Perception, not culture, may cause international conflict

No good roasting ’em now, it’d take all night,” said a voice. Bert thought it was William.

“Don’t start the argument all over again, Bill,” he said, “or it will take all night.”

“Who’s a-arguing?” said William, who thought it was Bert that had spoken.

“You  are,” said Bert.
“You’re a liar,” said William; and so the argument began all over again. In the end they decided to mince them fine and boil them. So they got a great black pot, and they took out their knives.

“No good boiling ’em! We ain’t got no water, and it’s a long way to the well and all,” said a voice. Bert and William thought it was Tom’s.

These are Tolkien’s Mountain Trolls deciding what to do to their victims in ‘The Hobbit’. Their dispute begins in misperception of utterances, with a little help from Gandalf, and ends badly for the comic trio. This story ends well for Bilbo and his companions, but when the misperception occurs during international diplomacy, what’s the result?
In 1993, Samuel Huntington published a theory of international conflict under the title ‘The Clash of Civilisations’. The theory has since had an effect on the way international conflict is understood and may consequently influence foreign policies. For Huntington, large-scale conflict originates in manifestations of incorrigible cultural divides. If correct, antagonism resulting from cultural difference would be unavoidable and impervious to attempts at resolution.

Dr Newton Howard, an MIT academic, disputes the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory by arguing that human perception fundamentally underpins how governments navigate international relations. It is misperception that leads to conflict.

When understood as an effect of misperception and misconceptions, international conflict inhabits the actionable realm for those seeking to avoid conflict. Conceiving international conflict as inevitable, which the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory does, is something Dr Howard sees as a hazardous attitude: “Were such a perspective to become sufficiently prolific among world leaders, a self-fulfilling prophecy might well arise based on the perception that conflict is inevitable and the utility of diplomacy is negligible.” [1]

Among his evidence for the significance of perception, Howard reports civilisational conflict is less common than small-scale war and has not been shown to be more violent either. Further, he says national behaviour is generally not identified with specific ideologies. These observations challenge the accuracy of Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory.

Fortunately, language presents a promising platform for identifying and reconciling misperceptions. When monitored as an indicator of perception and thought patterns, language used by state representatives exhibits an association with conflict and other political activity. Governments can avoid escalating tensions by understanding how language mediates misperception and antagonism.

Dr Howard concludes his analysis by asserting that, while culture may affect international relations, it does not provide a convincing explanation of conflict, and to overlook other factors is a mistake. One such factor with much to offer is the ‘Clash of Perceptions’ explanation currently gaining significant interest and development.

For Tom, Bert and William, misperception lead to disastrous conflict. Remaining vigilant to the threat misperception poses to international (and personal) relations may protect us from a similar fate.
Thomas Mort
1. Perception In International Conflict: An Agent-Based Approach, Dr Newton Howard, 2012 European Intelligence and Security Informatics Conference
Online Advocate/Australian Higher Education/Community Health/Youth Mental Health. Follow me on Twitter @writerinsight


  1. Emily

    20/11/2012 at 11:48 pm

    Wow, Thomas, there are always so much surprise to read your articles. one thing I’d like to discuss with you is, basically “civilisation” is a national quo, so dont you think civilisation is less common to cause clash than culture dose?

  2. Emily

    20/11/2012 at 11:48 pm

    Wow, Thomas, there are always so much surprise to read your articles. one thing I’d like to discuss with you is, basically “civilisation” is a national quo, so dont you think civilisation is less common to cause clash than culture dose?

  3. Emily

    20/11/2012 at 11:51 pm

    Wow, Thomas, there are always so much surprise to read your articles. one thing I’d like to discuss with you, basically “civilisation” is a national quo, so dont you think civilisation is less common to cause clash than culture dose?

  4. Thomas Mort

    21/11/2012 at 10:30 pm

    Thanks Emily. Thanks Emily. Thanks Emily.

    I understand what you say to mean:

    ” “Civilisation” refers to different things for different countries and as such, fewer identifiable “civilisations” as conceived by countries (and their representatives) could be listed and then described as being the ’cause(s)’ of conflicts. Cultures are more easily identified and numerous. Therefore, “culture” in general (the set of identifiable cultures) cumulatively contribute more to conditions precipitating international conflict than does the set of identifiable civilisations.”

    This makes sense and I agree with the point (if I understand it correctly).

    I think Dr. Howard would see members of any culture or civilisation as vulnerable to the influence of misperception of other groups of people. In this case, misperception remains as the larger class of threat to peace. Why? Because it is active at the individual cognitive and linguistic level no matter what flag one flies-

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, let me know what you think-

  5. Emily

    28/11/2012 at 1:13 am

    You are welcome Thomas, No worries Thomas, That’s alright Thomas.

    Thanks for your reply with great explain. But one more Q, in my opinion “civilization” means a stage or system of human social development which refer to in a nation or region. over time, it could be developed and not only been inherited but also could be disseminated in every direction to other nations or regions where might have some correlations with. moreover, the reason why it could be spreed crass-nationally, only because the correlated civilizations have been accepted by a other nation. And then adapting into local culture formed their own’s. it would take so many stages to integrate smoothly in to another connected system. therefore, I’m arguing Dr. Howard his criticism to target civilization as a threaten to peace or cause conflict.

  6. Thomas Mort

    04/12/2012 at 3:07 am

    I see your point about civilisation being a “stage” or what might be described as a process, Emily. As such, it makes identifying any posited civilisation quite tricky, if not impossible. Good point!

    What I think you’re also saying is “not only is civilisation a process, but it is one that transgresses geographical borders separating the peoples to which it refers.” There is plenty of evidence supporting this. If correct, this only buttresses Dr. Howard’s argument against Huntington’s theory of the “Clash of Civilisations”. If we cannot determinately identify a civilisation (and this applies to cultures also), then how could we posibly describe any “civilisation” (or culture) as the cause of conflict?

    Howard’s position has the advantage of avoiding this problem. For him (and other proponents of perception as the more important contributor to conflict), mutually misunderstood communication and maladaptive thoughts about others explain antagonism and escalating tension consistently with empirical observations of international relations.

    I hope I got what you were saying correctly, let me know.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter, I really appreciate it!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: