The Clash of Civilisations

Clash of Civilisations in Ukraine

By Pat Walsh

Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilisations and the Making of the World Order’ originally appeared in article form in the illustrious Foreign Affairs periodical in 1993. The initial article generated more discussion in the United States than anything written since World War Two and it was expanded into a famous book by the author, to explain himself more fully. The book, which appeared in 1996 became a classic text of international affairs and US foreign policy. It is still as famous 30 years on than it was at the time of its original publication. And what it said about Ukraine and the West’s relations with Russia should now be of great interest. 

For one thing it gives us a good idea where things went wrong and how the current tragedy was produced in Ukraine that threatens to become a world war. If Western leaders, from Clinton to Obama to Biden, had taken care to understand the argument in Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations they would have known never to have meddled in Ukraine. Alternatively, if they had read and understood it they stand condemned for knowing rightly what they were going to produce for its people and wider humanity.

(I exclude President Donald Trump from such criticism. The world’s media has given us a picture of him as an ignorant buffoon. He can, therefore, be exempt from possessing the dangerous knowledge that book reading would have given an ordinary president. He apparently conducted foreign policy through mere common sense and realism and proved incapable of war making, unlike his learned predecessors and successor. He was a rogue president in all senses of the word) 

The Clash of Civilisations

‘The Clash of Civilisations’ was an interpretation of global politics after the Cold War had ended in a US victory and the world lay open to what America wished to do with it as sole surviving superpower following the Soviet Union’s internal collapse.

Huntington’s book is often characterised as a kind of programme for an inevitable clash of civilisations. It was not that at all. But the globalising rage of the 1990s seems to have found the discovery and existence of distinct civilisations in the world, as opposed to a single universalising superior one, which put all humanity on its single path to progress, objectionable. The pretence was adopted that different and distinct civilisations were a bad thing which might lead to war if resistance was put up to their absorption by the one which had assumed predominance by winning the Cold War.

The Clash of Civilisations recognised that global politics was ceasing to be bipolar and becoming multipolar and multi-civilisational; the West was, at the moment of its great victory, in comparative decline as against Asia: a civilisational world order was developing and the West’s universalist pretensions would increasingly bring it into conflict with other civilisations, if it attempted world hegemony without consideration for other cultures.

Huntington put it like this:

“The survival of the West depends on Americans reaffirming their Western identity and Westerners accepting their civilisation as unique not universal and uniting to renew and preserve it against challenges from non-Western societies. Avoidance of a global war of civilisations depends on world leaders accepting and cooperating to maintain the multi civilisational character of global politics.”(p.20-1)

In summary, Huntington saw that there existed distinct civilisational spheres of influence in the world. The West, whilst consolidating its own distinct sphere, needed to know and understand the limits of its particular and unique sphere, respect the spheres of other civilisations and develop functional and accommodationist relations with other civilisations to maintain the peace in order to prevent World War Three.

When Huntington was writing Russia was under Boris Yeltsin and it was effectively down and out. Huntington anticipated therefore that the potential major clash of civilisations would be between the West, tempted to expand its civilisational sphere at the moment of victory, and the distinctly Muslim world, in the short-term. But in the longer term it would come up against China, and its ancient and substantial civilisation. 

However, Huntington was conscious of the West’s unfinished business with regard to Russia and he addressed the important issues of the expansion of NATO, the Russian civilisational sphere of influence and the part of Ukraine within it, as a borderland between the West and Russia.

The Clash of Civilisations appeared at a particular moment of time when the US as hegemon was faced with deciding how it would deal with the rest of the world. Huntington was aware that the West would attempt to universalise itself through American power and try to impose its values and political and economic system on the rest of humanity. He argued that this would be a mistake and would inevitably lead to world conflict as other civilisations resisted the Western embrace. It was not just a question of authoritarian governments resisting US style liberal democracy. Much more was at stake than that in the Clash of Civilisations.

Western and NATO expansion

Huntington argued that establishing where Europe ended was one of the principal challenges confronting the West in the post-Cold War world: “With the collapse of communism… it became necessary to confront and answer the question: What is Europe?” (p.158) 

Europe’s boundaries on its north, south and west were clear, being delineated by substantial bodies of water. The problem lay to the east: “… where is Europe’s eastern boundary? Who should be thought of as European and hence as potential members of the European Union, NATO, and comparable organisations?” (p.158)

It was clear that the West did not regard Russia as part of Western civilisation and showed little interest in welcoming it into its ranks. Neither did Huntington feel that Russia could be absorbed. It was distinct. 

