Ukraine and the Clash of Civilizations

How Putin is proving a 20-year-old idea to finally be correct.

Anti-government stand behind a 'wall of smoke' during clashes with police in the center of Kiev on February 20, 2014.
National Journal
March 5, 2014, midnight

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. 

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