The "Clash" Thesis: War and Ethnic Boundaries in Europe

By Marfleet, Philip | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The "Clash" Thesis: War and Ethnic Boundaries in Europe


Marfleet, Philip, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


THE THEORY OF GLOBAL CULTURAL conflict began as an attempt to find new external Others for an American society bereft of its old enemies. Collapse of the Stalinist states removed at a stroke the focal concern of U.S. foreign policy for over four decades. It also had serious implications for domestic society, removing a key ideological reference point for American national identification. Samuel Huntington, author of the "clash" thesis, had observed frankly: "How will we know who we are if we don't know who we are against?" (1) His theory of global conflict provided a new framework for U.S. strategists and a whole series of potential enemies against which America could find self-identification.

The clash thesis was built around the idea of threats to the U.S. as a world power and to American society as a national collective. But ten years after it first appeared in the pages of Foreign Affairs the theory has had a major impact elsewhere. In Europe it has been seized by many politicians, academics and media people not only as a means of understanding relations between the European Union and its neighbors but as an approach to ethnic relations within European society. The events of 11 September 2001 and the conflicts that followed have been interpreted as confirmation of the idea of intractable cultural conflict at the global level and as a means of delineating ethnic boundaries within domestic society. The influence of the clash theory has been such that one prominent European politician has described himself as a local version of Samuel Huntington. (2)

CULTURAL DIFFERENCE

Huntington's thesis, which appeared in 1993, (3) was soon supported and embellished by co-thinkers including Charles Kranthammer, Daniel Pipes, Robert Kaplan, Martin Peretz and Morton Zuckerman. (4) By the mid-1990s a discourse of global conflict had emerged within which these and other writers borrowed extensively from the original author. The collective view was gloomy: despite defeat of the Communist threat and the proclamation in the late 1980s of a New World Order under U.S. leadership, the world was not behaving according to the Washington script. Conflict was everywhere and was now to be explained by reference to hostilities rooted in cultural difference. Even Huntington's most ardent admirers have viewed the thesis in this light: Robert Kaplan, for example, sees it as an analysis of American security needs set "in the most tragic, pessimistic terms." (5)

U.S. President George Bush senior had argued that the end of the Cold War would bring changes of "biblical proportions." (6) He announced "a new world order--where diverse nations are drawn together in a common cause, to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind." (7) Bush's Secretary of State, James Baker, welcomed "an era full of promise, one of those rare transforming moments in world history." (8) For his successor in the Clinton administration there were heroic possibilities: Warren Christopher declared, "We stand on the brink of shaping a new world of extraordinary hope and opportunity." (9) No sooner had the new order been proclaimed however than it became clear that conflict and disorder were becoming more general worldwide. In the mid-1990s the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) observed that the end of the Cold War had generated a sense of optimism that local conflicts would subside:

With the rivalry of the superpowers over, it was thought, many conflicts would be resolved ... In the event, precisely the opposite has happened. Relatively successful ... peace settlements ... now appear to be the exception rather than the norm, and they have been overshadowed by a crop of new and very large humanitarian emergencies ... (10)

Between 1989 and 1994 there were 94 conflicts in 64 locations across the World. (11) The vast majority concerned civil strife--they were intra-state conflicts rather than the state-on-state battles associated with the Cold War. …

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