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Global Britain and the Clash of Civilisations

Global Britain and the Clash of Civilisations

In his latest long–read, Nick Spencer looks at the prospect of a clash of civilisations and argues that Samuel Huntington was right about many small things but wrong about one big one. 29/03/2021


There is something painfully symbolic about the way in which, in its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published in March this year, the UK government confirmed that it would reduce its overseas aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5% at the same time that it announced that it was lifting its cap on nuclear warheads from 180 to 260. If you wanted an illustration of Samuel Huntington’s famous thesis that, following the Cold War, the world was heading not to its final destination of universal peace and concord but to a ‘Clash of Civilisations’, you would be hard pressed to find a better one.

The Review was not an eccentricity. The following day, the news covered a speech by foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, saying that the world’s democracies were now collectively poorer than its autocratic regimes; a report confirming that Russia had attempted to influence the 2020 US election; and the tenth anniversary of the horrific Syrian Civil War, in which Russia and the West had edged towards direct military confrontation. A week later, Russia and China joined together to condemn Western nations for imposing sanctions, the first time the EU had done so on China since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

A few months earlier, the US withdrew from the Treaty on Open Skies, the agreement signed after the Cold War that allowed nations access to aerial surveillance information as a means of reducing suspicion and misunderstanding. Russia followed suit the following month. America had also recently withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, another Cold War legacy, on the basis of alleged Russian non–compliance and the Chinese militarisation of the South China Sea. It was also beginning to look as if New START – the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the last significant nuclear arms reduction treaty, dating from 2010 – was also going to fall into abeyance until, at the last minute, President Putin and newly elected President Biden formally agreed to extend the treaty, for five years.

While all this was going on, the Chinese Communist Party was crushing pro–democracy protests in the former British colony of Hong Kong, while attracting widespread condemnation for its imprisonment, indoctrination and torture of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province in the West of the country. According to a long–running project at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, over 2 million people have died in conflict since the end of the Cold War.

In short, whatever you think of the British government’s attempt to set out a vision for post–Brexit ‘Global Britain’ in its Strategic Review, few will doubt that the globe over which newly reborn Britain wished to project its image is deeply troubled, and not only by the ‘local’ ethnic or national conflicts that have always been the soundtrack to human history. Entire civilisations – Russia, China, the West, the Middle East – are apparently squaring up and tooling up. Samuel Huntington, it seems, was right.

This essay argues that, in spite of the way the world looks today, Huntington was not right. Or, more precisely, that he was right about the parts of his arguments – the persistence of human bellicosity, the ultimate importance of culture and religion, the political salience of identity, the decline of the West, the rise of China, the resurgence of Islam – but wrong about its sum. Specifically, he was wrong about civilisations, and being wrong about civilisations meant being wrong about the kinds of clash we might expect and plan for in the future. And that matters more than ever today.


Samuel Huntington was a 65–year–old academic political scientist and Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University when, in the summer of 1993, Foreign Affairs published his essay ‘The Clash of Civilisations?’, complete with a question mark that was lost in the publication, three years later, of his much–expanded book on the subject. According to the journal’s editors, the essay stirred up more discussion than any other article it had published since the 1940s.

The essay and book were borne from the period of optimism following the end of the Cold War and the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet Union. History had taken an unusually decisive turn in one particular ideological direction. Liberalism stood triumphant. Democratic capitalism had won. Over–enthusiastic theorists predicted the end of history. It was not a prognosis Huntington shared.

The book began by talking about the Saudi and Turkish flags that were being waved in Sarajevo in 1994, and the Mexican flags protesting Proposition 187, concerning immigration, in Los Angeles the same year. Huntington cited the fact that, as of early 1993, there were an estimated 48 ethnic wars in the world and 164 territorial–ethnic claims and border conflicts. (35) The Cold War may have ended but people were still fighting and they were fighting for flags, because flags meant culture and culture was what mattered most to people. Tellingly, at around the same time that it released its Integrated Review, the UK government also announced that it would fly the Union Jack flag on government buildings every day as opposed to only on specific days like the Queen’s birthday.

