienating people from long-standing local identities. They are also weakening the nation state as a source of identity. In much of the world, religion has moved in to fill this gap, often in the form of revival movements that are labeled ‘fundamentalist’. Such movements are mostly found in Western Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, although Islam is intentionally blamed for such movements. In most countries and most religions, the people active in this kind of movements are young, college-educated, middle-class technicians, professional and business persons.

The growth of civilization-consciousness is enhanced by the global reach of the West. The West is at a peak of power. Perhaps precisely because of that, among the peoples of non- Western civilizations, there is a growing movement to return to their ‘roots’ .One hears increasingly of a turning inward away from failed Western ideas of socialism and nationalism, in particular of ‘re-Islamization’ of the Middle East and Africa.

Cultural characteristics are less mutable, therefore less easily compromised, and the differences between them less easily resolved than political and economic differences. An individual can be half-Arab and half-French, but it is more difficult to be half-Muslim and half-Catholic.

Finally, the importance of regional economic blocs is likely to continue to increase in the future and to reinforce civilization-consciousness. Economic regionalism is likely to succeed only when it is rooted in a common civilization. Thus, the European Community rests on the shared foundation of European culture and Western Christianity. Similarly, culture and religion form the basis of the Economic Co-operation Organization (ECO), which has brought together ten non-Arab Muslim countries: Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgzstan, Turkmenistan, Tadjikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

As people define their identity in ethnic and religious terms, they are likely to see an ‘us’ and ‘them’ relation between themselves and people of different ethnicity or religion. The end of ideologically defined states in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has allowed traditional ethnic identities and animosities to come to the fore. Differences in culture and religion create differences over policy issues, ranging from human rights to immigration, trade and commerce to the environment. Most important, the efforts of the West to promote its values of democracy and liberalism as universal values, to maintain its military predominance and to advance its economic interests, provoke countering responses from other civilizations. Decreasingly able to mobilize support and form coalitions on the basis of political ideology, governments and groups will increasingly attempt to mobilize support by appealing to shared civilizational and religious identity.

The clash of civilizations thus occurs at two levels. At the micro-level, adjacent groups along the fault lines between civilizations struggle, often violently, over the control of territory and population. At the macro-level, states from different civilizations compete for relative military and economic power, for control of international institutions and third parties, and competitively promote their particular values. 

*See S. P. Huntingdon’s article, ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, Volume 72, Number 3, pp.22- 49