Putin Wants a Clash of Civilizations. Is ‘The West’ Falling for It?

Amid the point-blank horror of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the expanding war zone in Europe seems to have become a comfort zone for much of America’s political establishment. In his State of the Union address, President Biden declared that in the face of Vladimir Putin’s aggression, “we see a more unified Europe, a more unified West”. He is correct. Polish nationalists and E.U. bureaucrats are sudden brothers in arms. Back at home, Republicans and Democrats have put aside differences on climate change and voting rights for an enemy who appears to have emerged from Cold War central casting: An evil empire is again on the march in Europe.

Russia’s invasion has also provided the geopolitical equivalent of CPR for NATO. Washington’s perennial requests that Europeans pay their share for the security organization that defends them has been met with an unprecedented vote in Germany to increase its country’s military budget and its contribution to the alliance. Turkey — for years a rogue member of NATO that bought arms from and forged tactical alliances with Mr. Putin — has returned to the fold as a member in good standing, having supplied the Bayraktar drones that have reportedly frustrated Russia’s forces, and closed the Bosporus and the Dardanelles Straits to war ships.

The unification in Europe that Mr. Biden speaks of is certainly real, but in a cruel paradox, European cohesion appears achievable only by further binding itself to the mast of American power and prerogatives. The idea of a geopolitically autonomous Europe acting independently of the United States — a vision historically dear to the French — is rapidly becoming unutterable. Although the fact sometimes fails to register in Washington, Europeans live in Europe and assess their threats differently from their American security providers, who are 5,000 miles from Moscow. The more Europe and America conflate their security interests, the less Europe can develop its own place in the world and play the mediator between the United States and rival powers.

Putin Wants a Clash of Civilizations. Is ‘The West’ Falling for It?
Illustration by Zak Tebbal; photographs by Shana Novak and Ted Ellis, via Getty Images

But the greater problem is that “the West”, unified and committed to fighting authoritarianism as it claims to be, is itself showing signs of sharing Mr. Putin’s highly confected logic of civilizational identity and conflict. The result may be an escalatory contest in which each adversary dares the other to believe that its inflated, civilizational identity is — existentially — on the line.

That’s because Mr. Putin’s aggression has also revived another idea that was struggling of late: Western civilization. In a notable speech in Poland in 2017, Donald Trump tried hard to revive the idea of the defense of Western civilization, but for Western liberals they were more hollow words from a man who questioned NATO’s existence. Now talk of the West is back, and its accompanying terms, “the free world” and “Western civilization”, have been called up for active duty.

One of the striking things about Western civilization is that as an idea it is not particularly old. It came to the fore during World War I, when the fight against Germany and its allies — the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires — was conceived by Anglophone liberals as a war of Western civilization against Eastern despotism. John Maynard Keynes, a cosmopolitan liberal, was convinced there was a civilizational gulf even between Germans and Anglo-Saxons, while the Russians, though allied with the West, were well beyond the pale of Western modernity. In the wake of World War I, courses on Western civilization began to be taught at elite American universities.

By the onset of the Cold War, the term “free world” supplanted “the West” because American power demanded a more globally inclusive banner that could rally South Vietnamese, Indonesians and others in the war on Communist “slave societies”. After the Cold War, however, conservative American thinkers, such as Samuel Huntington, revived the idea of Western civilization as a way of dramatizing how a set of values was now under siege from new threats: migrants, terrorists and moral relativists.

The end of the Cold War was supposed to dissolve the East-West division. No one assumed this more than Mr. Putin himself, who was once keen to join the club of the West. When he first came to power at the turn of the century, he played with the idea of Russia joining NATO, which itself was miraculously not rendered obsolete by the disappearance of its raison d’être, the Soviet Union. “When are you going to invite us to join NATO?” Mr. Putin reportedly asked the alliance’s secretary general, George Robertson, in 2000. When Mr. Robertson explained that the club had an application process, Mr. Putin rebuffed him: “Well, we’re not standing in line with a lot of countries that don’t matter”.

It was still imaginable in that period that the European Union, too, could one day include Russia. At the end of the Cold War, President François Mitterand of France even floated the idea of a new organization — a European Confederation — that would pointedly include Soviet Russia, but not the United States. During his first years in power, Mr. Putin was viewed positively by Western politicians and journalists. Thomas L. Friedman of The Times advised his readers to “keep rootin’ for Putin” in 2001, while Madeleine Albright called him a “can-do person”, and Bill Clinton deemed him someone “the United States can do business with”.

