Putin Lives in the World that Huntington Built

By Ilya Budraitskis
  • Ilya Budraitskis
    Ilya Budraitskis (1981) is a historian and curator. He is a member of the editorial board of Moscow Art Magazine, former scientific assistant and curator in State's museum for contemporary Russian history. From 2013 – chief of Multimedia Library Department of the National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA, Moscow). Co-editor (with Ekaterina Degot and Marta Dziewanska) and author of the book Post-post-Soviet? Art, politics and society in Russia in the turn of the decade (University of Chicago Press, 2013). Co-editor (with Arseniy Zhilyaev) and author of Pedagogical poem (Marsilio publishers, 2014).

A year ago, along with the annexation of Crimea (or what official Kremlin propaganda prefers to designate as its “restitution”), “Russia’s return to history” was proclaimed. Implied in such a phrase was the idea of a veritable, secular struggle for Russia’s rightful place in the world that was only interrupted by a fortuitous two decades hanging around in an unsuccessful market ‘transit zone’ and by a doomed attempt to fit into a model of international relations which had been concocted by others and was, indeed, designed against Russia. Such an interpretation led the Western media to call Vladimir Putin a dangerous romantic who, according to a remark by Angela Merkel, “lives in a world of his own.” Putin himself, however, insists that his position is that of a realist while the hectoring tone of the West represents a relic of the universalist illusions of the past.

It is worth remembering that this unique dispute about universal values, which have surfaced recently in the guise of an international conflict, emerged at a theoretical level almost twenty years ago. Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order was published in 1996 and immediately occupied, alongside Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, a place of honor in the ranks of ‘authoritative texts’ explaining how the world would be built after the end of the Cold War. However, whereas Fukuyama (remarkably, a former student of Huntington’s at Harvard) assumed that the West’s historical victory is a permanent condition that will revert into a tedious, stable, and highly predictable future, Huntington’s conclusions were extremely pessimistic. Twenty years following the appearance of The Clash of Civilizations, 9/11, America’s armed intervention in the Islamic world, and the start of the current conflict in Ukraine, Huntington may seem like a prophet who foretold the future. Yet it is also possible that there is another explanation: Has this ‘authoritative book’ not simply found some rather powerful readers—George Bush, Putin, Marine Le Pen, or, let’s say, the leader of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? In other words, the question arises as to what exactly Huntington created: An extraordinarily accurate explanation of reality or a crude ideological construct that has been turned into today’s scary reality?

Nevertheless, to all too many people, it appears today that Huntington, with his hard-boiled theory of a cultural “war of the worlds,” proves to be more useful for an understanding of the present moment than Hegel or Marx. This is mainly because the basic framework of his theory is much easier to grasp. What does this theory consist of? Huntington claims that the global ideological confrontation between capitalism and communism (a fault line that crosses through societies and continents) has been replaced with a return to the ancient and somewhat forgotten game whereby peoples and cultures fight for their natural interests. The West, according to The Clash of Civilizations, should not flatter itself with its victory over the collapsed “socialist camp.” On the contrary, this victory should return the West to the sober realization of its condition as just one (even if the most powerful) of eight or nine civilizations dividing up the world between them. 1In his book, Huntington mentions eight civilizations, which, as he believes, emerged historically and exist for now. They are: Japanese, Hindu, Chinese, Islamic, Western, African, Latin American, and Orthodox. The post-ideological epoch will be a time of war, civilization fault lines, and temporary coalitions based upon identity and an ahistorical attachment to one community or another.

Huntington does not claim to give a large-scale tour of the past and he makes little effort to explain in what way and precisely why eight civilizations rather than, say, twenty-eight, have formed: the main point for him is that it has happened and that, for the near future, the number will remain unchanged. In time, each of the civilizations will acquire and become aware of its natural boundaries. Those that were ‘put out of action’ and had less influence in the past (for example, the Chinese and Islamic civilizations) will gain in strength whereas others (i.e., the West) should, on the contrary, more critically evaluate their own claims. In order to persuade the West of the vanity of its hope for universal modernization and social progress, Huntington tends to invoke the work of Edward Said and Immanuel Wallerstein even more often than that of his direct predecessors in the “civilizational approach” (for example, Arnold J. Toynbee). The author of The Clash of Civilizations by no means shares the pessimism of Oswald Spengler regarding the ‘decline’ of the West, but calls upon the West to soberly evaluate its own potential in the face of a rapidly changing demographic balance. The European population is becoming smaller and smaller whereas the Asian population is growing: this key component of Huntington’s theory is backed up with statistics meant to persuade the reader.

The Cold War, as an ideological confrontation between two blocs, has become a thing of the past and the time has come to reassess the role of international institutions created in the previous era. So the question, “Whose side are you on?” is replaced by “What are you?” Hence, NATO should transform itself from a military organization of the ‘free world’ into a bloc defending the interests of only one of the civilizations, namely the West. There is no point in the European Union considering the integration of countries belonging to Orthodox or Islamic civilizations—and their adherence would create major problems in the future. For the determination of a new balance of forces each civilization needs to accommodate itself to its ‘kin country’, a kind of elder sibling. For the West, that is the United States; for the Orthodox world, Russia. Consequently, alongside most of Ukraine and Belarus, the sphere of Russian natural interests would include Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece (whose inclusion in the European Union Huntington has openly called a mistake).

In short, at the center of each civilization is a country, and at the center of each country is god. Religion defines identity and the church is the institution able to give the only true response to the question, “What are you?” Huntington calls this “the revival of religion” (alluding to Gilles Kepel’s notion of la revanche de Dieu), though it would have been more accurate to say “the return of the gods.” Indeed, in such circumstances a coherent monotheism would appear to be little more than a simple relic relating to that old question, “Whose side are you on?”

Huntington bewails the fact that the West is still not fully aware of this new reality and that it continues to “export democracy” to non-Western countries. In this new world of eight civilizations, sovereignty is not defined by the rule of popular representation but by the correspondence of the state to its own political culture, its particular local religion and ethical norms. The regimes of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia purport to follow precisely these very principles. Moreover, if the Islamic world, torn apart by conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis, is not at present in a condition to determine its main kin country, then Orthodox civilization has been more fortunate: it has Russia.

Throughout its existence, the Putin regime has been Huntington’s star pupil. Building up an authoritarian ‘vertical of power’, as early as the mid-2000s, Putin’s administration proclaimed its “sovereign democracy” to be unlike any other democracy, and not at all comparable to other democratic standards by virtue of a distinct Russian political culture. The repressive political regime, clerical rhetoric, obscurantism in cultural life, and military pressure on neighboring countries: all these are only points in the path of a return of a civilization to its true nature. This destiny cannot be altered—it can only be submitted to.

Yet Putin as an authoritarian leader of an aggressive ‘Orthodox civilization’ is a construction not thought up by Putin himself. It is well known that the main self-justification of current Russian politics is only a symmetrical response to Western expansion. 2This ‘symmetry’ was clearly expressed in Putin’s famous “Crimean” speech from 18 March 2014: “I do not like to resort to quotes, but in this case, I cannot help it. Here is a quote from another official document: the Written Statement of the United States America of April 17, 2009, submitted to the same UN International Court in connection with the hearings on Kosovo. […] I quote: ‘Declarations of independence may, and often do, violate domestic legislation. However, this does not make them violations of international law.’ End of quote. They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree and now they are outraged. Over what? The actions of Crimean people completely fit in with these instructions, as it were. For some reason, things that Kosovo Albanians (and we have full respect for them) were permitted to do, Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea are not allowed. Again, one wonders why.” Quoted from: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/20603 (accessed 25 May 2015). And this is also true. The result of the invasive foreign policy of the United States in the last decade—from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe—has been the creation of ideal partners according to the logic of this clash of civilizations. And today each of them, from the Islamic State to Putin’s Orthodox Russia only requires ‘understanding’, a recognition of their special nature and the right to do whatever they like within their natural ‘civilizational borders’.

According to Huntington, it is precisely this conception of civilizations with equal rights that is the only possible guarantee that there will be no global wars. The kin countries should agree among themselves and split the world into eight parts, each with their own god/s and moral values. The religious beliefs of the eight large tribes will always be impenetrable to each other and all that is required is to respect the borders between them.

This image of the future, described in The Clash of Civilizations, has turned into reality before our very eyes in the here and now. The oppressive and mesmerizing force of this image is such that it does not involve any choice. There is no need to answer the question “What are you?” on your own. The answer is given to you by those who stand at the helm of these civilizations and define their borders.

The last twenty years has been a period when the circle of influential decision-makers has been radically narrowed down to a few elite clubs such as the G8. The picture of the world existing in the mind of these people then acquires certain real traits with considerable ease. The world thought up by Huntington became the world in which Putin lives. In order to understand it better, other world leaders migrate to this world, along with the remaining populations who will soon learn to suffer, die, and kill for their gods.

In order not to find oneself in that world it is not enough simply to renounce the need to define one’s own ‘identity’ as a question of principle. One must struggle against the very state of affairs in which the world of one man turns with such ease into the world of everyone else.

Translated by Giuliano Vivaldi