Explanation and Power: A Case Study

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25 years after Samuel P. Huntington published “The Clash of Civilizations?”, there is still discussion about what to make of his claims: Has he been prophetic about the religiously and culturally charged conflicts we witness today? Or has he provided politicians from George W. Bush to Viktor Orbán with a blueprint for instigating and intensifying exactly such conflicts?

Behind the different views of Huntington’s legacy, there are two very different ways of understanding his clash conception: One is to interpret it as as an empirical hypothesis about the roots of violent conflict between nations and groups. In this view, the clash conception aims to represent political reality—it explains conflict by referring to a clash of civilizations because, it contends, there really is one. The other is to take his conception as a deeply political one, a strategic instrument embedded in a web of power and interests, used to further a particular agenda. In this view, the clash conception aims to shape political reality—to the point where there may be a clash of civilizations because the clash conception created it.

So how are we to understand the clash conception? I will argue that it has been and still is much more successful as a political tool than as a scientific theory—and that therefore it is best seen as just that: an instrument of power, not of explanation.

The clash conception as an empirical hypothesis

Huntington’s argument

Huntington’s main thesis is that in a post-Cold-War world, “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations“ (Huntington, 1993: 22). For him, this is the endpoint of a century-long evolution of international conflicts: At first, they primarily occurred between princes, then between nations, and finally, in the 20th century, between ideologies—all the while still being “conflicts within Western civilization” (Huntington, 1993: 23; emphasis added). The fundamental change Huntington expects to happen after the end of the Cold War is that international politics will increasingly focus on conflict and, more general, “interaction between the West and non-Western civilizations” (Huntington, 1993: 23; emphasis added).

In Huntington’s view, civilizations are thus becoming a much more relevant factor to explain state behavior than “their political or economic systems or […] their level of economic development” (Huntington, 1993: 23). His argument heavily depends on his notion of a civilization, which he defines as follows:

A civilization is […] 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. (Huntington, 1993: 24)

He then argues that “the most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another“ (Huntington, 1993: 25). For this, he presents six more or less distinct causes: different views of the basic categories of social existence, a “civilization-consciousness” enhanced by increasing and intensifying interactions between people from different civilizations, a “revival of religion” that “unites civilizations”, a “return to the roots” in non-Western civilizations, the mounting difficulty of conflict resolution due to the fundamental nature of “cultural characteristics and differences”, and an increasing economic regionalism (Huntington, 1993: 25 ff.).

According to Huntington, these developments will lead people “to see an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ relation existing between themselves and people of different ethnicity or religion” which will “create differences over policy issues, ranging from human rights to immigration to trade and commerce to the environment”. Finally, ”the efforts of the West to promote its values […] as universal values, to maintain its military predominance and to advance its economic interests [will] engender countering responses from other civilizations” (Huntington, 1993: 29). Thus cultural differences will lead to a clash of civilizations that will play out on two levels:

At the micro-level, adjacent groups along the fault lines between civilizations struggle, often violently, over the control of territory and each other. At the macro-level, states from different civilizations compete for relative military and economic power, struggle over the control of international institutions and third parties, and competitively promote their particular political and religious values. (Huntington, 1993: 29)

The most important fault line, and the one most prone to violent conflict, Huntington predicts, will be the “Velvet Curtain of culture” (Huntington, 1993: 31) between Western and Islamic civilizations, a line that roughly follows “the eastern boundary of Western Christianity in the year 1500” (Huntington, 1993: 30). The conflicts along this fault line are already “seen as a clash of civilizations“ on “both sides”, Huntington contends (Huntington, 1993: 32). Since these conflicts can also be used as “a potent means of arousing mass support and of pressuring hesitant governments” by populists and religious leaders, they are also “most likely to escalate into major wars” (Huntington, 1993: 38 f.).

Thus Huntington’s outlook is clear: “The next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations”, (Huntington, 1993: 39).


Although Huntington argues in broad strokes, ending with a sweeping conclusion and concrete policy recommendations, his theory is clearly positioned as an explanation of political conflict. As such, it naturally faces questions about its empirical validity: Is there really more violent conflict “between nations and groups of different civilizations“ (Huntington, 1993: 22) than within civilizations? Is there really a concentration of struggles along the”fault lines between civilizations“, especially between Western and Islamic ones (Huntington, 1993: 29)? And finally, is civilizational conflict really increasing after the end of the Cold War (Huntington, 1993: 23)?

Huntington himself ”bolster[s] his case with various historical examples” (Russett et al., 2000: 602)—in other words, he relies “mostly on anecdotal evidence” (Fox, 2002: 419). In contrast, several authors have tried to answer these questions in quantitative studies (e.g. Russett et al., 2000; Henderson and Tucker, 2001; Chiozza, 2002; Fox, 2002). Their verdict on Huntington’s predictions is overwhelmingly negative: While the data for the post-Cold-War era used in the studies is sparse, they agree that the available evidence contradicts most aspects of Huntington’s thesis.

Examining the “macro-level”, Henderson and Tucker (2001: 317) find that “civilization membership was not significantly associated with the probability of interstate war”. Likewise, Chiozza (2002: 711) concludes that “state interactions across the civilizational divide are not more conflict prone”.

Concerning the “micro-level”, Fox (2002: 415) finds that “civilizational conflicts constitute a minority of ethnic conflicts“ and that “conflicts between the West and […] Islamic civilizations, which Huntington predicts will be the major conflicts in the post-Cold War era, constitute a small minority of civilizational conflicts”.

Finally, investigating the predicted rise of civilizational conflict after the end of the Cold War, Russett et al. (2000: 583) observe that “[c]ontrary to the thesis that the clash of civilizations will replace Cold War rivalries as the greatest source of conflict, militarized interstate disputes across civilizational boundaries became less common, not more so, as the Cold War waned”.

Thus the empirical findings can be summarized with the words of Henderson and Tucker (2001: 317): „All told, [the] findings challenge Huntington’s claims and seriously undermine the policy recommendations that devolve from his clash of civilizations thesis.“ Any prima facie plausibility vanishes once anecdotal evidence is replaced by quantitative analysis.

But as some of the quoted authors indicate, there are further questions about Huntington’s approach. Fox (2002: 415), e.g., finds his “classification of civilizations […] difficult to operationalize”, which directly points to the dubiousness of Huntington’s very definition of a civilization.

For one thing, its relation to geography, ethnicity, religion, and language remains unclear. Huntington variously mixes these aspects by speaking of, e.g., Western, Japanese, Islamic, and Anglophone Caribbean civilizations.

For another, the picture he paints of civilizations allows for very little detail and differentiation. Hence Islamicists like Roy P. Mottahedeh were quick to point out the risk to “underestimate the variety within that designation and the rapidity with which it can change over time” (Mottahedeh, 1995: 7). Mottahedeh analyzes several examples of Islamic tradition and middle-east politics to bring out the “large historical variation in the Islamic tradition”, the “large areas of internal disagreement” and the “very considerable diversity of opinion on foreign policy” (Mottahedeh, 1995: 14) among Muslims and even Islamists. Thus it is questionable, he argues, “to assume a set of normative beliefs over a vast area, such as a Huntingtonian civilization“. Furthermore, “even if we were to identify a large and clear set of normative beliefs for one of these civilizations, [it is implausible] that these beliefs should easily determine the behavior of those who formally ascribe to them“ (Mottahedeh, 1995: 19 f.). In general, there is consensus among Islamicists that “[t]here is no such thing as a coherent western or Islamic civilisation that could/would clash“ (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 19).

The cause for Huntington’s inability to differentiate can be found in his essentialist supposition that shared history, customs, institutions etc. constitute “objective elements” (Huntington, 1993: 24) of a civilization. In the tradition of Orientalists like Bernard Lewis (cf. Huntington, 1993: 32), Huntington conceives of civilizations as fixed parts of an objective reality, as something existing prior to and independent from their interpretation. As Edward Said put it polemically:

[T]he personification of enormous entities called “the West” and “Islam” is recklessly affirmed, as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world […]. Certainly neither Huntington nor Lewis has much time to spare for […] the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture […]. No, the West is the West, and Islam Islam. (Said, 2001)

In other words: What Huntington calls civilizations are really cultural artifacts; their content and meaning, and thus the influence they exert, is not a given, but a product of ever-changing social arrangements and power relations. They are primarily social constructions, not natural facts, and have to be treated accordingly.

The clash conception as expressing a regime of truth

Following this line of thought, criticisms from a post-colonial perspective, most prominently by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, reconstruct Huntington’s conception as expressing a so-called “regime of truth” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 5). According to this analysis, it shapes political discourse on three levels:

First, it contains the aforementioned ontological posits: It asserts that social reality is constituted by facts that are independent of our perception and interpretation. Thus it declares history, customs, institutions etc. to be “part of the natural order of things” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 12), not social constructions.

Second, it holds that knowledge about this reality is gained from a privileged epistemic perspective (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 3). It follows that the “other”, the culture that is seen as opposed, is only described from one’s own perspective: “The object […] is ostracised from the discourse […]; it does not speak” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 13).

Third, the worldview built on these premises is deeply intertwined with power: It is used by “particularly privileged human beings […] to enforce their political, economic, cultural and social agendas” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 12). From this amalgamation of “discourse, power and knowledge” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 6), the clash regime emerges not only as shaping political perception and options for action, but also as basically invisible.

As both quantitative and qualitative analysis show, “[t]he clash is exactly non-existent outside of such discourses suggesting it” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 6). Nevertheless, it has achieved “‘quasi-objective’ status […] within society” and has “constitutive effects […] on our thinking about the other” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 10):

[T]he socially engineered clash [is] believed to be ‘really’ inevitable and necessary, rather than the outcome of particular historical circumstances, outright lies, racism, imperial competitions or a strategy of governments […]. (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 10)

So from a post-colonial perspective, the culturally charged political conflicts we see today are not caused by an inevitable clash between objectively existing civilizations, but stirred up by a socially constructed clash regime to further individual and collective political and economic interests.

In this view, the clash regime sharpens the differences between views of the basic categories of social existence, in effect producing or at least enhancing “civilization-consciousness”, the “revival of religion” and a “return to the roots” (Huntington, 1993: 26). Mounting difficulty of conflict resolution and increasing economic regionalism are caused not by clashing civilizations, but jointly by individual and collective “‘clash agents’” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 12) pursuing their interests.

Thus the claim that “[o]n both sides the interaction between Islam and the West is seen as a clash of civilizations” (Huntington, 1993: 32) might be true, but in a very different way than Huntington contends: The fact that both sides see this interaction as a clash might be the primary cause for conflict, not the fact that there was an actual clash they only reacted to.

Political uses of the clash conception

The clash regime can be seen at work in a variety of discourses and policies ranging from the current U.S. position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the treatment of refugees in Europe. But its influence is perhaps most clearly visible when looking at concrete political endorsements of Huntington’s clash conception.

Huntington’s critics identified such endorsements early on; Mottahedeh (1995: 13) called it “a principle with which to make order of the post-Cold War era” which gives people “a sense of purpose”. George W. Bush gave it the succinct expression “‘you are either with us or against us’” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 187), while over 60 prominent US scholars, including Huntington, championed it in a letter defending the U.S. campaign against terrorism (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011: 7 f.).

Today, hints of the clash conception can be found in Donald Trump’s “us vs. them” rhetoric as well as in the claims of European right-wing politicians like Viktor Orbán that European and specifically Christian culture has to be defended against its “enemies”, to name just two current examples. Far from being contingent, these resonances point to a deliberate use of Huntington’s thesis “to feed fantasies already too prevalent about a massive coordinated Islamic movement that sees as its primary objective the humiliation of the West” (Mottahedeh, 1995: 13).

Two concrete cases might illustrate such deliberate use. In an interview given shortly after the Paris attacks of 2015, then AfD chairman Konrad Adam quoted Huntington’s claim that “Islam has bloody borders” (Huntington, 1993: 35) and concluded: “The sentence seems to prove correct.” (Adam 2015) In another interview, German Islamicist and self-professed identitarian Hans-Thomas Tillschneider traces the intellectual connections to Huntington even more explicitly: “[Islam] is the theme of our time because we live in a time when […] cultural identities are becoming more important. The paradigm for this has been provided by Samuel Huntington. […] The Germans have their culture, the Muslims have their culture, and that does not fit together.” (Tillschneider 2016)

Positions like these have decisively shaped German discourse and policies on migration and refugees despite the relatively weak representation of right-wing parties in German parliaments. This brings us full circle: The clash conception has “become not just an analytical interpretation of events, but […] a shaper of events” (Russett et al., 2000: 589).


These examples not only show that the clash regime as analyzed by Adib-Moghaddam continues to exert force over discourse and politics, but that Huntington’s thesis plays an explicit role in these areas. Thus the fear of liberal critics like Russett et al. (2000: 589) seems to have come true: “The worst outcome would be for ‘clash’ to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, intensifying conflicts or bringing about some that otherwise would not have occurred.”

Widely discredited as an empirical hypothesis, but to this day hugely influential in political discourse, the final verdict on the clash conception seems clear: Regardless of Huntington’s own motives in proposing it, it is best seen an instrument of power, not of explanation.