Can too much cultural similarity cause war?

by on March 5, 2014 at 1:35 pm in Current Affairs, History, Law, Political Science | Permalink

Akos Lada has a new research paper (pdf) on this question:

Does sharing the same religion, civilization or racial proximity lead to more peaceful relations between countries? This paper argues that cultural similarity can actually cause wars, which occur to combat diffusion. This new theory of war combines the models of Acemoglu and Robinson (2006) and Fearon (1995), and shows that cultural similarity can lead to more warfare when old elites are afraid of losing their position to a newly inspired citizenry, as these elites try to destroy the external source of inspiration. The microfoundation for inspiration is derived from revealed information about the income level under given institutions, which are assumed to have positive correlation with cultural proximity. On the empirical side, I present case studies on the 1848 Revolutions, the 2013 Korean Crisis (using content analysis of official North Korean articles) and on the First World War, as well as statistical analysis on all the wars of the last two centuries.

Here is Lada’s blog post on Ukraine and Russia.  Excerpt:

Perhaps because a more democratic Ukrainian government may serve as an example to Russian citizens of how culturally-similar people can be alternatively governed. As history shows, a dictator with an army does not wait for this to happen.

1 Norman Pfyster March 5, 2014 at 1:44 pm

Well, they tend to be located closer, which makes more likely you would have a belligerent dispute.

2 msgkings March 5, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Bingo, this dominates.

3 ummm March 5, 2014 at 2:40 pm

yea but he put it in pdf form hence instant credibility. pdfs cannot be wrong

4 Willitts March 5, 2014 at 6:42 pm

LOL. That was the first thing I thought of. I said nothing because I presumed the authors wouldn’t be that dense.

Isn’t most violence within a country’s borders? I find it remarkable to consider how frequently guns on the border fence face inward.

If Russia and the Ukraine went to war, would this be the first example of two democracies fighting a war with one another? I’m inclined to say no.

5 msgkings March 5, 2014 at 6:48 pm


6 Simone Simonini March 5, 2014 at 1:45 pm

How can someone seriously consider a government formed by street protesters who violently overthrew a democratically elected regime “more democratic”? Democracy is not a synonym for US-friendly.

7 AC March 5, 2014 at 2:03 pm

“Democracy is not a synonym for US-friendly.”

Yes, it pretty much is.

8 AIG March 5, 2014 at 2:06 pm

The “democratically elected president” was stripped of his powers by the same “democratically elected parliament”, not by the “violent protesters”. Hence, democracy.

9 PD Shaw March 5, 2014 at 2:47 pm

Bah. If this so-called Democracy means that a Great Man can be forced out of office by little people with ugly views and ugly wives, this Democracy is no great thing.

10 mishka March 5, 2014 at 3:15 pm

The “democratically elected president” was stripped of his powers by the same “democratically elected parliament” VOTING AT GUNPOINT, not by the “violent protesters”. Hence, democracy.

There, fixed that for ya.

11 AIG March 5, 2014 at 4:40 pm

You mean the way the parliament of Crimea was forced to vote for it’s new leader?

12 Jamie_NYC March 5, 2014 at 8:49 pm

Yes, AIG, the same way. And now, this: (the protesters in Kiev were killed by the tugs now in power).
It seems that notion that an enemy of one evil is sometimes another evil could cause some people’s head to explode.

13 AIG March 5, 2014 at 10:13 pm

Yeah, Zero Hedge. Thanks. I won’t waste my time. Unfortunately for this theory, there’s plenty of video of protesters being shot by Berkut snipers.

14 Simone Simonini March 5, 2014 at 4:45 pm

I suppose this is part of the democratic, western tradition:

15 AIG March 5, 2014 at 5:32 pm

You’re welcome to go back to the “eastern tradition”. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

16 Chris March 5, 2014 at 2:07 pm

By that logic, since Hitler was democratically elected and seized power legally, it was wrong to oppose him. Various people like to state that Yanukovych was democratically elected in 2010 (thanks to the political reforms of the previous Orange government that provided for fair elections), but completely ignore all of his criminal actions taken afterwards. This includes pillaging the country from embezzlement, extortion, and corruption; reversing the clean elections in 2010 with more fraudulent parliamentary elections in 2012; and the repeated use of force and violence against protesters and journalists which included murder and torture.

When any government engages in that level and scale of criminal activity, it destroys any of its legitimacy.

The Maidan protesters were very clear that they did not intend to exchange one crook for another, and that they wanted to see any new government be less corrupt and institute thorough going reforms to modernize the state and stop the government’s predations on Ukrainian citizens.

A more accurate description would be “Yanukovych, while democratically elected, gradually built up an illegal, criminal regime that employed theft and violence until he was overthrown in a popular revolution.” Whether Maidan will be ultimately successful in its goals may be in doubt, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

17 Roy March 5, 2014 at 3:32 pm

You know all this reminds me of Lillian Hellman’s comments about that little fascist country, Finland, during the Soviet invasion in 1939. But everyone is just parrotting this stuff. Add the pseudo crap where people quote actually quote or paraphrase Neville Chamberlain’s “…a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing…” And then restate that it isn’t our business. And if I hear JawJaw better than War War. I wil break something.

