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 | Part 1, Chapter 1 : A World of Civilizations (The New Era in World Politics) | Summary



Introduction: Flags and Cultural Identity

On January 3, 1992, Russian and American scholars meet at a government building in Moscow. Two weeks earlier the Russian Federation had become an independent country after the Soviet Union ended. The Russians are proud of their new flag. The era marks the beginning of how people's identities are tied to symbols such as flags that represent their culture. In the ensuing years, the people of Sarajevo and Los Angeles use flags during rallies to announce their cultural identification and solidarity with other groups. Cultural identity becomes increasingly meaningful to people. However, this rediscovering of old identities can lead to divisions between perceived "enemies" who lie outside that shared identity. Cultural identities are shaping the patterns of cohesion and conflict in the post–Cold War era.

A Multipolar, Multicivizational World

Global politics has become multipolar (more than two centers of power) and multicivilizational. This is a marked shift from the majority of human history, when contact between civilizations was minimal. A radical shift occurs during the Cold War when the world is divided into three parts. The parts include a group of wealthy societies led by the United States, a group of poorer communist societies led by the Soviet Union, and Third World countries. But in the late 1980s, the communist world collapses. The most important distinctions among people become cultural rather than ideological, political, or economic. This means they define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions.

As non-Western societies develop their economic wealth and influence, they also increasingly assert their own cultural values. They reject those that have been imposed on them by Western influence. This leads to a clash of civilizations in which the most pervasive conflicts are between people who belong to different cultural identities. In this way, culture becomes both a divisive and unifying force. The West continues to remain the most powerful civilization. Tension emerges as non-Western societies must choose whether to emulate it or resist it in an effort to "balance" their ideals. The larger issues emerging internationally stem from the differences among civilizations.

Other Worlds?

The image of post–Cold War politics is often oversimplified. But mapping it out helps show the new paradigm that has replaced the old one. Many scholars use the map of this new paradigm in order to understand world affairs. Although it has its faults, denying its existence based on its over-simplicity leads people to rely instead on assumptions, biases, and prejudices.

One new paradigm theory that emerges after the end of the Cold War is that of "one world." This theory indicates that a harmonious, united world will transcend any previous global conflicts. The evidence for this expectation lies in the fact that the Berlin Wall has come down and communist regimes have collapsed. But although the world becomes different in the early 1990s, it is not necessarily more peaceful. There is an increase in ethnic conflicts and the emergence of new patterns of alliance and conflict. There is also an increase in religious and cultural fundamentalism.

A different paradigm theory is that of "two worlds"—zones of peace and zones of turmoil. This concept of two worlds is nothing new—scholars have historically categorized the world as rich or poor, East or West. However, these distinctions are not always useful, since they don't allow for all the subcategories of people within them.

A third paradigm theory is that of "states" being the only important players in world affairs. Each state tries to increase its power in relation to the others. Yet this theory is also flawed since it assumes that all states act in the same way. This theory also doesn't show how global politics will differ after the Cold War since its assumptions have remained the same throughout history. The only shift is that states now tend to align or create conflict in accordance with which other states they culturally identify with. State borders have also become more permeable, less able to control the flow of money, ideas, good, and technology.

The final paradigm theory is that of a world in anarchy. This is the breakdown of authority and states and an increase in tribal, ethnic, and religious conflicts. In this theory, there is a proliferation of refugees, nuclear weapons, and terrorism. Huntington points out that even though this theory is close to reality, the world is not totally without order.

Comparing Worlds: Realism, Parsimony, and Predictions

Each theoretical paradigm offers some combination of realism and imagination, and each has its limitations. Each paradigm is also incompatible as a theory with the others. Huntington posits instead that viewing the world in terms of seven or eight different civilizations solves some of these conflicting theories. Many important developments after the end of the Cold War fit the civilizational paradigm theory. These developments include the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and the rise of religious fundamentalism all over the world. Another development is conflicts within countries over their identities. Huntington cautions, however, that his theory will at some point become obsolete, as the others have.


Huntington opens his book with a contemporary glimpse at a meeting between Russian and American scholars not long after the ending of the Cold War. This insight sets the stage for the shifting identities of these two superpowers in a new global, multicivilizational world.

Huntington states that "the years after the Cold War witnessed the beginning of dramatic changes in peoples' identities and the symbols of those identities." These changes began to deepen and intensify along cultural lines, with global politics following suit. In a world of shifting power, he argues, people begin to cling more than ever to the cultural, national, and religious identities that define them. This shakes up the dust between old alliances and enemies. It stokes the fire of cultural and religious wars as civilizations increasingly see each other as "the Other." Huntington posits that a natural byproduct of defining one's identity is also defining one's enemy. In the emerging multicivilizational world, those enemies live on the other side of a culture's "fault lines." These intensifying cultural identities are therefore shaping the emerging patterns of alliances and conflicts. More recently the world has been split along the lines of two superpowers, Russia and the West.

In "A Multipolar, Multicivilizational World," Huntington points out what is different in more recent history than in its distant past. He states that for "most of human existence, contacts between civilizations were intermittent or nonexistent." This means that because civilizations rarely encountered each other, conflicts played out on smaller, tribal scales. Ideological, political, and economic issues largely dictated the conflicts during and prior to the Cold War. But more recent conflicts take place along cultural lines of tension or disagreement. As powers shift globally and people are displaced or their homelands disappear, they search for and cling to their identity. They are more likely to support others like themselves and oppose others who aren't. Huntington states, "We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against." Here he implies that people are likely to reject what is foreign and alien to them out of fear. These identifications of self in a community or civilization allows one to feel safer and protected by that identity.

At one time conflicts were most likely to occur between the rich and the poor or other social classes over economic tensions. But the clashes of the modern era are between civilizations that disagree with or do not understand another's way of life. They don't appreciate or comprehend other codes of religious or cultural conduct. People are at once more divided by being part of different civilizations and united by the civilization they identify with. This shift has brought about an existential crisis for a superpower like the West, whose "power relative to that of other civilizations is declining." More so than ever, non-Western societies must make a choice of either adopting Western influence or rejecting it. The reasons for either choice are complicated and varied—and also divided along civilizational fault lines. Huntington notes, "Cultural commonalities and differences shape the interests, antagonisms, and associations of states." These are constantly shifting alongside the shifts in power.

In "Other Worlds," Huntington points out that mapping the emerging paradigms in the world can help one see the ways it is shifting. Creating an accurate map or model of the world's civilizations and powers allows readers to see with true accuracy its relationships. They can also make possible predictions and goals about future developments. As civilizations become more divided than ever, they are able to see the world only through their own lens. The complication, Huntington says, is that "we need a map that both portrays reality and simplifies reality." The map must present itself as a possible paradox.

One inaccurate prediction made in the aftermath of the Cold War was that the world was trending toward one of harmony and peace. Although the world dramatically changed after the Cold War, it did not necessarily become more peaceful. Huntington implies that the ending of a war does not necessarily bring about peace in the ways people expect. It may create new conflicts along different lines, and not ones that invite progress or harmony. The other paradigm theory that fails in Huntington's view is the "two world" paradigm. It cannot account for all the civilizations' many subcultures and internal conflicts. The other two paradigm theories—about states being the key players in power or the world descending into anarchy—cannot fit into an accurate map of the world either. Both are either too simplistic or too extreme. Huntington presents each theory to show that a more nuanced, complex lens must be used to view the world's civilizations and its myriad possible outcomes.

In "Comparing Worlds: Realism, Parsimony, and Predictions," Huntington provides his paradigmatic solution. It means recognizing the world in terms of its seven unique civilizations and recognizing the power and influence each one has on the other. Only in this recognition can the world begin to understand its relationships—both its allies and its enemies.

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