Diversity Breeds Conflict? A Critical Examination of Samuel Huntington’s Arguments

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Mohandass Kalaichelvan's picture

Diversity Breeds Conflict? A Critical Examination of Samuel Huntington’s Arguments

Huntington’s seminal piece on the clash of civilizations has been the backbone of the cultural argument preceding inter-group conflict for the past two decades. In Huntington’s view, the global political landscape of the future will be characterized by the “cultural fault lines separating civilizations” (25). Cultural differences do indeed seem to present a compelling case initially; however upon further examination, new evidence from a plethora of contrarian authors seems to be better able to explain recent phenomena. Cultural differences are starkly noticeable and hence provide a convenient reason for brewing ethnic conflict. However, inherent structural and ethnopolitical features of a nation-state better explain the increase in civil wars and inter-group conflict in the last 50 years.

The most fundamental assumption is that civil wars occur because certain ethnic groups harbor deep-seated grievances due to mistreatment in the past by a dominant group. However strong grievances and inherent cultural differences are not sufficient to result in a civil war. Gurr argues that there needs to be a strong “sense of group cultural identity to provide the essential bases for mobilization and shape the kinds of claims made by the group’s leaders” (124). In addition, four factors shape the ability of a disadvantaged group to act on its grievances. Extensive collective disadvantage, salient group identity, dense networks for mobilization and unjust force and repressive control by the dominant group make it more likely for inter-group conflict to erupt. Cultural differences might provide the catalyst for discontent but these factors provide the mechanisms for action.

Huntington fails to recognize that a disadvantaged group can show its level of dissatisfaction in two different ways: protest and rebellion –discontent does not always necessarily have to end in bloody conflict. The political nature of the state and its level of institutionalization determine the pathway 2 that the group will eventually take to voice its concerns. For example, if a state is democratic, wellinstitutionalized and accounts for the pluralistic nature of its society, communal action is more likely to take the form of protests rather than violent rebellion. In essence, the protective nature of democracy and peaceful avenues to voice discontent will allow disadvantaged groups to achieve their aims. Hence, civil war due to cultural differences will only occur if the state is highly autocratic and has very few avenues for disgruntled groups to voice their discontent. As Gurr points out, the case of the Soviet Union in the 90s proves this point: “the majority of Soviet leaders chose democracy and decentralization” (138). The Soviet Union was made up of several culturally variant groups; however, the focal point of democracy and effective mechanisms for discontent triumphed over cultural differences.

Although accounting for historical grievances is an improvement from merely identifying cultural differences as a source of conflict, quantification of grievances and the causality mechanism linking grievances to civil war conflict is hazy at best. Gagnon improves on this nebulous link by analyzing the case of Serbia and asserts that “far from being the spontaneous eruption of ancient ethnic hatreds brewing in a cultural or historical context hostile to democratization…, the war was begun precisely because of the relative strength of homegrown pressure for political pluralism and support for liberal democratic values” (118). Although a well-functioning democracy with accountable political institutions promotes peaceful protests from disadvantaged groups, the search for democracy is bound to be destabilizing in itself. As Gurr notes in democratizing autocracies, “the opportunities for communal groups to mobilize are substantial, but states usually lack the resources or institutional means to reach the kinds of accommodations that typify the established democracies” (138). Applying an extension to this base-case scenario, violent rebellion and civil war is more likely when contenders for power in a state reject accommodations. Serbia illustrates this 3 case lucidly – Serbian nationalists chose to pursue cultural differences actively and rejected state accommodations due to their dislike for democratic currents in the region.

Serbia represents a very interesting proposition in the study of culture-driven ethnic conflict. Although a cursory glance seems to indicate a divided society afflicted by cultural differences, the Serbian case is a scenario where leaders were well-equipped to harness the power of “divide and conquer” tactics to suit their needs. During Serbia’s search for democracy, Serbian conservatives utilized victimhood to pave the way for the weakening of democratic forces in the region. Hence, cultural differences provided the political fodder for anti-democratic elements. Furthermore, Gagnon also finds that there is high level of interracial marriage in these areas – this represents a good indicator of social integration which puts the theory of incontrovertible cultural differences to rest.

