Samuel Huntington (The West is the Best)

Culture is an Excuse

Dr. Sylvia Maier once said that attributing a behavior to culture is an excuse for lazy research. She may have intended to comment off the record, but the idea stuck in my mind. Thus, I am immediately skeptical of Samuel Huntington’s assertion, “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.” Another professor once said that all arguments are at root a disagreement in definitions. My reluctance to accept Huntington’s thesis stems from such a disagreement.

Huntington starts his 1993 Foreign Affairs article, “The Clash of Civilizations?” by talking about culture. However, he quickly swaps in the term civilization. “A civilization is a cultural entity,” he says. In defining both culture and civilization, Huntington explains that for a person, “the civilization to which he belongs is the broadest level of identification with which he intensely identifies.” Handily, this definition allows Huntington to carve the world into however many civilizations he wishes. Neither broadness of cultural entity nor intensity of self-identification are quantifiable, and thus no criteria exist to reject a classification of a person as a member of one civilization rather than another. Huntington’s assertion that “Arabs, Chinese and Westerners … are not part of any broader cultural entity” is reminiscent of some modern class-unity exhortations.

This vagueness is evidence of the laziness that Dr. Maier warned of. Someone truly interested in discussion, rather than assertion, would carefully define his terms so that his peers could be confident of shared assumptions when evaluating the argument.

Nothing so Practical as a Good Theory

If Huntington was not interested in debating his theory, then perhaps he was interested in more practical matters. The Bush administration successfully applied Huntington’s ideas in conflating Al-Qaeda and the Taliban with the Baath Party. A good theory simplifies decision-making. Huntington and his enthusiasts allow statesmen to take action without hand-wringing deliberation. Since “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations,” the US has no need to separate Al-Qaeda operatives from their neighbors. The conflict is clearly one between the civilized world—a coalition of the willing—and a rogue nation… one that may serve as a synecdoche for its own civilization.

Many writers with a greater interest in detail have taken Huntington to task for his glib generalizations, such as Edward Said. Certainly, Huntington’s assertions such as, “A Western democrat could carry on an intellectual debate with a Soviet Marxist. It would be virtually impossible for him to do that with a Russian traditionalist,” are hard to believe, unless one is predisposed to the idea. His wide readership and acclaim indicate that more people believed his thesis before he wrote than now disagree with him. His article is seldom praised for providing a practical (inaccurate, yet actionable) theory. Instead, his admirers think he revealed truth.

Perhaps the best way to evaluate Huntington’s theory is not to debate its truth, but rather look at the effectiveness of the actions it prescribes. If so, the result of the United States’ invasion of Iraq is a suitable gauge.


  1. Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations?. Foreign Affairs. Summer 1993.
  2. Said, Edward W. The Clash of Ignorance. The Nation. Oct 2001.