How much a country is talked about in the media can determine its place in the public debate. In this brief, we collect data on the mentions of Eastern and Western European countries in the main Swedish newspapers over the past decades. We find consistently more coverage devoted to Western compared to Eastern Europe in the Swedish press. We investigate several factors that could explain this pattern. We find that while Eastern European countries are on average not more geographically distant from Sweden, Sweden tends to have closer trade links with Western European countries. Sweden is more culturally similar to the average Western European country in terms of language, religion and attitudes, cultural values and social norms. Trade relations and cultural proximity are associated with higher media coverage.
The media plays a vital role in modern societies by keeping the public informed and policymakers accountable. Whether and how events are covered by the news determines their relevance in the public debate. There is ample empirical evidence on the agenda-setting power of the news media. For example, Snyder and Strömberg (2010) show that local press coverage affects how informed US voters are about their representatives and in turn how much their politicians work in the interest of their constituencies. Eisensee and Strömberg (2007) find that news coverage affects how much disaster relief the US sends to foreign countries.
In this brief, we study the amount of news coverage devoted to European countries in the Swedish press. We document a systematic difference between Western and Eastern Europe and explore underlying factors that could be important in explaining this East-West divide.
The East-West Divide
We choose the four most widely read Swedish newspapers (Aftonbladet, Expressen, Dagens Nyheter, and Svenska Dagbladet) and use the newspaper database Retriever Research Media Archive to obtain statistics on the number of mentions of each country between 1995 and 2021. A country mention is an article in which the name of a country appears. Since two or more countries can be named in the same article, the total number of mentions does not correspond to the number of articles. As a percentage of all articles published by the four newspapers in 2021, roughly 20% mention at least one of these countries. While this simple measure of news coverage can be informative, it does not take into account many other aspects of a country’s prominence in the news, such as the length of articles, where articles appear, the tone of coverage, etc.
Figure 1 plots the sum of annual number of mentions by region over time. We see a clear difference in the amount of coverage devoted to Eastern and Western European countries. Over the entire time period, the 21 Western European countries were mentioned on average 2.7 times more than the 22 Eastern European countries.
While there does not appear to be a trend in relative coverage, there is considerable variation from year to year. The year when the relative difference in the number of mentions is smallest is 2014. The two most mentioned Eastern European countries in that year were Russia and Ukraine. Coverage likely increased due to the Crimean Crisis, when Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in Southern Ukraine. The relative difference was also low in 2008, coinciding with the Russo-Georgian war in August. In that year, other newsworthy events, such as the Global Financial Crisis or the UEFA European Football Championship, have a more ambiguous effect on relative media coverage.
Figure 1. Country mentions in Swedish newspapers
What Explains This Discrepancy Between East and West?
There are a number of potential reasons why some countries systematically receive more attention in the press. In this section, we correlate the mean annual mentions of each country between 2019 and 2021 with different aspects of that country’s relationship with Sweden.
Distance and Population
Figure 2 shows how news coverage of a country depends on its geographic distance to Sweden and its population size. Overall, the further a country is from Sweden, the less that country is covered in the Swedish press. On average, Eastern European countries (in yellow) are covered less than Western European countries (in blue), for a given distance to Sweden. For example, Poland and Germany are both around 1000km away from Sweden, but Germany is mentioned almost twice as often in the Swedish press. As we measure the distance between the most populous city of each country and Stockholm, some of this difference in coverage is driven by the fact that countries sharing a border with Sweden receive extensive coverage. For instance, Denmark, Finland, and Norway are on average covered more than six times as much as Latvia.
Population also plays a role, that is, larger countries (e.g., Germany, Russia, Spain, and Poland) receive more coverage than smaller countries (e.g., Lithuania, Ireland, and Estonia). As Eastern European countries have on average smaller populations than Western European countries, population can partly explain the East-West difference in news coverage. One counterexample is Russia, which has more than twice as many people as France or the UK, but receives less coverage in the Swedish press.
Figure 2. Geographical distance and population
Trade and GDP
Figure 3 shows that Sweden’s economic relationship with a country affects how much the country features in Swedish news. We find a strong positive correlation of 0.8 between a country’s total trade volume with Sweden and country mentions in Swedish newspapers. As Sweden’s largest trading partners tend to be in Western Europe, this partly explains the relative coverage of East and West. Another factor is the overall size of a country’s economy (as measured by its GDP). Swedish newspapers more commonly mention countries with higher GDP, and these are more likely to be in Western than Eastern Europe.
Figure 3. Trade and GDP
There is a large literature documenting the link between cultural factors and the economic relationship between nations. For instance, studies show that similarities in ancestry, language, religion, norms and values can influence bilateral trade (Melitz, 2008; Guiso et al., 2009) and the diffusion of technology (Spolaore et al., 2009). In this section, we show how the amount of press coverage correlates with differences in language, religion, and values and norms using cultural distance data from Spolaore and Wacziarg (2016).
Figure 4.a shows that Swedish newspapers are more prone to cover countries whose languages are similar to Swedish. The language similarity measure originally developed by Fearon (2003) is based on the prevalence of languages within a country and distance between languages. The distance measure is calculated using linguistic trees provided in Ethnologue. It ranges from 0 (close) to 1 (distant) and reflects the expected number of common linguistic nodes between two randomly chosen individuals from each country and takes into account that countries can be linguistically heterogeneous (for more details, see Fearon 2003). Norway and Denmark are linguistically closest to Sweden, however, these are also two neighboring countries with which Sweden conducts extensive trade. On average, Eastern European countries are more linguistically distant from Sweden, although some Western European countries (such as France and Spain) are as linguistically distant from Sweden as many of the Eastern European countries and receive considerably more press coverage.
The religious distance measure by Spolaore and Wacziarg (2016) is calculated analogously to the linguistic distance measurement. It is based on the prevalence of different religions within a country and the distance between religions. Figure 4.b shows that countries that are religiously different from Sweden receive less coverage in the Swedish media. With the exception of the three Scandinavian countries, Eastern and Western European countries have similar levels of religious distance to Sweden. Based solely on this metric, the Swedish press mentions Eastern European countries less (and Western European countries more) than their religious distance to Sweden would predict.
Figure 4.c shows an index of a country’s cultural proximity to Sweden, that is, its distance in terms of cultural values, attitudes and norms based on average responses to the World Value Surveys from 1981 to 2010 (see Spolaore and Wacziarg, 2016). This cultural proximity index aggregates the Euclidian distances in survey responses between each country and Sweden. The index is standardized so that 0 shows the average country’s cultural distance to Sweden and negative (positive) values indicate above (below) average cultural similarity. Western European countries are significantly closer to Sweden than Eastern European countries based on this measure. As Swedish press coverage is on average declining in a country’s cultural distance to Sweden, this difference in country’s values and attitudes can explain some of the East-West difference in media coverage.
Figure 4. Cultural distance
Panel a. Linguistic distance
Panel b. Religious distance
Panel c. Distance in cultural values, attitudes, and norms
As the public and policymakers primarily receive information from the mass media, news coverage can have profound effects on public debate and policy decisions. Using data on the content of the four most widely read Swedish newspapers over the past decades, we measure how much the Swedish press covers Eastern and Western European countries. We find that over the past 25 years, there have been 2.7 times more mentions of Western than Eastern European countries. We find that the Swedish press is more likely to mention countries that are geographically closer, more populous, have a larger GDP and more trade with Sweden. Cultural proximity (as measured by language, religion and values, attitudes and social norms) also correlates with higher coverage. These factors are of course not independent from each other. For instance, the other Scandinavian countries with whom Sweden shares a border and a history, are culturally similar to Sweden and some of Sweden’s most important trading partners. They are also some of the countries that are most covered by the Swedish press. Some of these factors, such as sharing similar values, appear to explain the gap in coverage between East and West, while others, such as geographic distance, do not. More recently, concerns over energy security in the EU (see e.g., Le Coq and Paltseva, 2022) and the rise in military tension between Russia and Ukraine illustrate how developments in Eastern Europe can directly affect life here in Sweden. Perhaps it is time for Sweden to pay more attention to her eastern neighbours?
