In the riots that swept Islamic society last winter, reaction to the publication of cartoons insulting the Prophet Mohammed, the world glimpsed evidence of a clash between cultures—but not in the sense of the “clash of civilizations” that Samuel Huntington foresaw in his influential 1993 Foreign Affairs article and in the book that followed.
Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” originally served as a new and bureaucratically useful paradigm in the programmatic vacuum created in Washington by the end of the cold war. Addressing a foreign-policy community deprived of that framework, Huntington substituted “civilizations” for “states” as the notional political actors from whose corner policy makers could consider future threats to the United States and generate future “scenarios” of international conflict.
Huntington was also reacting to several tensions: between Iran and the United States, following the 1979 overthrow of the U.S.-supported Shah of Iran and the seizure of U.S. embassy staff as hostages; between the Islamic Arab states and the United States, resulting from Washington’s largely uncritical support of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians; and the perennial Washington preoccupation with the threat from China.
William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).