His answer to the question of where Europe ended and Russia began is contained in the following passage:

“The most compelling and pervasive answer… is provided by the great historical line that has existed for centuries separating Western Christian peoples from Muslim and Orthodox peoples. This line dates back to the Roman Empire in the fourth century and the creation of the Holy Roman Empire in the tenth century. It has been in roughly its current place for at least five hundred years.” (p.158)

As shown on a map, below, reproduced  from The Clash of Civilisations, the frontiers of Europe ran to the east of Finland, the Baltic states, through the middle of Belarus, Ukraine and Romania, and skirted east of Croatia in the Balkans, coinciding with the historical division between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. 

Orthodoxy and Islam in Europe

Huntington noted that there was a clear distinction between Central Europe or Mitteleuropa, which was historically part of Western civilisation, and which should be reclaimed, and Eastern Europe proper, which was part of a different Eastern civilisation and should not:

“It is the cultural border of Europe, and in the post-Cold War world it is also the political and economic border of Europe and the West… Europe ends where Western Christianity ends and Islam and Orthodoxy begin… It is necessary, as Michael Howard (prominent British Conservative) argued, to recognise the distinction, blurred during the Soviet years, between Central Europe or Mitteleuropa and Eastern Europe proper… The term ‘Eastern Europe’ should be reserved for those regions which developed under the aegis of the Orthodox Church and… only emerged from Ottoman domination in the nineteenth century…” (pp.159-160) 

Huntington treats the European Union and NATO as parallel organisations of Western Christian civilisation which, since the end of the Cold War, have been expanding into the space in Eastern Europe evacuated by the Soviet Union. He saw the EU as “coextensive with Western Christian civilisation as it has historically existed in Europe.” (p.161)

Huntington then discussed NATO expansionism in The Clash of Civilisations. He advocated further expansion up to what are understood to be the boundaries of Western civilisation because “NATO is the security organisation of Western civilisation.” (p.161) 

He argued that

“With the Cold War over, NATO has one central and compelling purpose: to insure that it remains over by preventing the reimposition of Russian political and military control in Central Europe. As the West’s security organisation NATO is appropriately open to membership by Western countries which wish to join …” (p.161)

Huntington while noting that “Russia vigorously opposed any NATO expansion” (p.161) emphasised importantly that:

“NATO expansion limited to countries historically part of Western Christendom… guarantees to Russia that it would exclude Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Belarus, and Ukraine as long as Ukraine remained united. NATO expansion limited to Western states would also underline Russia’s role as the core state of a separate, Orthodox civilisation, and hence a country which should be responsible for order within and along the boundaries of Orthodoxy.” (p.162)

So The Clash of Civilisations is keen to stress that whilst NATO expansion was desirable and justifiable in relation to consolidating the area historically regarded as that of Western Christian civilisation it was not desirable or justifiable beyond that. Encroachment into an area that was clearly part of another and distinct civilisation would be a recipe for conflict. The West could not have it both ways – if Russia was a distinct power and civilisation it had its own civilisational sphere of influence which should be taken account of and not trespassed upon. If that were not the case Russia should be welcomed fully into the organisations of Western civilisation, like the EU and NATO.

Huntington understood that there was a clear division between the sphere of Western Christian civilisation and that of Eastern Orthodox civilisation. Only three states were problematic with regard to the demarcation: Greece and Turkey, both did not easily sit within the West. Turkey was western purely because of Ataturk and the Cold War. Greece was an anomaly. The most important problem was Ukraine, “the borderlands”, which was a “cleft country” down which the boundary between West and East actually ran. 

Huntington saw that Ukraine could only be an integral part of Western civilisation if it were partitioned along the Dneiper with the Western half seceding from the Eastern Russian part in order to join the EU or NATO. He produced electoral maps that clearly demonstrated the civilisational division within the Ukrainian state, which had come about only through Soviet nation-building. Huntington emphasised that if the country wished to maintain the territory the Soviet Union had provided for it, Ukraine had to maintain a careful balance between two civilisations in which Russian interests were guaranteed by any government in Kiev. If not territorial integrity would become problematic as a matter of course, due to the civilisational cleft which cut the state in two.

Russia and Ukraine

Huntington acknowledged the Russia that remained in the 1990s as the “successor to the tsarist and communist empires” and as “ a civilisational bloc, paralleling in many respects that of the West in Europe.” (p.163) Russia formed an “Orthodox heartland” with Belarus, Moldova, Armenia and Kazakhstan (40 per cent Russian) according to Huntington. He saw Ukraine and Georgia as civilisationally part of this Orthodox bloc, but problematic components due to their “strong senses of national identity”. Armenia also had a very well developed sense of nationalism but its antagonisms with Muslim neighbours tended to make it a dependency of Moscow.