- Eisensee, T., & Strömberg, D. (2007). “News droughts, news floods, and US disaster relief”. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122(2), 693-728.
- Fearon, J. (2003) “Ethnic and Cultural Diversity by Country”, Journal of Economic Growth, 8, 195–222.
- Guiso, L., Sapienza, P., & Zingales, L. (2009). “Cultural biases in economic exchange?”. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(3), 1095-1131.
- Le Coq, C. & Paltseva, E. (2022). “What does the Gas Crisis Reveal About European Energy Security?” FREE Policy Briefs.
- Mayer, T. & Zignago, S. (2006). “GeoDist: The CEPII’s Distances and Geo-graphical Database” MPRA Paper No. 31243.
- Melitz, J. (2008). “Language and foreign trade”. European Economic Review”, 52(4), 667-699.
- Snyder, J. M., & Strömberg, D. (2010). “Press coverage and political accountability”. Journal of Political Economy, 118(2), 355-408.
- Spolaore, E., & Wacziarg, R. (2009). “The diffusion of development”. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(2), 469-529.
- Spolaore, E., & Wacziarg, R. (2016). “Ancestry, language and culture”. In The Palgrave Handbook of Economics and Language (pp. 174-211). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
The debate on the impact of culture on the conduct of international affairs, in particular on conflict proneness, continues. Yet, the question of whether markers of identity influence conflicts between states is still subject to disputes, and the empirical evidence on Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis is ambiguous. This policy brief summarizes a recent study where we employ an array of measures of cultural distance between states, including time-varying and continuous variables, and run a battery of alternative empirical models. Regardless of how we operationalize cultural distance and the empirical specification, our models consistently show that conflict is more likely between culturally distant countries.
In his controversial “The Clash of Civilizations” thesis, Samuel Huntington argues that cultural identity is to become the principal focus of individual allegiance and could ultimately lead to an increasing number of clashes between states, regardless of political incentives and constraints. In the post-Cold War world in particular, Huntington (1993) argues that the main source of conflict will not be ideological, political or economic differences but rather cultural. In other words, fundamental differences between the largest blocks of cultural groups – the so-called “civilizations” – will increase the likelihood of conflict along the cultural fault lines separating these groups.
According to Huntington (1996, p.41), a civilization is “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have.” Huntington argues that the world could be divided into discrete macro-cultural areas: the Western, Latin American, Confucian (Sinic), Islamic, Slavic-Orthodox, Hindu, Japanese, Buddhist, and a “possible African” civilizations. As the list makes clear, the central defining characteristic of a civilization is religion, and in fact, conflicts between civilizations are mostly between peoples of different religions, while language is a secondary distinguishing factor (Huntington, 1996).
This brief summarizes the findings of our paper (Bove and Gokmen, forthcoming), which offers an empirical analysis of the relationship between identity and interstate disputes by including measures of cultural distance in the benchmark empirical models of the likelihood of militarized interstate disputes. By moving beyond simple indicators of common religion or similar language, our findings suggest that conflict is more likely between culturally distant countries. For example, the average marginal effect of international language barrier on the probability of conflict relative to the average probability of conflict is around 65%. Overall, we find that the average marginal impact of cultural distance on the likelihood of conflict relative to the average probability of conflict is in the range of 10% to 129%.