Huntington argues that conflicts within the same civilization will be less likely to occur and that “such conflicts… are likely to be less intense and less likely to expand than conflicts between civilizations” (38). However, Fearon and Laitin counter Huntington’s erroneous claims by stating that civil wars within a civilizational group have actually been far greater in number than inter-state wars between 1945 and 1999. In addition, they also push the idea that many of these civil wars have not been borne out of ethnic and religious scuffles. Fearon and Laitin challenge modern perceptions by contending that the propensity for civil war in a particular society is better understood in terms of identifying factors that promote insurgencies and that there is “little evidence that one can predict where a civil war will break out by looking for where ethnic or other broad political grievances are strongest” (75). An insurgency is a military strategy largely employed by relatively small groups of guerilla fighters to achieve political aims and assuage grievances. Poor states with weak institutions render insurgency more feasible since weak governing mechanisms lower the opportunity cost of 4 rebelling. Fearon and Laitin identify five crucial factors that are better markers for possible civil war: poverty, financially and bureaucratically weak states, political instability, rough terrain and large populations. A combination of these factors is highly correlated with an increase in the probability of a civil war breaking out in a given society when controlling for variables such as per capita income, ethnic fractionalization and regional effects. Fearon and Laitin also reject Gurr’s claim that long-held ethnic grievances lead to civil war. Instead, they propose the reverse causational relationship that civil war leads to increased ethnic grievances.

John Mueller proposes a new school of thought regarding ethnic warfare. Scholars have always approached the concept of ethnic conflict as an entire group mobilization effort where all members of opposing groups come together to fight against each other. However, this line of thinking sensationalizes and exaggerates the exact processes on the ground. Instead of a Hobbesian anarchy where social cleavages result in an “us or them” mentality, Muller argues that “ethnic war does not exist [and it] more closely resembles non-ethnic warfare, because it is waged by small groups of combatants, groups that purport to fight and kill in the name of some larger entity” (42). Essentially, conflicts in such violence-prone areas are usually the result of clashes between groups of armed thugs. Analyzing the Rwandan civil war, it is possible to glean elements of criminal-like elements at play. Although the 1994 genocide seems to be a Hobbesian conflict of pitting neighbor against neighbor, most of the men who were recruited to join the violence initially participated only to receive guaranteed daily sustenance and the opportunity to loot. This incentive scheme hardly resembles a war that had been initiated due to ideological or ethnic differences. In this case, cultural differences only serve as an “ordering device [rather] than as an impelling force” (Mueller, 62). The small collection of armed thugs in Rwanda, under instructions from the political elite, was able to feed on these existing social cleavages and orchestrate violent processes to conduct looting. Cultural differences were preyed upon to instigate so-called “ethnic conflict” in Rwanda.

However, it would be wholly inaccurate to simply discount the ethnic factor and attribute greed and opportunity as the main reasons why people end up joining such militia groups in conflict-strewn societies. Instead, ethnicity and cultural differences should be seen as a factor with the ability to influence the pursuit of power within a society such that fighting factions that struggle for supremacy will inherently organize along these lines. Ethnic ordering is not the primary aim in itself; instead, it presents a lucrative yet simple organizational measure through which groups reorient themselves to win state legitimacy and power. At the same time, it would be important to understand that these warring factions are not operating in a neutral political vacuum in their respective societies – instead their intentions must be understood in terms of achieving political aims. Manipulating cultural differences and reinforcing ethnic cleavages usually provides these groups with best chance of winning state authority and recognition. In addition, when ethnicity is reinforced by incompatible religions, unjust socioeconomic differences and geographical isolation, leaders of such groups possess an even higher chance of organizing successful mobilization efforts.

All in all, this essay has countered the traditional Huntington doctrine that diversity breeds conflict. Ethnic and immutable cultural differences have long been championed as the underlying factor in some of the most recent civil wars. However, evidence presented in this essay serves to display the contrarian arguments. The international community seems intent on believing otherwise. Perhaps, harboring the thought that ostensibly irreconcilable cultural differences cause inter-group conflict provides a misguided comfort that external intervention in conflict-strewn societies is futile.

Works Cited

  1. Fearon, James and David Laitin. 2003. “Ethnicity, insurgency and Civil Wars.” American Political Science Review.
  2. Gagnon, V.P. 1994. “Serbia’s Road to War.” Journal of Democracy 5(2): 117-131.
  3. Gurr, Ted Robert. 1993. Minorities at Risk. Washington DC: USIP. Chapter 5.
  4. Huntington, Samuel P. 1993. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72(3): 22-49.
  5. Mueller, John. 2000. “The Banality of ‘Ethnic War’.” International Security 25(1): 42-70.


I do agree with your premise that ethnic conflicts are overemphasized in being cited as reasons for conflicts. However, if you look at civil wars around the world, be it Rwanda, Serbia, Sudan, Shia-Sunni conflict, Rohingya conflict, Hindu-Muslim conflict, Kashmir, Christian-Muslim unrest in Middle East and Africa; all of these show an underlying pattern, that it is easy to conflagrate riding on ethnic conflicts. Most people would refuse to take up arms against their own kin, however, a poor, destitute population could be easily incited to wage wars on "another" population, an aim that has been successfully achieved by the power brokers of the world.

I think Huntington's arguments are assuming more importance by the day, with minority populations increasingly isolating themselves from the majority, a pattern which has been observed in Boston attacks. With increasing Islamic marginalization in Europe, his frightening prophecies could well come true.