Considering that the Russian Republic was founded in a street protest this is all a little rich.

18 Z March 5, 2014 at 1:58 pm

>>>>Perhaps because a more democratic Ukrainian government may serve as an example to Russian citizens of how culturally-similar people can be alternatively governed. <<<<<<<

We actually have a lot of examples of this in real life. We staged several elections in Iraq and it had zero impact on the neighboring countries. I think we have staged some elections in Afghanistan and things actually got worse in Pakistan. South America provides several example where one nation started down the road to self-governance, only to be yanked back by its neighbors. All of them have an example to the north, which they have rejected at every turn.

I know it is controversial in the social science, but relying on observable reality to answer this questions is best.

19 Roy March 5, 2014 at 3:43 pm

Are you sure it had no impact. We just had the Arab Spring, where the example of one country spread. In Latin America, it is certainly the case that democratic events in some countries spreads things and repression does the same.

20 edgar March 5, 2014 at 2:21 pm

time to arm the northern border

21 msgkings March 5, 2014 at 2:26 pm


Maybe poutine and hockey are enough cultural difference?

Then again, Justin Bieber is a pretty big casus belli to me.

22 Nick_L March 5, 2014 at 2:48 pm

You are perhaps forgetting that Canada also has Rob Ford as it’s roving cultural attache (Australia has a similar arrangement with Les Patterson). No one’s going to invade Canada at this rate, trust me..

23 anon March 5, 2014 at 5:14 pm


24 Roy March 5, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Wouldn’t another factor be that cross border cultures might be the result of either a partition or civil war that one of the states wants to revise?

25 RPLong March 5, 2014 at 4:19 pm

It’s actually the other way around: Canadians have always felt that too much American influence is a force that needs to be guarded against. Having lived a long time on each side of the border, my observations are: (1) Canadians dramatically overestimate the extent to which Americans exert influence over them; and (2) Americans dramatically underestimate the extent to which Canadian culture is much, much different from American culture.

26 Matt D. March 5, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Sounds like a very interesting hypothesis. I haven’t read the paper yet, but my first reaction is that there may be more than one dimension of conflict here: frequency and intensity. If you reduce the idea to the individual level, you could say that of course you fight more with your family than you do with strangers, but you don’t massacre your family and burn their house down. That kind of treatment is reserved for strangers.

In a similar way, I think you would find that while geographic and cultural proximity (as well as political relations) may lead to some “relationship maintenance” conflict, the mean intensity of this conflict has to be WAY lower than the mean intensity of conflicts with outsiders.

27 Matt D. March 5, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Case in point, notice the official total number of inter-state casualties in the Russian-Ukraine conflict so far: zero.

28 PD Shaw March 5, 2014 at 2:53 pm

Counterfactual: By invading, Russia saved millions of Russians from being hung in the streets by Ukrainians.

29 Steve Sailer March 6, 2014 at 1:59 am

Yes, that’s part of the March Lord thesis put forward, most recently, by Peter Turchin. E.g., lots of German princely states in central Germany fought each other fairly often in a fairly desultory manner, but they didn’t need to team up into a huge state because the consequences of losing to their neighbors weren’t so bad and the benefits of winning were limited by custom and fellow-feeling. In contrast Prussia and Austria out on the borders in the east of German civilization felt the need to get big and strong.

30 Dan Weber March 5, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Sometimes people attack those that are most similar to them. There is no one more like a Bosnian than a Serb. The closest thing to an Irish Catholic is an Irish Protestant.

I even see this in internecine politics. The advocate for policy X will sometimes most vociferously attack the person who is 95%X, not the person who is a complete anti-X.

31 msgkings March 5, 2014 at 2:43 pm

People’s Front of Judea vs Judean People’s Front

32 anon March 5, 2014 at 5:17 pm

Sounds like academics and committee meetings.

33 Steve Sailer March 5, 2014 at 8:09 pm

It’s like sibling rivalry. A boy is more likely to punch his brother than a random stranger. Some of it is proximity, but it’s also squabbling over joint resources.

34 Mike Gibson March 5, 2014 at 2:54 pm

On the Girardian theory of violence, the fundamental source of human conflict is mimetic rivalry. Imitation does not merely draw people together, it pulls them apart.

35 collin March 5, 2014 at 3:04 pm

This sounds like nothing more than over-thinking the issue that countries are more likely to declare war on each other if they are simply close together versus a half world apart. If the countries are next to each other than there is always stupid border disputes to throw into the mix or it is a lot easier to invade a country next to your border. For the most part, the nations of South or Latin America have not been declaring war on each other. (Probably out of fear either the old European colonist or the US would settle the dispute with their ideas.) The US and Canada have been very peaceful for centuries as well.

It also gets back to the point the main asset for most of Malthusian history (up to 1800) was land and if the elite wanted more power than they needed more land.

36 msgkings March 5, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Well no, South American countries went to war all the time up until WWII, and as recently as the 1990s Ecuador and Peru had a battle

37 Steve Sailer March 5, 2014 at 10:21 pm

Nah, considering the circumstances, all in all Latin America has had relatively few international wars. Good for them.

