Samuel P. Huntington is a Muppet by Grant Crozier

Samuel P. Huntington’s 1993 article The Clash Civilisations? sparked enormous debate that continues today. There are many things that could be said about Huntington, but this talk will look at whether he was a Muppet, or whether he was very clever. I’m not sure I named this lecture correctly, for a start it shouldn’t be ‘is a Muppet’, it should be ‘was’, as Huntington copped his whack in 2008. But also, as I looked more and more into him and his writing, I started wondering if he’s not a Muppet at all, maybe he’s actually very clever. Wrong, but clever and sneaky to boot.
Now trust me, I don’t think I’m an expert on…, well, anything, but, I’m going to try and explain this theory, why Huntington came up with it, where he went wrong with it and hopefully put forth a good case for it being quite rubbish. Mostly I’m hoping to start a wee debate, cause it’s when we stop talking, stop doubting and start just believing, that the Muppets win. Like Noam Chomsky said; ‘Whenever you hear anything said very confidently, the first thing that should come to mind is, wait a minute is that true?’


So let’s start with a bit of an introduction to Samuel Phillips Huntington. He was an American political scientist. He graduated with distinction from Yale University at age 18, served in the U.S. Army, earned his Master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University where he began teaching at 23. So he was a bit lazy as you can tell. He then worked as a consultant for the State Department, the National Security Council and the CIA under the Johnson and Carter administrations, and as I mentioned earlier, he died on Christmas Eve 2008.
Huntington’s article “The Clash of Civilizations?” appeared in the summer 1993 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, (which he Founded and was co-editor of), where it immediately attracted a great deal of attention. You might be wondering, why are we still taking about this if it was written 17 years ago?
The reason is that it’s still a source of great debate and not just among students. Many people seemed to think that the attacks in America on 11 September 2001 were proof of Huntington’s theory, or at least justified giving it a lot more thought. Then there are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, growing tension with Iran etc. Even now, the debate is still on as to whether or not this theory has merit. If you go on to the Debatewise website ( you can find an ongoing discussion on this very subject, although they don’t say ‘Muppet’ quite as much.
It’s important to put Huntington and his theory of future conflict into some context. At the end of the Cold War things were a bit up in air. The easily divided map that existed before had become a bit of a mess. Especially for people whose job it was to forecast future international relations. Huntington wrote “The Clash of Civilizations?” in response to some theorists’ and writers’ arguments that the western ideologies: human rights, liberal democracy, free market economy, had become the only remaining ideological alternative for nations after the Cold War.

Samuel Huntington
Samuel Huntington

Francis Fukuyama was probably the most obvious target for Huntington. In his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama essentially suggested that the end of the cold war signalled a victory for liberal democracy. He and some others really thought that with the fall of Soviet communism the game was up, and we were now entering a new stage, in which liberal democracy would be the last form of Government. Fukuyama has since changed his mind by the way but, that’s another story.
Huntington was saying ‘Look it’s not gonna be that simple..’ which was true, however, what he proposed as an alternative was very unappealing and not very well thought out, for quite a few reasons which I’ll be going into. He starts his essay with, ‘It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.
Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future. That’s great isn’t it? It’s like an film preview, with that guy that does the voice:

‘The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.’

So what he goes on to say is, essentially, in the future the great divisions and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Which if you recall he wrote in ’93, so we are now in the future – is it the one he predicted? Some would say yes, but I don’t think so. After his introduction he describes his idea of civilizations, he says that during the Cold War the world was divided into 1st, 2nd and 3rd worlds and that now those divisions are no longer relevant. He reckoned it made more sense to divide the world not by political or economic systems or in terms of economic development, but rather in terms of their culture and civilization.
‘A civilization is,’ he said, ‘the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity.’ He divides the world’s cultures into seven current civilizations, Western, Latin American, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu and Slavic-Orthodox. In addition he judged Africa only as a possible civilization depending on how far one viewed the development of an African consciousness. Israel is lumped together with the West, Buddhist states and in fact the whole religion is almost completely ignored.
To answer why this will happen, first he suggests that the differences in civilizations are really the differences in religion. There are other issues that matter such as a civilization’s relationship between the individual and their god, the individual and the state, rights to certain freedoms, etc. all these things he says are “far more fundamental than differences among political ideologies and political regimes”. Which I find hard to swallow.
I think a lot of these things are ideas that are made from political ideologies. Individual rights like free speech – being an easy example – that’s an ideology. People have fought, and still do, over these political ideologies and regimes. The lack of certain rights is not always simply down to religious dogma, although they can be, but not often on the kind of scale we’re talking about.
Secondly, he reckons the world is getting smaller. I reckon it’s safe to assume he probably meant the increasing movement of people and also advances in technology means we are all communicating more, and interacting more all across the globe. He thinks this is a bad thing. I’m not too sure why. He says that more ‘interactions intensify civilization consciousness and awareness of differences between civilizations and commonalities within civilizations.’ I’m not sure about that. Surely the more we interact the more we get along?

Think about it on a bigger scale: the more two countries trade with each other, the less likely they are to go to war with one another. The example he gives is a pretty weak one, of North African immigrants moving to France and upsetting the locals while immigration by Catholic Poles to the same country does not. He doesn’t give a source for this comparison.

Thirdly, he proposes that economic modernisation and social change throughout the world is causing people to lose their national identity. That, as a result of this, more and more people – he suggests young and educated people – are turning to religion and also to fundamentalism as a source of identity. Number four in his list of reasons why the future of world conflict will be cultural is pretty closely related to the last one. Which is: the West’s influence on the rest of the world is actually pushing nations away. He calls it a ‘return to roots’ phenomenon.
The fifth one is probably the most convincing, but only really if you buy into his theory of everyone being essentially incapable of getting along. Quoting him again: Cultural characteristics and differences are less mutable, less easily compromised, than political and economic ones, for example, communists can become democrats, the rich can become poor and the poor rich, but Russians cannot become Estonians.


He goes on to say that in a clash of civilizations, instead of being asked: ‘which side are you on?’ the question you might be asked is: ‘what are you?’ And that’ll be much harder to change your mind about. You can’t switch sides in a religious war. This is another argument he makes for religion being the most important factor in defining civilizations. To paraphrase Huntington, it’s much easier to be half French, half Arab, than it is to be half Christian, half Muslim.
Finally he spouts some rubbish about economic regionalism. All he says here is that this bloc trades more with this bloc and it’s going to increase because they share more culture than with the other guys. And to be honest that’s not too surprising, everyone gets on better with the people they’ve got the most in common with. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to change your mind about the other guy. America is now China’s number one customer, for example. I’m pretty sure he put most of these points in to distract people from the fact that when he says civilizations he means religions, and really he’s only talking about two so called civilizations, Islam and the West.

As Chomsky said talking about this very theory; ‘They are a few problems with that…’ One of the problems is Huntington’s definition of a civilization. Remember that nice compact list of civilizations he came up with? Western civilization, Western Europe and North America built upon Catholicism and Protestantism; the civilization built upon the Orthodox Church which is Russia and Eastern Europe; the Islamic civilization; the Hindu civilization; the Chinese civilization; the Latin American civilization and the Japanese civilization.

Five of these have their respective core states: for Western civilization it is the European Union (EU) and the United States; for the Orthodox civilization it is Russia; for the Hindu civilization, India; for the Chinese civilization, China; and for the Japanese civilization, Japan. According to Huntington, a civilization requires a core state. There is no such core state for the Islamic civilization. As pointed out in the political newsletter Alternative Insight: ‘The Arab world, which is sometimes termed the Islamic world, has no core state. No core state implies no civilization. The nations of the Arab world, from Morocco to Iraq, have common language, religion and customs but no unification.’ Also, Indonesia has the highest population of Muslims in the world. I’m rubbish at geography but that’s quite far away from the Middle East which is where he is really concentrating his attention.
So right away there’s a problem with his own definition of a civilization. By simplifying the world into these poorly described and thought-out groups, Huntington’s theory ignores culture’s inclination to be fast-changing and multi-dimensional. Most Western states are now multi or bi-cultural and are becoming more so. More and more states are potentially part of multiple civilizations, a situation he brushes over by designating religion as the deciding factor.
The real problem with this theory isn’t just his definition of civilizations, but the fact that he concentrates on only two: The West and Islam. The idea of the West, meaning the U.S and Europe pretty much, as one civilization is hard enough, as Henry Kissinger once said ‘Who do I call If I want to call Europe?’, but to talk about Islam as one civilization is an even greater stretch. The picture he paints of his Islamic civilization is a cartoonish one. Like some sort of blood thirsty Disney villain stroking his beard.
When the article came out The Economist, which is usually pretty good, but everyone has their off days, praised Huntington for his “cruel and sweeping, but nonetheless acute” observations about Islam. The journal said, Huntington writes that ‘the world’s billion or so Muslims are ‘convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with the inferiority of their power.'” As Edward Said remarked, ‘Did he canvas 100 Indonesians, 200 Moroccans, 500 Egyptians and fifty Bosnians? Even if he did, what sort of sample is that? We’re talking about around a billion people here.’

Huntington said there has been conflict between Western and Islamic civilizations for 1300 years, and he thinks it’s unlikely to decline, but Europe only quit fighting itself 65 years ago. He also said that Islam has bloody borders: who doesn’t? This is the kind of picture he draws. Edward Said, in an article in The Nation, compared Huntington’s interpretation of international relations to Popeye and Bluto bashing each other on the head.

