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Will Civilizations Clash?

Samuel Swanson

Is culture something that will bring people together, or will it serve as another source of conflict in the world? At Concor­dia we are encouraged to BREW, and we have been taught that inter­cultural dialogue is a way to solve problems rather than a means to create more conflict. However, the article, "The Clash of Civilizations," by respected scholar Samuel Huntington, claims that culture will be the largest source of all major con­flicts in the future, rather than eco­nomic or geopolitical factors as we have seen in the past (Huntington). Globalization is making the world a smaller place and is creating more interaction among people who have fundamentally different ideas about life. Huntington's idea is very dif­ferent from what we promote here at Concordia, where we encourage the tolerance of other cultures and other beliefs. Is it possible that we are wrong? That no matter what we do, our cultural differences are so different that we will not be able to overcome them? 

Before we try to decide whether we are going to agree with Samuel Huntington's argument or not, we should examine why he believes that this will be the case. Hunting­ton claims there are basically eight civilizations in the world. He splits the world up into Western, Con­fucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latina American, and African Civilizations. He splits them into these groups because he believes that they have fundamen­tally different values and world­views that stem from completely different historical experiences (Huntington). He believes all major conflicts between different civiliza­tions will fall along these fault lines. While these very different civiliza­tions may exist, one wonders if this really makes our cultural differenc­es irreconcilable.


Huntington posits six reasons for why he thinks the way he does. He first says, "Differences among civi­lizations are not only real, but they are basic." History, language, cul­ture, and religion are what differen­tiate one civilization from another, and these differences are not easily changed (Huntington). Second, he says that due to globalization the world is becoming a smaller place, and this increase in communica­tion will accentuate these differ­ences. He obviously does not mean that the world is literally becoming smaller; he means that with inventions such as planes, telephones, and especially the internet, people can communicate across the world with no trouble at all. Therefore distances have less meaning.

Third, he believes that people around the world are associating their identity less with their country and more with their religion, which has caused a widespread return to "religious fundamentalism" among the religions, primarily Western Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. These reli­gions, he believes, are fundamental­ly different from each other and will inevitably lead to conflict (Hunting­ton). Fourth, Huntington says that people around the world will return to their roots in backlash to the pre­ponderance of power of Western Civilization. Western Civilization, including countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zea­land, and Western Europe, has had the most power for the last half a century and has attempted to influ­ence the world through its cultural perspective. Rather than accepting this, most people have returned to their cultural roots (Huntington). This brings us to Huntington's fifth point, that a person's culture is not as easily changed as political or economic characteristics. He writes, "Communists can become demo­crats, the rich can become poor and the poor rich, but Russians cannot become Estonians" (Huntington). A person's culture is something he or she lives with every day, and this is not likely to change easily. Finally; he says that we have seen an in­crease in intraregional trade, mean­ing much more trade within the civ­ilizations rather than between them. This seems to already be proving his point that people are retreating into their civilization.


Is this really an accurate repre­sentation of world? Many scholars have criticized this theory for a variety of reasons. First, it fails to account for conflict within civili­zations. The civilizations that Hun­tington uses in his thesis are not completely unified cultural units and have many cultural divisions within them that are much more di­visive than differences with other civilizations. The argument can be made that these civilizations share a similar history, not the same his­tory. This leaves the possibility for differences to arise within these civ­ilizations (Sato).


The "Clash of Civilizations" the­ory does not explain the existence of countries that support a wide variety of cultures and peoples from other civilizations, wherein everybody seems to get along well. The Unit­ed States, for example, is made up of different cultures from all around the world and has been able to sur­vive, even thrive, without any ma­jor culture conflicts that were not eventually resolved. If it is true that different cultures can coexist with­out major conflict within a country, then cultures should also be able to coexist beyond individual country borders (Said).

Huntington's theory also seems to ignore the closed relationships that transcend the boundaries of specific civilizations. According to the "Clash of the Civilizations" theory, conflict is likely to occur between countries like the United States and Japan, nations from very different cultures, but there is very little substance to suggest that these countries that have been strong al­lies for a long time will change any­time soon (Sato). Countries from different civilizations have been able to resolve their differences be­fore, and there is little evidence to support that they won't be able to do so in this era of globalization.


People could, and probably will, forever argue whether or not Sam­uel Huntington's theory is correct. However, I think a better way to look at Huntington's theory is as a warning and as a challenge. It serves as a warning by telling us all of the problems the world may have to face in dealing with different cul­tures. He draws awareness to our differences and to how important a person's culture is to them, as well as the problems that might arise when dealing with people that have a fundamentally different view of life than our own. I also think that along with this warning comes a challenge: a challenge to be better than the differences that divide us. People are special in that we can make decisions. Every decision we make has consequences, and it is up to us to make sure these con­sequences are positive. As another famous political scientist, Joseph Nye, once said, "Nothing is inevi­table." Conflicts between different civilizations do not have to be the reality. As human beings we have the unique ability to make choices and shape our own future, so let it be one where there is not a clash of civilizations. 


Huntington, Samuel P. "The Clash of Civilizations?" Cambridge: Harvard University, John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, 1993. Print.


Nye, Joseph S., & Welch, David. "Introduction." Understanding Global Conflict and Cooperation: An Introduction to Theory and History. Boston: Pearson Longman, 2011. Print.


Said, Edward W. "The Clash of Ignorance: The Nation." The Clash of Ignorance: The Nation. Web. 15 Dec. 2012.


Sato, Seizaburo. "Clash of Civilizations and Its Critiques." Clash of Civilizations and Its Critiques. Web. 15 Dec. 2012. 

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