A Clash Or Dialogue Of Civilizations?

Reading Putin’s Valdai Speech

By Anuraag Khaund 

THE speech delivered by Russian President Vladimir Putin on 27 October, 2022 in the Moscow-based think tank Valdai Discussion Club was carefully observed and read by scholars and policymakers worldwide in order to gauge Kremlin’s attitude towards the world at large in the backdrop of the Russia- Ukraine conflict and other geopolitical churns taking place in the international arena. While the speech contained the usual references to the ‘special military operation’ and its instigation because of the actions by the US- led NATO, yet a significant part of the address was also related to the emergence of a new world order and the emergence of many new centres of power challenging the ‘Western Civilization’ which, as per Putin (quoting the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) is ‘characterized by a continuous blindness of superiority’. While rebuking the West or the US- led NATO for ‘its globalization model, neocolonial in essence’ who believes that ‘all vast areas on our planet should develop and develop to the current Western systems’, yet at the same time Putin also gives a hint of reconciliation in his mention of ‘dialogue of civilizations, based on spiritual and moral values’. The aim of the article is to briefly explore whether the speech in Valdai can be interpreted as setting the stage for a new clash or dialogue between civilizations or the West and the Rest.

At the outset, I shall lay out briefly the idea of the ‘clash of civilizations’, first promulgated by American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington in an essay of the same title in 1992. As per Huntington, the conflicts in the Post Cold War era would move from the realm of ideology (liberal democracy vs Communism) to the realm of culture, region or ‘civilization’. As per Huntington’ the ‘civilizational differences’ are ‘products of centuries… and more fundamental than those among political regimes or ideologies’ thereby leading to sharper conflicts which might not be resolved easily. Among the eight broad civilizations outlined by Huntington, the most prominent conflict was the clash between Western (US& Europe) and the Slavic Orthodox (Russia).

The first instance of indication of clash is the mention of the ‘cancel culture’ of the West by Putin which stands in contradiction to the latter’s professed ideals of ‘liberalism and progress’. Along with explicit reference to actions such as the banning of Russian icons like Dostoevsky along other materials related to Russian intellectual and cultural life in Western universities, the ‘cancel culture’ also referred to, as per Putin, the tendency of Western liberalism to ‘mow down everything that is alive and creative, does not allow free thought to develop in any of the areas: neither in economics, nor in politics, nor in culture’. In addition, Putin also accuses the current Western Liberalism of intolerance of ‘other views’ and reaching the ‘point of absurdity, when any alternative point of view is declared as subversive propaganda and threat to democracy’. In other words, through these statements Putin has reiterated the positions often expressed by Russia and now an increasingly assertive China about the need for the West, especially the US to respect other modes and form of authority which are different from liberal democracy. In line with the above position, Putin also blamed the West of the ‘desire to restrain, block the free development of other civilizations’ through ‘simplification’ or the imposition of its own political and economic system over others. This anti- Western sentiment was also predicted by Huntington in 1992 as the revolt of non- Western powers such as Russia and China against the ‘world community’− a phrase, which as per Huntington, ‘has become a euphemism to give legitimacy to the actions of the West’. At the same time, Putin’s accusation of ‘a direct mercantilist interest (capturing non-Western markets)’ driving Western imposition over other regions is in sync with Huntington’s claim that ‘The West… is using international institutions, military power and economic resources to run the world in ways that will maintain Western pre-dominance, protect Western interests and promote Western political and economic values’.

Along with systems, the clash between the West and the rest was also seen in the realm of values in Putin’s speech. As per Putin, the West had lost its ‘creative powers’ or its earlier values leading to ‘positive development’ due to the prevalence of cancel culture as mentioned above. Putin also accuses the West of not following its own liberal ethos of ‘the freedom to say what you want, to do what you want’ by declaring those who did not agree with its ideology as the ‘enemies of open society’. The twin factors of cancel culture and the divergence from liberalism had led to ‘a doctrinal crisis’ in the West which was in confusion and conflict over its own values (claimed by Putin). Against the image of a ‘confused, unitary non-liberal Western civilization’ Putin puts forward the idea of Russia where ‘a culture of interaction’ existed between ‘Christian, Islamic and Jewish values’ without ‘canceling and being respectful to each other’. At the same time, Putin also draws attention to ‘traditional values’ which, as opposed to ‘neoliberal’ or Western values are ‘not fixed set of postulates that everyone must adhere to’ but instead ‘are unique, because they follow from the tradition of a particular society, its culture and historical experience’ and hence cannot be simply imposed on others but ‘must be respected, carefully treated’ as they have been ‘chosen by countries for centuries’. In other words, ‘creative powers’ and ‘true liberalism’ lay not in the ‘unitary and forceful imposition’ of Western neoliberal values but instead in the respect for and interaction between the ‘traditional values’ of all countries. This sentiment is echoed in Putin’s call for a ‘multipolar world’ which ‘presupposes the possibility for any nation… for any society, any civilization to choose its own path, its own socio-political system. Hence, true liberalism or democracy lay in recognizing that ‘if the United States, the EU countries have such a right (to choose liberal democracy and free market systems) then, of course, the countries of Asia, the Islamic states, the monarchies of Persian Gulf and the states of other continents (including Russia) also have this right i.e., the right to choose systems other than those of the West. In this respect, Putin also be seen as claiming that the centre of liberalism has shifted from its birthplace or the West to the non- West or specifically Russia which not only respects the right of other countries to their own traditions and systems but also, unlike the US ‘does not climb into someone else’s ward’ or interferes in the internal matter of other countries.

Putin’s rhetoric takes on a more confrontational approach when he predicts about the West ‘losing its dominance’ and becoming ‘a minority on the world stage’ in the rise of the multipolar world order where Asia, Africa and Latin America will see ‘an increase in their influence’ in the international arena in the coming days. The confrontational attitude of Putin is further underlined by his reference to Eurasia as the continent where ‘the centers of the most ancient civilizations of mankind arose’ and the ‘Western civilization’ constituting only a marginal part of the region. The reference to Eurasia also comes at a time when, as per some experts, Russia has started to view itself as a ‘Eurasian civilization’ with its own unique heritage and culture as opposed to the US- dominated Western civilization− in the Russian perspective, the Asian part or its connections with Central Asia and China have become more stronger than its connection with Western Europe within the ‘Eurasian’ identification of Moscow. The rise of ‘Eurasianism’ in Russian political psyche also sits well with Huntington’s prediction that the end of the Soviet Union and Communism in the 1990s would provide further impetus to the question of ‘Westernization vs Russification’ which would occupy post Cold War Russia, spurned by the US and NATO community.  Putin also highlights the ability and potential of Eurasian region as a ‘self-sufficient complex with gigantic resources and huge opportunities’ and where ‘a majority of the human population is concentrated’ (China, India and Russia) by developing its ‘connectivity, creating new ways and forms of cooperation’ through initiatives such as the One Belt One Road (OBOR), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Interesting to note here is the reference to the OBOR or the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and the SCO− initiatives spearheaded by China, a country who not only has ‘no-limits partnership’ with Russia, but also harbors similar resentment against US led interventionism in world affairs. One might say that Putin envisages Russia along with China leading the Eurasian civilization or civilizations in their struggle against Western hegemony. In addition, Putin also outlines possible ways to counter the Western dominance in economic and technological front by executing bilateral dealings in national currencies (eg the energy dealings between India and Russia in Rupee and Ruble) and by supporting the efforts of other countries to develop their own technological prowess just like the erstwhile Soviet Union which had helped many countries to develop their ‘centres of competence’ by providing aid in the formation of nuclear plants. Such efforts along with the Russian proposal to build more international financial institutions which are ‘depoliticized, automated and not dependent on any single control centre’ as well as ‘creating mechanisms’ fostering a space of interaction between the complementary economies, social systems and infrastructure of different countries, as per Putin, would lead to the creation of a ‘multipolar world order’ based on the ‘true unity of humanity’ without the unitary impositions of the West.

However, a more conciliatory approach is adopted when reference is made to the ‘dialogue of civilizations’ based on moral and spiritual values recognizing the dignity of the human individual (although Putin did not clarify further on these lofty ideas). The conciliation is also re-directed to the antagonist, the ‘Western civilization’ especially the ‘traditional West’ which is based on Christian values, freedom and patriotism – values shared with Russia. From the ‘common values’ mentioned earlier, it might be conjectured that the ‘traditional West’ of Putin might refer to the far-right groups and organisations in Europe and the West which has extended its support to Putin’s efforts against Ukraine. At the same time, Putin also issues a veiled warning in the midst of conciliation by saying that unless the West drop the ‘conviction that Europeans are better than others’ and realize that ‘they (Europe) …have already become someone else’s (US) periphery, have essentially turned into vassals (of the US), they would miss out becoming a part of the ‘Eurasian civilization’ which will fast lead to the birth of a multipolar order.

Huntington ended his essay with the words that ‘for the relevant future, there will be no universal civilization, but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with each other’. This sentiment is also expressed by Putin when he ends his address by advocating the need to ‘listen to everyone, take into account every point of view, nation, society, culture, every system of worldview…’. Yet whether this would lead to the co-existence of the multiple civilizations of Huntington or the ‘multipolar world order’ of Putin is not yet clear. But for the time being, we are indeed witnessing a ‘clash’ between worldviews and ideologies in the backdrop of events such as the Ukraine conflict, Taiwan Strait crisis and the emerging US- China ‘New Cold War’.


Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

  • The author is MA Politics and International Relations (PIR), Central University of Gujarat (CUG)

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