Has the Clash of Civilizations Thesis Influenced America’s War on Terror?

Gregorio Bettiza
University of Exeter

Cross-posted from the Religion and IR Blog

Samuel Huntington’s theory that post-Cold War world politics would be defined by the “clash of civilizations” has generated much debate in scholarly and policy circles since it first appeared on the pages of Foreign Affairs in 1993. One of the main controversies has revolved around the extent to which Huntington’s (in)famous thesis would come to shape America’s foreign policy and its War on Terror since the attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11).

Some like Paul Avey and Michael Desch have suggested in a 2014 International Studies Quarterly article that Huntington’s ideas have had scarce purchase among US national security policymakers and, by implication, little impact on American foreign policy. Through the use of surveys, Avey and Desch found that across a range of theories which policymakers where most familiar with, Huntington’s clash of civilizations was the one they exhibited the greatest skepticism towards and influenced their work the least. (Other theories policymakers were surveyed on included: democratic peace theory, mutual assured destruction, population centric COIN, structural realism, expected utility.)

Others, especially critical scholars often drawing on Edward Said’s concept of orientalism, have tended to reach dramatically different conclusions. Within this scholarship the clash of civilizations is generally understood as a shared discourse that percolates across all levels of American society, from Hollywood productions to the corridors of power in Washington DC, consistently categorizing Islam and Muslims as the new post-Cold War ‘other’. The War on Terror is then understood as an enactment of these discourses on the world political stage.

What should we make of these contrasting assessments? How to square both accounts? In part it is impossible to do so because they point to two different realities, they approach the clash of civilizations theory through distinct conceptual lenses. Avey and Desch, who adopt a rationalist perspective, understand the clash as a set of specific theoretical ideas which individual policymakers’ may – or may not – hold as valid and apply in their work. From a critical perspective, generally informed by post-structural premises, the clash is viewed as a diffused discourse which implicitly shapes American collective understandings of Islam and Muslims and thus its conduct in the War on Terror.

I argue for a different, constructivist-inspired, perspective. In my book Finding Faith in Foreign Policy: Religion and American Diplomacy in a Postsecular World, I show how the clash of civilizations has influenced American foreign policy far more than Avey and Desch would acknowledge, but not in the clear cut and unidirectional way that critical scholarship often suggests. In short, my answer to the question posed by the title would be a cautious: “Yes, but…”.

Of the three post-9/11 administrations – Bush Jr., Obama, and Trump – only the Trump one appears to have fully made Huntington’s theory its own. As Jeffrey Haynes aptly shows, members of the Trump administration – including the President himself – have explicitly and repeatedly cast Islam (i.e. not simply Islamists) as America’s other. Policy proposals such as the ‘Muslim ban’ have likewise closely followed a clash script. Compared to Trump, Bush and Obama would be careful to present the War on Terror not as a war against Islam. The Bush and Obama administrations, while not fully adopting a clash of civilizations perspective, nonetheless did not completely operated outside a culturalist paradigm which underpinned Huntington’s own theory.

The Bush administration, influenced by Neoconservatives in its midst, mostly framed the problem of terrorism as a clash within an Islamic civilization, rather than one between the West and Islam. Muslims would be divided among ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘moderate’ and ‘fundamentalist’. While these are certainly highly problematic categories, which furthermore accept the premises of the Muslim world as a distinct civilizational and cultural space, arguably they do not completely represent an outright essentialization of Islam as inherently incompatible with the West and of all Muslims as budding terrorists. Huntington was deeply sceptical of the universality of liberal values. Neoconservatives were not, and it was their thinking that inspired the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” in the Broader Middle East, a code-word at the time for the Muslim world.

Paradoxically, compared to Bush, the Obama administration came to adopt a more essentialist stance on Islam and Muslims. Rather than inimical to the West and its values, these were seen as quintessentially peaceful and good. Obama too operated within a culturalist paradigm, something that close observers of political Islam did not fail to note, but one shaped by a dialogue of civilizations outlook instead. The president’s famous 2009 “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, the multiple Muslim engagement initiatives that followed, and severing the rhetorical link between Islam and terrorism by framing non-military operations against Islamists in terms of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), all fit within a dialogue perspective. 

All in all, the clash of civilizations should be understood as neither a set of discrete policy ideas with little impact in the corridors of power, nor as a hegemonic discourse uncritically embraced by all US administrations. If we approach world politics as a symbolic realm, Huntington’s theory has been an integral part of a wider social imaginary shaping how post-Cold War politics has been interpreted and approached by American foreign policymakers. It is a social imaginary that posits that relations – whether cooperative, conflictual, or anything in between – among and within a plurality of civilizations and cultures matters. It constitutes a social imaginary against which US foreign policy actions are themselves being interpreted by actors around the world – including Islamists – and which American presidents have felt they ought to respond to in a way or another.

Thinking about world politics as a symbolic field, helps to explain an interesting finding in Avey and Desch’s work. Despite noting that most policymakers had little consideration for the clash of civilizations, Avey and Desch show how those surveyed were nonetheless extremely familiar with the theory and acutely aware its author’s fame. (Among surveyed national security policymakers, the clash of civilizations was the second-best known theory (preceded by mutual assured destruction) and Huntington the second best-known scholar (preceded by Joseph Nye). One way to understand this paradox is that policymakers were clearly identifying how, since the end of the Cold War, the symbolic environment within which they operated was being shaped by particular narratives about the role of civilizations, cultures, and religions in world politics which Huntington’s ideas have immensely contributed to shape.

Of course, a culturalist imaginary is not the only perspective through which world politics is interpreted. Some point to great power competition, others to economic inequalities or racial injustices, others still to regime and ideological differences among democracies and autocracies. Culturalist frames nonetheless constitute a powerful imaginary which, in multiple and distinct ways, American administrations have operated with and from. Understanding how such imaginaries function, how they are internally contested, and how they may be transcended, is of paramount importance for apprehending the symbolic aspects within which world politics takes place at the present juncture.