Photo: Peter Lauth/World Economic Forum.

Conference reports Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations in Russian discourse

Huntington’s theory is more relevant now than ever in Russian discourse. The background for this is the growing religious awareness among Muslims and the growth of Russian nationalism, which fills the void left after the collapse of communism; the strengthening of the Orthodox Church; and President Putin’s recent anti-West campaign.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds 1, 2014 pp 53--55.
Published on on April 30, 2014

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In 1993, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington published his famous theory about a clash of civilizations, according to which the primary reason for conflict in the future would not be ideologies or economic interests but rather cultural and religious contradictions.

Huntington began his thinking by surveying the diverse theories on the nature of global politics in the post–Cold War period. Some theorists and writers argued that human rights, liberal democracy, and capitalist free market economy had become the only remaining ideological points of orientation for nations in the post–Cold War world. Other researchers argued that we had reached the “end of history” in a Hegelian sense. Huntington believed that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had merely reverted to a normal state of affairs characterized by cultural conflict.

In the 1993 Foreign Affairs article, Huntington writes:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation-states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.1

At the end of the article, he writes: “This is not to advocate the desirability of conflicts between civilizations. It is to set forth descriptive hypotheses as to what the future may be like.”

He argued further in The Clash of Civilizations that after the end of the Cold War, world politics had moved into a new phase in which non-Western civilizations were no more the objects in relation to Western civilization, but had become important actors, along with the West, in shaping world history.

Huntington’s theory is more relevant now than ever in Russian discourse. The background for this is the growing religious awareness among Muslims both in the wider Middle East, from Pakistan to Morocco, which has resulted in terrorism and Western interventions, and in Russian Northern Caucasus, especially Chechnya and Dagestan. Other reasons are the growth of Russian nationalism, which fills the void left after the collapse of communism; the strengthening of the Orthodox Church; and President Putin’s recent anti-West campaign. Russian nationalism and xenophobia have resulted in veritable pogroms against migrant workers, mainly those from the poor, new Central Asian states, but also those from the unruly North Caucasus in Russia proper. In October 2013, a nasty pogrom occurred in southern Moscow, after which 1,200 migrants were deported, and a so-called Russian March took place in over a hundred cities with slogans like “Russia for the Russians” and demands for the introduction of migrant visas.

All this set the tone for the international conference on Huntington’s theory, in Yekaterinburg, October 28–30, 2013. Most participants came from various Russian regions; many of them had a non-Russian background and academic training. There were also some experts from the Middle East and Western Europe. Russian nationalists were hardly noticed. An important role was played by Armenians from different countries, especially Ashot Ayrapetyan, head of the Center for Interethnic Cooperation and chairman of the conference.

The conference was opened by Vladimir Dubichev, deputy head of the Sverdlov oblast administration, who lauded the choice of Yekaterinburg as the venue, since it showed that Russia honors international conventions about the eradication of all forms of racism. The region has over 160 ethnic groups, all of whom allegedly live in peace and harmony. This differs from many other regions in Russia and reflects a special Ural mentality, he opined.

Most experts at the conference seemed to agree that Huntington’s theory on the clash of civilizations was fruitful and had raised essential issues, but the critical questions are whether it is applicable to today’s world and how it is used by different political groups. The philosopher Viktor Martyanov reminded us that the theory was advanced in reaction to Francis Fukuyama’s theory about the “end of history” and the victory, with the collapse of the Soviet empire, of the liberal-democratic West, which resulted in the bipolar world being split up further. Enver Kisriev, a researcher on African civilizations, explained that the theory had become attractive because globalization had broken up traditional ties and weakened many states, so that many people instead sought support in an ethnic and religious identity. As noted by Huntington himself, Russia can be viewed as an example of this. Nowadays, many Russians, including President Putin, maintain that Russia is a civilization of its own, separate from Europe. Some participants claimed that Huntington’s theory could be used as legitimation for Western interventions in Muslim countries.

Complex civilizations

However, almost all speakers offered criticisms or modifications of Huntington’s theory. They said that even if there are differences between civilizations, the boundaries are vague: conflicts can be avoided, and there are differences and conflicts within civilizations as well as between them. While Huntington refers to the United States as part of a Western civilization, Valery Garbuzovof the US-Canada Institute in Moscow pointed out that, throughout its history, the US has developed its own identity and become a melting pot. In it, several races and nationalities coexist peacefully, which has laid a solid foundation for economic and military successes.

Kisriev emphasized that the modernization of states cannot be based on religion, but presupposes secularization. Other conference speakers voiced support for individual human rights over collective ones based on ethnic or religious affiliation. Anara Maldasheva, at the Britain-sponsored Center for Training and Research in Kyrgyzstan, underlined the importance of civil society and NGOs in dampening ethnic conflicts. In her opinion, the citizens are more peaceful in their approach towards other states than their leaders are.

Conflicts can also be caused by clashes among growing populations over limited natural resources – not only energy, but also water and agricultural land, stressed Alexander Akimov, at the Institute of Economic Oriental Studies in Moscow. He nonetheless discerned possibilities of cooperation and convergence among civilizations.

Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan, head of “Eurasia–Armenia” a British-sponsored fund in Armenia, noted that “civilization” once referred to the whole human race, whereas now there are many definitions. In his view, conflicts should be solved by education that promotes critical thinking. Deputy Director of the Iranian Institute for Political and International Studies Ahmad Sadeghi underlined the need for economic and cultural exchange and for non-violent conflict resolution. He criticized Huntington’s theory for neglecting the common roots of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. He recalled former President Khatami’s proposal on a Dialog among Civilizations, which became the basis of a UN resolution in 2001 and was followed up by a Spanish-Turkish initiative on an Alliance of Civilizations in 2005.

The view of the Middle East as a divided civilization with conflicts among various Muslim groups was presented by the economist Ibrahim Hegazy at the American University in Cairo. In Egypt, he noted the existence of a fundamental battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and secular forces.

The Armenian-Syrian political scientist Hrach Kalsahakian reminded us that the borders in the Middle East were drawn arbitrarily by the former colonial powers. The states are weak, and clan membership is often more important than citizenship. As everybody knows, the Kurds are split among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and are fighting for unification.

Yury Anchabadze of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology advanced the view that almost every nation nowadays claims to be a civilization of its own, for example in the Caucasus, and he posed the question whether the conflict between Armenians and Azeris should be labeled as civilizational. The same is true of the widening rift between Shia and Sunni in the Middle East.

The migrant question

The issue of clashing civilizations has been exacerbated in recent years as a result of growing labor migration and refugee flows from the south both to Russia, and to Western Europe. Curiously, this problem was not touched upon by Huntington, but admittedly, it was less urgent at the time he developed was developing his ideas. Several speakers elaborated on the tough conditions today for migrants in Russia. On top of the harsh conditions, the migrants are often targeted for attacks by Russian nationalists. In Soviet times, state structures existed to receive and employ migrants. Today, however, there are few – if any – services available to migrants; they receive no free healthcare and have to pay for their Russian language courses. Yet the migrants are needed in Russia, for instance in the growing construction and service sectors. The migrants, in turn, often have no other alternative than to strive to find work abroad, in order to be able to support their families back home. Khursheda Khamrakulova, a member of the Council of Nationalities of the city of Moscow, argued that state power should be strengthened to handle this problem.

The economist Akimov made a proposal on how to organize the recruitment of foreign migrant workers: use private employment agencies. This may cause legal problem, others argued.

Many other solutions, or rather perspectives, were also forwarded. Uwe Erbel, who represented a German NGO in the field, mentioned respect and integration as key factors.

As early as the 1970s, the West German government was inviting foreign workers from southern Europe, but did not expect them to stay. The migrants met resistance in the beginning, but now it is obvious that they are needed, for instance in the healthcare sector.

Erbel thus argued for measures to improve the conditions for migrants: they should be allowed to organize, be taught the local language, get citizenship, and enjoy equal rights. If they are integrated, they will also become an asset.

Hegazy, the Egyptian, commented in this context that if the EU states want to reduce migration from Arab states, they should promote trade rather than give aid. The Syrian Kalsahakian, who has lived in Dubai for many years, discussed the rapid economic development of Dubai, where about 90 percent of the population are immigrants, but lack all rights.

Professor Andrei Golovnev, corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Yekaterinburg, rounded off this discussion by proposing the proclamation of an official Migrant’s Day. The model for this was Empress Catherine the Great, who invited foreign workers to settle in Russia and arranged a good reception for them at the border.

