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Is the War in Ukraine a Clash of Civilizations? Not Exactly

U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to Alpha Battery, 3rd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, fire a M109A6 Paladin in support of the joint training exercise Eager Lion ’19 at Training Area 1, Jordan, Aug. 27, 2019. Eager Lion is an annual, multinational training event in its ninth iteration which enables partnered nations to strengthen military relationships and exchange expertise. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Angel Ruszkiewicz)

The Clash of Civilizations Does Not Explain the Ukraine War, or Much of Anything Else – In The New York Times recently Ross Douthat suggested that Samuel Huntington’s famous theory of global politics, the clash of civilizations, could help explain the Ukraine War and other contemporary world conflicts. This is a curious choice because academic international relations theory does not much use the clash of civilizations in research or teaching because it is riddled with conceptual and predictive errors.

It does not, in fact, explain the Ukraine War, and it woefully exaggerates the importance and coherence of ‘civilizations’ as conflict actors.

Modern Conflict is Not Always ‘Civilizational’

The most basic problem with the framework is its insistence that conflict has moved away from political, ideological, territorial, and other sources of competition to civilizational clashes.

Huntington defines civilizations via culture, especially religion, in part because he first worked it up in response to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. There the Serb-Croat-Bosnia split overlapped with an Orthodox-Catholic-Islamic division. And the harshness of that war seemed to justify Huntington’s religious pessimism.

But Huntington then applied this framework to the rest of world politics, where it frequently functions poorly.

In east Asia, conflicts left-over from the Cold War still persist – between China and Taiwan, and between the Koreas. In Ukraine, territorial irredentism – the notion of Ukraine as a fake country that should be re-joined to Russia – motivated Putin’s recent invasion.

The rising competition between China and the United States looks more like a traditional hegemonic contest between a rising challenger and an established leader, rather than a civilizational clash.

Huntington’s ‘Civilizations’ are Highly Contestable

Huntington posits eight civilizations – Western, Latin American, Orthodox, African, Islamic, Hindu, Sinic, and Japanese – and posits conflict among them akin to the Balkan wars which first motivated his argument. Unfortunately, these mega-blocs are not really convincing as a coherent actors or communities acting as one entity.

In east Asia, his scheme breaks down immediately. Huntington’s focus on religion tying regions together means that he should posit a Confucian civilization. And indeed, Confucianism was important in east Asian international politics in the past. But there is no Confucian bloc in East Asia today; even Huntington recognizes that. Particularly, his theory must accommodate Sino-Japanese regional competition. His answer is ad hoc: he carves Japan out as a separate civilization. He then bins China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the two Koreas as ‘Sinic’ civilization.

This is a conceptual mess. If Japan – a country of just 125 million people – can be a separate civilization as an individual country, why not lots of other individual countries? Does it seem accurate to describe Sino-Japanese competition as ‘inter-civilizational’? If China and Taiwan are in the same civilization, why are they not allies or at least partners? Does it make sense to describe the two Koreas as ‘Sinic partners’ under a Chinese regional umbrella? Are China and Vietnam cooperating as a Sinic allies against Islam in southeast Asia? None of this really works, and it does a very poor job explaining the actual inter-state politics of East Asia.

In Africa, Huntington is adrift. He pretty clearly does not know what to do with African states south of the Sahara Desert. So just dumps them in an ‘African’ civilization and moves on. It is lazy and reductionist.

His Islamic civilization elides the Sunni-Shia split – and so has little to say about contemporary politics in the Persian Gulf where that division is the core security issue. Huntington also misses the substantial regional differences between Islam in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia. When Huntington notoriously claimed Islam had ‘bloody borders,’ he was thinking of the Middle East, even though Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world and its Islamic practice is more moderate. While it is true that Gulf Salafist radicals like Osama bin Laden endorsed the clash of civilizations, most Muslims did not. They did not rise up for bin Laden’s civilizational war, which the 9/11 attacks were to spark, undercutting Huntington’s predictions.

His division of Latin America from the West is awkward too. Both share religions, languages, and ideologies descended from Western Europe. It is a stretch to claim their differences are anything as titanic as ‘civilizational.’

The Ukraine War should Not Have Happened according to Huntington

Finally, it is a curious choice by Douthat to revive the clash of civilizations in the context of the Ukraine war where it so obviously fails. Huntington bins Ukraine and Russia together in Orthodox civilization. So they are supposed to cooperate against abutting civilizations like the West and Islam. Yet they are now fighting the most important conflict since the Cold War, and the issues at stake have nothing to do with tribal-religious furies Huntington belabors.

Huntington’s effort was an interesting first cut at explaining the Balkan wars. Unfortunately, he wildly over-extrapolated from it to build a grand theory of global conflict which just does not work well.

Political science almost never teaches it anymore as straight theory, because of the many conceptual problems sketched here and the incorrect predictions which flowed from it.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kellywebsite) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 



  1. Peace-making nukes of US arsenal

    April 5, 2022 at 7:26 pm

    Ukraine is the festering political crisis created by the west, chiefly by US and it’s right-wing allies that think problems should be solved via military means.

    It’s really strange that US must remain overlord of Europe even though WW2 ended over 75 years ago and the wall fell over 30 years ago.

    The mentality is a siege mentality that rules only a military organization like NATO can keep law and order.

    But history has shown troubles all over the world are caused by people with desires to impose themselves on others and this is what NATO has been doing in the 21st century.

    Think of Libya, Syria, Iraq,etc..all military adventures of NATO, and now, ukraine.It is as if civilization is just a facade or a mask and underneath it is truly the real thing, the caveman, who wants to control using his club.

    So to survive, other nations, or ‘civilizations’ must have their own clubs and be prepared to use them. The best club is the nuke, and true to form, the west is imposing sanctions on nations trying to acquire them and hurling all kinds of accusations on those who already have them.

  2. David Chang

    April 5, 2022 at 8:50 pm

    Dr. Kelly, you don’t understand law of God, so you are wrong.

    God bless all people.

    But Clausewitz inherits Kant’s atheism.

    Clausewitz’s thought of war violate law of God, so he is wrong. And what people say about reason or rational, including Clausewitz’s rational, is valuation, not moral judgment.

    Therefore, Clausewitz quoted in this article is an accounting analysis of government, not whether the war should obey God’s law, justice.

    Because, it’s accounting analysis, people are divided by value, and Hitler and Marx think so.

    Adolf Hitler think that certain people is valuable animal,
    Karl Marx think that some people is worthless and therefore have to get more value from valuable people.

    Clausewitz, Hitler, and Marx, violate God’s law, speak the same wrong thought, and they say it is theory.

    Therefore, Russia President Vladimir Putin is rational. Because of rationality, the action of nuclear weapons is a calculated analysis of income and expenditure, not moral judgment.

    So, rational is the thought of Putin, Truman and Oppenheimer.

  3. Jacky

    April 6, 2022 at 3:29 pm

    Indeed, Putin is rational. He repeated enough warnings for many years, but west ignored them and what they only did was to further ridicule and provoke Russia.

    Western warships, submarines and aeroplanes (even drones over Crimea which were never reported by western media) almost ceaselessly probe and intrude into Russian territorial waters and airspace resulting in several incidents like the one that involved the USS Donald Cook and a su-24 warplane in 2014.

    Nobody made a grumble when in the same year, US-backed battalions employed massive heavy firepower against the Donbass region, almost crushing them until the battalions were heavily defeated at Ilovoysk.

    Today, as the ukraine fighting goes on, western countries are trying to outdo one another in sending weapons, instead of organising peace negotiations or ceasefire.

    Today, there’s no kissinger in the west, so no realpolitik, no detente, no Paris peace talks, no moderation, no peace, only war and confrontation and a deadly new arms race this time involving space and hypersonics.

  4. Omega 13

    April 7, 2022 at 5:44 pm

    Putin is a clown, Alex.

    As for civilizations, how do you define the “African” one? Diesel-powered corruptocracies?

  5. Alex

    April 7, 2022 at 7:14 pm

    Omega: Idiot, I didn’t even post here. Am I haunting your dreams?
    The Anglo-Saxons want to try what their ancestors failed to do. Try it again. I am sure that Russia will no longer accept capitulation or kneeling apologies. Russia will simply destroy all the invaders. This can be seen even by what society in Russia is ready for. And the authorities in Russia are ready for anything.

  6. Alex

    April 8, 2022 at 4:54 am

    Onyx missiles destroyed a mercenary training center near Odessa.
    The armed forces of the Russian Federation destroyed a collection and training center for foreign mercenaries near Odessa with high-precision missiles from the Bastion coastal complex.
    The Russian Armed Forces destroyed the weapons and military equipment of the reserves of the Ukrainian troops in the Donetsk region with high-precision air-launched missiles.
    High-precision air-launched missiles in the Donetsk region at the railway stations of Pokrovsk, Slavyansk, Barvenkovo ​​destroyed the weapons and military equipment of the reserves of Ukrainian troops that arrived in the Donbass.
    It became known about the impossibility of escaping from Mariupol instructors from the US, Britain, Germany, Norway. After unsuccessful three attempts to evacuate, they ask Russia for a green corridor. Among them, Lieutenant General of the US Army, head of the Allied Land Command, Roger Cloutier.

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