OK. So let’s actually look at how likely what he suggests is. Forgetting that we’re talking about civilizations that don’t really exist, except in the broadest and most indistinct sense. Looking at Saudi Arabia is quite a good place to start. As Chomsky points out, Saudi Arabia is the most fundamentalist Islamic state in the world. It can make Iran look friendly, but America is not messing around with Saudi Arabia. It’s got the oil, America likes oil. America in fact keeps the family dictatorship that runs the country in power, making sure it carries on cause they’re making sure the money and oil goes to the right places. America isn’t about to undermine Saudi Arabia, neither is the UK.
Huntington does go on to say that he reckons that China and Islam will become economically intertwined, and that this will pose a threat to stability. To be fair to him at the time he wrote the journal the only country widely accepted to pose any real threat to American economic dominance was Japan. He, like many others, didn’t see China getting quite so rich, quite so quickly. And, yes China is trading with Iran, against the wishes of the West, which some feel is evidence supporting this theory. But that’s one Islamic state, hardly the entirety of the Islamic civilization. Also, India is keeping up pretty well with China as a growing market, so maybe China won’t be quite as big a problem as lots of people like Huntington fear.


Another reason that this theory doesn’t quite work is down to numbers, and a little known fact that despite the wars we are currently fighting, the other wars we’re ignoring and many other acts of violence on a mass scale, we are living in possibly the most peaceful time in our history. There’s a talk on the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference website ( by Steven Pinker on the myth of violence (see Bibliography for URL), in which he says, The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon. You can see it over millennia, over centuries, over decades and over years.
If you watch the lecture (which I recommend you do), he’s got graphs and statistics on this big impressive Power Point thing showing that, including both World Wars, If the death rate in tribal warfare had prevailed during the 20th century, there would have been 2 billion deaths rather than 100 million. He puts this down to there having been more conflict between tribes – and later – nation states, and also down to the commonality of capital punishment. Even if you look at one-on-one murders, he says going from 100 deaths per 100,000 people per year, which was approximately the rate of homicide in the Middle Ages, the figure plummets down to less than 1 homicide per 100,000 people per year in 7 or 8 European countries… there was a decline from at least two orders of magnitude in homicide from the Middle Ages to the present.
And he’s not the only one coming to this conclusion, there are NGOs that track conflicts by type of war, number of deaths, etc. And there is a dramatic decline in interstate conflict since 1945. The most common type of conflict is in fact civil, intrastate conflict. In fact to bring it back to the Muppet, Huntington, since the Cold War there have been fewer civil wars, a 90% reduction since post-WW2 highs. In fact just last night I was reading Foreign Policy, another journal, and in its most recent edition it is saying that ‘Worldwide, combat casualties fell 40 percent from 2000 to 2008. In sub-Saharan Africa, some 46,000 people died in battle in 2000. By 2008, that number had dropped to 6000 – and that they’re not sure but the last decade ranks as the lowest in the last 50 years, in terms of annual military budgets.
There are lots of good reasons for this line of thinking; I’ll only really go into one of them here. The journalist Robert Wright in his book Non Zero argues that: technology has increased the number of positive sum gains that humans tend to be embroiled in; by allowing the trade of goods, services, and ideas, over longer distances and among larger groups of people. The result is that other people become more valuable alive than dead, violence declines for selfish reasons.
To paraphrase Wright, among the many reasons that I think that we should not bomb the Japanese, is that they built my motorbike. Steven Pinker ends his talk by saying that the questions we need to ask ourselves regarding war aren’t just: ‘what are we doing wrong? but also, what have we been doing right? Because we have been doing something right, and it sure would be good to find out what it is.’ – It’s a good talk and well worth watching.
Now on to my final point, this is a little paranoid, but hey! This is in regards to Huntington not being a Muppet, but actually being quite clever. If you remember he worked for various branches of the government as an advisor – all security related positions – and after the cold war he and a lot of his friends were probably standing around the water cooler asking ‘What’re we gonna do now?’ These people had built careers up from the point of potential conflict with Soviet Russia. There would’ve seemed to them a real chance that they’d have to find a new line of work: in steps a convenient Samuel Huntington.

Jes and Grant first RU

At the end of his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Huntington lists his advice on how to keep the West strong, things such as undermining Islamic and Chinese relations, for example. Is it possible that the theory was concocted with the intention of creating a greater division between the West and Islamic nations? I’m not saying it was, I’m just asking. To sum up the point, I’ll quote Edward Said again, describing the essay and the later book as a very brief and rather crudely articulated manual in the art of maintaining a wartime status in the minds of Americans and others, I go so far as saying that it argues from the standpoint of Pentagon planners and Defence industry executives, who may have temporarily lost their occupations after the end of the Cold War but have now discovered a new vocation for themselves.
So, in conclusion (which is actually inaccurate as I’m sure this will be talked about for quite some time), it’s my opinion that Huntington was indeed a Muppet. Not only because his theory was largely based on nothing more than fear and an unhealthy distrust of others, but also because this is a man with a Ph.D and he didn’t check the facts. Cold hard numbers, not just opinion prove him wrong. It’s my view that future conflicts might be labelled in colourful easily digested titles such as ‘a clash of civilizations’, but in reality wars are fought over resources and trade. In short, money.


Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported


This talk was given in The Palatine pub in Stoke Newington, London, by Grant Crozier on the 24th August 2010.