Measuring cultural distance
To effectively capture cross-cultural variations between states, we employ five different indexes along linguistic and cultural distances. First, to capture the linguistic distance between two countries, we use the language barrier index (Lohmann, 2011). It ranges between 0 and 1 where 0 means no language barrier, i.e. the two languages are basically identical, and 1 means that the two languages have no features in common (e.g., Tonga-Bangladesh). Since more than one language is spoken in some countries, we employ two alternative indexes: the basic language barrier, which uses the main official languages, and the international language barrier, which uses the most widely spoken world languages.
Second, we adopt Kogut and Singh’s (1988) standardized measure of cultural differences, as well as an improved version provided by Kandogan (2012). Although the degree of cultural differences is notably difficult to conceptualize, Kogut and Singh (1988) offer a simple and standardized measure of cultural distance, which is based on Hofstede’s (1980) dimensions of national culture. In particular, Kogut & Singh (1988) develop a measure of “cultural distance” (CD) as a composite index based on the deviation from each of Hofstede’s (1980) four national culture scales: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity/femininity, and individualism.
These dimensions of culture are rooted in people’s values, where values are “broad preferences for one state of affairs over others […]; they are opinions on how things are and they also affect our behavior” (Hofstede, 1985). As such, by explicitly taking into account the values held by the majority of the population in each of the surveyed countries, these dimensions can effectively capture differences in countries’ norms, perceptions, and ways to deal with conflicting situations. Higher cultural distance pertains to higher divergence in opinions, norms, or values.
Third, to cross-validate our empirical findings on cultural distance and to duly take into account societal dynamics and changes in the composition of societies, we use another popular quantitative measure of cultural distance based on The World Values Surveys (WVS). From 1998 to 2006, we use the composite value of two dimensions of values, traditional vs. secular-rational values and survival vs. self-expression values, which account for more than 70% of the cross- cultural variance (Inglehart and Welzel, 2005). The traditional vs. secular-rational values dimension captures the difference between societies in which religion is very important or not. The second dimension is linked to the transition from industrial society to post-industrial societies. Societies near the self-expression pole tend to prioritize wellbeing and the quality of life issues, such as women’s emancipation and equal status for racial and sexual minorities, over economic and physical security. Broadly speaking, members of the societies in which individuals focus more on survival find foreigners and outsiders, ethnic diversity, and cultural change to be threatening.
Impact of culture on militarized interstate dispute
We estimate the benchmark model of Martin et al. (2008), which uses a large data set of military conflicts in 1950-2000. We choose this model over other alternatives as it possibly has the most exhaustive list of controls that can potentially affect the probability of militarized interstate disputes (MIDs). We assess the impact of our cultural distance measures on conflict. All five measures of cultural distance have a positive effect on conflict involvement. In other words, culturally more distant states fight more on average. In column (i) of Table 1, we see that Language Barrier positively affects conflict, although insignificant. When we take into account International Language Barrier in column (ii), however, it has a positive and significant effect on conflict involvement. This should not come as a surprise as the part of the culture of a country that is reflected in a language should be more related to the spoken languages rather than the official ones.
To assess the magnitude of the effects, we calculate for each model the standardized marginal effect as the average marginal effect of a cultural distance variable on the probability of conflict relative to the average probability of conflict, which is about 0.0066. This effect is sizeable for International Language Barrier and is around 65%. When we use the Cultural Distance (Kogut) measure, instead, the results are qualitatively similar. The standardized marginal effect, however, is reduced and is now about 14%. The standardized marginal effect of Cultural Distance (Kandogan) on conflict probability is similar at 11. The effect of Cultural Distance (WVS) is also positive and significant. However, the large standardized marginal effect should be interpreted with caution, as the number of countries that are in the WVS is limited due to data availability. All the results from our cultural distance measures considered together, evidence suggests that cultural distance increases the likelihood of interstate militarized conflict.
Table 1. Cultural distance and International conflict
Additionally, in Figure 1, holding all other variables constant, we see a 25% and 19% increase in the odds of conflict for a one-unit increase in Cultural Distance (Kogut) and Cultural Distance (Kandogan) variables, respectively; while the same increase in Language Barrier raises the odds of conflict by 52%.
