The Clash of Civilizations & USA’s Foreign Policy

From the Marxist perspective, the struggle between Cain and Abel was a class struggle but for others it was only a struggle for power. Up to the present time, story of mankind consist of battles with each other only to gain dominance over one another. This constant struggle to gain absolute power kept increasing with different reasons, excuses and motives such as the nation state model, religious disputes like crusades and jihads and the invention of more sophisticated warfare technologies.

In Western civilization, knowledge and the enlightenment which were inherited from Renaissance, Reform and Industrial Revolution, were transformed into imperialism and colonialism. The West used the knowledge as an opportunity to make profit at economical and humanitarian cost to the people of the Middle East and other colonies from different part of the World. For the last two centuries, most of the wars in the Middle East were caused by Western countries[1]. With the discovery of enormous oil resources capacity in Middle East, which is an essential element for industrial economy and warfare technology of the western world, this region remained as the center of attention during Post Cold War era as well as in Cold War years. Controlling of oil resources in Middle East meant so much even to the cost that the dictators and anti democratic regimes were supported for long years.

In the mean time United States foreign policy for the Middle East is completely resented by the Muslim populations in this region. For example, USA‘s Middle East political approaches such as favouritism shown to Israel caused wide Iranian public support for anti-USA character of the 1979 revolution in Iran. So the resentmentis not only because of the frequent invasions or colonial ambitions but also because of the close links between the United States and Israel.  Further signs of Western imperialism came in 1993 from Samuel Huntington’s article “The Clash of Civilizations?” published in the influential journal Foreign Affairs. Huntington predicted a future in which an undefined Islamic civilization was destined to conflict with Western civilization. Huntington also set the rules and the conditions of a strategy to have a certain USA (West) victory in a such confrontation. As a result scholars and intellectuals from the every direction of the daily life in Middle East viewed this projection as a portent of continued Western imperial ambition in the post – Cold War era.[2]

Historical Background

 Historically the international system before 1776 was multipolar. In 1815 Concert of Europe was born in Vienna ushering new era in international system, which was based upon a balance of power designed to prevent hegemony from arising on the continent. This era ended with the Crimean War. The period between the Crimean War and World War I illustrates the more rigid bipolarity in the evolution of an international system. After World War I League of Nations was created and it is known as the most significant innovation of twentieth century[3] with the specific purpose of settling international disputes and conflicts. Unfortunately without the full support of United States and the Soviet Union, this idealistic approach resulted in failure. During the 1930s, the world polarized into two rigid camps—the Axis dictatorships and the Allied democracies. After the Second World War the United States moved to counter Soviet aggression. Bipolarity was formalized with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the formation of the Warsaw Pact. This era also known as Cold War era lasted until 1991. [4]

Three aspects of the Cold War were very critical to understand the nature of it. These were bipolarity, nuclear weapons, and ideological disputes. During the cold war years the major concern was to localise and to quarantine conflicts and tensions and prevent them from becoming superpowers’ confrontation. With the dissolution of the Soviet system, bipolar world order lost its balance and legacy. After the Soviet Union was collapsed and the Berlin Wall was torn down, two issues became paramount to the changes taking place in the world and these are the end of the cold war and new world order. The existence of the new world order was certain but its nature was unknown. Immediately after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and communist bloc, a prominent scholar and also a respected strategist from the US State Department declared that The triumph of the West, of the western idea, is evident first of all in the total exclusion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism”.[5] According to his theory, history had run its courses as far as the clash of ideologies was concerned and this was the dominant thing in the new era.  This is also why F. Fukuyama called his essay “the end of history”.  This conception of historical “progress” was taken up by President George Bush Sr. – who enforced this “eschatological” trend by reviving the old term, “New World Order” at the beginning of the Gulf War in 1991.[6]

