Delivered at Colorado College February 4, 1999.


I am greatly honored by and deeply grateful for the opportunity to address this important assembly concerned with the role of culture in the coming century. Let me begin by congratulating Dean Fuller, Professor Carter, and their associates on two points. First, I congratulate them on the 125th anniversary of the founding of Colorado College, which throughout these years has maintained its position as the preeminent liberal arts college in this country, west of the Mississippi, and which I am sure will maintain that distinguished position through the next century. Second, I congratulate the organizers of this conference for their prescience and insight in selecting culture as the theme of this meeting. The twentieth century was the century of ideology, of the competition of socialism, communism, liberalism, authoritarianism, fascism, democracy. Now, while we have not had the end of history, we have arrived, at least for the moment, at the end of ideology. The twenty-first century is at least beginning as the century of culture, with the differences, interactions, and conflicts among cultures taking center stage. This has become manifest, among other ways, in the extent to which scholars, politicians, economic development officials, soldiers, and strategists are all turning to culture as a central factor in explaining human social, political, and economic behavior. In short, culture counts, with consequences for both good and evil.

If culture counts, what is it? In the guidelines he provided us, Professor Carter warned against getting bogged down in debating definitions. He is right, and culture has many meanings. Let me mention just three. First, culture may refer to the products of a society. People speak of a society’s high culture—the art, literature, music—and its popular or folk culture. Second, anthropologists speak of culture in a much broader sense to mean the entire way of life of a society, its institutions, social structure, family structure, and the meanings people attribute to these. Finally, other scholars, perhaps particularly political scientists, see culture as something subjective, meaning the beliefs, values, attitudes, orientations, assumptions, philosophy, Weltanschauung of a particular group of people. However it is defined, villages, clans, regions, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations, have distinct cultures. Civilizations are the broadest cultural entities with which people identify. At present, as I argued in my book,1 there are about eight major civilizations or cultural zones in the world. Obviously, each of these has within it innumerable subcultures.

A Universal Culture?

Two central elements of culture are language and religion, and these obviously differ greatly among societies. Scholars have also measured societies along a number of other cultural dimensions and classified them in terms of individualism and collectivism, egalitarianism and hierarchy, pluralism and monism, activism and fatalism, tolerance and intolerance, trust and suspicion, shame and guilt, instrumental and consummatory, and a variety of other ways.

In recent years, however, many people have argued that we are seeing the emergence of a universal worldwide culture. They may have various things in mind. First, global culture can refer to a set of economic, social and political ideas, assumptions, and values now widely held among elites throughout the world. This is what I have called the Davos Culture, after the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum that brings together hundreds of government officials, bankers, businessmen, politicians, academics, intellectuals, and journalists from all over the world. Almost all these people hold university degrees in the physical sciences, social sciences, business, or law; work with words and/or numbers; speak reasonably fluent English; are employed by governments, corporations, and academic institutions with extensive international involvements; and travel frequently outside their own country. They generally share beliefs in individualism, market economies, and political democracy, which are also common among people in Western civilization. Davos people control virtually all international institutions, many of the world’s governments, and the bulk of the world’s economic and military capabilities. The Davos Culture hence is tremendously important. Worldwide, however, only a small portion of the world’s population shares in this culture. It is far from a universal culture, and the leaders who share in it do not necessarily have a secure grip on power in their own societies. It is nonetheless one immensely significant consequence of the globalization of economic activity that has occurred in recent decades.

A second concept of global culture focuses on the spread of Western consumption patterns and popular culture around the world. Cultural fads have been transmitted from civilization to civilization throughout history. Innovations in one civilization are regularly taken up by other civilizations. These are, however, usually either techniques lacking in significant cultural consequences or fads that come and go without altering the underlying culture of the recipient civilization. A slightly more sophisticated version of the global popular culture argument focuses not on consumer goods generally but on the media, on Hollywood rather than Coca-Cola™. American control of the global movie, television, and video industries is indeed overwhelming. Little or no evidence exists, however, to support the assumption that the emergence of pervasive global communications is producing significant convergence in attitudes and beliefs. In due course, it is possible that global media could generate some convergence in values and beliefs among people, but that will happen over a very long period of time.