So attuned to the ideological differences that threatened to obliterate the world, late twentieth–century political scientists had, Huntington argued, underestimated religion, language, history, values, customs, and ethnicity – the kind of things that human beings had been fighting about for centuries. Humans might be reasoning animals but we are not reasonable, let alone rational ones. “People do not live by reason alone. They cannot calculate and act rationally in pursuit of their self–interest until they define their self.” (97) How we think is shaped by who we are. Identity precedes rationality. In spite of what twentieth–century politics imagined, humans are not primarily or naturally Marxists or socialists or capitalists or democrats or consumers. Before any of those things, we are formed in the image of – and we are loyal to – our tribal, ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, national, and ultimately civilizational identities.

Moreover, the decisive end of the Cold War would not change this. The West’s victory would not, as many liked to think, result in a Westernisation of the world that would erode other identities, for at least two reasons. First modernisation, in the form of industrialisation, urbanisation, consumerism and the like, was an unarguable fact. But it was not the same as Westernisation. Just because more people in the Far East were living in cities, working in factories, eating McDonalds and wearing Levis that didn’t mean that the political authorities under which they lived were simultaneously embracing democracy, the rule of law and the separation of powers. It was quite possible for the world to become “more modern [but] less Western”. (78) Second, the West, however triumphant it now felt, was going to decline in relative influence, facing decades of economic expansion by Asian civilisations and demographic expansion of Islamic ones. The West was triumphant but only for now.

This trajectory was in itself a danger – popularly known as ‘the Thucydides trap’ in which an existing hegemonic power feels threatened by, and ends up at war with, an emerging one – but it was compounded by the fact that the West was characterised by “universalist pretensions”. Westerners had long believed that their values were really universal human values; the West had simply arrived at them first. Others would eventually do so, whether by persuasion or coercion. A waning West that clung on to the idea that other, now waxing, civilisations must adopt its values was guaranteed to provoke conflict.

Critics, of which there were many, would subsequently damn Huntington’s thesis for undue pessimism and for presuming what it claimed to predict. There was a small industry of articles, essays and books dedicated to showing the world “how to avoid the clash of civilisations”, to take the subtitle of then Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book The Dignity of Difference. They had a point. “If Muslims allege that the West wars on Islam and if Westerners allege that Islamic groups war on the West,” Huntington claimed two thirds of the way through the book, “it seems reasonable to conclude that something very much like war is underway.” (217) The slide from “allege” to “is” is highly suspect. Just because people allege something to be so, that does not mean it is, particularly if it is really only some people who do so, a distinction he blurred later on in the same page. “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam… the problem for Islam is not the CIA or the US Department of Defence. It is the West…”  Presented in this blunt zero–sum way, you could hardly help conclude that there was a clash here.


Such apparently self–fulfilling prophecies aside (Huntington did insist, if perhaps a bit weakly, that “many things are probable but nothing is inevitable” (303)), his thesis was able to generate a range of impressively accurate predictions.

China would emerge, he predicted, as the country most likely to challenge the West’s global influence. It would seek to bring a definitive end to the “century of humiliation”, which began with the defeat by the British in the First Opium War of 1839–42 and ended, allegedly, with the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. (229) In the process, it would catalyse the rejection of Western culture among non–Western societies. (82) It would not stand alone. “India could move into rapid economic development and emerge as a major contender for influence in world affairs.” (121) Other Non–Western countries could follow. And as far as the West was concerned, its ability to impose its concepts of human rights, liberalism, and democracy on other civilisations would rapidly erode. (92) “The successors to Reagan, Thatcher, Mitterrand and Kohl will be rivalled by those of Deng Xiaping, [Yasuhiro] Nakasone, Indira Gandhi, [Boris] Yeltsin and Suharto.” (91)

Such predictions were correct without necessarily being miraculous. Some predictions were more impressive, however. Huntington insisted that Chinese adoption of capitalism would not result in their adoption of liberal democracy. “Westerners who assume that it [will] are likely to be surprised by the creativity, resilience and individuality of non–Western cultures.” (53) He spoke of the risk of a global migration crisis (199), of on–going tensions between Russia and Ukraine (37, 167), and he presciently discussed (although did not predict) an increase in votes for right–wing, nationalist, anti–immigration parties. (201) He claimed that “the dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness” (183). And he also said that “for security reasons” ‘core’ civilisation states might attempt to “incorporate or dominate” peoples from more liminal zones citing China and the Uighurs as one of his examples. (154)

As all this suggests, The Clash was admirably specific in many of its predictions, which inevitably meant it would be disproved easily when wrong. Thus, he argued that the Asian economic boom would “level off sometime in the early 21st century”, (120) and that the Islamic Resurgence would fade into history when the demographic impulse powering it weakened in the second and third decades of the century. (121) But it also meant that when he was correct, he could sound like a newspaper article from the future. Greece, he claimed, “often pursued economic policies that seemed to flout the standards prevailing in Brussels” (163), while in America “the real clash” would be between “the multiculturalists and the defenders of… the American Creed.” (307)

In short, for all its tendency to self–fulfilling prophecies, and for its vague bellicosity and the sense of a near–inevitable confrontation that left a bad taste in the mouth, The Clash of Civilisations was surely one of the more accurate geopolitical forecasts to emerge from the post–Cold War years.


Being more accurate, however, is not the same as being right. The reason why Huntington’s thesis attracted so much attention over the years is, I think, because of his use of the word ‘clash’. People applauded him as prophetic when the world turned out to be slightly less peaceful than others predicted. Or they censured him for being a Jeremiah, or worse, when they thought he was presuming, or even provoking the conflicts he claimed to be predicting.

However, as mentioned earlier, conflict of one kind or another is the background music to human history. To praise or pan Huntington for what he has to say about the likelihood of conflict is to miss what is distinctive and most interesting about his thesis – not that there would be clashes but that they would be between civilisations. The really significant word in his title is ‘Civilisation’ rather than ‘Clash’, and it is about this that he is perceptive b also ultimately wrong.

Humans are, by Huntington’s reckoning, social, meaning–seeking creatures. Although he was surely wrong in his claim that people don’t judge “physical size, head shapes and skin colours” as crucial distinctions – the sorry history of racism suggests otherwise – he was still right to say that human groups like to distinguish themselves on the basis of “their values, beliefs, institutions, and social structures”. (42) Such groups form at every level, starting with family and tribe and ending with entire civilisations. “Civilisations are the biggest ‘we’ within which we feel culturally at home”. (43)

Instinctively this feels right, as anyone who has spent any sustained time outside their own ‘civilisation’ will recognise. However much we might bemoan and criticise our culture, we feel we belong there. Civilisations are, according to Huntington, encompassing comprehensive, long–lived (if ultimately mortal), and powerful cultural (rather than political) entities.

Huntington deserves particular credit for placing so much emphasis on the role of religion both within the concept of civilisation and, therefore, as a major factor in future global affairs. Religion helps define and cohere civilisations. (Judaeo–)Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism lie at the heart of four of his global civilisations, which also means, ominously, they define the edges of a civilisation. For Huntington, Europe ends where Western Christianity ends and Islam and Orthodoxy begin. (158)

Perceptively, he argued that this was not likely to change simply because countries modernised, industrialised and urbanised as sociologists of religion once thought. Arguably the opposite happens: people, especially migrants, find themselves in unfamiliar and anonymous environments which they cope with not by embracing a new civilisational identity, still less by happily becoming consumers, political party members, or abandoning the idea of identity altogether, but by appropriating and often intensifying their existing, often religious, identity. Politics and economics are, here, an excrescence on the surface of religious identity, rather than other way round. “Neither Adam Smith nor Thomas Jefferson will meet the psychological, emotional, moral, and social needs of urban migrants… Jesus Christ may not meet them either, but He is likely to have a better chance.” (65) Humans are religious creatures at least in as far they ask the kind of questions that only religions satisfactorily answer. “For people facing the need to determine ‘Who am I? Where do I belong?’ religion provides compelling answers” (97) – a conclusion well evidenced by the recent Theos report on Religious London.

This is not – note – necessarily a happy situation, even for those of us who hold religion to be a broadly humanising force. “Millennia of human history have shown that religion is not a ‘small difference’ but possibly the most profound difference that can exist between people. The frequency, intensity, and violence of fault line wars are greatly enhanced by beliefs in different gods.” (254) La Revanche de Dieu – the Revenge of God – as Huntington calls it, can be seen in Russia, India, Africa, the Middle East, former Soviet Republics, and parts of South East Asia, and, less angrily, in South Korea, the US, China, and Latin America (95–101) – indeed pretty much everywhere except where the cold dead hand of European secularism lies.

Whether religion drives civilizational conflict, or civilisations instrumentalise religion in their hostilities, or whether both are simply effects of innate human bellicosity that will find an expression whatever way it can, is not easy to say (and Huntington doesn’t try). Whichever way one draws the lines of causation, there is clearly correlation between religion and civilisation.


Religions might, therefore, correlate with Huntington’s idea of a civilisation but the two are not identical or coterminous. That, however, invites the somewhat thornier question of what does constitute a civilisation, and here the answer gets a bit vague.

Huntington admits that civilisations have “no clear–cut boundaries” and “no precise beginnings and endings”. (43) People can and do redefine their identity and “as a result, the composition and shapes of civilisations change over time.” (43) Cultures naturally “interact and overlap”. In other words, the closer you stare at the category of a civilisation, the blurrier it appears.

Quite how blurry can be seen by Huntington’s list of “major contemporary civilisations”: Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Western, Latin American, and “possibly” African. This sounds like the kind of list that many people would draw up were they asked to, but on closer inspection it is a strange grab bag that reminds me a bit of Jorge Luis Borges’ famous taxonomy of animals. The Argentinian essayist claimed to have read, in an ancient Chinese encyclopaedia called the ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’, how animals could be divided up in 14 categories:

“(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in the present classification, (i) those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that look like flies from a long way off.”

While Huntington’s list is not quite so random (or funny) as Borges’, it is nonetheless telling that his civilisations do not follow any common taxonomic rules. Hindu and Islamic are specifically religious categories, although as religions their nature is rather different: Islam has a measure of monotheistic, scriptural clarity whereas Hinduism, by contrast, was only established, as a word and category, in the early 19th century, and then only because the missionaries and traders who encountered South Asia viewed it through their European Christian denominational lens. Orthodox is a denominational category, rather than a religious one. Latin America is a geographical category. Western is a geographical concept that is not in fact geographical (as people in Australia and New Zealand would testify). Japanese is a geographical, ethnic, linguistic and/or national category. Sinic (which, tellingly, had been Confucian in Huntington’s original essay) is neither religious, nor political, nor ethnic but, in slightly circular logic, “describes the common culture of China and the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and outside of China as well as the related cultures of Vietnam and Korea.” (45) And Africa is a geographical entity that, with its rich mix of indigenous, Western, and Islamic cultures is hardly a coherent, unitary civilizational category at all. In other words, the idea of civilisation not only has blurred edges, as Huntington admits, but a blurred middle too. It is far from clear what a ‘civilisation’ actually is. And if it is not clear what a civilisation is, it is also unclear what it is the people are supposed to be identified by, loyal to or prepared to fight for.

Take the concept of the West for example. What characterises Western civilisation? Huntington offers a range of answers to this question that are spread through the book. The West is defined by its classical legacy: Greek philosophy and rationalism, Roman Law, the Latin language. (69) It is defined by its Christianity, or more specifically by Protestantism and Catholicism, “the single most important characteristic of Western civilisation”. (70) It is characterised by its early and unusual separation of spiritual and temporal authority, and by its commitment to the rule of law, and by its pluralism, and its commitment to representative democracy, and liberalism, and individualism, and free markets, limited government, human rights, and universalism.

This is quite a list and Huntington admits that “individually almost none of these factors was unique to the West” but insists that “the combination of them was”. (72) But does that mean you have to accept the full combination to be truly Western? Or that if the West swung heavily against one or more of these factors, it would no longer be truly Western? If religion is indeed the “central defining characteristic of civilisations”, as Huntington claims, (47) and if so many of the West’s modern commitments – to the rule the law, secularism, liberalism individualism, human rights, etc. – can be traced to Christianity (as they can be), does that mean that the West needs Christianity to remain Western? At one point, Huntington comes close to admitting this, remarking at the end of the book that “Western civilisation could be undermined by the weakening of its central component, Christianity”, before softening the verdict by adding that “the erosion of Christianity among Westerners is likely to be at worst only a very long–term threat to the health of Western civilisation.” (305)

Such questions are not intended to undermine the idea that there is such a thing as Western civilisation. There is and, as a definition, Huntington’s is pretty good. Rather it is intended to suggest that because civilisations are blurry–edged, blurry–middled, vague and sprawling and complex entities, any definition of them is compelled to end up bundling together a series of more (or less) aligned components. The West is not dependant or defined by any one, let alone all, of these qualities, but rather by some unspecified combination of them, in the manner of a ‘family resemblance‘.

People no doubt do have a strong attachment to their civilisation, but if civilisations are fragmentary, patchwork, constructed and slightly incoherent, it means that that people’s attachment is also complex, partial, constructed, flexible and unlikely simply to be the kind of thing that lends itself to a zero–sum conflict with another civilisation. I might be loyal to the West on account of its individualism, free markets and limited government; you for its commitment to representative democracy, social pluralism and advocacy of human rights; she for its Christianity, its freedom of religion and the powerful cultural legacy of Christendom. Civilisational identity is real but, properly understood, it is also sufficiently capacious and flexible to admit different reasons for, and levels of, loyalty.


Huntington has less to say about other civilisations but the same point can be made there too.

Take Islam. Hawks like Huntington because he called the ‘threat’ of Islam clearer, louder and earlier than most of his peers. He recognised the value of Islam as a source of “identity, meaning, stability, legitimacy, development, power and hope.” (109). He saw the potency of this combined with demographic growth, economic stagnation, oil revenues, a sense of injury against other civilisations, and allegedly longstanding ambivalence towards the use of violence. And he listed a number of persuasive reasons – a sharp rise in unemployed and disaffected young men; the absence of a common enemy in communism; the West’s ham–fisted universalism; a surge in Islamic confidence and a desire to reassert its authority over a waning West – by means of which the Islamic civilisation could find itself in conflict with the Western one. (211) However much one might object to his tone – he admitted in a footnote, honestly but without apology, that “no single statement in my Foreign Affairs article attracted more critical comment than: ‘Islam had bloody borders’” (258) – one cannot deny that he was describing, in the early 1990s, a problem that is recognisable today.

However, his conceptualisation of Islamic civilisation was somewhat monolithic, and often treated history as destiny. That many (though not all) Muslim–majority countries today lack a functioning system of representative democracy is beyond dispute, but much the same criticism would have been levelled at (quintessentially ‘Western’ civilisation) Catholic countries a century ago. Catholicism found within its theology the resources to legitimise representative democracy and there are arguments that Islamic theology is capable of doing just the same. (See an early Theos essay by Sean Oliver Dee for more on this.) It makes a difference whether you draw your political philosophy from traditions of theology that are rooted in, for example, Saudi Wahhabism; in transnational Islamic movements which oppose both democracy and current Muslim autocracies; in forms of Islamic thought that work within, rather than reject, democracy; or in those forms of Sufism or Salafism which focus more on personal spiritual renewal than on changing the political order. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt participated in democratic politics, before it was banned, whereas Hizb ut–Tahrir, another, transnational Islamic movement, rejects participation in democracy altogether in favour of the establishment of an Islamic superstate. It is worth remembering that after India and the USA, the third–biggest democracy in terms of population is Indonesia, the biggest Muslim–majority country in the world. In short, Islamic ‘civilisation’ is variegated.

A similar point can be made concerning Sinic civilisation. For Huntington, Confucianism (which has even less claim to be a ‘religion’ than Hinduism) lies at the heart of Sinic civilisation and “at its broadest level”, the Confucian “ethos” stresses the value of authority, hierarchy, the subordination of individual rights and interests, the importance of consensus, the avoidance of confrontation’, “saving face” and “in general, the supremacy of the state over society and of society over the individual.” (225)

That being so, such a Sinic civilisation could never truly be reconciled with “the primacy in American beliefs of liberty, equality, democracy and individualism”, and “the American propensity to distrust government, oppose authority, promote checks and balances, encourage competition, sanctify human rights, and to forget the past, ignore the future, and focus on maximising immediate gains.”

Perhaps so, but it is telling that Huntington slips quietly from comparing Sinic and Western civilisation here to comparing Sinic and the American version of Western civilisation, and indeed the most undiluted, uncompromising and arguably caricatured version of American Western civilisation. There are other ways of comparing civilisations that are less severe. The European Christian or indeed Social Democratic traditions are every bit as Western as American individualism, and, accordingly, not as alien to the Confucian values he sets out.

Or, to take an even more pertinent example: it is instructive that the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has become extremely popular in China, where intellectuals find a resonance between his ‘communitarian’ philosophy (the scare quotes reflect the fact that it’s a term Sandel is uneasy with) and (at least certain readings of) Confucianism and Daoism. Indeed, Harvard University Press dedicated an entire volume of essays to the connections between the two, which argued that there was an authentic connection between East Asian Confucian communitarians, and thinkers like Sandel, and even “that Confucianism is congenial to Aristotelianism.” (59)

None of this is to claim that there are no genuine or significant differences between Western, Islamic, Sinic (and other) civilisations, let alone to slide into the politically–correct postmodern mush of claiming that ‘deep down’ they are all the same. There are differences and they matter. Rather, it is to stress that the differences are complex, piecemeal, protean, and negotiable precisely because civilisations themselves are.


Such a correction to the idea of civilisations is not altogether alien to Huntington’s own thesis. He devotes some time in his book to outlining the “structure” of civilisations, which he splits between “core states” (which are central to a civilisation’s identity), “member states” (which identify fully with a civilisation), cleft countries (where large internal groups belong to a different civilisation), “torn countries” (where there is a single predominant culture which places it in one civilisation but whose leaders want to shift it to another), and a few “lone countries”, which don’t fit in to any civilisation or category. Thus, Japan, China, Russia, and India are core states; Italy, Jordan, Argentina, and Belarus are member states; Ukraine, Indonesia and Kenya are cleft countries; Turkey and Mexico are torn countries; Ethiopia and Haiti are lone ones.

This adds important nuance to the civilizational idea and clearly shows that civilisational boundaries are not that clear cut. However, when one begins to realise that even this categorisation is fraught with contradictions, it further underlines the inadequacy of civilisational blocks. Thus, only four civilisations have core countries; the West, Latin America, Islam, and Africa do not. For those civilisations that do boast core countries, it is often hard to pinpoint many (or any) member states. What are the member states for the Hindu, Japanese or even Sinic civilisation?

There are further confusions. According to Huntington, Ethiopia is a lone country, but so is Japan, which is a core country and a civilisation in its own right. As well as being a lone country, Ethiopia, he argues, can be also classified as a cleft country on account of its Muslim large minority. But, he admits, by this logic, India and China also qualify as cleft countries, despite the fact that they are civilisational cores. As the details proceed, the very coherence of civilisational categorisation begins to disintegrate.

The inadequacy of the civilisational analysis is further underlined if we return to the world of the Integrated Review with which we started. America has been a much more troubling member of the G7 over recent years than, say, Japan and came perilously close to withdrawing from perhaps the most iconic Western institution of all, NATO, in 2018 (and you can’t simply ignore this by saying that was just Trump because Trump was a symptom as much as a cause of American disquiet). The rivalry between Islamic Iran and Islamic Saudi Arabia is as bitter and dangerous as anything between Islamic and Western civilisation. The ‘War on Terror’ was not straightforwardly between the West and Islamic civilisations, but Western (and Orthodox) states plus established Muslim regimes against non–state Islamic players. One of the greatest flashpoints in the world at the moment is in the South China Sea where China, in contravention of an international tribunal decision in 2016, continues to assert its sovereignty over a number of small islands, most of which are closer to Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia – a conflict that is only civilisational in as far as other powers have been drawn into it from the outside. The very premise of the Integrated Review was to pivot the UK – which along with the US has some claim to being the West’s ‘core country’ were it to have one – away from Europe to the Pacific region, hoping to work more closely with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans–Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

In other words, the unclear, shifting, fragmentary, and piecemeal nature of civilisations means that there seems to be as much likelihood of conflict within them as between them.


By way of conclusion, it is worth underlining why all this matters. After all, critiquing a 30–year–old thesis might itself be criticised for having little more than historic significance.

In reality, the accuracy, prescience and influence of Huntington’s ideas mean that engaging with them is never likely to be a ‘merely academic’ exercise. Understanding whether and why civilisations are destined to clash is intrinsically relevant and important, not least when the thesis for such a clash is so well thought through. As if you needed more evidence for engaging with the idea of clashing civilisations, the state of the world of which the Integrated Review speaks should provide it.

It is particularly important, however, because how we frame conflict is important. For all its prescience, Huntington’s theory is based on an idea of civilizational coherence, identity and strength that simply does not accurately describe reality. Yes, culture does matter hugely to people. Yes, there are recognisable cultural ‘blocks’ at the highest level to which people feel they belong. And yes, there is evidence that some countries, in particular those that see themselves as guarantors of such civilisations, are prepared to enter into conflict with others when they feel they have to, whether to defend a civilisational ally, maintain economic power, or protect cultural prestige. So far, Huntington is accurate.

But civilisations lose in clarity what they gain in size, and it is perfectly possible to find oneself implacably opposed to aspects of one’s own civilisation and attracted to elements of another. Civilisations are too vague and complex to necessarily be subject to a kind of zero–sum logic, whereby whatever my civilisation gains yours automatically loses.

This is not to downplay the very real differences and tensions that currently exist between, say, the West and Russia, or the West and China, or the possibility of some such zero–sum civilizational clash. It would be quite possible for civilisational identities to harden to the extent that conflict became inevitable. It would certainly take an optimist to deny that is a genuine prospect today, more so than when Huntington was writing.

But it becomes (more of) a prospect when we fail to recognise how mutable, malleable, piecemeal, and polyphonic civilisational identities are. As Huntington himself admitted, “a person can identify culturally with his or her clan, ethnic group, nationality, religion, and civilisation”. (128) It is by retaining and repeating this emphasis on multiple identities rather than collapsing them all into, and seeing them all through a civilisational lens, that we are most likely to avoid the kind of conflicts that we all fear today.

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Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 29 March 2021

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