Figure 1. Odds ratio of coefficients in Table 1
Discussion and conclusion
Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the “Clash of Civilizations” is one of the most fascinating and debated issues in the field of international relations, and has sparked a long-lasting debate about its validity among academics, practitioners and policy-makers. The scholarly literature on international studies has long grappled with how to define, characterize, and analyze his thesis. Although some of the seminal works provided little support to Huntington’s thesis, later studies seemed to partially confirm it. While most of these studies use Huntington’s measure of the concept of civilizations, his classification was tentative, imprecise and difficult to operationalize. Moreover, previous studies rely on a “dichotomization” of civilizations, which is a continuous concept, and treat it as an immutable object, while it is certainly subject to variation over time.
Political events in recent years, such as the NATO-Russia confrontation over Ukraine, Russia’s attempts to resurrect its cultural and political dominance in the former Soviet sphere, the unprecedented rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East, the foundation of an organization like ISIS with a declared aim to build a Muslim caliphate and wage war on Western civilization, or the rise of independence and anti-EU movements in Europe, have been attributed by many political observers to cultural clashes. We argue that whether and how identity impacts the likelihood of MID hinges crucially on the definition and operationalization of “civilizations” or cultural similarity.
We therefore introduce a number of ad-hoc measures of cultural distance in the benchmark empirical models on the likelihood of MIDs. Regardless of how we deal with the definition of cultural distance, the empirical evidence points consistently towards the importance of cultural distance in explaining the odds of interstate conflict. Although the extent of evidence for an effect of cultural distance on conflict clearly depends on model specification and data considerations, in particular the size of the effect, our results suggest that conflict is more likely between culturally distant countries.
Our study highlights the importance of the awareness of the impact of culture in international relations. Culture can be an important determinant of foreign policy as pronounced differences in social norms and behaviors of collective groups might create frictions between states and shape the way they interact. Thus, educating people in cross-cultural sensitivity should be a policy priority. That is to say that the knowledge and acceptance of other cultures are important to avoid tensions and potential conflicts.
- Huntington, Samuel P. 1993. “The clash of civilizations? Foreign affairs”, 22–49.
- Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. “The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order”. Penguin Books India.
- Inglehart, Ronald, & Welzel, Christian. 2005. “Modernization, cultural change, and democracy: The human development sequence.” Cambridge University Press.
- Kandogan, Yener. 2012. “An improvement to Kogut and Singh measure of cultural distance considering the relationship among different dimensions of culture.” Research in International Business and Finance, 26(2), 196–203.
- Kogut, Bruce, & Singh, Harbir. 1988. “The Effect of National Culture on the Choice of Entry Mode.” Journal of International Business Studies, 19(3), 411– 432.
- Lohmann, Johannes. 2011. “Do language barriers affect trade?” Economics Letters, 110(2), 159–162.
- Martin, Philippe, Mayer, Thierry, & Thoenig, Mathias. 2008. “Make trade not war?” The Review of Economic Studies, 75(3), 865–900.
This study evaluates how the impact of cultural differences on trade evolves over time, especially after the Cold War. We show that the negative influence of cultural differences on trade has increased over time. More specifically, it is more prominent in the post-Cold War era than during the Cold War. For instance, two countries with distinct religious majorities have 35% lower bilateral trade flows in the post-Cold War period compared to countries sharing the same majority religion. This negative effect was less than half during the Cold War (16%). In addition, we provide an explanation for the differential impact of cultural differences over time. By mapping out the transition of the effects of cultural and ideological dissimilarities, we show that cold-war ideological blocs might be a reason for the suppression of cultural differences during the Cold War. Therefore, long-term cultural determinants of trade gain more significance by the end of the Cold War and replace ideological differences as a major impediment to international trade.