Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations' Empirically Challenged
Bertelsmann Foundation | September 2009
A study by the Bertelsmann Foundation in cooperation with the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research has proven that the number of cultural conflicts has risen dramatically over the past 25 years. One of the most popular theories in international relations in the past two decades - Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" - has been challenged by this study. Whereas Huntington argued that culture is a driving force in the development of international conflict, the study found empirical evidence that the majority of conflicts take place within states not between them.
Nearly half of the conflicts studied for the period 1945 to 2007 contained cultural dimensions. Ever since the end of the Cold War, cultural conflicts have outnumbered every other type of conflict. However, cultural concerns such as differences in religion or language do not provoke conflict by themselves. Rather the presence of a "youth bulge," i.e. a large number of young men between the ages of 15 and 24, is a crucial prerequisite to the development of conflict. The potential for aggression in a society is further augmented by the lack of economic growth, the absence of available arable land, and insufficiently developed democratic procedures. When these criteria meet up with religious and ethnic hatreds, the readiness for conflict heightens further. The Bertelsmann study proves that this scenario is played out increasingly within states, to a hitherto unknown extent. Examples ranging from Yugoslavia to the Caucasus to Sri Lanka lend credence to this notion.
Now that Huntington's thesis regarding the cause of international conflict cannot be reaffirmed, where does that leave the much debated cultural conflict between the West and Islam on the international stage? According to the study, four out of five cultural conflicts meanwhile take place within states. Huntington's "clash of civilizations" hence appears to have far greater explanatory power at the intra-state level than in the international realm. Cultural potential for conflict would therefore appear to affect a state's internal policies far more greatly than its foreign policies. Within a state, the potential for conflict is determined by the presence of a "youth bulge," in combination with the ethnic and/or linguistic fragmentation of a country. Hostilities will be far more likely to break out in the presence of cultural divisions, but they are not a priori defined by them. If one takes into consideration that cultural conflicts within state borders have in recent years increased in frequency and intensity, one might consider moving Huntington's theory out of the international relations textbooks and into those for government classes.
This summary was prepared by the Atlantic Community editorial team from "Culture and Conflict in Global Perspective – The Cultural Dimensions of Conflict: 1945-2007" published here by Bertelsmann Foundation.