Of course, there were other IR scholars from different ideological background and perspective tried to fill the theoretical void of post-Cold War era. Scholars like John Meirsheimer thought that we will miss the Cold War era because Cold War conditions provided a balance of power within the bipolar structure of the world order. It was also argued that the United States has an absolute hegemony in the new era and USA is orchestrator of newly established unipolar international system. The main reason behind this theory was lack of capability of other emerging powers which possibly would challenge the establishment of unipolar international political system under the US hegemony. [7]Under this hegemony or unipolar system, USA was the sole superpower attended by its western allies providing that multipolarity will come in time perhaps with the next generations.[8]

In the mean time some other scholars saw this void as an opportunity to identify sources of conflict and define the nature of the Post Cold War era. Fukuyama’s theory “The End of History” were challenged at a very early stage by another very powerful and persuasive theory. Huntington‘s theory, published in an article in 1993, of “The Clash of Civilizations?” (Borrowing the phrase from B. Lewis[9]) raised great discussions. When Huntington expanded the article into a book three years later, the question mark was removed. His theory was a critical response to Fukuyama’s ideas. Samuel Huntington, professor in Harvard University, agreed that the old ideological battle between communism and liberal democracy is over and communism is a spent force but he also warned that the end of the cold war had created the conditions for the rise of a new and dangerous form of international conflict based on ethnic and religious allegiances and especially cultural differences.[10] Huntington also had another article published 1999 in which he questioned the very existing models (bipolar, unipolar and multipolar) of the International political system for Post Cold War era and come up with a new terminology. In an article called Lonely Superpower published 1999; Samuel Huntington warned for American isolation in the world and claimed that international system of Post Cold War era did not fit any of these three models. It is instead a strange hybrid, a uni-multipolar system with one superpower and several major powers[11].  

Clash of civilizations & USA’s foreign policy

In “The Clash of Civilizations” (1993) and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), Samuel Huntington proposed that the end of the Cold War marked the end of conflicts within Western civilization, whereas a new era of conflicts between civilizations has just started. In the article Huntington argued that “the civilizations of the Cold War era were divided into the First, Second, and Third Worlds but these are no longer relevant.” Huntington claims in his theory that bipolar nature of Cold War Era and nation-state structures will be replaced by multipolar world of culture based civilisations. The fierce competition between rival systems of Soviets and Americans transformed into civilization divisions. According to his theory, world is categorized in to different major civilizations. These civilizations are Western, Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Orthodox, Latin American, Hindu and possibly African. Among these civilizations, Huntington put forward two main challengers against Western civilization. These civilizations are the Sinic (Chinese) and Islamic civilizations. Moreover, he argues that the possibility of alliance between Sinic civilizations and Islamic civilization is a greater sign for the clash of civilizations.[12]

In general, theories do not have to be completely accurate to become conventional wisdom. Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ theory is a living proof of this. When Foreign Affairs first published his article ‘The clash of civilizations?’, the intellectual community in general dismissed it. His theory was not credited much in the early 1990s but following years it rapidly gained credibility in US foreign policy makers’ eyes. But when the attacks of September 11 took place, his book with the same title but without the question mark became an instant bestseller. Beyond doubt, Samuel Huntington offered a new policy of world politics in which the principle patterns of conflict and cooperation were shaped by cultures and civilizations.[13] In the mean time Huntington was harshly criticized and accused of having his eyes on rivals’ (Fukuyama) policy making ranks.[14] To a certain extent, the “clash of civilizations theory is a great example about how much such ideas influence the policy making in USA. Theory of “clash of civilization” emerged in the optimistic post-Cold War era when policy makers and the scholars were looking for a theory to replace the Cold war one. Samuel Huntington filled the theoretical void of post-Cold War era. After 1990 U.S. policy began a gradual shift away from Cold War politics to the clash of civilizations. ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ article significantly shaped the post-Cold War rhetoric of IR and U.S foreign policy by replacing the old Cold War enemy, USSR (Russians, the Eastern bloc etc.), with the new enemy (Islam and Middle East). [15] However the idea of a clash between Islam and the West was very much open to criticism. Because every civilization has complex social issues, and they rarely act as a united bloc of nations. Also the “clash of civilizations” theory was built on nonempirical arguments and imaginary categorizations of civilizations. Nevertheless, it created a huge impact not only on the foreign policies of the USA, but also on the academic discussions in the discipline of International Relations.

Even in his early works, Huntington had a certain level of prejudice.  As early as 1984, Huntington was arguing in an article that “among Islamic countries, particularly those in the Middle East, the prospects for democratic development seem low”.[16]  He was indicating that Arabs are not capable of nonviolence or democracy. Several years later, in another essay “The Goals of Development”, Huntington elaborated this argument by claiming that each region of the world has its own religio-cultural structure which plays a large part to verify openness for democracies.[17] Also in his book called The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, Huntington isolated two such religio-cultural examples. These were Islam and Confucianism. He labelled them “strongly anti-democratic” claiming that they would “impede the spread of democratic norms in society, deny legitimacy to democratic institutions, and thus greatly complicate if not prevent the emergence and effectiveness of those institutions.”[18]  Based on these early works, Huntington’s theory “Clash of Civilizations” used these ideas even further by claiming that the early twenty-first century will be between anti-democratic “civilizations” and the West.[19]. Also In his book published 1996, Samuel Huntington spoke of the “democracy paradox”—that “adoption by non-Western societies of Western democratic institutions encourages and gives access to power to nativist and anti-Western political movements.”[20] What Huntington meant is with democratic elections, public in Middle East would bring governments to power with hostile attitude towards US interests. But Huntington does not explain deeper reasons of the Arab hostility that they have against USA in the first place.

In the early post cold war period, there has also been a group of liberal scholars rose to prominence. Although these liberal approaches briefly brought out an optimistic and neo-idealist moments for the world peace, September 11 attacks of Al Qaida and US’ war against terrorism with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq brought back the balance of power with the focus on neo-conservatism.[21] Huntington’s theory attempts to unify Western civilisation around the leadership of America, and to urge USA to lead Western civilisation. In his theory, Huntington warns that unless the West unites under the leadership of USA—and unless USA assumes that leadership role—the countries of Western civilisation will “hang together or hang separately”.[22] 10 years after Soviet collapsing, 9/11 attacks on America triggered the US “war against terror”. It was also the definition and declaration of USA’s new role (leading actor of the West in a multipolar world). The USA administration of this new era accepted the logic of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” theory and acted as West against “Rest”. After September 11, practices and the actions of the USA and the coalition countries were enough evidence that the Clash of Civilizations dominated their foreign policy. The war on terror has strengthened the arguments of cultural clash like the uncompromising nature of “civilisations”, and pushed the idea of a new leadership – USA leadership. Unfortunately this structure become the official idea by the G. Bush Jr. administration—even to the extent of naming countries involved in Huntington’s Islamic–Confucian alliance as the “axis of evil.[23] In statements in the first week of the post–11 September era, President G. Bush Jr. repeatedly referred to the terrorists as “barbarians” and to the growing USA-led coalition as the “civilised world”. USA defined the war on terror as a clash between “Civilisation and barbarism”. These expressions was almost identical with Huntington’s approach in which he assumes an environment of general threat where the fault lines of two rival civilisations meet or a danger of the Islamic–Confucian alliance arise against West. In other words, the general threat Huntington describes is the clash between Civilisation (West) and Barbarism (Islam). Also the Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that “I think every civilized nation in the world recognizes that this was an assault not just against the United States, but against civilization.”[24]  According to Huntington’s view the barbarian is a barbarian because of its culture therefore it cannot be pacified or changed. As a result, the USA’s Cold war continued in a different stage against a different enemy or enemies. In other words, “the cold war continued, but this time on many fronts, with many more serious and basic systems of values and ideas (like Islam and Confucianism) struggling for ascendancy and even dominance over the West.”[25] Obviously Huntington’s policy prescriptions become the official doctrine. Despite the empirical and normative criticisms made to Samuel Huntington, it is clear that the G. Bush Jr. administration accepted his clash of civilisations paradigm as its blueprint for foreign policy. Although, the G. Bush Jr. administration denied the clash of civilisations publicly, its foreign policy follows Huntington’s prescriptions almost precisely. The public denying of the clash of civilisations theory was probably a part of an attempt to prevent the kind of civilisational allying which Huntington described as the kin–country syndrome. In the mean time the anti-Americanism with the wide support throughout the Middle East became a common reflex not a response to American culture or religion, but instead an unambiguous rejection of American foreign policy.[26]


