On the face of it, the West's victory over Communism should have provided an instant proof of this conviction. But instead, there was puzzlement. America's economic dominance was being challenged by newly confident Far Eastern nations. And, internally, America seemed divided against itself. This country had something that had made it victorious, but there seemed to be no agreement about what it was. Meanwhile, in the Gulf, in Yugoslavia, in Africa, conflict seemed to be as entrenched as ever. The world was apparently incapable of acknowledging its ultimate American destiny.
In 1993, in the journal Foreign Affairs, Samuel P Huntington provided one answer. In an essay called "The Clash of Civilisations?", Huntington, a Harvard professor, said the single ideological confrontation of the Cold War had been replaced by multiple confrontations. These were based not on politics, economics nor even on the demands of the nation state, but rather on culture. "The next world war," he wrote ominously, "if there is one, will be a war between civilisations."
The thesis is pessimistic. Many had hoped that the triumph of liberal democracy signalled at least the beginning of the end of armed conflict. Liberal democracies have never gone to war with each other and, now that it seemed so obviously to be the one desirable form of government, nations should gradually move towards a new era of peace in which the sheer economic inefficiency of war would become unthinkable. But Huntington began from the view that fundamental conflicts would persist and then he simply asked what would, in the future, be likely to drive them.
For the United States, this pessimism had its positive side. After the Cold War, American institutions faced an identity crisis. From the Pentagon to the CIA, they wondered what they were supposed to do. This was a country on a war footing, but now with no obvious enemy.
Huntington, in the conclusion of his essay, gives them their programme. The US must work to promote co-operation among countries within its own civilisation - Europe and the Americas; it must limit the expansion of military power of Islamic and Confucian states and it must exploit their differences and conflicts. The programme was, in short, to shore up the West against the anti-West. It was as decisive a statement of the need for eternal vigilance as any that were made during the Cold War.
The intellectual heart of this argument is Huntington's concept of civilisation as the new determining force in world affairs. A civilisation, he says, is a cultural entity, it 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". In the case of Japan, the civilisation and the nation state coincide, but in every other case a civilisation includes many different states.
Huntington identifies eight civilisations: Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and "possibly" African. Perhaps his most potent example of the way these blocs divide is his new Iron Curtain. The conquests of Communism drew this line too far to the West. In reality, it runs between Russia and Finland, down through the Baltic states, Ukraine and Romania, and then it twists ominously through the Balkans. This is the ancient fault-line between Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. It makes it clear that the Bosnian conflict is far more fundamental than we like to think. In the former Yugoslavia, the Europe of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment had reached its easternmost limit.
The point about such divisions is their depth. They are old and they embody basic differences between peoples. We are just beginning to grasp that the Serbs are not like us. Equally, the Confucian states - notably China - will remain essentially incomprehensible because they simply do not share our attitudes to morality, individual freedom and human rights. And, of course, the Salman Rushdie affair demonstrates the extent to which an unbridgeable gap will always exist between a theocratic culture and the West, where religion has been relativised to the point where it cannot make ultimate political demands.
Huntington rejects the argument that, as travel increases and communications improve, these differences will become less profound. Rather, he says, they will become more intense as people struggle to retain their cultural identity against the globalising tendencies of the modern world.
"The interactions among peoples of different civilisations," he writes, "enhance the civilisation-consciousness of people which, in turn, invigorates differences and animosities stretching or thought to stretch back deep into history." The impact of the essay was almost as great as that of Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" essay published in 1989. Huntington, previously a solid, respected but uncontroversial thinker, was suddenly being debated at conferences around the world. Perhaps this is because he was saying exactly the opposite of Fukuyama. Whereas the End of History argument suggested that all cultures were converging on the ideal of liberal democracy, the "Clash of Civilisations" suggested the ancient divergences were, for the time being, absolute. History, far from being over, had been revitalised by the end of the Cold War. The old, cultural divisions had re-emerged to divide us all.
But is Huntington right? Clearly, in an obvious sense, he is. Deep fault- lines do exist in the world that represent more than just economic or political differences. We may console ourselves that they listen to Sting or Michael Jackson in Japan, but it does not take long to realise they are hearing something different. Equally, the Americans might have felt pride that a rough replica of the Statue of Liberty was erected by the students in Tiananmen Square. But China remains a Confucian culture imbued with the utterly alien idea that government cannot ultimately be wrong because it is the embodiment of what is right.
Yet globalisation is happening. Local cultures are being weakened by the intrusion of alien influences. Usually, because they control the software, these influences are American. But the point is that, whatever the influences, they tend to deliver the message that the demands of the local, the demands of your civilisation, are not absolute; you can choose others. Maybe Hungtington is right to say this globalisation will induce a kind of cultural paranoia, an intensification of difference. But that is only speculation and there is equally authoritative speculation pointing in the other direction.
Finally, the charge can be levelled at Huntington that he appears to be bending over backwards to define an aggressive foreign policy for the US. Cultural conflict is an even better justification than the merely ideological conflict of the Cold War. There are more enemies and the frontiers are more clearly defined. And this threat is more or less permanent, a constant pressure on the Americans to stiffen their sinews and summon up their blood.
But the fairest summary of Huntington's position is that it has been an important corrective. The defeat of Communism led to many facile simplifications, notably about the universal panacea of free market economics. This led to dangerous generalisations about the world and the absurd assumption that, in the end, everybody would succumb to Western consumerism. Huntington's importance was to point out that there are great differences between peoples that cannot be eliminated either by liberal idealism or conservative economics. For not everybody is American and some might not want to be to the point of war.
'The next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations'
CAREER: Samuel P Huntington is Albert J Weatherhead III University Professor and Director of the John M Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. He was born in 1927 in New York City. He was educated at Yale and Chicago Universities and has taught at Harvard and Columbia. Between 1977 and 1978 he was at the White House as Co-ordinator for Security Planning for the National Security Council. He founded the quarterly Foreign Policy and was co-editor until 1977.
WORK: He has written more than a dozen books and 90 articles in three key areas: military politics, American and comparative politics, and the politics of less developed countries. His major work - The Third Wave: Democratisation in the Late Twentieth Century - was published in 1991 and his essay, "The Clash of Civilisations?" appeared in 1993.
LIFE: Huntington is married with two children.
CRITICS: His Clash of Civilisations thesis has been attacked as being over-simplified. Cultures alone, say his critics, do not make wars; more elaborate interactions with politics and economics are required. The idea, it is said, is no more than a desperate attempt to think up a coherent foreign policy for the United States.