Huntington was proved right to foresee trouble ahead in relation to Ukraine. In April 2008, at the Bucharest summit, the NATO countries welcomed Georgia’s and Ukraine’s “Euro-Atlantic aspirations” and announced their intention to bring both countries into the Membership Application Plan and toward full NATO membership and joining the Western civilisational bloc. Russia had by then swallowed two earlier NATO enlargements, including two of the Orthodox civilisational counties, Bulgaria and Romania’s entry in 2004, and was appalled by this. It was a step too far for Moscow and Georgia was defeated in a brief war that same year, in August 2008, losing territory (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) as a consequence.

Huntingdon noted that most of Ukraine, since 1654, barring a brief period between 1917 and 1920, had been part of the Russian political orbit and Orthodox world:

“Ukraine, however, is a cleft country with two distinct cultures. The civilisational fault line between the West and Orthodoxy runs through its heart and has done so for centuries. At times in the past, western Ukraine was part of Poland, Lithuania, and the Austro-Hungarian empire. A large portion of its population have been adherents of the Uniate Church which practices Orthodox rites but acknowledges the authority of the Pope. Historically, western Ukrainians have spoken Ukrainian and have been strongly nationalist in their outlook. The people of eastern Ukraine, on the other hand, have been overwhelmingly Orthodox and have in large part spoken Russian… The Crimea is overwhelmingly Russian and was part of the Russian Federation until 1954, when Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine…” (p.166)

Because of the civilisational cleft within Ukraine, Huntingdon saw different possibilities for the development of Ukrainian/Russian relations. He outlined three possible futures:

A first possibility was that relations would remain close and generally fraternal due to cultural and historical ties. Huntington explained:

“These are two Slavic, primarily Orthodox peoples who have had close relationships for centuries and between whom intermarriage is common. Despite highly contentious issues and the pressure of extreme nationalists on both sides, the leaders of both countries worked hard and largely successfully to moderate these disputes.” (p.167)

A second and more likely development, thought Huntington, was that Ukraine would ultimately split apart “along its fault line into two separate entities, the eastern which would merge with Russia.” 

He noted that “a rump Uniate and Western-oriented Ukraine, however, would only be viable if it had strong and effective Western support.” (p.167)

Huntington then described how Ukraine had only barely managed to maintain its Soviet borders since independence, through wise and careful statesmanship and good relations with Moscow. The Crimea parliament had voted to declare independence in May 1992 but under Ukrainian pressure rescinded the vote. In 1994 Crimea elected a president who had campaigned for unity with Russia. He subsequently backed away from his commitment to hold a referendum on independence after negotiations with Kiev. In May 1994 the Crimea parliament voted to restore the 1992 constitution that meant virtually independence from Kiev. But subsequent restraint of Ukrainian and Russian leaders led to an accommodation that preserved Crimea as part of the Ukrainian state. It was understood that Crimea also had implications for Donbas, where a further Ukrainian Russian population required careful consideration by Kiev. 

Huntington concluded optimistically that “only if relations between the West and Russia deteriorated seriously and came to resemble those of the Cold War” would cleft Ukraine break apart to join each’s civilisational blocs. (p.167)

The third and most likely scenario Huntington put forward for the country in The Clash of Civilisations was that “Ukraine will remain united, remain cleft, remain independent, and generally cooperate closely with Russia… facilitated by a partially shared culture and close personal ties.” (p.168)

Interestingly, Huntington contrasted his civilisational approach with the realist/statist approach of John Mearsheimer, which was later to come to the fore with the events of 2014:

“A statist paradigm… leads John Mearsheimer to predict that ‘”the situation between Ukraine and Russia is ripe for the outbreak of security competition between them. Great Powers that share a long and unprotected common border, like that between Russia and Ukraine, often lapse into competition driven by security fears. Russia and Ukraine might overcome this dynamic and learn to live together in harmony, but it would be unusual if they do.” 

While a statist approach highlights the possibility of a Russian-Ukrainian war, a civilisational approach minimises that and highlights the possibility of Ukraine splitting in half, a separation which cultural factors would lead one to predict might be more violent than Czechoslovakia, but far less bloody than Yugoslavia. These different predictions, in turn give rise to differing policy priorities.Mearsheimer’s statist prediction of possible war and Russian conquest of Ukraine leads him to support Ukraine having nuclear weapons. A civilisational approach would encourage cooperation between Russia and Ukraine, urge Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons, promote substantial economic assistance and other measures to help maintain Ukrainian unity and independence, and sponsor contingency planning for the possible break up of Ukraine.” (p.37)

It seems that there was substantial knowledge available to Western leaders then, about the internal divisions in Ukraine that might result in its breakup if statecraft was not handled carefully by Ukrainian leaders, and, on the other hand, the friction that existed in relations between an independent Ukraine with Soviet borders and Russia, that might lead to future war.

But it appears that both the EU and NATO’s appetite for eastern expansion was insatiable.

The West, instead of heeding the advice from either Samuel Huntington or John Mearsheimer, appears to have pursued Fukuyama’s “End of History” globalising utopian illusion. This brought them to recklessly interfere in Ukraine, where Russia’s security fears were greatest, to create the worst possible outcome for both countries and peoples.

Where did it all go wrong?

The clash of civilisations in Ukraine could have been avoided if Presidents Obama and Biden had read and heeded the arguments presented in The Clash of Civilisations

So where did it all go wrong for Ukraine and the clash of civilisations head toward a potential world war?

When President Clinton visited Europe in January 1994 he stated that

“Freedom’s boundaries now should be defined by new behaviour, not by old history. I say to all who would draw a new line in Europe: we should not foreclose the possibility of… democracy everywhere, market economics everywhere, countries cooperating for mutual security everywhere. We must guard against a lesser outcome.”

It was this universalising tendency within the “indispensable nation” that did for the strategy advocated in The Clash of Civilisations to maintain peace in the world and prevent global conflict.

It is quite clear that the 2014 Maidan coup, instigated by the EU and US, unbalanced the civilisational equilibrium within Ukraine by attempting something not imagined as a possibility by Huntingdon. In this coup Western Ukrainian nationalists overthrew the elected government in Kiev, which was attempting to maintain the equilibrium within Ukraine, necessary to holding the state together, and proceeded to attempt to impose itself on the Eastern Russian Ukraine. This was attempted first politically by the coup government in Kiev in repressing the Russian language and culture of the east and then militarily by treating the population as terrorists. This upset the civilisational equilibrium within Ukraine and led to civil conflict and the breakaway of the Russian/Orthodox regions of Crimea, and parts of Luhansk and Donetz.

Joe Biden cannot have been unaware of The Clash of Civilisations argument. It was, after all, the most discussed article and book in recent times in the United States.

At a joint press conference with Hungary’s Premier, Victor Orban, on February 1 2022, a few weeks before the war, President Putin emphasised that “fundamental Russian concerns” were being ignored by the West in Ukraine. Asked how he would respond to this situation, Putin made his position very clear:

“Listen attentively to what I am saying. It is written into Ukraine’s doctrines that it wants to take Crimea back, by force if necessary. This is not what Ukrainian officials say in public. This is written in their documents. Suppose Ukraine is a NATO member. It will be filled with weapons, modern offensive weapons will be deployed on its territory just like in Poland and Romania – who is going to prevent this. Suppose it starts operations in Crimea, not to mention Donbass. Crimea is sovereign Russian territory. We consider this matter settled. Imagine that Ukraine is a NATO country and starts these military operations. What are we supposed to do? Fight against the NATO bloc? Has anyone given at least some thought to this? Apparently not.”

Around 1900 Joseph Chamberlain proposed the consolidation of the British Empire into a great tariff union. However, the Liberal Imperialists shot down his proposal for consolidation and went for expansion instead. This led to the First World War. It appears something similar happened one hundred years later. 

President Biden’s support for Kiev’s sovereign right to spread NATO into the Russian/Orthodox sphere of influence within Ukraine, and up to the walls of the Russian heartland itself, can only be seen as the primary reason for the conflict in Ukraine and the increasing possibility of world war. The Russian Special Military Operation/invasion was a consequence of that, and not a cause of the conflict, which had began in 2013/4 with EU/US meddling along the civilisational fault lines of Ukraine.

From his Clash of Civilisation analysis in the 1990s Huntington proposed that an understanding be reached between the West and Russia to avoid future war in relation to Ukraine, involving:

“1. Russian acceptance of the expansion of the European Union and NATO to include the Western Christian states of Central and Eastern Europe, and Western commitment not to expand NATO further, unless Ukraine splits into two parts.

2. a partnership treaty between Russia and NATO pledging non-aggression, regular consultations on security issues, cooperative efforts to avoid arms competition, and negotiation of arms control agreements appropriate to their post-Cold War security needs.” (p.242)

Huntington’s proposal in the 1990s, which was ignored by the West in its Drang nach Osten, may now, however, prove useful as a basis for peace in Ukraine and between the West and Russia. But before that can happen the Ukraine government will have to agree to the partition of its state along civilisational lines, which their intransigence toward their Russian-orientated citizens and the Russian Special Military Operation has resulted in. And the West will have to end its expansionism to the East and respect the fact that it has over-reached itself by intruding into a civilisational bloc where it can cause nothing but conflict.

Or alternatively the highest stakes can be played for and the conflict played out to the full.