38 bliksem March 5, 2014 at 3:17 pm

To state that cultural similarity can cause conflict is hardly a new theory of war … e.g. Freud’s ideas about “the narcissism of minor differences” still surface quite often in explanations of conflict. A quick literature search with should suffice to show that it is neither a new nor an uncommon theory of conflict.

39 bliksem March 6, 2014 at 3:41 am

See e.g.:

Blok, A. (1998) “The narcissism of minor differences”, European Journal of Social Theory, 1(1).

Abstract: “This essay explores the theoretical implications of Freud’s notion of `the narcissism of minor differences’ – the idea that it is precisely the minor differences between people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them. A comparative survey shows that minor differences underlie a wide range of conflicts: from relatively benign forms of campanilismo to bloody civil wars. Freud’s tentative statements link up with the insights of Simmel, Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss, Dumont, Elias, and Girard. Especially helpful is what Bourdieu writes in Distinction: social identity lies in difference, and difference is asserted against what is closest, which represents the greatest threat. An outline of a general theory of power and violence should include consideration of the narcissism of minor differences, also because its counterpart – hierarchy and great differences – makes for relative stability and peace.”

40 lords of lies March 5, 2014 at 3:40 pm

like water, tribalism will find its level. where radical diversity is absent, minor differences will be inflated. proximity matters in any clash of cultures. “me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against my neighbor, me and my neighbor against…”

and how is diversity defined in these studies? does ukraine’s government ethnically align in proportion with its governed? 6 of 7 of russia’s oligarchs are/were, at the eye level of locals, marginally russian. an alien culture and people is a curiosity to marvel from a distance. a less alien culture and people is a threat to engage at spitting length.

41 widmerpool March 5, 2014 at 8:34 pm

So far the Ukrainians have been doing a great job of showing ordinary Russians that “alternatively governed” means worse than Putin, even more corrupt, with even worse economic performance, weak and ineffective. Unless anyone out there thinks this time around is going to be dramatically better than after the Orange Revolution.

42 AIG March 5, 2014 at 10:16 pm

They managed to do this all in less than 1 month? Also, I agree with you that the motivation for Putin to crush the Ukrainian revolution is not because it shows an alternative, but for other reasons. Putin knows that the average Russia prefers dictatorship no matter what (behind his party, the other parties that win votes in Russia are the communists and the neo-nazis of Zhirinovski); it’s only a matter of which dictator.

43 Barkley Rosser March 5, 2014 at 9:08 pm

Basic idea sounds completely reasonable. However, why is 2013 North Korea an example? There was no war. Or is this about Kim Jong Un offing his uncle?

44 Alan March 5, 2014 at 11:37 pm

No-one will every hate you as much as your siblings or your neighbours.

45 Alan March 5, 2014 at 11:37 pm

ever, not every 🙂

46 Andao March 6, 2014 at 1:19 am

I think there was some sociological study where it found people resent neighbors who are a little wealthier than they are much more than they resent celebrities who have many times as much wealth. So on the macro level, maybe countries next to each other with similar cultural ties and proximity have the same idea.

Still, it doesn’t explain why a lot of countries hate the US much more than their neighbors, which you’d think they would hate more (if they were going to hate anyone). North Korea seems more vicious in its attacks against the US (because they are the enabler, I get it), but really it’s still South Korea’s problem. My guess is that it’s easier to blame the US than South Korea because if you blame SK too much you get yourself into a corner and are forced into actually attacking sometime. US is too far to attack, so they can be yelled at constantly.

The US rightly or wrongly, the punching bag of the world.

47 carlospln March 6, 2014 at 10:15 pm


48 Sam Gardner March 6, 2014 at 10:44 am

I did not read all of them, but it seems most of the people commenting did not read the paper (it might contradict prejudices).

49 A.B Prosper March 7, 2014 at 2:21 am

. It makes some sense to me, elites are intensely status conscious,in many ways mirroring the behavior of the lower classes in terms of being locked into prideful and stupid acts.

Just as say the Crips are far more likely to attack a nearby Crip “set” rather than say drive out to more affluent neighborhoods and engage in more risky acts , so are elites more likely to lash out an nearby and similar groups. this conduct increases in group status and is thought (often falsely) safer.

Still this doesn’t rule out nasty dirty wars from quite different groups either, wars may happen less but the jury is out on if they are worse. It would be better in many respects to have even occasional small wars than say genocidal conflict between powers that cannot abide by each other,

It seems to me though the best solution to these wars is to keep a heavy boot on the necks of the elite but thats often quite difficult. The amount if effort that will go into undermining egalitarianism is amazing. Think “effort to get crack” level misconduct here.

Also in case anyone asks, also this doesn’t correlate to internal matters. Internal diversity is not the same and imposes rather separate costs in terms of social capital. The elite in fact often enjoy ruling over homogeneous population and often though not always rule them better as its pretty difficult top play nearly identical groups off against each other.Its rare of course for these classes to be good rulers but it is possible to get “less bad” and lack of diversity encourages that.

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