Are foreign interventions justified?

A special session of the conference was devoted to the contentious question of whether foreign interventions into domestic conflicts, which can be seen as a response to civilizational contradictions, are justified. Chairman Ayrapetyan started off with an interesting historical exposé. Without lingering on the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915, he recalled how Soviet Russia supported Kemal Atatürk’s revolutionary regime against the Western powers after the First World War. Russia provided economic and military assistance, which was used against Greeks, Armenians, and Georgians in the period 1920–1921. Nevertheless, in the 1930s, Turkey reoriented itself towards the West and became a threat to the Soviet Union. By way of conclusion, he posed the question of whether the Western powers are not concerned that their support for armed groups in various countries in order to promote liberty and democracy might backfire. He was obviously referring to the current civil war in Syria.

Several other speakers also voiced doubts about the merits of military action and support. Kisriev mentioned Afghanistan as an unsolved problem, despite many years of occupation.

“The strong Western powers act as they please in world politics and even supported the Taliban,” claimed Dr. Khamrakulova, arousing protests. She suggested further that the president of Russia should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because he had foiled an American intervention in Syria by inducing its government to turn over its chemical weapons.

However, Mr. Kalsahakian pointed out that the Western intervention in Libya was insufficient and that the more important issue is what steps are to be taken after the intervention. He noted that in Syria, it is not only states that are interfering, but also various radical groups and alliances. The UN only intervenes when the concern is chemical weapons, not other lethal weapons. He saw a need for intervention, but the question is of course what kind of intervention.

I myself contributed to this debate by noting that instead of talking about “humanitarian interventions” and the like, the UN nowadays uses the concept of responsibility to protect (R2P). In 2005, the Security Council adopted a resolution obliging the member states to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. The international community has a responsibility to assist the states in this, and if the states fail to protect their populations, the international community has a responsibility to intervene with coercive measures. Military intervention nonetheless still requires sanction by the Security Council.

Proceeding then to review some foreign interventions in recent years, including their motives and results, I pointed out that no Western or other states intervened to prevent the genocides in Rwanda in 1994 and in Darfur in 2003–2010, each of which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The UN-sanctioned NATO intervention against the Taliban regime in 2001 and the subsequent military presence in Afghanistan now, after over twelve years, has not led to the desired outcome of peace and development. Similarly, the US-led intervention in and occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011 must also be seen as a significant failure, given that terror attacks continue, and the country seems to be disintegrating along confessional lines.

The NATO interventions in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999 may be regarded as somewhat more successful, since the internecine war was stopped and independent states were established. However, the ethnic cleansing is a done deed, and the viability of the states remains uncertain. The air support provided by NATO for the opposition in Libya in 2011, which was sanctioned by the UN Security Council, contributed to the demise of the long-lived Gaddafi dictatorship. But this was followed by economic crisis, and low-level insurgency among regionally based clans, so after about three years, the outcome remains a disappointment.

More successful was the French intervention in Mali in 2013, which helped the government to stop and reverse the onslaught of Al Qaeda–connected rebels in the north. After this, the French troops soon handed over peacekeeping to UN troops and left for the Central African Republic and another civil war. Thus, even if the reasons for the interventions in most cases are compelling, the results are rather mixed, especially in the long run. But a failure to intervene can also be disastrous.

In conclusion, the discussion at this conference on Huntington’s controversial theory on the clash of civilizations did not, perhaps surprisingly, give rise to sharp exchanges between Christians and Muslims or Russians and Western Europeans. Instead, the spirit was characterized by a striving to solve problems by dialog and cooperation. Very few nationalist statements were heard. The general discussion about civilizations was linked both to topical analyses of the acute migration problems in Russia and other countries, as well as to a more political debate on the use of violence in and among states. Even though more questions than definite answers remained on the table, many different interests were thus met, and everybody appeared satisfied with Ural hospitality. ≈

Note: The conference was organized by the Center for Interethnic Cooperation in Moscow and financed by the Foreign Ministry’s Gorchakov Fund, with support from local authorities in Yekaterinburg.


Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, 72:3 (1993).

  • by Ingmar Oldberg

    Research associate at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) since 2009, member of its Russia and Eurasia programme, formerly Deputy Director of Research at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI).

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