Huntington and the Rebirth of International Identity Politics

25 years ago, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008) published a book which continues to elicit sharply polarized reactions. Based on a 1993 Foreign Affairs essay, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) argued that the principal force driving post-Cold War global politics would be “conflict between groups from different civilizations.”

In the wake of the fall of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America from the mid-1980s onwards, America’s victory over the Soviet Union in 1991, and spectacular economic changes in China, the international relations question of the 1990s seemed to be how quickly countries would transition towards Western-style liberal democracies and market economies. Huntington disagreed and decided to explain why.

After a brief 20th century hiatus dominated by ideological conflict, Huntington maintained that cultural and civilizational conflicts were swiftly reassuming pivotal significance. Far from the post-Communist world becoming characterized by liberal institutions and expectations, Huntington held that different groups and nations would be increasingly linked and defined by civilizational bonds and inclined to view other cultural groupings with diffidence and hostility.

Much of The Clash of Civilizations involved marshalling evidence to support this claim. It pointed, for example, to the outbreak of conflicts in what Huntington presented as civilizational border regions like Ukraine and Lebanon, or the territories contested by China and India. Huntington particularly stressed that China’s leadership was consciously positioning their country as a civilizational great power. He also observed how more and more Muslims were emphasizing Islam’s transnational character over other allegiances and acting accordingly—sometimes violently.

Huntington was unpersuaded that such conflicts could be dismissed as bumps on the inevitable road to universal liberal order as people came to their rational actor senses and followed their economic self-interest. It followed that responsible political leaders needed to start questioning sacred cows like multiculturalism, and stop assuming that economic freedom and prosperity was the universal cure for religious and ethnic conflict.

An Angry Establishment

To say that Huntington’s thesis sparked multiple controversies would be an understatement. Readers of the original article were alternatively infuriated, supportive, or puzzled by its argument. Huntington’s book reflects his effort to respond comprehensively to this kaleidoscope of reactions, or, as he put it, “to elaborate, refine, supplement, and, on occasion, qualify the themes set forth in the article and to develop many ideas and cover many topics not dealt with or touched upon only in passing in the article.”

Huntington’s development of his positions generated even fiercer debates that have never really gone away. In his last book, the literary and cultural critic Edward W. Said went so far as to accuse Huntington of “the purest invidious racism, a sort of parody of Hitlerian science directed today against Arabs and Muslims.” Less-polemical versions of the same indictment are not difficult to find.

One could respond to such charges by posing questions such as: Is it racist to suggest that particular cultural patterns developed and solidified over centuries exert very powerful influences over choices made by people profoundly shaped by a given culture? Is it racially-prejudiced to say that the very different conceptions of God imparted to societies by small-o orthodox Christianity and Sunni Islam have given rise to quite disparate conceptions of freedom and justice which exercise considerable sway over the thought of individuals living in particular cultural settings, whether they realize it or not? Or even more basically: did Huntington claim at any point that pale-skinned people are somehow inherently superior to darker-toned persons—or vice-versa?

More compelling critiques of Huntington’s central claims concerned the adequacy of his social science. Most notably, one can point to numerous cases which contradict his core argument. In our time, for instance, very few Islamic governments have protested China’s unspeakable treatment of its Uyghur Muslims. So much for global Muslim solidarity. Likewise the growing rapprochement between Israel and various Sunni Muslim Arab nations in light of a mutual threat from Shi’ite Muslim Persian Iran doesn’t fit into Huntington’s paradigm. Nor do the close ties between China and Iran which have developed over the past ten years. In these and other cases, national and economic interests appear to trump transnational cultural-religious affinities.

Another problem with Huntington’s position was that some of his civilizational groupings, particularly his African and Latin American categories, were far less worked out (even to his own satisfaction) compared to his Western, Hindi, Sinic, Japanese, and Islamic classifications. Others questioned the sufficiency of Huntington’s portrait of how cultures develop. Civilizations, argued the economist Amartya Sen, were more internally diverse than Huntington claimed. In a more tempered article preceding his “insidious racism” charge, Said maintained that Huntington downplayed the degree to which civilizations shaped each other.

The comprehensiveness with Huntington’s argument was rejected by so many scholars suggests several possibilities. One is that Huntington’s theory was so outlandish and its flaws so evident that it provoked such responses. Another is that Huntington was posing questions that academic and diplomatic guilds had (like all guilds) frozen out because they threatened established but redundant orthodoxies upon which many academic or diplomatic careers had been built.

Yet another possibility is that Huntington had dared to query many assumptions which had acquired the status of being politically-correct. Could it be that not all cultures were equally compatible with values like liberty or institutional settings like constitutionalism? And if that was the case, what did it mean for, say, the capacity of particular minorities like Muslims living in Western countries to adapt to norms that Westerners take for granted?