The ideological East-West rivalry has been phased out and is now being replaced by a civilizational East-West conflict, represented by the confrontation between the United States, the self-declared leader of the international community, and the Muslim world.

It is unfortunate that in international politics, Huntington’s suggestion of a war between civilizations with Muslims being on one side and West is on the other seem to dictate the works of many academicians, scholars and policy makers.[27] In the end, the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory was used only to justify the ‘war on terror”


[1] Salt Jeremy,  The Unmaking of the Middle East, A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands, University of California Press; 1 edition (July 9, 2008) page 14

[2] Bulliet Richard W., Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa | 2004 page 9

[3] Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin Reference 1998,  page 300

[4] Hans Binnendijk, Back to Bipolarity? The Washington Quarterly,  Autumn 1999, page 7-9

[5] Fukuyama Francis, The End of History, The National Interest, Summer 1989

[6]  Koechler Henry, After September 11, 2001: Clash of Civilizations or Dialogue? International Progress Organization’s

Volume “Civilizations – Conflict or Dialogue?” (1999). Page 3

[7]Charles Krauthammer,The Unipolar Moment, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 70, No. 1, 1990/1991, page. 23-24

[8] William C. Wolfforth, The Stability of a Unipolar World, International Security, Vol. 24, No. 1 Summer 1999, page 8

[9] Said Edward, The Clash of Ignorance, The Nation, Oct 4 2001 page 1

[10] Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin Reference 1998,  page 67

[11] Samuel Huntington, Lonely Superpower, Foreign Affairs,  Mar/Apr99, Vol. 78, No 2, page 36

[12] J. Bayles, S. Smith, P. Owens, The Globalization of World Politics, Oxford Uni. Press, page 421

[13] J. Bayles, S. Smith, P. Owens, The Globalization of World Politics, Oxford Uni. Press, page 421

[14]Said Edward, The Clash of Ignorance, The Nation, Oct 4 2001 page 1

[15] Erdem Engin, Turkish journal of International Relations, Volume1, number2, 2002,  page 82

[16] Huntington Samuel, Will More Countries Become Democratic?  Political Science Quarterly, 1984, Volume 99 Number 2  page 216.

[17]Huntington Samuel, “ The Goals of Development.”  Understanding Political Development, New York: HarperCollins, 1987

[18] The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), pp. 300, 298.

[19] Isakhan Benjamin, “Oriental Despotism” and the Democratization of Iraq in The Australian, issue 16, 2008

[20] Huntington Samuel, The clash of Civilizations and the remaking of the World Order, Touchstone Books, 1998 page 94

[21] Sozen Ahmet, Clash of Civilizations or Consensus of Civilizations: The Case of Turkish Membership of the European Union, Annual Conference of the International Studies in Chicago, 28 March 2007,  page 6

[22] Salter Mark B, Global Dialogue Volume 5 Number, 1-2, Winter/Spring 2003 page 2

[23] Salter Mark B, Global Dialogue Volume 5 Number, 1-2, Winter/Spring 2003 page 1

[24] Powell Colin, Office of the Press Secretary, September 15 2001

[25] Said Edward, The Myth of ‘the Clash of Civilizations, Media Education Foundation, 1998

[26]Barker Philip & Muck William, Secular Roots of Religious Rage: Shaping Religious Identity in the Middle East, Politics and Religion, No:2/2009 Volume 3

[27]Al-Ahsan Abdullah, The Clash of Civilizations and International Politics Today,