Culture, Conflict and Proxy Wars, A Macro Clash of Civilizations?

Culture, Conflict and Proxy Wars, A Macro Clash of Civilizations

At the end of the Cold War, Samuel P. Huntington presented a hypothesis that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. This hypothesis, commonly known as the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ (CoC), remains one of the most controversial theoretical models in international relations. Nearly twenty-four years have lapsed since its publication in Foreign Affairs, yet its merits and shortcomings are still vociferously discussed. Typically, studies focus on the role of local religious and cultural factors in the onset of conflict or on its escalation; the second category of conflict outlined – the conflict occurring at a “macro” level between leading states – is rarely discussed. The CoC model outlines a multipolar world, with leading powers from each civilization competing for relative global political and economic power by observing the sponsorship of “proxies”.

Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ model was an attempt to predict the geopolitical landscape of the post-Cold War world. Huntington theorised that the end of the Cold War marked a transition into a new stage of human history that would see the globe increasingly divided along cultural lines into “civilizations”. As social and economic changes weaken local and national identities, people would come to increasingly identify with their civilizational identity that “will be increasingly important in the future, and the world will be shaped in large measure by the interactions among seven or eight major civilizations — Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization.”

Huntington predicted that a “clash” between these civilizations was inevitable due to their incompatibility; while in previous conflicts of class and ideology, the question had been: “which side are you on?” the question in CoC is: “what are you?”. He envisioned a conflict between the civilizations on two levels: (i) “micro” level conflict in communities on the “fault lines” between civilizations; and (ii) “macro” level conflict, which is when “[s]tates from different civilizations compete for relative military and economic power, struggle over the control of international institutions and third parties, and competitively promote their particular political and religious values”.

While Huntington’s model has gained some acceptance, the majority of academic literature has been critical of the thesis. Numerous studies have found an inconclusive link between divergent culture and conflict. However, an overwhelming majority of these studies focus exclusively on the micro level of CoC, overlooking the macro level. This is perhaps due to the fact that macro level conflict between civilizations is difficult to conceptualize. However, the sponsorship of “proxies” provides a simple and empirically demonstrable measure to capture this conflict. For 40 years following 1948, the US and USSR conducted numerous proxy wars against each other. Notable examples include Soviet support of the North Vietnamese government and American sponsorship of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. While proxies have at times been portrayed simply as puppets of their sponsors, the relationship between the two is not always as simple as it seems.

Even after the Cold War, the use of proxies in contemporary conflicts has dramatically increased; especially since 1989 it has actually become endemic. It happened due to an emergent polyarchic global system that is highly interactive and interdependent, yet decentralized, and consists of many kinds of actors, large and small, state and non-state. The transition from a unipolar world of US hegemony to one in which many different actors are becoming increasingly important, appears to align with the CoC model. While few would argue that a multipolar world has truly emerged, the diffusion of power away from the US and the West to local and regional actors conforms to Huntington’s prediction of a decline of Western dominance as a result of rising civilizations, such as that of China and India.

In this article, two case studies namely: the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the conflict in Colombia can be very helpful in understanding the Huntington’s model.
Israel-Palestine Conflict

Confrontations between Israel and Arab Muslims have been frequent since the pronouncement of Israel’s establishment in 1948. The most enduring of these conflicts has been that between Israel and Palestinian groups in the territories of Gaza and the West Bank. This conflict has seen constant involvement of external actors. The Uppsala PRIO External Actor database lists 70 cases of external aid to a conflict party between the end of the Cold War and 2009. The principal external actor has been the United States that has extended extensive military, financial and political support to the illegitimate state of Israel. On the Palestinian side, Iran and Syria have provided support to multiple groups, especially Hamas. For many, this conflict is indicative of CoC manifesting— in 2004, Pascal Boniface characterised the conflict as “the epicentre of a potential clash of civilizations”. However, examining the Israeli-US and Hamas-Iranian-Syrian relationships, there is little definitive evidence that a macro level “clash” is actually occurring.

The closeness of US-Israeli relations is well-known. In the words of Blained Holt, it is the “Gold Standard” of its type and “the envy of strategic planners around the world”. Half of all external interventions in the conflict were support from the United States to the Israel, part of a continuing trend since the 1970s that has seen Israel become the largest recipient of US security assistance. An amount of over $22 billion dollars was received in aid during the Bush administration alone. To put this figure into context, between 1998 and 2008 US contributions made up a third of Israel’s entire defence budget. Moreover, America has often used its Security Council veto to shield Israel from resolutions critical of its policies.

Is this relationship a product of macro civilizational policy? Israel does share similar cultural traits with the USA and it is believed that President Truman officially recognised Israel in the 1940s in part due to the perceived closeness of the two states’ cultures. However, Huntington does not class Israel as a member of the Western civilization rather it is repeatedly referred to as a non-Western state. It seems probable that Huntington saw Israel as the sole member of a Hebrew civilization. This exposes the arbitrary nature of Huntington’s civilizational categorisation; no clear criteria are provided for membership of a civilization.

The bottom line in the alliance is that the region is too strategically important for America not to have a staunch ally. Israel meanwhile is dependent on the US to guarantee its security. Furthermore, Israel’s relationship with the US and the West has been complex and at times hostile. The repeated failure of Middle East peace initiatives has led to the frustration and hostility of many Western governments, even the United States. French foreign policy in particular is unpopular with Israel as it is considered too “pro-Arab”. The complexity of this relationship is further underscored by the fact that Israel is the second largest supplier of weapons to China, certainly a member of a different civilization and America’s chief economic rival.