Mr. Clinton was perhaps more correct than he knew. The transactional attitude he identified appeared to be the key to understanding Russia’s president. Mr. Putin had inherited a very particular vision of what the West actually was. For him, it was, according to Gleb Pavlovsky, a former close aide, synonymous with the liberal capitalist order, which he understood in terms of Soviet caricature: It meant tolerating oligarchs, privatizing state industries, paying and accepting bribes, hollowing out state capacity and having some semblance of power-sharing. Mr. Putin thought his predecessors Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin had failed because they failed to understand this.

Mr. Putin himself acted like a savvy applicant to the West in many respects. He gamely signed on to the “global war on terror”, later allowing the United States to use his bases for the war in Afghanistan, and extinguished a “terrorist” insurgency at home. Since coming to power, Mr. Putin has also made Moscow into a paragon of fiscal rectitude, and, according to the former aide, he explored the idea of installing an American-style two-party system in Russia.

But as the economy Mr. Putin presided over threatened to crash in a state-stripping bonanza, he tried to shore up the state sector and turned to increasingly authoritarian measures at home. As former Warsaw Pact countries welcomed NATO expansion, he shifted to a more civilizational understanding of Russia’s place in the world, one based on “Eastern” values: the Orthodox Church, patriarchal chauvinism, anti-homosexuality edicts, as well as a notion of a greater ethnic Russian identity whose ancient wellspring is inconveniently Kyiv, Ukraine. Protesters such as Pussy Riot and others who struck directly at this neo-civilizational image came in for swift retribution.

Mr. Putin’s turn reflected a broader phenomenon of authoritarian-led liberalizing economies trying to fill an empty ideological space that seemed poised to be filled by Western idolatry. In China, too, in the late 2000s, there was a turn to a civilizational understanding in Beijing, where dutiful readers of Mr. Huntington have spread notions of Chinese civilization in the forms of global Confucius Institutes or a program for “cultural self-confidence”, and which President Xi Jinping today expresses in his elliptical “thought”.

Turkey, too, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has pushed a vision of a neo-Ottoman sphere stretching from North Africa to Central Asia, which is a direct repudiation of Ataturk’s more bounded vision of Turkish nationalism. More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has revived ideas about Hindu supremacy, glorifying his nation’s ancient past — Hindustan is his Kyivan Rus — and using it as a bludgeon against his opponents. The turn to civilizational imagining provides a useful lever for ruling elites who want to suppress other forms of solidarity, whether class, regional or ecologically based, and to restrict the attractions of cosmopolitanism for their economic elites.

For all the talk about how Ukraine is — despite whatever losses on the battlefield — winning the P.R. war, there is a sense in which Mr. Putin has already won at another level of framing the conflict. The more we hear about the resolve of the West, the more the values of a liberal international order appear like the provincial set of principles of a particular people, in a particular place.

Of the 10 most-populous countries in the world, only one — the United States — supports major economic sanctions against Russia. Indonesia, Nigeria, India and Brazil have all condemned the Russian invasion, but they do not seem prepared to follow the West in its preferred countermeasures. Nor do non-Western states appear to welcome the kind of economic disruptions that will result from, as Senator Rob Portman phrased it, “putting a noose on the Putin economy”. North Africa and the Middle East rely on Russia for basics from fertilizer to wheat; Central Asian populations rely on its remittances. Major disruptions to these economic networks seem unlikely to relieve Ukrainian suffering.

Although they have been remarkably effective at starving Iraqi, Iranian and now Afghan children while satisfying the American appetite for moral aggrandizement, modern economic sanctions have rarely curbed any regime’s behavior. The lack of enthusiasm around the world for the West training its economic weapon on Russia indicates that the rest of the world is concerned not only about wider economic immiseration but also about the global escalation of a conflict between two “civilizations” that share the preponderance of the world’s nuclear weapons between them.

Mr. Putin himself came to power atop the rubble of Russia’s 1990s economic chaos. It would be rash to think that out of the new economic chaos inflicted, a phoenix to the liking of the West will rise.

Thomas Meaney teaches at Humboldt University in Berlin and writes regularly about U.S. foreign policy, international relations and history in the London Review of Books, The New Yorker and elsewhere.

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