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Ukraine and the Clash of Civilizations

Image credit: Presidential Office of Ukraine

By William S. Smith

The following piece originally appeared in The National Interest in May 2020. IPD is reprinting it with permission from the author.

Editor’s Note: The rawness and tragedy of war often reinforce a tendency to discount longstanding historical and cultural cleavages for a narrow focus on strategy and battle tactics, but a proper realism must be conscious of the milieu of conflict. Awareness of the complex history that gives rise to conflict strengthens the hand of diplomacy.

The hawkish think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) recently warned that Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to “advance his strategic objectives in Ukraine.” That ISW would focus on a nation that is largely irrelevant to American national interests and do so even in the midst of a terrible pandemic in the homeland is representative of the more general myopia of the American national security community. This myopia betrays a deeply flawed understanding of how the world order would be shaped at the end of the Cold War.

Consider just a few examples of how American leaders fumbled certain specific challenges at the end of the Cold War. When the first post–Cold War conflagration ignited in the former Yugoslavia, U.S. policymakers insisted that this artificial state be held together despite the intense ethnic and religious aspirations among the three major components of that fake country. The U.S. policy that emerged toward China was one of “constructive engagement,” naively assuming that the leader of a competing civilization with competing interests would want to Westernize. As Samuel Huntington pointed out, the Chinese believe that their “economic success is largely a product of Asian culture which is superior to that of the West, which is culturally and socially decadent.” In maybe the worst blunder of the post–Cold War period, the United States assumed that once Iraqis had been saved from a dictatorial regime they would rally to the flag of democracy, disregard centuries of ethnic and religious tensions and quickly embrace Western rights, values and outlooks.

What all these blunders have in common is the neglect of Samuel Huntington’s insight that the post–Cold War world was arranging itself along ethnic, religious and civilizational lines. Nations were throwing off artificial Cold War alliances and rallying around common historical ties. We should have been able to predict that Turkey would gravitate into the Islamic world and away from NATO’s interests, or that Orthodox Greece would be one of the most troublesome members of the European Union, or that Muslim Chechnya would seek independence from Orthodox Russia. As Huntington wrote, “In the post–Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural.”

U.S. policy toward Russia has suffered deeply from failure to understand what most motivates the action of groups. Francis Fukuyama, who spoke for much of the foreign policy establishment, argued in 1989 that post–Cold War Russia was trending toward a political system in which “the ‘people’ should be truly responsible for their own affairs, the higher political bodies should be answerable to the lower ones, and not vice versa, and that the rule of law should prevail over arbitrary police actions, with separation of powers and an independent judiciary.” For many Western thinkers, it seemed inconceivable that Russia would choose the retrograde course of returning to its authoritarian and Orthodox roots.

Since Huntington’s insights and predictions were far more prescient than Fukuyama’s and those of many others, the U.S. foreign policy establishment should have heeded his advice when the crisis in Ukraine emerged. But, it did not.

Huntington predicted the crisis in Ukraine. His theory that nations would return to their historical and cultural roots had a natural corollary: nations that were divided between civilizations, so-called “cleft” countries, were the places that would most likely generate great-power conflict. Consider that, in the former Yugoslavia, the United States, Germany, Russia and prominent Islamic nations all lined up to support different proxies in the conflict according to shared civilizational commonalities.

By Huntington’s civilizational standard, Ukraine is a severely cleft country, divided internally along historical, geographic and religious lines, with western Ukraine firmly in the European corner and eastern Ukraine and Crimea firmly in the orbit of Orthodox Russia. Even though it was published years before the 2013 Ukrainian crisis, Huntington’s most famous book, The Clash of Civilizations, is rife with warnings about the dangers of the Ukrainian situation and predicts that Ukraine “could split along its fault line into two separate entities, the eastern of which would merge with Russia. The issue of secession first came up with respect to Crimea.”

As Huntington was the most sagacious observer of the most likely changes in the post–Cold War world order, we should carefully heed his advice on how to manage tinderboxes like Ukraine. Many casual readers of Huntington wrongly interpreted his thought and focused excessively on the word “clash” in the title of the book. They argue that Huntington advocated that the West clash with other civilizations to defend itself. A number of thinkers confused Huntington’s “clash” with Bernard Lewis’s thesis that militant Islam would spark a global clash between Islam and the West.

Huntington, in fact, warned emphatically against provoking the Islamic world and argued for caution and diplomacy in cleft countries such as Ukraine. He was adamantly opposed to crusading democracy promotion as a core component of U.S. foreign policy. On this subject, he wrote, “The principal responsibility of Western leaders, consequently, is not to attempt to reshape other civilizations in the image of the West, which is beyond their declining power, but to preserve, protect and renew the unique qualities of Western civilization.”

Huntington argued that most civilizational blocs emerging in the post–Cold War world would have natural leaders, what he called “core states.” Sinic civilization would be led by China, Orthodox civilization by Russia, and Western civilization by the United States. Since the Islamic world has no natural leader, a struggle for leadership would take place between Sunni and Shia and between the leading nations of the Middle East such as Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

These core states are key to managing the challenges that would emerge in cleft nations such as Ukraine. Rather than sponsoring a proxy war in Ukraine and risking a bigger war, the leaders of the core states need to step back and acknowledge that both Russia and the West have legitimate claims in Ukraine and that a diplomatic solution is the only path forward. Whether that solution is a partition of Ukraine, a federation where the aspirations of both parts of the country are respected, or some other compromise—only sincere efforts at diplomacy on the part of Russia and the United States can solve this problem.

As the ISW paper illustrates, American policy toward Ukraine has been the opposite of what Huntington would have advised. It has been a crusading democracy promotion that led to a U.S.-backed coup d’état in Kiev, a refusal to recognize any legitimate Russian interests in Crimea and eastern Ukraine despite their deep historic ties, and the sponsorship of a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, the goals of which are unclear.

As America is ravaged by a pandemic and its consequences, the American people are going to be far less willing to tolerate a meddling, universalistic U.S. foreign policy in parts of the world having little connection to our interests. The way forward is the Huntington model of recognizing the legitimate interests of other civilizational regions, combined with genuine U.S. diplomacy as the leading tool of American foreign policy.

Dr. William S. Smith is the author of Democracy and Imperialism published by the University of Michigan Press.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor