Tag Archives: culture in international relations

Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations

With this week’s readings focusing heavily on the role and impact of culture on public diplomacy, there were a few times that writers referenced Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis. This is not surprising, as Huntington’s seminal work on the issue arose at a time when many were scrambling to make sense of the world of international relations following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many theories at that time were submitted concerning how the new world order would unfold, and Huntington’s ideas received significant attention by academics practitioners alike. Though this is not a typical subject for a blog entry, I thought it important enough to address within the broader framework of understanding the importance of culture within international relations.

In the interest of space, I will attempt to briefly rehash Huntington’s thesis into a few sentences. Huntington utilized the notion that conflict driven by ideology formed the foundation of international relations from post-World War II until 1990, as the world was essentially split between the Western capitalistic champions of free market on one side against the communist, command-economy states led by the USSR on the other. With the victory of the West over the USSR, Huntington argued that the role of ideology as the main instigator of conflict within international relations would diminish and be replaced by culture and religion. Furthermore, the concept of nation-states would be subsumed into seven distinct civilizations (Western, Latin American, Slavic-Orthodox, Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, and Hindu), and that future wars would occur between these civilizations.

As one who places great emphasis on cultural identity, I strongly disagree with Huntington’s crude reductionist arguments that attempt to partition the world into these monolithic unions. Although he was correct in predicting that culture and religion would once again play an important role in international relations, he completely missed the mark by incompetently bunching up countries and regions that only superficially share similarities. Huntington failed to acknowledge the nuances and complexities that exist within regions that ostensibly share a culture, and which would prevent them from becoming unified into a Huntington-esque ‘civilization’. Van Ham’s article this week highlights this flaw, as Huntington’s concept of the Western Civilization, which would comprise the US, Canada, and Western Europe, contains fragmented states which have no interest in uniting on a cultural level. States within the EU, in particular, are extremely resistant to the pervading influence of America’s ‘low’ culture. There are numerous examples that can be brandished here (grouping all Muslims into one category is one that stands out), but suffice to say Huntington’s vision of the future will not be occurring anytime soon.

With this being said, though, an interesting topic that comes to mind whilst analyzing Huntington is the relationship between state and culture. This relationship engenders numerous paths of discussion concerning how a state defines its culture, whether a state recognizes multiple variations within its boundaries, how tolerant it is to these variants, how states identify external cultures, etc., which then provides a solid foundation to build upon discussing how a state manufactures its public diplomacy and calibrates it for foreign consumption.