Since the end of the Cold War, perhaps no academic idea has been more debated—and more dismissed—than Samuel Huntington's notion that a global struggle between cultures, a "clash of civilizations," would replace the ideological divide between the West and the Soviet bloc.
But the current crisis in Ukraine, and the uneasy standoff between the country's generally more pro-Russian eastern half and its more Westernized west, invites a new and far more favorable look at Huntington's thesis. The late Harvard University political scientist's views may even point the way to a resolution, one that will take into account both the "Eurasian" self-identity of Ukraine's eastern region and the yearnings of its other half to join the European Union.
In the decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Dec. 26, 1991, it appeared that Huntington had read things wrong. Except for the ethnic bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet bloc and communist countries went peacefully democratic. Similar developments took place in Latin America and East Asia. Even China opened itself up more to the rest of the world. Instead of a clash of civilizations, the dominant trend seemed to be global integration, a convergence of economic systems (capitalism) and political systems (democracy) that played out more along the lines of Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis.
But more recently global convergence appears to have ground to a halt, and nowhere more so than in the mind of Vladimir Putin. The Russian president's blitzkrieg occupation of Crimea was hardly an isolated act. Rather it should be seen as part of a long-term effort by Putin to resurrect Russia's cultural and political dominance in the former Soviet sphere, even as he has gradually turned himself into a quasi-czar/Soviet-style ruler and subverted Russian democracy. Putin's brazen bid to buy off ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and induce him to join a "Eurasian Economic Union" including Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan—based on what Putin called "the best values of the Soviet Union"—may have been politically motivated, but it was largely justified on cultural grounds.
The Russian leader and the conservatives he surrounds himself in the Kremlin have long sought to promote the reconstitution of Russian power based on the idea that many of these countries with large Russian-speaking populations, including the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (now under Moscow's control), are part of a distinctive Eurasian culture that is different from the West on many levels, including spiritually. "We should not be shy when bringing back the ideas of ethnic unity," Putin's protégé, former Russian President Dimitri Medvedev, said in 2011 as they laid plans for the Eurasian union. These views have deep roots in Russian academic literature, playing out in debates over concepts such as "Neo-Eurasianism" and "Byzantism," whose unifying theme is a rejection of Western values.
To be fair, U.S. and Western policies since the end of the Cold War have only tended to provoke this cultural defensiveness and Russian nationalism. Over the past 20 years NATO has expanded to incorporate not only the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe but also the Baltic states, and it has sought to bring in Ukraine and Georgia. Putin was also reportedly incensed by the apparent intervention in Ukraine's governmental affairs by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and European Union ministers at the height of the protests in Kiev in February.
At the same time U.S. presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have also naively tended to see Putin as someone who believes that Russia's fundamental interests lie in global integration, democracy and capitalism. But based on his rhetoric and actions since he first rose to national power in 1999, Putin appears to believe that Russia is engaged in if not quite a new Cold War, then a civilizational as well as geopolitical struggle with the Western powers. He has made a mockery of Western-style democracy, and he has done little to transform or integrate Russia's economy, despite what should have been a world-class tech sector stemming from Russia's defense and science prowess. Indeed, it is striking that while China and the U.S. have grown far more financially and economically interdependent, Putin's Russia is still trying to exert old-style geopolitical influence as a "natural-resources superpower."
As a result, it may be time for American officials to start reading Huntington again. In his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (based on a 1993 essay), Huntington wrote that "for the first time in history global politics is both multipolar and multi-civilizational." He also warned against the rosy-colored view that the world would inevitably Westernize and achieve "universal civilization" as it modernized. Huntington may have also been partially right about Ukraine. In his book he wrote that "a civilizational approach … highlights the possibility of Ukraine splitting in half, a separation which cultural factors would lead one to predict might be more violent than that of Czechoslovakia but far less bloody than that of Yugoslavia."
No one, of course, wants the Ukraine to split in half, least of all most Ukrainians, and Huntington's broad-brush approach does not take into account that even within the eastern and western parts of the country, multifarious views exist. Still, Putin shows no sign of standing down in Crimea, and it doesn't seem as if any diplomatic solution to the current crisis can ignore the de facto division of Ukraine into separate spheres of cultural influence and political control, even if the country nominally remains intact. Obama himself, in public remarks on Tuesday, suggested this outcome when he said that Ukraine could be both "a friend of the West and a friend of Russia's." A multi-civilizational approach may be the only realistic one—and the only way to peaceful compromise.