The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order | Study Guide

Samuel P. Huntington

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The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order | Context


The Cold War

The United States and the Soviet Union saw each other as allies during World War II (1939–45). After the war, relations between the two nations suffered from decades of tension. Americans were suspicious of Soviet-style communism (a style of government where property is publicly owned) and the harsh rule of Russia's leader Joseph Stalin (1878–1953). At the same time, Soviets seethed over the fact that Americans refused to see the Soviet Union as part of the global community. After World War II, these simmering tensions exploded into a standoff of mutual distrust called the Cold War (1947–91).

The result was a decades-long struggle for global power between the two nations. This struggle also represented a standoff between the ideologies of communism and democracy. What began as political difference escalated to military conflicts that began to pull in other nations that identified ideologically with one or the other. The primary strategy of the United States against the Soviet Union was one of containment—trying to halt its expansion. As the Cold War dragged on through decades and various administrations, American and Soviet leaders took different approaches to trying to manage the Cold War. By 1960 both sides had begun stockpiling nuclear weapons in the belief that it would deter escalating conflict on either side. Yet each side also ramped up its threats by positioning their missile systems closer to the other's borders.

This approach prompted the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The crisis came about in October, when it became known that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. Cuba is only about 90 miles from U.S. soil. President John F. Kennedy (1917–63) demanded the Soviets remove the missiles. Kennedy said the United States was ready to use force to neutralize the possible threat to U.S. security. The world waited to see what the superpowers would do. After 13 days, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) agreed to take the missiles out of Cuba. In return, the United States promised not to invade communist Cuba and to remove missiles from Turkey. This event was possibly the closest the nations ever came to an exchange of nuclear weapons. Although relations improved by the 1980s, the Soviet Union collapsed as a result of a failed economy and lack of faith in communism. In 1991, the Soviet government fell, 46 years after the Cold War had begun.

Confucianism, Sinocentrism, and Chinese Culture

East Asia, also known as "the Sinosphere," is closely linked to China in its traditions, culture, and history. The core states considered part of East Asia are China, Taiwan, North and South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Sinocentrism is the notion held by many Chinese people that China is the cultural center of the world. These cultural values are closely aligned with Confucianism, a way of life heralded by the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551 BCE–479 BCE). The Chinese people have followed it for over two millennia. Confucianism is the source of China's cultural values, social codes, and education, and it is hard to define as either religion or philosophy. Some East Asian countries embrace Buddhism as well. But as China grows in power, it strongly encourages other East Asian countries to live in a Confucian manner. Sinocentrism and Confucianism are integral to the way the Chinese and other East Asians interact with the world. It is seen as a distinct cultural identity.

In The Clash of Civilizations, the Sinic civilization is one of the West's greatest civilizational challenges to power. This is because China and East Asia have experienced economic growth that they specifically attribute to their Confucian and Sinic cultural superiority. However, there is one major difference between Sinic and Western civilizational ideologies. Sinic theory believes in putting the collective before the individual, while the West prizes individualism. This difference has led to many misunderstandings between the two cultures. It has also prevented authentic alliances between them because they don't share common values.

Islam and the Muslim World

Islam is a major world religion that began in the 7th century. There are over 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. Believers in Islam pray to Allah, whom they see as the sole God. Practitioners read the Koran, the sacred text of Islam, for guidance. Islam is marked by a strict adherence to religious practices—such as praying five times a day, fasting, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam also involves a sense of common brotherhood and bond among its followers.

As with many religious believers, worshippers of Islam have faced persecution at various times, another aspect that draws them together. Islam also suggests to its followers that they follow Islamic laws. This gives it a unique purpose as both religious and social instruction among its followers. Islam uses the word jihad (meaning "exertion," "holy war," or "holy struggle") to express its mission of bringing its values to the world and to express a personal exertion to improve oneself. Muslims historically have been successful at spreading Islam across the world. Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, the result of population growth and migration.

Western Civilization

Western civilization is a broad term often equated with Western, American, or European culture. It is usually used to refer to a specific system of values, customs, beliefs, and political ideologies that are associated with the West. The "West" generally includes any country with a history of European immigration, such as the United States and Australia. Much of Western civilization's values can be traced back to the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. It has long been dominated by Christianity as its most prevalent religion. What sets Western civilizational culture apart from other civilizations is its emphasis on rational thinking, human rights, free thought, individualism, independence, and democracy.

Although Western civilization rose to unprecedented power by the 20th century, The Clash of Civilizations posits that its power is declining. Other civilizations, such as China and Islam, have made gains. Western civilization has long seen itself as a benefactor bringing democracy and equality to non-Western civilizations. But a growing resentment and backlash have occurred as non-Western civilizations reject Western influence and reclaim their indigenous cultures.

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