The Clash of Civilizations in the 21st Century

The American Political Scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote his book ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ in 1993. He argued that future conflicts would not be caused by economic or ideological factors but by cultural and religious identities. The different civilizations around the world, wherever their borders interact, would clash more and more.

Huntington published his theory just after the fall of the Soviet-Union. It was a time of Western optimism. Many scholars believed that big internationals conflicts would be something of the past. Market mechanisms and liberal ideas were supposed to dictate the world. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama even wrote about ‘the end of history’ and the undeniable victory of Western liberal democracy. Times have changed. Big conflicts have resurfaced, the Western system is questioned all over the world, and even Fukuyama withdrew his theory. Does this mean Huntington was right after all?

Western liberal democracy is certainly not shared around the world as the only accepted system. After the Cold War, authoritarian regimes survived (or came into power) by upholding a quasi-democratic camouflage. This phenomenon is described as “modern authoritarianism”. It refers to fundamentally antidemocratic governments who have strengthened their hold on power by making at least some concessions, largely illusory in nature, to the world’s prevailing democratic order. The loss of Western dominance results in a multi-polar world wherein several actors strive for dominance. This ranges from apparent political competition to economic openness. With activists and journalists facing harsh new restrictions in countries, from China to Egypt, there are growing signs that many of these governments are now giving up these concessions. Governments from South Africa to China are revoking liberal policies. Demonstrators from Hong Kong to Brazil clash with the police.

In a multi-polar world, governments and other political groups look for new strategic partnerships and sources of power. Political actors cannot depend anymore on the support of traditional economic or ideological forces. Currently, they regroup on the basis of cultural identities such as religion and ethnicity. One of the most clearest examples is the Middle East. The gradual diminishing of ideologies such as Arab nationalism and the end of the cold war have decreased the legitimacy of traditional dictatorships. People reunited under different banners. Ethnicity and religion have proved to be more lasting.  The Iraqi government is dominated by Shiite powers and thanks its powers to the American. Regardless, they closely work together with the Shiite government of Iran who want to counter American and Sunni influence in the region. Another example is Turkey. The country is still a NATO-member but its government attempted for years to form a new Islamic-based power bloc in the Middle East under Turkish leadership. Cultural allegiances have replaced the ideological ones.

Syria is one of the most clearest examples of direct cultural conflict. Huntington already described the Islamic bloc as the most instable one. The Syrian Civil War first looked like an internal conflict but gradually showed its cultural and ethnic components. Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds but also other groups and countries battle for dominance. These battles don’t restrict themselves to traditional borders. The battle arena depends on the identity of the group. This is also the case in the rest of the Middle East. The Gulf countries are more than ever dependent on each other and currently fight for their ‘survival’ in Yemen. Hezbollah,  Iran, the Syrian government and to some extent Iran do the same in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.


The clash of civilizations is not restricted to the Middle East. India is looking for new allies in South- and Southeast Asia. It wants to counter China’s new Silk Road. The Indian government, dominated by the Hindu-nationalists, is not afraid to use its cultural ties. Western countries face more economic competition against other rising powers united in their own trade unions. The Asian Tigers and the Latin-American countries are examples. Regardless, it also happens closer to home. After the cold war, many East European countries and governments have ‘walked over’ to the Western block. Both NATO and the European Union have grown significantly. The Western block increasingly interacted with the Russian block  (or Slavic/Orthodox as Huntington describes). After the liberal policies of Russian leader Boris Yeltsin failed miserably and the country experienced a deep crisis, Russia went for a new direction.

Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin rolled back Western influence by implementing ‘modern authoritarianism ‘ as described above. This gave him a free hand to restructure Russia and improve the capabilities of the Russian block. Putin didn’t use Communism to legitimate his power but fell back on Russia’s Orthodox and Slavic identity. Nowadays, the few compromises with Western liberal democracy are slowly revoked while Russia is looking more and more over its own borders. Pro-Russian powers are on the rise in (East) Europe while Putin keeps trying to unite the Eurasian region against the West. The conflicts have resulted into actual clashes in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, but also in Russia’s involvement in Syria. American presence in the region did not stop Putin protecting the Assad-regime. Russian airplanes and rockets are hitting any group opposing the Syrian government including the groups supported by the West. Decreased American and Western influence in the world became painfully clear.

In short, the clash of civilizations is becoming more visible each day. The ideological battles of the 20th century have been replaced by new forms of conflict. It is the kind of conflict, as Huntington describes, where different groups form their identity based on cultural characteristics, such as ethnicity and religion, and react against other cultures. It is a theory still in progress but the growing prominence of these kind of identities in combination with unstable borders, also in Europe, are reason to be vigilant.

Tjeerd S. Ritmeester
Based on my Dutch article:


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