What Huntington Forgot

Earlier this week I complained on Twitter about having to read Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” for the umpteenth time when virtually every serious IR scholar knows he’s wrong. I really despise the “wrong but influential” line of argument, because it so often means that someone has been given influence in the literature for being both inflammatory and wrong, which is different than being wrong but influential on policy.

The gist of Huntington’s argument is that in the post-Cold War period civilization will increasingly become a salient referent for conflict. While I do not have time to pick apart this argument in full, it does rest largely on civilization as a cultural constant, as most of the civilizations he recognizes reach back at least 1,000 years. To see how this assumption can be misleading, see the map of world religions in 1895 below.

Huntington is known for being politically incorrect, but thankfully he did not use “heathen” as a category (yellow). This simple example is not definitive, but illustrates that the way in which civilizations are conceived has changed in century between the creation of this map and the appearance of Huntington’s article.

3 thoughts on “What Huntington Forgot

  1. I’m an amateurish student of politics, but I don’t quite get what you’re saying here. I mean, what I know of Huntington is that he said that culture would trigger conflict more than ideology would.

    It seems to me that this is, broadly speaking, true, if only because people can always be persuaded by propaganda and such to *believe* they have a unique culture that must be defended against the “Other”.

    In this sense, I’d say what he wrote is almost “trivially true”. And I’m not a huge fan of him, because I think his particular definitions of civilizations were arbitrary, but that doesn’t negate his larger point, in my opinion.

    Like I said, though, I have a much less thorough knowledge of this than you seem to, so I may be missing something.

    • Thanks for the comment. You’re right to point out that I don’t take on Huntington’s main argument in the post. Your summary of his thesis (“he said that culture would trigger conflict more than ideology would”) is close to correct. However, you will not see him define “culture” anywhere in the Foreign Affairs piece (I don’t have the patience to read the book). The closest he gets is p.23-4: “A civilization is a cultural entity…. A civilization is thus the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species. It is defined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people.” So… everything. This makes civilization so broad a concept as to be meaningless–for Huntington, everything narrower than “human” can define a civilization. He jumps from this to eight arbitrary groupings which are no less–or more–arbitrary than the six used in the map above. And, as a number of response articles have shown (see here and here), are no more accurate in predicting conflict. That’s really the point–Huntington doesn’t get us any closer to understanding conflict, and forcing generations of students to read him is a waste of time.

      • Thanks for the reply. And I can’t argue with your assessment of the flaws in Huntington’s work.
        Out of curiosity, do they also have you read Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” each time you read Huntington, since that’s what he was responding to? It seems to me it could only be worthwhile if they give you that as context.

Comments are closed.