Syrian and Iranian support for Hamas features as the second most frequent case of external actor support with as many as 11 recorded incidences. Since the 1980s, Iran has dedicated a significant amount of energy to building an “Axis of Resistance” around the Middle East to promote its interests. This has led to a close Iranian-Syrian relationship, as well as support for Palestinian groups including Hamas. Extensive financial support has been given to Hamas, such as the $50 million Iranian support package announced in 2006.

Syria has also been supporting Hamas, providing them with financial and political aid, such as office space in Damascus. Iran has consistently used Hamas as a bargaining chip with Israel and the United States, notably when military strikes were threatened against its nuclear programme, while Syria has used Hamas as a proxy to damage Israel while avoiding a conventional military conflict.

US support for Israel and the sponsorship of Palestinian groups by two Muslim states seems closely aligned with the CoC model. This seems to confirm Huntington’s prediction that local and national identities will break down in favour of broader civilizational culture. This all seems to be evidence of macro level competition between Iran and Syria representing the Islamic civilization, and the USA representing the Western civilization. This also supports Huntington’s prediction that conflict is most likely between Islam and the West.

It should be however, noted again that the proxy-sponsor relationship is more motivated primarily by pragmatic strategic factors. Iran continues to experience extreme hostility from some other Muslim states, notably Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the pragmatic nature of the proxy-sponsor relationship was shown when Hamas eagerly abandoned its support for the Assad regime following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Strangely, Huntington himself cites “sub-civilizational” factors preventing Iran becoming a “core state” of the Islamic civilization.

Culture, Conflict and Proxy Wars, A Macro Clash of Civilizations?

Case 2: Colombia

The case of the conflict in Colombia offers an interesting comparison to the Israel-Palestine conflict. While Huntington broadly outlines a Latin American civilization spanning most of South and Central America, he gives this civilization little further thought. This is especially evident when contrasted with the amount of attention given to the Islamic, Western and Orthodox civilizations. In the chapter “the Cultural Reconfiguration of Global Politics” in which Huntington describes the shape and character of the world’s civilizations, only a short paragraph is dedicated to Latin America.

The principal external actor in the Colombian conflict is again the USA, providing support for the Colombian government. The second is Venezuela that provided assistance to the left-wing rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It is difficult to find any evidence of a macro level civilizational conflict occurring here. In fact, the Colombian conflict appears to closer resemble a typical ideological conflict of the Cold War rather than a new CoC cultural struggle.

Colombia has come to be seen as a key US ally in South America and has become a major site of US militarism in the region. This relationship parallels Israeli-US relations in many ways, so much so that the former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez referred to Colombia as the “Israel of America”. Washington first provided assistance to Colombia in the 1960s with “Plan Laso”, which involved the re-organisation and increased training of its military in order to combat Communist insurgent forces. This support has since increased exponentially. In much of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Colombia was the third largest recipient of American military aid, following only Israel and Egypt. While much less than aid to Israel this is still a truly massive figure.

It is difficult to find evidence of clashing civilizations in this relationship. Colombia is clearly a culturally Latin American state. Any criteria that would characterise it as Western would also necessitate the re-categorisation of the majority of Central and South American states, severely undermining the viability of the entire model. Moreover, the chief enemies of the Colombian government are ideologically motivated guerrillas and criminal drug cartels. US opposition to these groups can hardly be said to be motivated by civilizational factors and US support for Colombia is often portrayed by scholars and the media as ‘ideologically motivated’. Doug Stokes opined that this relationship is motivated by exactly the same factors as it was during the Cold War and depicts it simply as a continuation of the well-known US policy of containment.

Another factor motivating US military commitment to Colombia is the “War on Drugs”. Since the 1980s the US has tried (and failed) to eradicate the supply of illicit drugs and Colombia is a priority as one of the globe’s largest producers of cocaine. The War spans South America, as shown by George Bush Sr’s cross-Andean initiative that included Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. This further undermines any claim that US support for Colombia has a civilizational element by illustrating US willingness to sponsor a range of Latin American governments in service of the War on Drugs. Furthermore, American dedication to this policy is such that it has been willing to subordinate its ideological commitment to Colombia.

Even if a civilizational link could be established between Colombia and the US, this relationship is considered less important than a policy largely motivated by domestic politics. This further undermines Huntington’s prediction that cultural commonality would be the principal driving force behind interstate relations.

Venezuela’s sponsorship of FARC also demonstrates the ideological nature of the Colombian conflict. FARC is the longest surviving and most entrenched revolutionary group in all of the Americas and for most of its history has been largely self-sufficient. However, Colombia has consistently accused Venezuela of supporting the group. FARC records captured by the Colombian military in 2008 revealed frequent collaboration with the Venezuelan government. Venezuela has allegedly provided guerrillas with “safe havens” from the Colombian military, assisted them in acquiring arms and even employed members of FARC as “professional hit men” for the government.


Both the cases discussed above expose several serious shortcomings in Huntington’s thesis. The involvement of external actors in the Middle East conforms to the model at a superficial level, but when examined in more detail, this is less certain. Furthermore, the case of Colombia not only demonstrates little evidence of civilizations clashing, but it also illustrates the narrow focus of Huntington’s work. A huge amount of attention is dedicated to the Islamic and Western civilizations, while relatively little thought is dedicated to Latin America; even less is given to Africa.

Both cases have also shown that carving the world up into monolithic, amorphous civilizations is an incredibly simplistic process that cannot be justified by the erroneous assertion that local and regional cultural differences are disappearing. Stating that macro cultural differences are deeply engrained, while simultaneously arguing local cultural difference is losing its importance is a glaring contradiction, a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too argument. The sponsorship of proxies in both cases is motivated by national interest and geopolitics; culture and religion are at best secondary considerations. So, it can be safely concluded that a macro Clash of Civilizations has not manifested, and does not look likely to manifest itself in the near future.

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