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Ukraine and ISIS are not justifications of a ‘clash of civilizations’

Debris lies at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), Donetsk region July 21, 2014. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

The following is a guest post by political scientist Mark Lawrence Schrad of Villanova University. 


Samuel Huntington, the venerated Harvard professor and influential scholar of international conflict, who passed away in 2008, is best known for his acclaimed 1996 book, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.” He argued that the world could be divided into discrete macro-cultural “civilizations” —  Western, Orthodox, Islamic, Hindu, and so on — based on shared language, culture and religion. In the post-Cold War world, he predicted, conflict would be rooted in these cultural differences. Like geopolitical plate tectonics, “the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future,” Huntington warned us. Its simplicity and emotional resonance — especially in the “West vs. the rest” post-9/11 years — made the clash of civilizations the go-to explanation for scores of lazy journalists and college freshmen.

The fact that the clash-of-civilizations framework has not withstood empirical scrutiny is only one reason that political science has long dismissed it. Also, it dramatically oversimplifies a world of complexity, over-predicts conflict between civilizations at the expense of conflicts within civilizations, focuses on states, rather than separatist or terrorist groups, and is significantly worse than rival theories at predicting international conflict. What’s more, like Joseph Stalin’s approach to nationality, Huntington casts subjective individual identities as immutable objects, and reifies monolithic civilizations as essential concepts, something that makes little sense to the individuals on the ground.

With a reinvigorated NATO now confronting both Russian encroachments into Ukraine and ISIS militants in the Middle East, the Huntington-ist zombie has risen again, infecting pundits across the globe. But are they right? Even the antagonists seem to be playing from the clash-of-civilizations playbook: ISIS hopes to build a Muslim caliphate and wage war on Western civilization writ large. Meanwhile in Ukraine, the Euromaidan movement made explicit their civilizational “choice for Europe.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, by contrast, has legitimized Russia’s military incursions in Crimea and the Donbas in the name of protecting ethnic Russians, and other “compatriots” threatened by Kiev’s new, pro-Western direction. The Kremlin argues that Russia represents “a unique and original civilization” marked by the “rejection of such principles as multiculturalism and tolerance” promoted by the West.

Does all this mean we should dust off a place for the Huntington paradigm in the discussion? Has the clash of civilizations finally been vindicated?

It’d be foolish to expect anyone in the 1990s could have foreseen something like ISIS (or the combustible circumstances that spawned it), which rose to prominence only months ago. Huntington wrote nothing about a trans-national Muslim caliphate. Likewise — since it is a theory of state-vs.-state conflict — the clash of civilizations actually says little about non-state actors and terrorist organizations. Also, since the conflict in Iraq and Syria is largely a case of Muslims killing Muslims far from the tectonic boundaries of “Islamic civilization,” ISIS itself disconfirms Huntington’s framework, as does the formation of a trans-civilizational coalition of Western and Islamic states to confront it.

By contrast, Huntington wrote a lot about Ukraine, which sits astride the border between Western and Orthodox civilizations. Anyone cherry-picking quotes to make the case for a civilizational clash has many to choose from. In the most prophetic passage, Huntington lays out the possibility “that Ukraine could split along its fault line into two separate entities, the eastern of which would merge with Russia.” He continues: “As one Russian general put it [in 1992], ‘Ukraine or rather Eastern Ukraine will come back in five, ten or fifteen years. Western Ukraine can go to hell!’ Such a rump Uniate and Western-oriented Ukraine, however, would only be viable if it had strong and effective Western support. Such support is, in turn, likely to be forthcoming only if relations between the West and Russia deteriorated seriously and came to resemble those of the Cold War.” From encapsulating Ukrainian domestic politics and current Russian attitudes to the re-freezing of East-West relations — on its face, this sounds like a resounding vindication.

However, Huntington actually argues that this outcome is exceedingly implausible. “If civilization is what counts,” he claims, “violence between Ukrainians and Russians is unlikely.” Instead, the “more likely scenario is that Ukraine will remain united, remain cleft, remain independent, and generally cooperate closely with Russia.” Huntington actually argues that his “civilizational approach would encourage cooperation between Russia and Ukraine,” as opposed to rival, realist theories that presaged conflict.

Moreover, the present, limited conflict in parts of the two regions of Donetsk and Luhansk is a far cry from Huntington’s “prophecy” of a massive rupture between the predominantly Orthodox, Russian-speaking east of Ukraine and the Ukrainian-speaking, Uniate west. (Incidentally, at just two words long, “Uniate Church” — Ukraine’s trans-civilizational eastern Orthodox archdiocese that recognizes the primacy of the Pope of Rome — may be the most succinct rebuttal to the entire clash of civilizations argument.)

The on-the-ground reality is far more complex. “There are significant number of passionate Ukrainians,” Alexander Motyl reminds us, “who speak Russian and who prefer Russian culture, and who nevertheless are committed to Ukrainian statehood and Ukrainian nationhood.” Polls show that most Russian-speaking Ukrainians prefer closer relations with the West and oppose Russian military intervention. Consequently, there are Russian speakers and ethnic-Russian Ukrainians fighting on both sides, which is fundamentally incongruent with Huntington.

Ultimately, the main reason to ditch the clash-of-civilizations paradigm is that it shoehorns the entire spectrum of potential motivations for conflict — economic issues, imperial ambitions, leaders’ personal rivalries and vendettas, scarce resources, competition for power and influence, or even genuine humanitarian interventions — into one simplistic and misleading framework. Likewise, viewing conflict as the natural outcome of immutable cultural differences effectively exonerates those warmongers — terrorists, separatists, and militants — of their heinous atrocities.

No paradigm,” Huntington himself reminds us, “is good forever. The Cold War model of world politics was useful and relevant for forty years but became obsolete in the late 1980s, and at some point the civilizational paradigm will suffer a similar fate.” We’ve long since passed that point — the clash of civilizations approach simply does not add value in the present debate. It lulls us into thinking that international conflicts are simple and straightforward. Even worse, it fundamentally misleads us about the causes of violence, the motivations of actors, and the prospects for peace.

There are very real dangers in trying to reanimate dead ideas. It is time to let Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” finally rest in peace.