Prospects for the Future: Towards a Clash of Civilizations?

Led by Tanja Ellingsen
Jan 2003 - Dec 2005


During the three years from 1989-92 the global system went through a momentous change. At the beginning of 1989 the world was still divided into two blocs aligned to the superpowers. Though there had been a few years of détente in bloc relations, and some movement towards conflict resolution could be noted, e.g. in the Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq and Namibia conflicts, the basic structure of the global system remained intact. Armed conflicts as well as the search for solution often involved the blocs. As little as three years later, by the end of 1992, this situation had changed fundamentally. Fifteen state-building countries had replaced the Soviet Empire. The Warsaw Pact had been disbanded and Germany reunited. The Russian troops started to withdraw from Eastern and Central Europe, and US troops were leaving Western Europe. A seemingly stable world order constructed around two military poles was replaced by 'something else', as yet unknown. Thus, when President George Bush launched his phrase about 'The New World Order', he threw out a challenge to political scientists around the world to help bewildered policy-makers rethink the basis of international relations - leading to a still continuing debate about the wider significance of the changes.

One of the contributors within this debate is Huntington (1993ab; 1996) and his vision of the future as 'a clash of civilizations'. Although this perspective has been criticized by a number of people for a variety of reasons, most of the critique has been of a theoretical nature. Few people have tried to test Huntington's proposition empirically. This is what this dissertation aims to do. Does the pattern of conflict in the post-Cold War era reflect Huntington's vision of a clash of civilizations? In order to answer this question the dissertation is divided into four parts.

Part One consists of two chapters. The first chapter gives a review of Huntington and his Clash of Civilizations thesis. What does Huntington argue, and why? The second chapter then goes on giving a brief review of the responses to Huntington's argument. What have the responses been like - do they agree or disagree, and for what reasons? Related to this, the second chapter also presents some of Huntington's challengers by giving a brief review of the most prominent alternative visions of 'The New World Order'. Although the dissertation focuses upon the proposition of civilizational clashes, the broader debate is important for at least two reasons. First, it helps putting Huntington's vision into context, e.g. - in what way does 'the clash of civilizations' differ from other propositions? Are there any similarities? And secondly, if a vision of 'a clash of civilizations' is subsequently falsified - do any of the other propositions offer a better prediction of 'The New World Order'? This issue is reflected upon in the last part of the dissertation.

Part Two discusses the existence of civilizations - which is the very assumption that the vision of 'a clash of civilizations' rests upon. Here, I raise the question: Does it make sense to talk about civilizations and civilizational identities at all? In order to answer this question several sub-issues are discussed. First, Chapter 3 gives a brief review of the discussion of what a civilization is and how and why they come about. Civilization-theorists like Toynbee (1934-61), Sorokin (1937-85), Spengler (1926-28), Melko (1969) and Wallerstein (1992) are central here. The following chapter discusses whether nation states are fading as sources of identity, while Chapter 5 explores the issue of kinship and religious transnationality. More specifically, Chapters 4 and 5 are concerned about questions like these: Have nation-states become less important to people after the end of the Cold War? Has religion replaced nation-states as sources of identity? Does common religion claim transnationality? Thus, identity is the core issue of these chapters. This is true also for the following two chapters, although not as explicitly as in Chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 6 deals with economic cooperation and trade. Who co-operates or trades with whom? Does economic cooperation follow the fault lines of civilizations? And are those which do not follow them less successful than those which do? Finally, Chapter 6 concerns the issue of political cooperation. Who votes with whom in decisions concerning the United Nations- and who votes against them? Does this type of cooperation, too, follow the fault lines of civilizations?

Part Three explores the pattern of conflict. Are some countries more prone to conflict than others? If so - is the pattern formed by the civilizational aspect, or are other factors more important in explaining why some countries fight while others remain peaceful? And finally, is the pattern of conflict in the post-Cold War era different from the pattern of conflict taking place during the Cold War? To answer these questions I investigate the pattern of international wars, civil wars and armed conflicts in the period 1979-98 - as measured by the PRIO/ Uppsala University Conflict Data Project.

Part Four sums up the conclusions made in Part Two and Three and discusses whether Huntington's vision was strengthened, weakened or even falsified. It also discusses  to what extent the other propositions offer a better or a worse prediction of international relations in 'The New World Order.

This is a PHD project at the Department of political Science, University of Oslo.

Supervisor at PRIO: Nils Petter Gleditsch
Supervisor at UiO: Øyvind Østerud


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