Huntington’s propositions also challenged the adequacy of the various lenses through which many scholars perceived the world. It was hard for some economists to hear that economic self-interest may not be quite the driving force of history which they imagined it to be. Nor was there any shortage of social scientists who had difficulty conceiving that something hard to measure (like culture) nonetheless exerts enormous influence. Above all, Huntington was questioning a consensus that had developed among some segments of academic and political opinion in the 1990s concerning what they believed to be liberalism’s coming ascendency following the collapse of its primary ideological competitor, Communism, in the USSR and Eastern Europe.

History Isn’t Ending

The immediate intellectual background to Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992). This book famously suggested that history would culminate in, as Fukuyama wrote in an earlier article, the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In later writings, Fukuyama added more specificity to what he had in mind. In 2007, he stated that “The EU’s attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a ‘post-historical’ world than the Americans’ continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military.”

The problem with such contentions, Huntington maintained, was that civilizations and the differences which they embody were far more resilient than some Western social scientists were willing to admit. By this, Huntington did not mean that civilizations don’t change. They obviously do. Some even die. But civilizations also embody considerable continuity, Huntington specified, insofar as “values, norms, institutions, and modes of thinking to which successive generations in a given society have attached primary importance” transcend the particulars of specific regimes and economic systems.

Of all these features, Huntington identified religion as especially important. It wasn’t a question of how many people in a given society practiced the prevailing faith. That always varies. But religion and religious culture, Huntington argued, helped to make civilizations “comprehensive.” “[N]none of their constituent parts,” he explained, “can be understood without reference to the encompassing civilization.” France and Australia may be independent sovereign-states at different ends of the world. Yet both derive much of their civilizational identity from Western Christian assumptions and emphases. Likewise Yemen and Malaysia are quite dissimilar nations. Neither, however, is comprehensible without reference to the dominant religion prevailing within their respective borders and those of many other nations and therefore the culture and history associated with that faith.

Throughout The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington presented the West as a relatively homogenous whole. Huntington didn’t deny that Italy is not Britain, or that California is not Indiana, or that Paris is not Canberra. There were, Huntington acknowledged, different “levels” of identity. Yet, he added, the “biggest ‘we’ within which we feel culturally at home as distinguished from all the other ‘thems’ out there” was civilizational identity. This is why your average New Zealander will more likely feel at home in Switzerland than Iran or Mongolia.

Modernization Is Not Westernization

One objection to this line of thought is that aspects of Western civilization have become universalized across the globe in ways quite unlike any other. Surely, some might argue, countries like Indonesia are more economically and politically similar to nations like Britain than they were 500 or 1000 years ago. They have become more like the West—not the other way around. But herein lies one of Huntington’s most important insights: it is an error to conflate modernization with Westernization.

Western civilization’s core dimensions, Huntington stated, had congealed together by the early modern period. Under this rubric, Huntington included the Greco-Romano and Jewish heritages, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, a strong distinction between temporal and spiritual authority, multilingualism combined with one leading language (Latin, then French, now English) for elites, social pluralism, individualism, rule of law, and an emphasis on political representation. The various Enlightenments sharpened the influence of some of these features and dulled others but did not, from Huntington’s standpoint, substantially alter the fundamentals.

To Huntington’s mind, modernization—which he understood to be the Scientific Revolution plus “industrialization, urbanization, increasing levels of literacy, education, wealth, and social mobilization, and more complex and diversified occupational structures”—emerged out of this Western cultural milieu. The fact, however, that a culture underwent modernization did not necessarily mean that it was embracing Western (let alone liberal) beliefs.

2016 underscored the political power of identity within the West. People voted for Brexit for many reasons, but a desire to reassert national sovereignty and therefore a distinct identity was one strand uniting people who otherwise disagreed about many other issues. So too the election of Donald Trump signified many Americans’ desire to prioritize what they saw as the American nation’s particular interests over the globalist concerns that apparently preoccupied their political leaders.

Time may be bearing out the weight of that claim. India’s ongoing promotion of pro-growth policies has gone together with successive Hindu nationalist governments trying to marginalize India’s Muslim minority, even to the point of seeking to strip many Muslims of their Indian citizenship. Similarly China’s economic modernization has not led it to embrace liberal ideals and institutions. Instead, the regime and much of the population increasingly stress the country’s civilizational distinctiveness as well as authoritarian strands of Confucian thought and the long tradition of centralized rule that preceded the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. Beijing’s practice of repressing particular groups considered potential sources of instability like Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims and Chinese Christians, it should be noted, are part and parcel of traditional Chinese governance rather than simply reflecting Marxist ideological demands.

Similar patterns are observable in Turkey. From Kemal Ataturk onwards, Turkish governments engaged in a top-down effort to modernize and westernize their country simultaneously. Modernization certainly occurred. Now, however, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his followers are emphasizing Turkey’s continuity with its Ottoman and Islamic past while portraying the West as exhausted. Erdogan’s 2020 decision to convert Istanbul’s historic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque after a court annulled a 1934 presidential decree turning it into a museum reflects this process of cultural-repositioning.

To this, one can add that modernization programs embarked upon by most non-Western political actors in the late-19th century were never primarily about Westernization. More recent scholarship have illustrated that successive Ottoman governments’ adoption of Western technology, military methods, and organizational forms did not involve acceptance of Western norms. Ottoman reformers consistently associated their efforts with, as one Middle East historian observes, “Islam, the sultan and caliph, the glories of the Ottoman and Islamic past, and the anxiously hoped-for return to splendor and worldly power.”

Building factories is one thing but comprehensively adopting Western values is quite another. Just as 19th-century Japan’s embrace of Western technology and some Western-style political structures didn’t imply abandoning distinctive features of Japanese culture like the bushido honor code or Shintoism, nor does a modern Pakistani’s use of an iPhone mean that he will eventually accept the idea of religious tolerance. New technology and modern political institutions don’t necessarily change your sense of who you are or what you consider important. They can even become a means for reinforcing and spreading long-standing cultural intangibles throughout all levels of society.

The Rise of Civilization States

Though he disassociated modernization from Westernization, Huntington nevertheless believed that the 21st century West—by which he meant Anglosphere nations like America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as well as Western, Central, Mediterranean, and Baltic Europe—would remain politically, economically, and militarily dominant. But he also believed that this hegemony would be challenged on a cultural level: so much so that “a central axis of post-Cold War world politics” would be “the interaction of Western power and culture with the power and culture of non-Western civilizations.”

After 9/11, this and other claims made in Huntington’s book acquired considerable traction. Those inclined to see religion as an atavistic holdover had to confront the fact that many Western-educated, young Middle-Eastern Islamic men from relatively affluent backgrounds such as the 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and those who planned the operation like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had not become “just like us” following exposure to Western societies characterized by liberal constitutionalism and market economies. Neither economic affluence nor the experience of bourgeois norms had mollified their views. If anything, their antipathy towards the West had grown.

Renewed attention to Huntington’s thought has also been generated by the emergence over the past twenty years of regimes which present their nations as more than just another country. It’s easy to dismiss individuals like Turkey’s Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, or India’s Narendra Modi as cynically using civilizational motifs to consolidate their power against internal and foreign opponents. Yet these nations do belong to distinct civilizational traditions. Moreover, when their political leaders speak in civilizational terms, their clear intent is to draw upon these cultural and historical resources as a way of shaping contemporary realities.

It is not coincidental, for example, that Xi and other leading Chinese political figures consistently refer to “the century of humiliation” that China endured roughly between 1839 and 1949 at the hands of Western powers as well as Russia and Japan. In 2019, Xi gave a speech in which he described the founding of the People’s Republic as terminating that time of abasement and marking the beginning of the rejuvenation of a 5,000 year-old civilization. Beijing’s contemporary efforts to establish a truly global place for China in the 21st century sun can’t be easily separated from this sense of cultural history and recovery.

Likewise Putin is not making it up when he states that Russia “has always evolved . . . as a state‑civilization, reinforced by the Russian people, Russian language, Russian culture, Russian Orthodox Church and the country’s other traditional religions.” Authoritarian statism has been central to Russia’s political culture for centuries. That tradition has gone hand-in-hand with expansionism on Russia’s part. This is one reason why the period of Russian retraction that occurred after the break-up of the USSR and Moscow’s hegemony over Eastern Europe and Central Asia seems utterly unnatural to people like Putin but also many ordinary Russians.

Identity, Identity, Identity

These developments point to something else that Huntington’s book was one of the first to recognize as a factor which would reshape post-Communist global politics: the reemergence of identity as a central pivot of international relations.

The brutal wars marking Yugoslavia’s breakup throughout the 1990s dramatically highlighted Huntington’s point. Ethno-cultural consolidation was the priority—not trade relations between Croatia and Serbia. Likewise, no amount of promised liberalization by Mikhail Gorbachev was ever going to persuade Lithuanians and Estonians that their future lay in a transformed union of states in which Russia remained the centerpiece. They wanted and got a clear separation from Russia, and then identified themselves explicitly with the West by joining NATO and the EU.

Across the Muslim world, Huntington stated, people were abandoning those 20th century nationalisms which had provided room for non-Muslims. Many were increasingly associating themselves with various pan-Islamic identities which bound together people as far apart as Brunei and Senegal while simultaneously excluding groups that their families had lived alongside for centuries. In the process of duking it out with Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, even once relatively secular Muslim Bosnians found themselves identifying with the struggles of other Muslims in far-away lands, and subsequently rallying to various jihadist groups inside and outside Europe.

2016 underscored the political power of identity within the West. People voted for Brexit for many reasons, but a desire to reassert national sovereignty and therefore a distinct identity was one strand uniting people who otherwise disagreed about many other issues. So too the election of Donald Trump signified many Americans’ desire to prioritize what they saw as the American nation’s particular interests over the globalist concerns that apparently preoccupied their political leaders.

In both instances, the economic dimension of questions like trade and immigration were subordinated to the intertwined issues of identity and national sovereignty. If Britain had to leave the free trade zone of the EU to reestablish its sovereignty, or if America had to renegotiate NAFTA because it was deemed necessary to provide more job security for Americans, then so be it. The bonds and obligations associated with shared nationality were eclipsing economics.

Davos Man Cometh

Not everyone in the West has celebrated identity’s reassertion as a factor in international and domestic politics. But this dissatisfaction, exhibited by the lengths to which many British political leaders went to try and nullify Brexit after 2016, also points to a significant weakness in Huntington’s argument: his underestimation of the degree to which Western nations would become internally splintered over cultural and identity questions.

Davos Man was Huntington’s shorthand way of describing those American “academics, international civil servants and executives in global companies, as well as successful high-technology entrepreneurs” who “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations.”

On one level, this fragmentation owes something to the hostile view of Western civilization which has prevailed in many Western universities and other culture-forming institutions since the 1960s. When Western culture is effectively equated with countless oppressions that must be unmasked in the name of various liberations, many people’s willingness to identify with the West is inevitably corroded. The eruption of wokeness, and how it reflects a disintegration at multiple levels of how many people in Western nations understand themselves vis-à-vis their national and cultural heritages, is not something that Huntington’s thesis anticipated or can account for. Such trends have been exacerbated by the implosion and marginalization of the West’s two central faiths—Judaism and Christianity—in many Western countries and their replacement with causes like environmentalism which have acquired quasi-religious status. If, as Huntington posits, religion is central to any civilization’s self-understanding, a fading of its grip upon people’s imagination will facilitate wider cultural transformations.

Another internal Western division unforeseen by the Clash of Civilizations concerns a sharp division focused around the nation’s place in international affairs. On one side of this split are those Westerners who broadly see the globe in liberal transnational and technocratic terms—as something to be managed towards the realization of deeper economic integration, stronger transnational ties and institutions, and the spread of secular liberal values. On the other side are those who regard supranational projects as utopian daydreaming and invariably degenerating into rule by unaccountable self-selecting bureaucracies. What matters, they believe, are local, regional, and national identities and their underlying cultural and religious roots. These are regarded as far more historically grounded than supranational entities and a stronger basis for freedom than edicts from Brussels or UN declarations.

Huntington himself recognized that this division was assuming increasing importance in many Western countries. In an essay entitled “Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite,” written eight years after the Clash of Civilizations, Huntington claimed that the split ran right through the heart of the American polity. He summed up the most polarizing kind of figure in this phenomenon in a famous phrase: “Davos Man.”

Named after the place where the World Economic Forum meets each year, Davos Man was Huntington’s shorthand way of describing those American “academics, international civil servants and executives in global companies, as well as successful high-technology entrepreneurs” who “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations.” Ranged against them, he claimed, was the rest of America. These Americans were becoming increasingly patriotic and more and more attached to the type of national bonds which Davos Man saw as redundant. “The public is nationalist,” Huntington stated, “elites transnationalist.”

Measuring Success

Since Huntington penned those words, divisions derived from this particular realignment have upturned politics inside and between Western nations. In this regard, he turned out to be prescient. But it was also an insight which didn’t conform to the particular civilizational schema laid out by Huntington in the 1990s. The rise of Davos Man was, after all, less about clashes between different civilizational groups than a debate about status, loyalty, and identity inside the West.

That said, acknowledging the saliency of intra-Western conflicts is compatible with holding that international relations is being shaped by regimes and political movements who see the world in civilizational-like terms which bridge the past and present. In that sense, Huntington’s prognosis for global politics turned out to be right about some important trends that would shape the post-Cold War world.

Over time, the insufficiencies of any theory that seeks to provide a comprehensive explanation of what is happening in the world become more and more obvious—often to the point of completely discrediting the thesis. What counts as success is whether a grand narrative generates wider awareness of realities that those who dominate the discourse have tried to ignore, forces open new and lasting debates, and highlights the weaknesses and fallacies of hitherto dominant theories. By that standard, Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations remains a text that, for all its weaknesses, not even the most earnest Eurocrat, convinced liberal internationalist, or devout practitioner of Bismarckian realpolitik can afford to disregard today.