Samuel Huntington and the Clash of Civilizations – Part II





Samuel Huntington and the Clash of Civilizations – Part II

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.






Samuel Huntington and the Clash of Civilizations – Part II


The flawed foundations of Huntington’s thesis: Toynbee and “civilizations”

The unique contribution of Professor Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations was to resuscitate historical theories developed by Arnold Toynbee that had long fallen out of favor. He then attempted to fit the world events of his day into this Procrustean bed to demonstrate their predictive value.

Putting aside the ‘hem line’ issue of changing intellectual fads which could sweep aside any given theories for some time regardless of intrinsic merit, the greater fact is that the “history” deployed by Toynbee never enjoyed the support of mainstream historians in its heyday. In particular, Peter Geyl and Hugh Trevor-Roper were credited with dispatching Toynbee’s reputation among professionals epistemologically once and for all.

However, let us consider for a moment the major sticking points of his own creation, namely Huntington’s definition of civilizations.

Huntington could not avoid dealing with the obvious fact of ever greater contact among peoples and circulation of ideas in the modern age leading to convergence of the external features of societies the world over in what is called globalization. He had to address directly the issue of whether it remains appropriate to speak of civilizations, as opposed to a single universal civilization. This is, after all, the nub of the dispute he has with Fukuyama, who insists that the world shares the same values today, even if local governments find temporary excuses not to apply those values at home.

Huntington’s response was that the seeming convergence reflects just the trappings of modernism and that universal values are shared only by a superficial stratum of “Davos culture” elites around the world who are unrepresentative of the basic mass of the population in their own societies. Thus, when the process of democratization takes hold, even the elites have to bury their Western ideas and manners, and we can see the underlying differences in values that define “civilizations.”

Huntington’s cavalier treatment of elites raises as many questions as it answers. Who, after all is Huntington if not la crème de la crème of American elites?

The sources


It is no accident that Huntington does not provide us with a bibliography, only Notes. A bibliography would show a reflective attitude to his sources, which I fear was largely absent when he wrote The Clash of Civilizations.

The Notes reveal Huntington as an encyclopedic but promiscuous reader. Nearly everything cited in the book can be categorized as a secondary source, that is to say the work of generalizers.

The problem comes from the impossibility of the task he set for himself in devising a ‘one size fits all’ paradigm to explain nearly all international events everywhere and also predict the future. But then again, his aim was to serve Washington policy makers pretending to lead the world. I contend that the ultimate objective of having credible policy guidelines to judge every local dispute worldwide is unrealistic.


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Sam Huntington’s original essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” set off a decade-long debate about culture and identity in world politics. Indeed, the essay and the book which followed are a key frame of reference for political science theoreticians and pundits up to the present. Huntington’s paradigm has been praised and cursed by commentators of every political persuasion. In this respect, the work is unavoidable reading whatever one may think of its intrinsic merits.


And yet as we examine Huntington’s writings for a professional audience in the period 1997-1999, we find that he was distancing himself from the ideas set out in the book which made his name famous worldwide.



Two observations come to mind. First, that Huntington himself may have taken the value of all paradigms with a grain of salt and was ready to shift positions when the political environment so justified. Second, that whatever the paradigm, there is a certain disconnect between the theoretical framework and specific foreign policy recommendations being advanced.



©Gilbert Doctorow, 2009-2010

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For the full analysis, see the author’s 2010 book Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations.   G. Doctorow was a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University. He is today (2013) an occasional lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest work, published in April 2013, is Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Non-conformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12. Both works are available from and amazon websites worldwide in paperback and e-book editions. They are also on sale at Barnes & Noble and other leading bookstores.