Huntington and Fukuyama: Clash of Civilizations vs. The End of History

One of the famous "great debates" of recent political science is between Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama. Each had a thesis about what the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union would mean for the world order.

The Clash of Civilizations

Here is Huntington's main claim: “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 [as opposed to nation - states or states] and groups of different civilizations”

According to Huntington, the West’s “civil wars” had three phases

  • 1st phase: wars of princes (before French revolution)
  • 2nd phase: wars of nation-states (after French revolution)
  • 3rd phase: wars of ideology (afterWW1; liberalism, fascism/Nazism, communism)

But the world was now entering a new phase: West vs. the Rest

What is a Civilization?

Here is how Huntington defined a civilization. “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... The civilization to which [one] belongs is the broadest level of identification with which [one] intensely identifies."

Think about it like this. Maybe you identify as a Torontonian. But being from Toronto is not the most general or broadest level you can identify with. If you go up the ladder of generality, maybe you identify as Canadian, and then as Western. At some point, you reach a level of generality where the next step is simply "human being." The penultimate step before "human" is, for Huntington, your civilizational identity.

Why will civilizations clash?

Huntington provided several reasons for why he thought civilizations will clash.

  1. The differences are so basic, so fundamental (i.e. they deal with fundamental beliefs, values, and traditions), and they cannot therefore be resolved through compromise
  2. Increasing interactions in the modern world intensify (a) civilizational consciousness and (b) awareness of civilizational differences -- this is likely exacerbated by online interaction
  3. Modernization is alienating and uprooting people from long-established identities, and various civilizational and religious fundamentalisms come in to fill the void
  4. A “de-Westernization and indigenization of elites is occurring in many non-Western countries” at the same time as “Western, usually American, cultures, styles and habits become more popular among the mass of the people”
  5. Cultural characteristics are less mutable than other ones and thus more stubborn obstacles to peaceful change through social engineering, etc. (“which side are you on” vs. “what are you”; civilizational identity runs deeper than ideological or other identities)
  6. Growth of economic regionalism linked to growing civilizational consciousness, whether as cause or consequence
  7. Governments may mobilize against the attempt to spread liberal-democracy by falling back on civilizational identity.

Civilizational Conflicts and Fault Lines

Huntington thought that some civilizations will seek to isolate themselves from the West or face it with hostility, like North Korea. Others would try to balance their civilizational identity but without rejecting modernization. He called this "modernization without Westernization." Others would join the Western bandwagon and copy its institutions and values. He noted that some countries are "torn" between whether they belong to the West or not, mentioning specifically Turkey, Mexico, and Russia, "globally the most important torn country." Redefining civilizational identity requires elite support and enthusiasm, a willing public, and acceptance by the other civilization. For instance, if Russia wanted to identify as "Western," it would need not only elite enthusiasm and popular support but also acceptance by the West for that to happen. Huntington predicted that we'd see civilizational fault lines in a war between Russia and Ukraine, as well as in the conflict between Islam and the West.

“Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox cultures. Western efforts to propagate each ideas produce instead a reaction against 'human rights imperialism' and a reaffirmation of indigenous values, as can be seen in the support for religious fundamentalism by the younger generation in non-Western cultures” -Huntington

The End of History

Fukuyama did not think that the future was bound to bring a clash of civilizations. Instead, he considered the claim that the whole world would tend towards the adoption of liberal democracy.

Fukuyama predicted the “victory of economic and political liberalism” as the “triumph of the West, of the Western idea” His evidence was “the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism”. Understand that for Fukyama "the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world." It might take the world some time in practice to align itself with the truth of liberalism, but in theory that truth has been established.

Ideas in Consciousness Move History -- Until They Don't

The philosophical basis of Fukuyama’s argument is Kojeve’s reading of Hegel. (Kojeve,Introduction to the Reading of Hegel,1980, Cornell University Press). “The roots of economic behavior” and other forms of behavior, “lie in the realm of consciousness and culture” and not in material conditions, contra Marx. One of Fukuyama’s aims is to oppose the dominance of materialist reductionism. As he writes, “I want to avoid the materialist determinism that says that liberal economics inevitably produces liberal politics, because I believe that both economics and politics presuppose an autonomous prior state of consciousness that makes them possible”. Historical movement reflects movements in the realm of thought, but liberalism puts an end to the movement of thought inasmuch as it resolves the contradictions that impelled thought forward in the past. It is The Last Great Idea.

What has Liberalism refuted?

The main alternatives Fukuyama is interested in are communism and fascism. Let’s look more closely. “What destroyed fascism as an idea," he writes, "was not universal moral revulsion against it, since plenty of people were willing to endorse the idea as long as it seemed the wave of the future, but its lack of success.” Is this a good criterion for evaluating ideas? Does the political success of an idea guarantee its standing as an idea? If the Nazis had won the war, would that have discredited the idea of liberalism? If liberalism ever “loses its appeal” as fascism had done, will that mean that it is destroyed as an idea? Is liberalism losing its appeal today? (Note that Fukuyama wrote The End of History in 1992 and he has written much more since then, including on the topic of liberalism and all of the new challengers to it. You can read his comments on the 2023 war in Ukraine, for instance, and compare them to what a "clash of civilizations" thesis might say, in order to try to bring his thoughts about liberalism up to date).

The most impressive evidence for liberalism, Fukuyama writes in his book, is that China has started to liberalize its economy (early 90s) and that Gorbachev had started to introduce liberal reforms in Russia. It doesn’t matter to him that they aren’t fully liberal (yet): “at the end of history it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society.”

Challengers to the End of History

Fukuyama mentions two: religious fundamentalism and nationalism.

Religion won’t work because (a) its most organized anti-liberal approach, Islam, does not appeal to non-Muslims and (b) in general religious impulses are satisfied in liberal societies, despite “the impersonality and spiritual vacuity of liberal consumerist societies”. Also, “Modern liberalism itself was historically a consequence of the weakness of religiously-based societies which, failing to agree on the nature of the good life, could not provide even the minimal preconditions of peace and stability”

Nationalism is not a serious challenge to liberalism; it doesn’t arise from any contradictions in liberalism, but at best from its incomplete implementation. There are various nationalisms and none of them offer a program or agenda for socio-economic order. So they’re a problem, yes; but not on the level of consciousness or the idea (for a counterpoint, see Yoram Hazony's book The Virtue of Nationalism).

Fukuyama does not address in his book another alternative to liberalism which is neither communism, nor fascism, nor religious fundamentalism, nor nationalism: Alexander Dugin's Fourth Political Theory.

The Last Man?

The full title of Fukuyama's book is The End of History and The Last Man. The Last Man is a figure from Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Fukuyama leaves it open whether a Nietzchean disgust at the type of human being who inhabits the last world will not lead to a reassertion of the history-making forces.

“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition [In Hegel, the motor of world history, so to speak, and to simplify somewhat], the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands [that is, there is no place for classical virtue and greatness at the end of history.]. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.” -Fukuyama