Third, five hundred years ago, many different cultures existed, but they were all traditional cultures, not modern ones. Economic and social modernization then began in Western society, and a major gap opened between modern Western society and non-modern, non-Western societies. Now, however, modernization is a global phenomenon. All cultures are becoming modern, and in this sense one difference between the West and the rest is disappearing. Modernization, however, does not necessarily mean Westernization. There is much evidence, instead, that modernization strengthens existing cultures and hence perpetuates the differences among them. Just as five hundred years ago many different traditional cultures and civilizations coexisted, so also the coming century will see many different modern cultures coexisting. In the long run, these different modern cultures may converge into one global modern culture, but that again will only occur in the very distant future. In the shorter term, modernization generates the resurgence of non-Western societies and cultures.

The culture of a society thus may change as a result of modernization, and also as a result of a traumatic event (like defeat in World War II, which changed the two most militaristic societies in the world into two highly pacifist societies), or through the actions of political leadership. By and large, however, cultural traits persist. One interesting, if modest, manifestation of this concerns the differences in the degree to which people feel satisfied in different societies. Here are data over fifteen years on the proportion of people in nine European countries who said they were “very satisfied” with life as a whole. Despite significant changes in their economic situation over these years, the levels of satisfaction in all these countries, except Belgium, remained constant. Danes are satisfied. Italians are dissatisfied. More significant for our concerns, here today are the analyses of Ronald Inglehart of values in some sixty-one countries. He provides quantitative survey data demonstrating the reality of the civilizations which I identified impressionistically. While again the time span is limited, his data also show that as they get richer, societies tend to move from more traditional to more modern and post-modern values. Yet cultures do not converge. Modernization without convergence is once again the picture that emerges from his data.

One can, I think, go even further. As non-Western societies begin to modernize, they also often attempt to adopt many elements of Western culture. One hundred years ago, for instance, some people in both Japan and China were arguing that, if their countries were going to modernize, they would have to abandon their own languages and adopt English or German. Yet as modernization proceeds, the tendency is for people to return to their indigenous cultures, as is witnessed today in the resurgence of Islam, the celebration of Asian values, and the revival of religion in so many parts of the world. The world is modernizing, but it is not Westernizing in any truly meaningful sense.

So cultures persist, and they also have consequences. Let me focus on three, concerning the impact of culture on economic and political development, global politics, and national identity.

Culture and Development

For decades, economists have grappled with the question, “Why have some countries developed economically and become prosperous, while others remained mired in backwardness and poverty?” They have not been able to find a convincing economic answer. This question struck me with particular force some years ago when I happened to run across economic data on Ghana and South Korea from 1960. At that time, these two countries had almost identical economic profiles in terms of per capita GNP, relative importance of their primary, manufacturing, and service sectors, nature of their exports, and amounts of foreign aid. Thirty years later South Korea had become an industrial giant, with high per capita income, multinational corporations, a major exporter of cars and electronic equipment, while Ghana still remained Ghana. How could one account for this difference in performance? Undoubtedly many factors were responsible, but I became convinced that culture was a large part of the explanation. South Koreans valued thrift, savings, and investment, hard work, discipline, and education. Ghanaians had different values.

Other scholars have come to similar conclusions. In the early 1980s, my center at Harvard2 published a book by a former AID official, Larry Harrison, who had worked for many years in Latin America. Entitled Underdevelopment is a State of Mind, this book argued that Latin American culture was the principal obstacle to Latin American development. It created a storm of protest, outrage, and denunciation from both economists and Latin Americans. Now, however, both are coming around to his point of view. Culture has become the current rage in economic development. This spring, my center will hold a conference on culture and development, in which Harrison is the major figure, and the president of the World Bank and several Bank economists will be in attendance to learn from him how to cope with the obstacles some cultures may pose to economic development.

The significance of culture in relation to development can be seen in the relative progress former communist states have made in economic reform. Here, for instance, are estimates of that progress, which as you can see vary precisely with the civilizational differences of these countries. Now, obviously many factors may affect these differences in economic reform, but culture certainly plays a major role. Take, for instance, two rather similar countries, Poland and Ukraine. Ukraine was one of the most economically developed parts of the Soviet Union, but it has now lagged far behind Poland in economic reform and economic development, and a large part of that can be explained by the fact that Ukraine is a culturally divided society, but predominantly Orthodox, while Poland is a Western society.

Culture may also affect the form that economic organization takes. Levels of interpersonal trust vary greatly among countries. Francis Fukuyama has argued that societies where the scope of interpersonal trust is broad, such as Japan, Germany, and the United States, are much more able to develop large-scale multinational corporations than those where trust is limited to family and close friends as, he argues, is the case in France, Italy, and China. If his argument is correct, it has significant implications for the limits that may exist on China’s development as a major actor on the world economic scene.

In a similar vein, many studies have ranked countries in terms of their levels of corruption. Again, they breakdown in terms of cultural groupings. The least corrupt countries are Nordic, Scandinavian, or English-speaking; the most corrupt are Asian and African. There is, however, one interesting exception to this pattern, which illustrates an important point. Singapore always ranks right up there with Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Canada, and New Zealand as one of the least corrupt countries in the world, while its Asian neighbors, Indonesia, China, Thailand, the Philippines are among the most corrupt. How can this be explained? The answer of course is political leadership. Lee KuanYew, who ruled Singapore for decades, was determined to create a noncorrupt society and in large part did. He thus exemplifies a most important insight about culture, articulated by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” And that is what happened in Singapore.

Culture also plays a role in the development of democracy. Modern democracy is a product of Western civilization, and well over eighty percent of the democracies in the world today are Western or have been heavily influenced by Western culture. Yet democracy also exists in societies with other cultures, Japan and India being two notable examples. It would, I think, be wrong to say that any particular culture makes democracy impossible, but it is accurate to say that some cultures are more hospitable to democracy than others. The former communist countries also illustrate this point rather nicely. And it should also be noted that democracy in non-Western societies often is illiberal democracy rather than the liberal democracy we know in the West.

Culture and Global Politics

Let me turn to global politics. The central argument of my book on the clash of civilizations is that in this post-Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural. Everywhere peoples and nations are attempting to answer the most basic question humans face: “Who are we?” And they are answering that question in the traditional way human beings have answered it, by reference to the things that mean most to them. People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations. Global politics in the twenty-first century is being shaped along cultural and civilizational lines. This development has several implications.

One, the most important groupings of states are no longer the three blocs of the Cold War but rather the world’s seven or eight major civilizations: Western, Orthodox, Chinese, Japanese, Muslim, Hindu, Latin American, and African. Henry Kissinger has argued that the “international system of the twenty-first century … will contain at least six major powers—the United States, Europe, China, Japan, Russia, and probably India.” Kissinger’s six major powers belong to and are the leading or core states of five very different civilizations, and, in addition, there are important Islamic states whose strategic locations, large populations, and/or oil resources make them influential in world affairs. The rivalry of the superpowers is being supplanted by the clash of civilizations. For the first time in history, global politics is both multipolar and multicivilizational.

Second, changes are occurring in the relative power of civilizations and their core states. The West has been the overwhelmingly dominant civilization for centuries, and it will remain so well into the next century. Nonetheless major forces are at work producing changes in relative power. These include the demographic stagnation and economic slowdown of the West, on the one hand, and the economic growth of East Asian societies and the demographic dynamism of Islamic societies on the other.

Third, in this new world, the relations between states from different civilizations will normally be distant and cool and often highly antagonistic. While ad hoc coalitions may exist at times across civilization boundaries, intercivilizational relations are more likely to be described by such terms as competitive coexistence, cold war, and cold peace. (The term “cold war,” la guerra fria, it is interesting to note, was invented by thirteenth century Spaniards to describe their relations with their Muslim neighbors, and the world is now likely to be a world of many cold wars.) The most important axis in world politics will be the relations between the West and the rest, as the West attempts to impose its values and culture on the other societies despite its declining ability to do so.

In this new world, the most dangerous form of violent conflict would be core state wars between the major states of different civilizations. The principal sources of these two forms of conflict and hence of political instability during the next quarter century will be the resurgence of Islam and the rise of China. The relations of the West with these challenger civilizations — Islam and China — are likely to be particularly difficult and antagonistic. The potentially most dangerous conflict is that between the United Sates and China.

