The Clash of Civilisations? by Samuel Huntington — A Summary

Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993): 22–49.


“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. 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 and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

After Westphalia, conflict for a century and a half were driven by the interests of princes. After the French Revolution, it was nations. Post World War I, the conflict of nations was replaced by the conflict of ideologies. Now, what’s peculiar about all these is that these conflicts were conflicts within the West. With the end of the Cold War, international politics will become dominated by the interaction between the West and non-Western civilisations. The peoples and governments outside of the west will join the West as movers and shapers of history.


The Cold War distinction along political and economic lines between the First, Second, and Third world is no longer relevant. Instead, it is more meaningful to talk about culture and civilisation.

“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.” So, while two villages in Italy might not share the same culture, they will have some similarity that distinguishes them from a German village. However, European villages will share certain cultural features that differentiate them from Chinese or Arab villages. But above the Westerns, Arabs, and Chinese, there is no broader cultural identity. These are, therefore, civilisations. A person may have many identities to which he identifies with varying levels of identity — his village, linguistic group, his religion, his nation, and so on — but the civilisation to which he belongs is the broadest level of of identification to which he identifies.

The following may be said about civilisations:

  1. Civilizations may involve a large number of people, as with China, or a very small number of people, such as the Anglophone Caribbean.
  2. A civilization may include several nation states, as is the case with
    Western, Latin American and Arab civilizations, or only one, as is the case with Japanese civilization.
  3. Civilizations obviously blend and overlap, and may include subcivilizations. Western civilization has two major variants, European and North American, and Islam has its Arab, Turkic and Malay subdivisions.
  4. While the lines between civilisations are seldom sharp, they are real.
  5. Civilizations are dynamic; they rise and fall; they divide and merge….they disappear and are buried in the sands of time.

Nation states have been major actors in global affairs for only a short amount of time. Most of history has been the history of civilisations.


“The world will be shaped in large measure by the interactions among seven or eight major civilizations. These include Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization.”



  1. First, differences among civilizations are not only real; they are basic. Civilizations are differentiated from each other by history, language, culture, tradition and, most important, religion. … These differences are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear. They are far more fundamental than differences among political ideologies and political regimes.
  2. Second, the world is becoming a smaller place. The interactions between peoples of different civilizations are increasing; these increasing interactions intensify civilization consciousness and awareness of differences between civilizations and commonalities within civilizations….The interactions among peoples of different civilizations enhance the civilization-consciousness of people that, in turn, invigorates differences and animosities stretching or thought to stretch back deep into history.
  3. Third, the processes of economic modernization and social change throughout the world are separating people from longstanding local identities. They also weaken the nation state as a source of identity. In much of the world religion has moved in to fill this gap, often in the form of movements that are labeled “fundamentalist”.
  4. Fourth, the growth of civilization-consciousness is enhanced by the dual role of the West. On the one hand, the West is at a peak of power. At the same time, however, and perhaps as a result, a return to the roots phenomenon is occurring among non-Western civilizations.
  5. Fifth, cultural characteristics and differences are less mutable and hence less easily compromised and resolved than political and economic ones. In class and ideological conflicts, the key question was “Which side are you on?” and people could and did choose sides and change sides. In conflicts between civilizations, the question is “What are you?” That is a given that cannot be changed. And as we know, … the wrong answer to that question can mean a bullet in the head.
  6. Finally, economic regionalism is increasing. The importance of regional economic blocs is likely to continue to increase in the future. … On the one hand, successful economic regionalism will  reinforce civilization-consciousness. On the other hand, economic regionalism may succeed only when it is rooted in a common  civilization.


Ideological boundaries are giving way to fault lines between civilisations. For instance, the disappearance of the Cold War era ideological division between Western and Eastern Europe, has been followed by the division of Europe between Western Christianity on the one hand, and Orthodox Christianity and Islam on the other. “The Velvet Curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology as the most significant dividing line in Europe.”

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.

WInston Churchill, “The Sinews of Peace”.

The fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations has sustained for over a millenia ever since the founding of Islam — from the Crusades in the 11th to 13th centuries, to the rise of the Ottomans in the 14th to 17th centuries, to the rise of Western Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, followed by Arab nationalism and then Islamic fundamentalism after WW II, and finally the military interventions of the West in the Middle East in recent times. “This centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam is unlikely to decline. It could become more virulent.”

[Comment: And after this follows an long inventory of instances where culture/civilisation has been the cause or predicted to be the cause of conflicts: from Central Europe to the Middle East to the Subcontinent to East Asia, but also including relations between the Asian powers and the Western powers. I have neglected to include them here. But you get the point Huntington is making.]


“Groups or states that belonging to one civilization that become involved in war with people from a different civilization naturally try to rally support from other members of their own civilization. …[E]lements of civilizational rallying … may provide a foretaste of the future.”

First, in the Gulf War one Arab state invaded another and then fought a coalition of Arab, Western and other states. While only a few Muslim governments overtly supported Saddam Hussein, many Arab elites privately cheered him on, and he was highly popular among large sections of the Arab publics. Islamic fundamentalist movements universally supported Iraq rather than the Western-backed governments of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Forswearing Arab nationalism, Saddam Hussein explicitly invoked an Islamic appeal.  He and his supporters attempted to define the war as a war between civilizations.

A world of clashing civilizations, however, is inevitably a world of double standards: people apply one standard to their kin-countries and a different standard to others.

Second, the kin-country syndrome also appeared in conflicts in the former Soviet Union. Armenian military successes in 1992 and 1993 stimulated Turkey to become increasingly supportive of its religious, ethnic and linguistic brethren in Azerbaijan.

Third, with respect to the fighting in the former Yugoslavia,
Western publics manifested sympathy and support for the Bosnian
Muslims and the horrors they suffered at the hands of the Serbs.
Relatively little concern was expressed, however, over Croatian
attacks on Muslims and participation in the dismemberment of
Bosnia-Herzegovina. … Islamic governments and groups, on the other hand, castigated the West for not coming to the defense of the Bosnians.

[Comment: Serbia being dominated by Orthodox Christians (above 80% of the population) and Bosnia, Roman Catholics (a similar percentage).]

In the 1930s the Spanish Civil War provoked intervention from countries that politically were fascist, communist and democratic. In the 1990s the Yugoslav conflict is provoking intervention from countries that are Muslim, Orthodox and Western Christian.

None of these preclude conflicts within the same civilisation. However, such conflicts will be less intense and less likely to expand than other conflicts

Civilization rallying to date has been limited, but it has been growing, and it clearly has the potential to spread much further. ... The next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations.


The west is, at the moment, at the peak of its powers — political, economic and military. Global security is in the hands of a directorate composed of USA, Britain, and France while economic issues, under the USA, Germany, and Japan. The phrase “world community” has become an euphemism that justifies the interests and actions of the west.

International institutions, economic resources, and military power are being used by the West to impose and perpetuate their dominance, protect their interests, and promote Western ideas. This is how the rest, and this is with a significant amount of truth, views the new world. The tussle along these lines will be the source of conflict between the west and other civilisations. Of course, it is true that at a superficial level, western ideas, western values, and western products have permeated the whole world. But at a basic level, fundamental western concepts and values — such as individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state — have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox cultures.

This conflict between the West and the Rest can lead to one of three responses by the Rest. First, non-Western states can attempt to pursue a course of isolation, to insulate their societies from penetration or “corruption” by the West, and, in effect, to opt out of participation in the Western-dominated global community. A second alternative, the equivalent of “band-wagoning” in international relations theory, is to attempt to join the West and accept its values and institutions. The third alternative is to attempt to “balance” the West by developing economic and military power and cooperating with other non-Western societies against the West, while preserving indigenous values and institutions; in short, to modernize but not to Westernize.


Torn countries are those that are relatively culturally homogeneous but are “torn” between whether they belong to one civilisation or another. They are economically and politically drawn towards the West but are detained by their culture. The most obvious example of this is Turkey in the early 20th century and Mexico more recently. But globally, and today, the most important torn country is Russia where the question of whether Russia is part of the West or the leader of a distinct Slavic Orthodox civilization has been a recurring one.

“To redefine its civilization identity, a torn country must meet three requirements. First, its political and economic elite has to be generally supportive of and enthusiastic about this move. Second, its public has to be willing to acquiesce in the redefinition. Third, the dominant groups in the recipient civilization have to be willing to embrace the convert. All three requirements in large part exist with respect to Mexico. The first two in large part exist with respect to Turkey. It is not clear that any of them exist with respect to Russia’s joining the West.”

The conflict between liberal democracy and Marxism-Leninism was between ideologies which, despite their major differences, ostensibly shared ultimate goals of freedom, equality and prosperity. A traditional, authoritarian, nationalist Russia could have quite different goals. A Western democrat could carry on an intellectual debate with a Soviet Marxist. It would be virtually impossible for him to do that with a Russian traditionalist.


The obstacles for the rest in joining the West are least for Latin and Eastern European countries, greater for Orthodox countries of the former Soviet Union, and still greater for Muslim, Confucian, Hindu and Buddhist societies.

Countries that do not wish to align with the West have sought to instead compete by promoting their internal development and by cooperating with other non-Western countries. The most prominent of these is the Confucian-Islamic connection.

The conflict between the West and Confucian-Islamic states focuses largely on the development, acquisition, and deployment of advanced weaponry. And while the West seeks to limit proliferation of weapons, the Rest see military development as necessary for their security. And this necessity is at its most obvious in the sustained expansion of China’s military power and its means to create military power. China is also exporting arms and arms technology to countries in the Middle East and Pakistan. A Confucian-Islamic military connection has thus come into being, designed to promote acquisition by its members of the weapons and weapons technologies needed to counter the military power of the West.


“This article does not argue that civilization identities will replace all other identities, that nation states will disappear, that each civilization will become a single coherent political entity, that groups within a civilization will not conflict with and even fight each other. This paper does set forth the hypotheses that differences between civilizations are real and important; civilization-consciousness is increasing; conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict; international relations, historically a game played out within Western civilization, will increasingly be de-Westernized and become a game in which non-Western civilizations are actors and not simply objects.”

As should be obvious, these are not a prescriptive but descriptive hypotheses. If they appear plausible, their implications for Western policy must be understood.

For the relevant future, there will be no universal civilization, but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others.

Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory by Robert Cox — A Summary

Robert W. Cox, “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory,” Millennium 10, no. 2 (June 1, 1981): 126–55.

It is common practice in academic disciplines to divide social reality into different spheres. This is a necessary exercise if practical knowledge is to be acquired. Such a division however is simply “a convenience of the mind” and is determined by the “peculiar times and places” in which the social reality is situated, i.e., its context. This implies that such a division cannot be sustained when the social reality changes.

International Relations is a case in point. Traditional IR built itself on the base of the subdivisions of “state” and “civil society”. This division was relevant to the two centuries preceding the birth of IR as a discipline when the state with limited functions (maintaining internal peace, external defence, managing the market) was distinct from the civil society based on contract and market relations. But today, the division is no longer clear-cut. (“State and civil society are so interpenetrated that the concepts have become almost purely analytical.”) This has greatly increased the complexity of (and as a corollary, the confusion with) the interactions as well as the institutions within which those interactions take place.

The influential trends of IR — neorealism which subordinates the state to anarchy, and neoliberalism which subordinates the state to transnational and intergovernmental interaction networks — have continued to maintain their focus on the traditional understanding of the state (“a state was a state was a state”). The result is that in IR, the plurality of the forms of the state expressing different state/society complexes have not been considered.

On Perspectives and Purposes

“Theory is always for someone and for some purpose.” That is to say, all theories have perspectives which are derived from the ‘peculiar’ social and political reality, and that there is no such thing as theory in itself.

The social reality imposes constraints (which manifest as problems) upon the perspective of a theory. It is the duty of theory to come to grips with these problems. When the reality changes, as it inevitably will, theory has to adjust or reject its old concepts and/or forge new ones. This is the dialectic between the perspective and the problematic which has to evolve as the context evolves.

Given a particular problematic, theory can either offer simple and direct diagnoses to the problems in terms of the particular perspective or it can also be reflective upon itself and attempt to open up new perspectives. In short, theory can be either problem-solving or critical.

“[Problem-solving theory] takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships and the institutions into which they are organised, as the given framework for action. The general aim of problem-solving is to make these relationships and institutions work smoothly by dealing effectively with particular sources of trouble.”

Problem-solving theories are fragmented into different spheres or problem areas as they do not question the general patterns of institutions and relations. Their fixity on specific problem areas makes them more precise and enables them to arrive at strong inferences and prescriptions. However, this fixation on specific problem areas and on a continuing present makes them ahistorical.

 “[Critical theory] stands apart from the prevailing order of the world and asks how that order came about. It, unlike problem-solving theory, does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whether they might be in the process of changing.”

Critical theories, although they start from a particular sphere, are broader in that they are concerned with the political and social complex as a whole. They seek to understand processes of change meaning that they have to continually adjust their concepts and the methods of enquiry. As a result, critical theories lack the precision of problem-solving theories. Despite this, or rather because of this, they are able to deal with the vicissitudes of history.

Problem-solving theory … aims to solve the problems arising in various parts of a complex whole in order to smooth the functioning of the whole. This aim rather belies the frequent claim of problem-solving theory to be value-free. It is methodologically value-free insofar as it treats the variables it considers as objects; but it is value-bound by virtue of the fact that it implicitly accepts the prevailing order as its own framework. (emphasis mine)

If critical theories see problem-solving theories as conservative, problem-solving theories accuse critical theories of not having practical application. If problem-solving theories accept the prevailing order, critical theories transcend it. If critical theory can inform strategic action for bringing about an alternative order, problem-solving theory is a guide to tactical actions that sustain the existing order. If periods of stability, like the Cold War, favour problem-solving theory, periods of uncertainty, like the 1970s, require critical theory.

Realism, Marxism and an Approach to a Critical Theory of World Order

Realist thinking about IR began as a historical approach going back at least to the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli. So long as realist thought studied the conduct of states as a reaction to specific historical circumstance, it was a contribution to critical theory. The works of Friedrich Meinecke and E.H. Carr belong to this mode of thought.

However, post-war American theorists such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz turned realism (hereafter, neo-realism) into problem-solving theory. This form of theorising assumes three levels of reality, namely (a) the self-interested nature of man, (b) the security-oriented nature of states, and (c) the anarchic nature of the state system. Having assumed all these, history then becomes, for the neo-realist, a quarry from where convenient examples may be mined.

Moreover, neo-realism presumes that such a characterisation of reality will be accepted by all actors. Neo-realism not only depends on the adoption of this neo-realist rationality but actively advocates the adoption of such a rationality. And it is precisely this advocacy, this “proselytising function”, which invalidates neo-realist claims about its value-free character.

The error … consists in taking a form of thought derived from a particular phase of history and assuming it to be universally valid. This is an error of neo-realism and more generally, the flawed foundation of all problem-solving theory.

For our purposes, it is necessary to distinguish two divergent Marxist currents … There is a Marxism [historical materialism] which reasons historically and seeks to explain, as well as to promote, changes in social relations; there is also a Marxism [structural Marxism], designed as a framework for the analysis of capitalist state and society which turns its back on historical knowledge in favour of the more static and abstract conceptualisation of the mode of production.

By contrast, Marxism in its approach to history, i.e., historical materialism, is a foremost source of critical theory and it corrects neo-realism in four important aspects.

First, through its use of the dialectic (in the Hegelian sense of the term), historical materialism sees conflict as fuelling the change in human nature and the social relations that govern human existence. In contrast, neo-realism sees conflict as inherent in the human condition.

In other words, neo-realism sees conflict as a recurrent consequence of a continuing structure, whereas historical materialism sees conflict as a possible cause of structural change.

Second, historical materialism adds a vertical dimension to power by examining imperialism whereas neo-realism is almost exclusively concerned about the horizontal dimension of rivalry.

Third, historical materialism engages with both the state and civil society, and in thinking about ‘structure’ and ‘superstructure’, it sees the state/society complexes as constituent entities of a world order.

Fourth, historical materialism treats the production process as a critical feature of the state/society complex. Neo-realism virtually ignores it.

This discussion has distinguished two kinds of theorising as a preliminary to proposing a critical approach to a theory of world order. Some of the basic premises for such a critical theory can now be restated:

(1) an awareness that action is never absolutely free but takes place within a framework for action which constitutes its problematic.

(2) a realisation that not only action but also theory is shaped by the problematic. Critical theory is conscious of its own relativity but through this consciousness can achieve a broader time-perspective and become less relative than problem-solving theory.

(3) the framework for action changes over time and a principal goal of critical theory is to understand these changes;

(4) this framework has the form of an historical structure, a particular combination of thought patterns, material conditions and human institutions which has a certain coherence among its elements.

(5) the framework or structure within which action takes place is to be viewed, not from the top in terms of the requisites for its equilibrium or reproduction (which would quickly lead back to problem-solving), but rather from the bottom or from outside in terms of the conflicts which arise within it and open the possibility of its transformation.

Frameworks for Action: Historical Structures

A framework for action or a historical structure refers to a particular configuration of forces. Three categories of forces interact in a structure: material capabilities, ideas and institutions.

Figure 1

Material capabilities can be productive or destructive. In their dynamic form, they exist as technological and organisational capabilities and in their accumulated forms, they exist as natural resources which technology can transform.

Ideas can consist of “intersubjective meanings” i.e., “shared notions of the nature of social relations which tend to perpetuate habits and expectations of behaviour”. Ideas can also consist of “collective images”, i.e., “differing views as to both the nature and the legitimacy of prevailing power relations”.

It is the clash of rival collective images which provide the potential for alternative paths of development that will challenge the relatively enduring character of intersubjective meanings.

Institutions are particular mixtures of ideas and material capabilities which influence their own further development. Institutionalisation stabilises and perpetuates a particular order.

Historical structures represent “limited totalities” i.e., “[they do] not represent the whole world but rather a particular sphere of human activity in its historically located totality”. For this discussion, the method of historical structures is applied to “three levels or spheres of activity: (a) the organisation of production, more particularly with regard to the social forces engendered by the production process: (b) forms of state as derived from a study of state/society complexes; and (c) world orders, i.e. the particular configurations of forces which successively define the problematic of war or peace for the ensemble of states”.

These three levels are interrelated. Changes in the organisation of production engender new social forces (to recast Carr’s argument, “the incorporation of industrial workers”) that alter the structure of states (“economic nationalism and imperialism”) which further helps determine the world order (“fragmentation of the world economy”). Transnational social forces affect the forms which states take. Forms of state also affect the development of social forces.

Figure 2

Hegemony and World Orders

How do we make sense of these reciprocal relationships in the current historical time?

Neo-realism reduces states and by extension the world order to a configuration of material forces. States are undifferentiated and the normative elements of world order are ignored.

Robert Keohane, in his theory of hegemonic stability, introduces “precise and well-obeyed” norms enforced by a hegemon as determining components of a hegemonic world order. The pax britannica of the mid-Nineteenth century and the pax americana of the post-war period are clear illustrations of this theory.

A third way is to view the world order as a coherent configuration of material power, the prevalent norms and a set of institutions which administer the order.

Dominance by a powerful state may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition of hegemony.

The marriage of power, ideas and institutions as explanatory factors of world order maps well to the historical stages of pax britannica and pax americana. The former comprised British naval supremacy, liberal economics and the ideological separation of politics from economics. The latter comprised American military might, liberalism embodied in the Bretton‑Woods system and the proliferation of formal international institutions.

Social Forces, Hegemony and Imperialism

If the world order is a fit between power, ideas and institutions, a theory is required that would explain how this fit comes about and why it comes apart when it does. The contention here is that such fitting together and coming apart can be explained by social forces shaped by production relations.

Social forces are not limited within but transcend state boundaries. The world order can be represented as a configuration of interacting social forces. The role of the state is that of an autonomous intermediary with social forces, and not material capability, constituting the bases of power. This perspective may be called the political economy perspective of the world. It explains the structural characteristics of the world order, its origins, growth, and demise, in terms of the interrelationships of the three levels structures, i.e., social forces, forms of state and world orders (see above, Figure 2).

The theoretical section of the paper, and with it, my interest, ends here.

The rest of the section maps the foregoing insight into the basis and demise of pax britannica along with the various stages of imperialism that came after: liberal imperialism, colonial  imperialism, and the imperial state system.

“Since the practical issue at the present is whether or not the pax americana has irretrievably come apart and if so what may replace it”, answer two specific questions: “(1) what are the mechanisms for maintaining hegemony in this particular historical structure? and (2) what social forces and/or forms of state have been generated within it which could oppose and ultimately bring about a transformation of the structure?”.

The internationalisation of the state and the institutionalisation of hegemony (both through the Bretton-Woods system) is offered as a partial answer to the first. Supplementing this is the integration of production processes on a transnational scale which, “plays the formative role in relation to the structure of states”. At present, it is “international production is mobilising social forces, and it is through  these forces that its major political consequences vis-a-vis the nature of states and future world orders may be anticipated”.

Concerning the second question, three possible outcomes are offered. First, a new hegemony being based upon the global structure of social power generated by the internationalising of production. Second, a non-hegemonic world structure of conflicting power centres through the ascendancy in several core countries of neo-mercantilist coalitions. And third, the development of a counter-hegemony based on a Third World coalition against core country dominance and aiming towards the autonomous development of peripheral countries and the termination of the core-peripheral relationship.

The Security Problematic of the Third World by Mohammed Ayoob — A Summary

Mohammed Ayoob, “The Security Problematic of the Third World,” World Politics 43, no. 2 (1991): 257–83.


The postwar world has been marked by (a) the doctrine of mutually assured destruction or MAD (thanks to the rise of the “awesome destructive capability” of nuclear weapons) and (b) the entrance of many new members, Third World states, into the system of states (thanks to the decolonisation process). The former has, thanks to MAD, stabilised the global balance of power while the latter has, by spawning a group of “floating” states which were “up for grabs”, introduced instability in to the system of states. In addition, the former has received much attention in international relations literature while the latter has not. Even if the security of Third World states is considered, it is done so from a distinctly Western perspective. This article is a review paper of four volumes which seek to fill this gap in the literature. (Note: There will be no explicit reference in this summary to the books reviewed although the paper draws upon and quotes from them frequently.)

“The[] … issues that … need to be addressed from both historical and comparative perspectives [are] as follows:
(a) How does the concept of security as applied to the Third World context differ from its traditional use in the international relations literature?
(b) What are the factors that inhere within Third World states that can help explain this difference?
(c) In what ways does the interaction of Third World states with the international system affect the security of the former?
(d) Are there specific factors related to technology in the late twentieth century that affect the security of Third World states in ways that are unique to the developing countries?
(e) What is the relationship between the security and developmental concerns of Third World states, and how does the interaction between these two preoccupations of Third World state elites affect the levels of legitimacy enjoyed by Third World states and regimes?”

The following sections will tackle each of these five questions in turn.


(a) How does the concept of security as applied to the Third World context differ from its traditional use in the international relations literature?

The traditional use of the concept of security has assumed the (a) military nature and (b) external origin of threats to state security. These assumptions are upheld even by those who insist on international security and are unwilling to accept the centrality of the state.[2] These assumptions are the natural result of a particular intellectual tradition that grew — from 1648 to 1945, to use symbolic dates — in the context of interaction among sovereign states and the identification of individuals with their respective (sovereign) states. The sovereign state thus became the unit object of security. After 1945, the Western world (“Europe and its offshoots”) was divided into two halves which were stabilised by a mutual balance of terror, i.e., by MAD. Alliance security, established in both halves, became superimposed upon state security. The essential assumptions, however, remained unchanged.

This understanding of security faces problems when applied to the Third World. The idea of security as (a) external, (b) systemic (or international), and (c) alliance-based are “thoroughly diluted” in the Third World.  Firstly, in the Third World, security threats substantially emanate from within states. External threats do exist but often they gain salience precisely from those insecurities that already abound within. Secondly, the Third World is relatively unimportant to the central strategic balance. Conflicts have proliferated in the Third World with the participation and even encouragement of the superpowers but without undermining the overall strategic balance. Thirdly, the notion of alliance security is absent for states in the Third World which, even if they are allied with the superpowers, receive a qualitatively different form of commitment to that accorded to Western states. The security of Third World states is not considered synonymous with the security of the alliance.


(b) What are the factors that inhere within Third World states that can help explain this difference?

Third World states are different from Western states. The mere possession of “juridical statehood” is insufficient ground for treating Third World states on par with Western states. The latter possess features such as strong state structures including rational-bureaucracies, infrastructure and internal cohesion which are largely absent in the former. The relevant factor for this discrepancy is time. The stable Western states are the finished products of centuries of unhappy historical experience. Third World states, on the other hand, are only a few decades old and have not had enough time to mature their institutions and societies.[3] It is this fact, the lack of the “software” of security, that makes recourse to military measures, “hardware” instruments of security, to deal with political challenges attractive for Third World regimes.

The current security predicaments of the Third World are partly explained by their similarity to the Western experience of state-making in its early stages.[4] This similarity is not merely coincidental. As such, the security problems faced by Third World countries today is not that astounding. The rest is explained by the telescoping of the state making process into a drastically shortened time period, and the low level of state power and legitimacy in Third World states.


(c) In what ways does the interaction of Third World states with the international system affect the security of the former?

The contemporary era of international linkages, whether military, economic, political, or technological, have substantial implications for Third World state making enterprises. This is particularly relevant for current technologies of communication and destruction.

In addition, the colonial experience has ensured that external factors have had serious impacts on Third World polities and their security environments. First, the decisions of colonial powers made for administrative purposes have resulted in the ethnic mix that Third World states possess in this day. This has major, often adverse, consequences for internal cohesiveness. Second, colonial legacies are responsible for many postcolonial interstate conflicts (Kashmir, for example).

Another aspect of the colonial experience is the transfer of the weakness and vulnerability of the colonies in relation to the colonial powers which is reproduced the postcolonial era in the form of the periphery-core dichotomy. The conflicts of the core, the superpower rivalries, are exported to the periphery, the Third World. Third World states are unable to prevent the occurrence of these conflicts or the intrusion of these conflicts into their polities.


(d) Are there specific factors related to technology in the late twentieth century that affect the security of Third World states in ways that are unique to the developing countries?

The propensity to engage in interstate conflict is increased by the transfer of modern weapons and weapons technology from the Western to the Third World. It is not just the instrumental value of weapons but often the mere fact of possession, especially if they are sophisticated weapons, that can increase the prospects of conflict. The transfer of these weapons happens at great economic cost.

Recently, it is transfer of weapons technology which has overtaken the transfer of weapons themselves. This shift could underlie either a movement towards military independence or could simply be replacing one form of dependence by another.  Either way, the effect on the overall security of the Third World is negative. If the former is true, the war-fighting capacity of Third World states in increased. If the latter is true, the feeling of insecurity and vulnerability among Third World elites is intensified.

One dramatic subset of the transfer of sophisticated weapons technology is nuclear proliferation. Emerging Third World states see nuclear weaponry as essential to their promotion to influence in the world stage and there are credible if unacknowledged instances of Third World states developing nuclear weapons. The problem of maintaining security is not just limited to the management of dozen or so nuclear powers but the practical implications of having a number of those powers involved in regional conflicts.


(e) What is the relationship between the security and developmental concerns of Third World states, and how does the interaction between these two preoccupations of Third World state elites affect the levels of legitimacy enjoyed by Third World states and regimes?”

In most Third World states, military spending is dominated by operational costs (mainly salaries for troops) rather than by costs of sophisticated weapons. This indicates the high level of manpower required to maintain internal control (taxation, policing, and warfare for attaining state power). In this context, it is safe to say that development as a serious objective comes only after power accumulation (political legitimacy) and meeting regional threats (securing regime security) in the policy consideration of Third World leaders.


“In the final analysis, however, most of the deep-seated sources of conflict and violence in the Third World … cannot and will not be fundamentally determined by superpower actions and interactions…. Therefore, although changes in superpower relations may continue to affect some of these sources of conflict and insecurity in the Third World, these changes alone are not capable of transforming the basic nature of the security predicament of the Third World states. As it stands, the existing parameters of the security problematic of the Third World can be altered only if Third World states have adequate time to complete the twin tasks of the state making and nation building, plus enough political sagacity on their leaderships’ part to attempt to accomplish these tasks in as humane a manner as possible.”

End Notes

[1] The ideas of Section II and III are more fully argued for in Mohammed Ayoob, “Security in the Third World: The Worm About to Turn?”, International Affairs 60 (1): 41–51.

[2] The system-centric idea of security draws its inspiration from the English School of International Relations which insists on the relevance of the “international society”.

[3] The experience of India in maintaining a robust democracy is an exception.

[4] “Th[e] European experience … cost tremendously in death, suffering, loss of rights, and unwilling surrender of land, goods, or labor…. The fundamental reason for the high cost…. Building differentiated, autonomous, centralized organizations with effective control of territories entailed eliminating or subordinating thousands of semiautonomous authorities…. Most of the European population resisted each phase of the creation of strong states.”

Security in the Third World: The Worm About to Turn? by Mohammed Ayoob — A Summary

Mohammed Ayoob, “Security in the Third World: The Worm about to Turn?,” International Affairs 60, no. 1 (January 1, 1983): 41–51.

Security has traditionally been defined as immunity of a state to threats from outside its borders. This is the traditional realist perspective. However, some writers see security in terms of the “international society” as a whole (and not in terms of individual states or nations).[1] They argue that the security of each state is inextricable intertwined with the security of the whole system. Yet, even if these two approaches — the first, state-centric and the second, system-centric — disagree on the relevant object of security, they nevertheless conceptualise security by reference to external threats to the state.

This view of security can be traced back at least to Westphalia. The evolution of the European system of states, from 1648 to 1945 to use symbolic dates, was marked by (a) the interaction among sovereign states and (b) the identification of individuals with their own states (thanks in no small part to the correspondence of state and national boundaries). These two processes laid the foundation for the intellectual tradition that came to see security as synonymous with the protection of the state from external threats.[2]

The division and stabilisation of the Western world into two blocs since 1945 has only strengthened this connotation of security. In fact, the superimposition of alliance security (whether the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or the Warsaw Pact) has increasingly obliterated even the difference between state-centric and system-centric approaches to security.

“The three major characteristics of the concept of state or national security in Western states … are (a) its external orientation, (b) its strong linkage with systemic security and (c) its binding ties with the security of the two major alliance blocs … [However,] in the Third World,[3] [they are,] if not totally absent, so thoroughly diluted as to be hardly recognizable. The primary aim of this paper is to analyse how and why they are radically different in the context of the Third World and what are the implications for the international system as a whole that follow from these differences.”

Third World “Insecurity”: The Worm Within

Threats to Third World states emanate substantially from within. External threats exist but they remain marginal.[4] These external threats serve to augment internal problems and would not be effective without the latter.

Security problems in Third World states are largely internal mainly due to (a) their history of state formation and (b) the pattern of elite recruitment, regime establishment and maintenance.  Both of these differ starkly from Western states.

Firstly, Western states have achieved a level of “unconditional legitimacy” thanks to centuries of political and institutional development. Western societies have, through centuries of conflict and upheaval, reached a high level of consensus on fundamental issues of social and political organisation. They are thus strong as states.[5] In contrast, Third World states are extremely young and have not had time to develop strong state structures. In addition, in Third World societies, issues of political, social and economic organisation are matters of life and death contested at every level. There is no consensus. As such, they are weak as states.[6]

Secondly, as a natural consequence of the lack of consensus on fundamental issues, most Third World states are ruled by regimes with narrow support bases which hold on to power tenaciously and which are prone to disallow political debate. Security, naturally, comes to be defined in terms of maintaining the regime. This does not preclude disagreements in Western states. It means simply that the difference in scale and intensity is what makes disagreements critical to security in the Third World. In addition, the operation of the international economy which increases economic disparities has compounded the problem in Third World states by alienating the masses from the elite who rule. This poses a threat not just to the legitimacy of the rulers of these states but also the state structures through which the working of the international economy is translated.

The International Context: War by Proxy?

The link between the security of Third World states and the security of the world as a whole is “very fragile, if not totally non-existent”.[7] Conflict within and among Third World states is permitted or very often even encouraged. It is the fragility of political institutions and state structures in Third World states that enables this encouragement. Fragile polities facilitate intervention. Third World states serve as theatres where the drama of superpower rivalry can be safely acted out without drawing the superpowers into direct confrontation. The result is the exacerbation of the security problem in the Third World.

Other factors contribute to this state of affairs. Conflicts in the Third World (a) keep the arms industry in the developed world in business, (b) provide grounds for weapons testing, (c) enable superpowers to test each other’s tolerance, (d) serve as linkages between issues that superpowers can exploit, (e) provide opportunities to superpowers to demonstrate their credibility to allies, and (f) provide a way of ensuring access to strategic raw materials. In short, systemic inputs diminish security in Third World states whereas they augment security in Western states.

Given the fragile link between security of Third World states and the central issues of global security, war as an instrument of policy remains attractive to many Third World regimes. Not only that, proxy wars in the Third World remains a realistic option for the superpowers. A corollary of all these is that both superpowers have a vested interest in maintaining insecure regimes. However, the commitment towards Third World regimes are rather thin and extends greatly in terms of political and military investments but fall short of final commitment to save regimes (which would not be the case for “core” allies). Regimes, mistaken about the commitment of the superpowers, tend to be reckless, more repressive and less flexible. This adds to the problem of insecurity.

Implications of a Shifting Balance

The insulation of the Third World conflicts has been largely due to the stability of the strategic Cold War balance. This stability, maintained by the equilibrium of military technology, seems likely to enter into disequilibrium. The Soviet Union may with spirited military investment and political initiative make serious inroads into Western Europe or the United States may gain a strategic edge due to its technological and economic superiority. In any case, uncertainty would be introduced into superpower calculations making perceptions of situations as important as, if not more important than, actual situations. It is easy then to imagine that a period of transition — which the world seems to be moving towards at the moment — from the equilibrium would involve a “state of nerves” in which conflicts in the Third World which would otherwise be considered by the superpowers as routine would come to be treated as significant. This could be an entry point through which hitherto insulated Third World security concerns could affect the dominant stability of the strategic Cold War balance.

End Notes

[1] Reference to an international “society” is most obvious in what is known as the English School of International Relations.

[2] Put in a different way, the “external-directedness” of the concept of security — which, in one sense, is the fundamental attribute of the Western concept of security — is a corollary of the doctrine of state sovereignty in its pure and pristine form.

[3] “The term “Third World” is used in this article in a generic sense, and deliberately so. It is undoubtedly true that there are diverse elements within the Third World; it is also true that there are intramural problems, conflicts and antagonisms within it. However, these countries share enough in terms of their colonial past and their unequal encounter with the European powers following the Industrial Revolution to set them apart from the European states which have traditionally formed the “core” of the modern system of states.”

[4] “Any perceptive observer of the South Asian scene in 1970-1 would have realized that the Indian ‘threat’ to Pakistan was very secondary to that posed by East Bengali nationalists; also that the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 would either not have been fought, or, if fought, would have had a very different outcome if the bulk of the East Bengali population had not been disenchanted with the then existing structure of the Pakistani state.”

[5] This does not imply that they are necessarily powerful states. Here, the emphasis is on the strength of the structures of state.

[6] Again, this does not imply that they are powerless states.

[7] The exceptions to this are the major oil exporters and Israel which even if it is “physically located in the Third World it is not of the Third World”.

Security and Emancipation by Ken Booth — A Summary

Ken Booth, “Security and Emancipation,” Review of International Studies 17, no. 4 (1991): 313–26.

The fun lies in reading the paper. It is not often that the dour topic of Security receives such entertaining treatment.

Word Problems and World Problems

The words we use to talk about International Politics — itself a “misleading label” — are becoming worn. But words are all we have. We need sharp words and sharp concepts to deal with sharp subjects. “We cannot expect to deal successfully with world problems if we cannot sort out our word problems.”

The Interregnum

Long standing patterns are declining and giving way to a more complicated global order where there is a simultaneous development of both local and global identities which overlap each other. Statist categories are breaking down.

How do we describe the current stage of world affairs [the period after the “fall” of the USSR; this paper was written in 1991] We need to name things correctly. Perhaps this is an interregnum. How we go beyond this interregnum will depend on our “images and vision”. In order to make a new future, old “images” will have to be discarded.

A Turning Point for Inter-State War

A “350-year span of history dominated by … military competition” is coming to an end. Military questions are no longer the main agenda of international politics. What new security game shall be played from now on?

Security in Our Times

The new security game can be characterised as a “utopian realism”. This perspective is, unlike the traditional realist perspective, holistic in character and non-statist in approach. Such a perspective is necessary because of the grave limitations of traditional thought about security. Its narrow military focus is highly problematic. Simply consider, to name but one example, the security dilemma. Also, it is apparent that issue areas like economic collapse, scarcity, overpopulation, environmental degradation etc. which lie outside the scope of traditional security thinking must be included in the new security agenda.

What we are seeing today is the recession of war among “communities that are wealthy and have a significant level of social justice”, loosely democratic societies. Unlike the centuries that preceded it, there has been no war among the “44 richest countries since 1945”. This points to a correlation between democracy and warlessness. Order, then, might lie in ensuring at least minimal levels of political and social justice.

Emancipation vs Power and Order

Order and power come at somebody’s expense. Hence, they are unstable. For this reason, emancipation must take precedence.

“‘Security’ means the absence of threats. Emancipation is the freeing of people (as individuals and groups) from those physical and human constraints which stop them carrying out what they would freely choose to do. War and the threat of war is one of those constraints, together with poverty, poor education, political oppression and so on. Security and emancipation are two sides of the same coin. Emancipation, not power or order, produces true security. Emancipation, theoretically, is security.”

People should be treated as ends and states as means. Individual humans, not states, are the ultimate referent. States are “unreliable, illogical and too diverse in their character” to be uses as the primary referents. Unreliable because some states are in the business of security while others (those of Hitler, Stalin, Saddam) are not. Illogical because states are only means and not the ends of security. Also, the historical variety of states makes a theory of state misplaced.

Consider the confrontation between the women of Greenham Common and Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s. While the former saw nuclearization as a threat to their security and protested the building of the Greenham missile base, the latter saw the Soviet Union as a threat and the missiles as the guarantors of security. The utopian realism of the former can be contrasted with the neo-realism of the latter. The Greenham women were right. It is not that denuclearization will be easy or guaranteed. But it is rational to act as though it is.

The Case for Emancipation

The struggle for emancipation is concurrent with the spirit our times. It is necessary to go beyond the important but limited insights of neo-realism. Politics is open-ended and based in ethics. The preoccupation with technological variables must be superseded by an engagement with moral philosophy. Critical theory helps in achieving this movement from the neo-realist framework to critical philosophy.

This requires a rethinking of traditional ideas about liberty. Emancipation implies liberty but of an egalitarian character. “[L]iberty without economic status is propaganda.” Emancipation also requires the integration of reciprocal rights — the idea that ‘I am not truly free until everyone is free’. This will result in the breaking down of the barriers between the domestic and the foreign. The distinction between the two although convenient is an “unhelpful dichotomy”.

Teaching and Practice: What is to be Done?

Freedom eradicates violence. There is an inverse correlation between the political rights and civil liberties in nations, and both internal violence and war. “Emancipation, empirically, is security.”

Traditional thinking about security in so far as it is characterised by superpower nuclearism is a “non-returnable timebound curiosity”. In its stead, a new breed of students trained in defence, of course, but also in human rights, environmental issues, economic development, and comparative politics.

In practice, emancipation enables community building upon the debris of the barriers between “us” and “them”. With it as the “utopian” goal, the processes practiced and implemented towards attaining it, in a very real sense, become significant achievements themselves. In other words, the means become the ends. The aim is not so much on distant utopian goals but on reformist steps and processes. Such processes have already been underway not just in governments but also in non-state actors. The outlook is encouraging.

Critical theory falls short when it comes to policy recommendations. But so does realism. In any case, it should not be expected to guide action in all circumstances.

Conclusion as Prologue

“The implementation of an emancipatory strategy through process utopian steps is, to a greater or lesser extent, in the hands of all those who want it to be — the embryonic global civil society. In a world of global communications few should feel entirely helpless. Even in small and private decisions it is possible to make choices which help rather than hinder the building of a world community. Some developments depend on governments, but some do not. …[I]n pursuing emancipation, the bases of real security are being established.