Fourth, conflict among ethnic groups is obviously pervasive. Ethnic conflict becomes dangerous to world peace when it involves groups from different civilizations. The bloody clashes of civilizations in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Subcontinent, not to mention the Middle East, are dangerous precisely because they could become bigger wars and involve other states. They are conflicts which demand, and usually get, the attention of the U.N. Secretary General and the American Secretary of State.

These fault line wars are not randomly distributed. They are far more likely to involve Muslims fighting non-Muslims than anyone else. One major cause involves the high birth rates in Muslim countries which have created a “youth bulge” of people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five. For the foreseeable future, the relations between the West and Islam will be at best distant and acrimonious and at worst conflictual and violent. In the long run, however, the demographic surge will run its course. When that happens, the way will be open to a more congenial coexistence between Islam and the West.

Fifth, while differences in culture and civilization divide people, cultural similarities bring people together and promote trust and cooperation. Many efforts at regional economic integration are going on in the world. The relative success of those efforts varies directly with the extent to which the countries involved in these efforts have a common culture. Throughout the world countries are regrouping politically along cultural lines. Countries united by ideology but divided by culture come apart, as in the cases of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Countries divided by ideology but united by culture are coming together as the two Germanies have and the two Koreas and several Chinas are beginning to. Increasingly, people and governments talk in terms of cultural communities transcending state boundaries. Russia is grouping about itself the states that share its Orthodox heritage. In East Asia, economic integration is underway, but it is not, as many expected, an economic integration centered on Japan, which is all alone as a civilization unto itself, but an economic integration rooted in China and the Chinese business communities that dominate the economies of all East Asian countries except Japan and Korea.

Recent Developments

My original article on the clash of civilizations was published five years ago, and the book came out two years ago. Recent developments demonstrate, I believe, the validity and relevance of this cultural-civilizational approach to world politics. These include: the continuation, punctuated at times by brief truces, of violent local fault-line wars between groups from different civilizations in many parts of the world; the restructuring of European politics along civilizational lines; the dramatic progress toward economic integration of single-civilization entities like the European Union and Mercosur and the lack of progress in multicivilization efforts like APEC and NAFTA; the challenges to secular concepts of legitimacy and identity by religious political movements in India, Israel, Turkey, and other countries; the increasing cooperation among Muslim societies in dealing with non-Muslim countries; the on-going conflicts over non-Western immigration into Europe and North America; the continuing rise of China as a power in world affairs and the intensification of the “Confucian-Muslim connection” between China, Iran, and Pakistan; the disintegration of the 1990-91 anti-Iraq coalition; the fading prospects that Russia will join the Western community of nations; the gradual emergence of the core states of South Africa and Nigeria in Africa and Brazil in Latin America; and, most dramatically, nuclear proliferation and deproliferation.

The restructuring of international politics along civilizational lines has become particularly evident in Central and Eastern Europe. For forty-five years, the political dividing line in Europe was the Iron Curtain. Now that line has moved several hundred miles east and is the line separating the peoples of Western Christianity, on the one hand, from Muslim and Orthodox peoples on the other. Austria, Sweden, and Finland, countries culturally part of the West, had to be neutral and separated from the West in the Cold War. Now they have joined their cultural kin in the European Union. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are joining NATO and moving towards E.U. membership as well. In the Baltics, the former captive republics are now able to escape the Russian grasp and align themselves with their cultural kin to the West.

In the Balkans during the Cold War, Greece and Turkey were in NATO, Bulgaria and Romania were in the Warsaw Pact, Yugoslavia was non-aligned, and Albania was an isolated sometime friend of communist China. Now Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece are coming together in what they term an “Orthodox entente.” Slovenia and Croatia are moving toward integration with Western Europe. Turkey is resuming its historic connections with Albanian and Bosnian Muslims. The old antagonism between Greece and Turkey, suppressed during the Cold War by their shared fear of the Soviet Union and communism, has revived, Greek and Turk fighter planes challenge each other above the Aegean, an arms race is underway on Cyprus, and Greece is becoming, in many ways, more of a partner of Russia than of its allies in NATO. The President of Greece articulated this shift quite explicitly in October 1997 when he said, “Today we do not face any threat from the North. … Now those countries have the same religious beliefs as we do. Today we face a cunning threat from the West … from the Papists and the Protestants.” The European Union, in turn, has rejected and humiliated Turkey. Turkey’s character as a torn country has become institutionalized in the conflict between its Western-oriented military and its growing Islamist movement, whose political expression is the Welfare Party, which has the declared objective of taking Turkey out of NATO and whose leader when prime minister made his first visits abroad not to Brussels and to Washington but to Teheran and Tripoli. The military have ousted that party from office and outlawed it. Apparently, Turkey can be democratic, or it can be Western, but it cannot be both.

Last winter, in the confrontation between the United States and Iraq, all Arab countries, except Kuwait, opposed U.S. military action, and only Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the countries culturally closest to the United States, agreed to send warships to join American forces in the Persian Gulf. Also last winter, the simmering conflict between Kosovo Albanians and the Serbs erupted, as was quite predictable, into a major war. India and Pakistan carried forward their intercivilizational rivalry by conducting their nuclear tests. And then last summer, bombs were exploded at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, with another bomb attempt prevented in Albania. American retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan were universally condemned in the Muslim world and were explicitly endorsed by the governments of only Britain, Germany, and Israel. The clash of civilizations is alive and well in world politics.

People often criticize my argument on the grounds that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, that somehow because I say that clashes between civilizations exist and may intensify that I am arguing they should occur. That, however, is clearly not the case, and no prophecy is in itself either self-fulfilling or non-self-fulfilling. It depends on how people react to it. In the 1950s and 1960s, many well-informed experts said that nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was virtually inevitable. That war did not occur because people took these warnings seriously and developed arms control programs, hot lines, mutual understandings, rules of conduct, that reduced its likelihood. I am delighted that since I first warned of the dangers from clashes of civilizations, many people have become concerned about the need to prevent and contain such clashes. Political leaders, including the presidents of Germany, the Czech Republic, and Iran have explicitly called for a dialogue of civilizations. As a result of Iranian initiative, the United Nations has designated the year 2001 as the year for a dialogue of civilizations. And in my own modest effort, I have organized conferences and seminars at Harvard involving people from different civilizations to explore how to overcome their differences and expand their commonalities.

Culture and National Identity

Let me conclude with a few words on culture and national identity, specifically American national identity. The question of the conflict or convergence of cultures is a central issue confronting American society. Are we a country with one culture or many? If we are a country of many cultures, what then is the basis of national unity? Historically, America has had a single predominant culture, the product of the original British settlers, and successive waves of immigrants have assimilated into that culture, while also modifying it. Its key elements have been a European heritage, the English language, the Christian religion, and Protestant values. Ethnic, racial, regional, and other subcultures existed within this overarching dominant culture in which virtually all groups shared.

Now, however, the existence and the legitimacy of that core culture is under challenge by devotees of multiculturalism, by some minority group and immigrant group leaders, and by political figures, including the President and Vice President. President Clinton has explicitly stated that we need a “great revolution … to prove that we literally can live without having a dominant European culture.” Vice President Gore has, despite his Harvard education, mistranslated our national motto, e pluribus unum, to mean “from one, many.”

America is obviously a multiethnic and multiracial society. If it also becomes a multicultural society, lacking a common core culture, what will hold it together? The standard answer is that Americans are united in their commitment to the political principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other documents, and often referred to as the American Creed: liberty, equality, individualism, democracy, the rule of law, private enterprise. Most Americans do adhere to these values. Those values are, however, the product of the original unifying culture, and if that culture disappears, can a set of abstract political principles hold this society together? The experience of other societies that were united only by political principles, such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, is not reassuring.

The issue for Americans is whether we will renew and strengthen the culture which has historically defined us as a nation or whether this country will be torn apart and fractured by those determined to undermine and destroy the European, Christian, Protestant, English culture that has been the source of our national wealth and power and the great principles of liberty, equality, and democracy that have made this country the hope for people all over the world. That is the challenge confronting us in the first years of the twenty-first century.

1. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon and Schuster, 1996.

2. John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies.