In the article “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Between Ethics and Self-Interest,” Ziya Önis argues that understanding Turkey’s response to popular uprisings in the Middle East is predicated on the tension between Turkey’s foreign policy mired in ethical rhetoric and the careful negotiation of its economic and strategic interests. The era immediately preceding the Arab Spring saw a rise in Turkish economic and diplomatic ties in the Middle East that hinged on a jargon-based set of principles from the AK Ruling Party. These principles put forth during a period of relative peace and stability, could not predict the uncertainty that would come with the uprisings in 2011 and, as such, were greatly tested as events in the region developed. While Önis provides a provocative argument in accounting for Turkish backpedaling and light-treading in terms of how to act in the cases of Libya and Syria, the article does not move beyond the period in which it was published: 2012. Since the time of this publication, the rise of ISIS in the region has presented another unique challenge to numerous key foreign policy concepts for the Turkish administration and arguably has exposed the government’s lofty liberalist rhetoric as contradictory and relatively empty of meaning in terms of actions regarding the extremist Islamic State organization. Looking at A Dictionary of Turkish Foreign Policy in the AK Party Era: A Conceptual Map, I will examine key terminology used in Turkish foreign policy, how these concepts were problematized in the cases of Libya and Syria during the Arab Spring and how they continue to be problematic for Turkey in the era of ISIS.

With regards to policies aimed at Libya and Syria, Önis cites the key dilemma confronting the Turkish as being “whether to encourage reform (especially in the Syrian case) by putting pressure on the ruling authoritarian elites or support rising opposition movements, which started to seriously challenge the existing regimes.” (46) For the Turkish, this would bring together several contradictory concepts that had emerged in the era prior to the Arab Spring and that had helped to usher in the “new” rhetorical era of the AK Party. On the one hand, the Party was espousing the principles of Zero Problems with Neighbours, (meaning the resolution of existing conflicts, equal security, economic integration, political cooperation and a relationship through security, stability and mutual development), economic interdependence (to promote stability and diplomacy as the first stop in conflict resolution), win-win policies that would promote more peace and cooperation, and finally, partaking in their own version of the greater Middle East project to facilitate democratic development in Muslim countries (Yesiltas, Balci,14,18,20, 30). On the other hand, despite these active foreign policy standards, the Turkish also wanted to promote security for all which meant that no external partner was an enemy, regardless of their religious or cultural background, as well as a hands-off approach that respected national autonomy (Ibid, 21). In the case of Libya, this hands-off approach made the Turkish reluctant to act “as an active force for regime change,” particularly because the two countries were intimately tied in terms of trade and investment (Önis 52). Deposing Muammar Qaddafi would threaten those interests, the economic interdependence of the two countries, and would deal a blow to the “zero problems” policy. Furthermore, despite the calls for democracy in Libya being particularly in line with Turkish rhetorical interests, the NATO initiative would undermine the peaceful cooperation and soft power diplomacy that Turkey wanted to employ as part of their political model. As a result, though Turkey technically signed off on the British- and French-led NATO initiative, it did so reluctantly, after much foreign criticism and, finally, in a passive manner.

In the case of Syria, Önis points out that prior to the Arab Spring and conflict, the relations between the two countries represented a kind of Golden Age in the AK Party era for increased trade relations, a permeable border and a shared cultural affinity. However, the uprisings against the Assad government and the rise in violence between the government and its populous put Turkey in a precarious position. Should they continue with their interests in Syria and implore Assad to reform for the sake of short-term economic stability? Where the AK Party foreign policy concepts of soft power, rhythmic and shuttle diplomacy, mediation and facilitation, as well as being a model country, would all lend themselves well to reconciling issues in Syria, these efforts were not successful (Yesiltas, Balci). According to Önis, support for Assad waned as it became apparent that he would neither reform, nor would he stop the escalation in violence against opposition groups in the country. Turkey has since taken to openly supporting anti-Assad fighters in Syria[1] and the relations between the two countries are all but destroyed.

The rise of ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Libya has presented yet another unique challenge to Turkey’s lofty ideals in terms of AK Party foreign policy. Arguably, the brutal human rights violations, extreme violence and seizure of national resources across the region would make ISIS a target for Turkish condemnation. However, the sheer power of ISIS and its swift rise has made concepts of pre-emptive, proactive and vision-oriented diplomacy on the part of a Turkey relatively moot points. In a contradictory fashion, Turkey has actually started supporting and supplying ISIS in their endeavours throughout key geostrategic points in the Middle East[2]. Seen as contrary to many liberal democratic and secular principles, the support of ISIS is an activity that can actually be somewhat accounted for in the AK Party dictionary of foreign policy concept terms – something very disturbing, to say the least. Despite Turkish assurances of their refusal to deal with ISIS[3], principles of security for all (regardless of background), maximum regional cooperation, the emphasis on creating a basin of peace through soft power would necessitate engaging with ISIS eventually, on equal terms, despite terror tactics, authoritarianism, human rights violations and so forth. This might help explain Turkey’s reluctance to engage with ISIS in a military sense (despite having the second most powerful military in the NATO grouping and arguably some of the post imminent reasons to prevent the spread of ISIS) and might also explain the lack of policing and enforcement for the restriction of ISIS oil as it is “smuggled” into Turkey for global exportation across the still-permeable Syrian border[4]. It is not my opinion that this is desired or intentional but rather that the political rhetoric associated with the AK Party era in Turkey has created a situation in which Turkey is bound to respond as a key global actor but is bound by how they deal with regional threats and conflicts in a very particular way.

In conclusion, key facets of Turkish foreign policy under continuing AK Party leadership have been problematized in light of mass disturbances to the region of the Middle East. These have lead to negotiations, reversals and sometimes blatant contradictions of Turkish diplomatic principles. In the future, issues regarding the hypocrisy of idealistic foreign policy principles in light of continuing humanitarian problems with regards to domestic politics will need to be discussed.

Sources Cited/Referenced

Tony Cartalucci. “”Islamic State” (ISIS) Supply Lines, Influx of Fighters and Weapons Protected by Turkey in Liaison with NATO.” Global Research: Centre for Research on Globalisation. 29 Nov. 2014. Web.

Klein, Aaron. “Turkey ‘providing Direct Support’ to ISIS.” WND Politics. 9 Oct. 2014. Web. <;.

Vali Nasr, “Iran, Turkey’s New Ally?” The New York Times, December 29, 2013

Ziya Onis, “ Turkey and the Arab Spring: Between Ethics and Self-Interest,” Insight Turkey, Vo. 14, No. 3, Summer 2012, pp. 45-63.

Liam Stack, “In Slap at Syria, Turkey Shelters Anti-Assad Fighters,” The New York Times,

October 27, 2011.

Sara Westfall. “ISIS Energy Security.” Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. 26 Dec. 2014. Web. <;.

Murat Yesiltas and Ali Balci, “A Dictionary of Turkish Foreign Policy in the AK Party Era: A Conceptual Map,” SAM Papers, No. 7, Center for Strategic Research, May 2013, pp. 1-35.

“‘IS’ Supply Channels through Turkey | All Media Content | DW.DE | 26.11.2014.” DW.DE. Web. <;.

“UBCMUN IPC – ISIS Convoy Captured Carrying Equipment Manufactured in Turkey.” UBCMUN IPC. Russian Times, 10 Jan. 2015. Web. <—isis-convoy-captured-carrying-equipment-manufactured-in-turkey.html&gt;.

“Turkey Deals with Iraq, Not with ISIS, Says Energy Minister.” DailySabah. 11 Aug. 2014. Web. <;.


[1] Liam Stack, “In Slap at Syria, Turkey Shelters Anti-Assad Fighters,” The New York Times,

October 27, 2011.

[2] Cartalucci, Tony. “”Islamic State” (ISIS) Supply Lines, Influx of Fighters and Weapons Protected by Turkey in Liaison with NATO.” Global Research: Centre for Research on Globalisation. 29 Nov. 2014. Web.; “‘IS’ Supply Channels through Turkey | All Media Content | DW.DE | 26.11.2014.” DW.DE. Web. <;.; Klein, Aaron. “Turkey ‘providing Direct Support’ to ISIS.” WND Politics. 9 Oct. 2014. Web. <;. “UBCMUN IPC – ISIS Convoy Captured Carrying Equipment Manufactured in Turkey.” UBCMUN IPC. Russian Times, 10 Jan. 2015. Web. <—isis-convoy-captured-carrying-equipment-manufactured-in-turkey.html&gt;.

[3] “Turkey Deals with Iraq, Not with ISIS, Says Energy Minister.” DailySabah. 11 Aug. 2014. Web. <;.

[4] Westfall, Sara. “ISIS Energy Security.” Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. 26 Dec. 2014. Web. <;.

13418%20-%20human-rights-1In Mohammed Ayoob’s chapter on “Making Sense of Global Tensions” in Towards the Dignity of Difference? Neither End of History nor Clash of Civilizations, the author offers a structural theory of international relations that defines nations as either subaltern or hegemonic, depending on their level of development, nationhood and a number of other definitive variables. This model is meant to offer understanding about a number of tense issues in the Middle East, including the Israeli occupation of Palestine, problems surrounding nuclear proliferation and disenchantment or ineffectiveness of humanitarian intervention efforts. Ayoob points out that the development of the states and building the nation in Western powers occurred over a much longer period without the international pressure of human rights and justice normativity imposed on them. This is unlike the modern subaltern states which must compress these processes into a shorter period of time while complying with stringent international law that threatens its sovereignty and thus progress at any time. This historical divide, as well as a division in current priorities between the two groups, has two results: the potential loss of autonomy for struggling subaltern states and, by extension, their very statehood, and secondly, a deep chasm in perspectives between those in the periphery and the core which continuously hampers negotiations and mutual understanding. In this paper, I will look at two examples provided by Ayoob –Iran and the bomb, and the state of Israel – to see how well this model applies, as well as touching on some situations that are perhaps not as well explained by this theory. In the end, no theory is perfect, but by looking at its drawbacks, we might better be able to see its value.

In terms of the issue of nuclear proliferation, nowhere is it so hotly debated as in the question of whether or not Iran should have nuclear development, or the bomb. Ayoob notes that the divide in the debate falls along the subaltern-hegemonic divide as there is “more than an undercurrent of sympathy for Iran amongst the developing countries…” especially in the face of Western hypocrisy about Israel’s possession of the bomb and suspicion over the “real” motives of American policymakers after the doublespeak by the Obama administration over the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissle Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). (Ayoob 416-17) In fact, throughout his argument, Ayoob notes that the main issue surrounding subaltern-hegemonic cooperation is the apparent hypocrisy of Western powers in dealing with such issues – preferring to support their interests, rather than universally applicable principles. In fact, these loyalties go so far as to hamper the achievement of the West’s lofty, liberal goals by clouding Western vision about realities surrounding Iran getting the bomb: that it would actually lead to nuclear balancing, stability and likely peace in the Middle East, at least tenuously. (Waltz, 2012)

The same argument is made about the continued Israeli occupation of Palestine, largely upheld by the West, including the fact that Israel (hypocritically) has the bomb, and that Western powers preaching the importance of universal humanitarian intervention, failed to do so numerous times in the case of Gaza – most recently in the summer of 2014. A reciprocal continued distrust between the Western hegemonies like the US and subaltern countries effectively halts any consensus on these crucial issues. To a certain degree, Ayoob argues that this is due to opposing priorities between the two groups, namely that of domestic/international order versus domestic/international justice. (see Ayoob 408-10)

As provocative and appealing as this construct is, does it explain other, equally important, issues in international politics as it pertains to the Middle East? In an article looking at the geostrategic significance of the Arab Spring, Ayoob notes that Saudi Arabia, in the post-Revolution period, is unlikely to exert any regional influence because of its place as an American ally, its poor organization and its overreliance on cash to effect change (Ayoob 89). However, I think that Ayoob underestimates the power of Saudi Arabia in effecting international economies and thereby effecting geopolitics because of its vast share of oil reserves and centrality in the world economy. Whether they accomplish this on their own or at the behest of their American allies is not relevant. It is likely, however, that in the subaltern/hegemonic model, that developing nations will see KSA as a patsy for its allies, a tool in the hypocritical hegemonic machine.

Additionally, there are a few areas that this model perhaps does not illuminate very well. Intra-hegemonic arguments are not found in this paradigm – most notably in the division between America and Israel over the continued and increased illegal settlements of Palestinian territories and over the Iran nuclear situation. Additionally, inter-hegemonic disputes can alter international diplomacy and actions of core powers – particularly when facing public pressure back home and particularly when that public pressure is increasingly sympathetic to subaltern issues such as national sovereignty or indirect support of autonomy through non-interventionist sentiments. Significant internal demographic shifts tend to be lost in a state-structuralist model. Though Ayoob alludes to the global tensions precipitating an increase in terrorism as grassroots extremism gains more popularity from increasing disefranchised and suspicious subaltern populations, his chapter predates the incredible successes of the ultra-extremist terrorist group, ISIS. As a non-nation entity that is gaining vast territories, resources and increased influence, it is not completely clear where they fit in the subaltern-hegemonic model: are they a byproduct of global disparity and tensions? Are they an example of Ayoob’s messy nation-building historical model? Are their atrocities the price a future, genuine Islamic State will pay for distinct nationhood? I highly doubt that Ayoob intended the endpoint of his argument or model to be a condonation of actions from groups like ISIS, but it’s hard not to read it that way particularly when he notes horrific atrocities such as indigenous population genocides, slavery and racism, and the Nazi Holocaust as part of the “very strong illiberal and un-secular beginnings” of today’s modern, Western and secular states. (412) His deterministic outlook, coupled with an emphasis placed on the way modern human rights models hinder nation-building would set off red flags in most peoples’ minds, particularly in the age of ISIS. Where Ayoob might redeem himself, is in his hope for the reforming of the UN Security Council into a more equitable and more effective “Humanitarian Council” – something even he admits might be too optimistic but seems like the only viable option for honest international relations and the genuine protection of human rights going forward. (415)

To conclude, what can be learned from this model of international relations: the Subaltern and Hegemonic model? For starters, it gives students of international relations some insight into why perspectives tend to be similar among states at similar stages of development. It might also lend some insight into their tendency towards specific priorities over those of the hegemonic powers. Like any theory, it cannot account for all phenomena that might run contradictory to it or might exist outside of this paradigm: inter and intra-stratum conflict or disputes, as well as the increasing influence of non-state forces like ISIS which force subaltern or hegemonic powers to cooperate (or at least communicate the idea of cooperation), even when ultimately suspicious of one another because of differing stratum positioning. Ultimately, it is a realist-esque approach that holds hope for liberal ideologies, as long as honesty and equitable dialogue are at the forefront of international relations, rather than state or regional interests. Whether or not this hope is futile is another story.

Sources Referenced/ Cited

Mohammed Ayoob, “Making sense of global tensions: dominant and subaltern conceptions of order and justice in the international system,” in M. Mahdavi and A. Knight, eds. Towards the Dignity of Difference? Neither End of History nor Clash of Civilizations (Ashgate, 2012), 407-18.

Mohammed Ayoob, “The Arab Spring: its Geostrategic Significance,” Middle East Policy, Vol. XIX, No. 3, Fall 2012, pp. 84-97.

Kenneth N. Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: nuclear balancing would mean stability” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2012.

ir-truthIn An Introduction to International Relations Theory: Perspectives and Themes, Steans et al. use the second half of the text to illuminate trends in IR Theory that have followed the “classic” schools of liberalism, realism, structuralism and its more recent neo-variations. Their attention focused on the origins, assumptions and criticisms of Critical Theory, Postmodernism and Social Constructivism. Further reading of Siba Grovogui’s chapter on Postcolonialism in International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity helped to make clear the content and criticisms of Postcolonial theory, particularly in practice by using the case studies of the NATO intervention in Libya (2011) and the Suez Canal Crisis (1956). In this paper, I will briefly summarize these named theories before critically analyzing each and seeking to elaborate on criticisms of both the theories and their depictions in these texts. It should be noted that the depth of each of these theories and the possibility for criticism of them, coupled with the spatial constrictions of this paper, necessitates a survey of each that is, at best, elementary.

Critical Theory, while having its roots in early humanistic Marxism, differentiates itself from structuralism by emphasizing the importance of ideas, culture, communication and, in some cases, dialogue, to effect and shape social practices. This process is reciprocal. Particular emphasis was placed on their understanding of knowledge as an ideological method for pursuing interests and how Critical Theorists thus believe that ideology, along with cultural activities, is one of the first points of offering change for the better – for which they still retain hope. International relations then, for Critical Theorists, represents the struggle between social groups – some representing the status quo and others representing ideological change through political and cultural action. Critical Theorists, while maintaining the crucial impact of modernity and global capitalism on the individual’s self-identification and the increasingly complex division of labour, are highly wary of the dark side of modernity which gave rise to means-end rationality, the dispensability of the human subject and the unprecedented violence of the 20th century (perhaps previewing the fear of Postmodernists as well). Finally, Critical Theorists like Gramsci and Habermas of the Frankfurt School recognize hegemonic forces (ruling groups that legitimize their power through ideology and set the parameters of public discourse) and the centrality of communication in shaping consciousness. Followers of Habermas emphasize an idealized form of speech in which open dialogue between opposing factions or hegemonic powers and their oppressed subjects would result in a cooperative and empathetic understanding of one another.

Criticisms of Critical Theory revolve around those who are named as Gramscians and those who follow Habermas. The former group seems to privilege class at the expense of other inequalities that affect social relations in crucial and quantifiable ways. The latter are criticized for what is viewed as an inherently flawed dialogic model. Firstly, there is unequal access given to various social groups in terms of offering voice to their needs, resulting in underrepresentation, particularly for those who need it most. Secondly, the ideal speech model may be too optimistic that empathy and communication would result in the tangible effects of properly redistributing wealth from the rich. A more general criticism of Critical Theory is that it is Universalist because it claims that, by definition, all humans desire the CT form of emancipation. However, emancipation presupposes a particular form of moral correctness and just society which is neither culturally sensitive nor seems to represent much beyond the Western middle class desires. Perhaps one of the most provocative criticisms is that Critical Theorists assert that our understanding of reality is “always mediated through ideas and concepts” (Steans, 127) – both of which are impossible to quantify and trace empirically: an issue that positivists would find insurmountable as a basis for understanding “reality”.

Postmodernism is presented in admittedly simplistic terms as only one of the most disparate and esoteric theories could be. It is said to have arisen out the criticisms of the Enlightenment (in contrast to liberalism and some Critical Theory which uphold the era as an important age for the progress of man through rationalism and science) and disaffected minority groups that arose in the protesting age of the 1960s. Anti-Universalist to its core, Postmodernism is focused on opposing grand narratives and theories while upholding criticism as the penultimate human activity. Postmodernists admit that reality is always socially constructed and that, thus, rightness and wrongness are empty values that offer no Truth about the human condition. In fact, they go so far as to say that any such truths no only do not exist, but that by upholding them, you necessarily create an Other who will be, under this political construction, oppressed for their difference.

The authours of the text then go into a rather cursory analysis of some of the work of Foucault and Derrida as the main intellectual contributors to this theoretical movement – if it can even be called that. For the sake of space, I will focus only on their portrayal of Foucault’s work. While they touch on his attention to the discourses as powerful in themselves and the necessarily particular and contextual nature of any given discursive society in history, they obscure Foucault’s later work (particularly found in various interviews in the early 1980s and those conducted with Paul Rabinow) and other postmodernist meditations on his work (see: Deleuze) where particular attention was paid to resistance. Though early Foucault portrayed the human subject as a product of power relations and this was viewed as both anti-humanistic and pessimistic, it is not true that Foucault offered little by way of methods for escaping constructed reality when it is oppressive. In various publications, Foucault stated that freedom was a continuous practice, not a state to be achieved indefinitely- ie. it is not ontological. Resistance to the social order (biopower) is freedom, rather than the popular notion of resistance as being protective of it. For Foucault, freedom will never be the foundation of social order because of this due to the idea that any society founded on absolute notions of freedom will necessarily oppress someone who does not fit the norm. In this way, resistance can be understood to undermine the criticisms that Postmodernism is anti-emancipatory or disempowering. In fact, in Foucault’s later work, it is only human agency (albeit, working within a particular discursive power construct) that affords people autonomy, even if momentarily. The lack of attention to detail with this crucial point makes me wonder what subtle nuances were overlooked when portraying other theories in the text for which I have less of a background.

Social Constructivism (SC) is portrayed as the eager newcomer in IR Theory and the one that holds the most weight in contemporary circles. While it represents “the middle ground” in IR Theory, critics claim that its lack of radicalism or “picking sides” makes for structural contradictions and other theoretical issues. SC claims to bridge the desire for empirical research of the social realm with unquantifiable notions of ideas and culture as it relates to IR. For Social Constructivists, construction is a social process (hence the name) that is effected by individuals within specific contexts. The key difference between this approach and positivist approaches that also rely on empirical, scientific and testable data with which to create theories, is that SC is focused more on understanding society rather than explaining it. For SCs, societal structures exist (and we know they exist because of their measurable effects) and they are mutually dependent on human agency which is also influenced by norms, identity and ideas. For critics of SC, this is a serious point of contention because such crucial concepts to SC theory are rarely defined appropriately. Terms are essential to building the foundation of a theory and without proper definition (arguably, things like identity and norms are indefinable by consensus), the foundation of that theory is noticeably weakened. This is particularly true of an in-between theory like SC which also derives legitimacy from the scientific method and observation; however, it is observation of things that lack observability that makes this “bridging” problematic. Additionally, if an SC theorist adopts the Spiral Model of social change (ie. that ideas are first accepted rhetorically and then common-sensically as the norm in coming generations) are all things socially constructed then and thus lack meaning across space and time? Bear in mind, that this nihilism is also a critique of Postmodernism which alleges to thwart it by begging the question of why grand theories or meta-narratives might feel useful or meaningful to people.

Finally, Grovogui’s chapter on Postcolonialism (PC) offers us insight into a highly provocative and controversial theory that gained momentum in the West in the late 1970s through the work of Edward Said and anthropologist Talal Asad. A brief look at PC theory shows that international order and IR theories in themselves are part of a greater imperialistic and colonial trend by European and Western powers to establish order through soft and hard forms of violence and power. PC is critical of “authoritative” or institutionalized knowledge particularly that which pertains to “native” groups of colonial lands who not only become objects of study for Orientalists but are also limited in their access to this knowledge that weighs heavily on the course of their lives. Tearing down the edified thinkers of the West like Kant, PC theorists remain skeptical of all selective historical storytelling that is conducted by those in hegemonic power over others as it will always serve a legitimizing purpose in their “civilizing” actions of the world’s Others, the barbarians. Furthermore, it is not only economic or political trends that continue to be controlled by Orientalists through institutionalized groups aimed at “status quo” international order (e.g. the UN or NATO), but it also occurs at the level of culture, language and identity formation of those living in postcolonial lands. Using the examples of the Western invasion of Libya in 2011 and the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, Grovogui demonstrates PC theory in action – where local anxieties or desires are undermined and bulldozed not only in favour of Western interests, but also because, as the Other, they pose a threat to Western dominance and control of world social order.

A few of the points of criticism that might be lobbed at PC theorists include an over-emphasis on reason and justice in the decolonized arena – a different form of Universalism disguised by a negotiation with diverse political entities. Additionally, while PC embraces hybridity and fluidity, the fact that this might resemble development in a Western-based value paradigm could be unacceptable to PC theorists. Radical PC theorists reject even the Western emphasis on scientific discovery and technological developments through the Enlightenment period and colonial era and so recommend dismantling reliance on these advances as part of decolonization – a process that few in these countries would accept as it would put them at a considerable economic disadvantage in the future. Furthermore, in the process of decolonization, many groups of previously colonized people become paralyzed by defining their identities and this can lead to extreme nationalism and the upholding of the state as the ultimate actor in international affairs. The state may be crucial to this process to some, but other PC theorists prefer to emphasize more subtle but pervasive social deconstruction such as through linguistics and societal symbols.

In conclusion, the arena of IR theory can only be described as containing disparate, often opposing, groups who are unable to see eye-to-eye on fundamental philosophical concepts about mankind. Recent attempts to bridge these gaps between what Steans et al describe as positivist and post-positivist schools, especially Social Constructivism, might be the best attempts at intellectual compromise, but even this theory is met with harsh criticism. A consensus will likely never be reached, but rather may call for a hybrid system of multivocality in which multiple, particular truths (perceived as Universal by some individuals and particulars to others) are upheld depending on cultural and historical contexts in which they are found.


Grovogui, Siba. “Postcolonialism” in Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, Steve Smith, eds. International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. Oxford University Press. 2013. Pp. 247-265.

Steans, Jill, Lloyd Pettiford, Thomas Diez, Imad El-Anis, eds. An Introduction to International Relations

clash-of-civilizationsMohammed Ayoob, in an article that admittedly alters his stance on the work Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington, claims that, given the current (as of 2012) states of affairs in the Middle East, there are few ways to account for what has occurred there except as some kind of conflict between the West and Islam. While he admits that the term “civilization” is slippery to define, he proceeds to show how a number of factors including selective historical memory, racial similarity, language and religion can contribute to the “making” of a civilization among states (Ayoob 2). There are numerous problems with his essay, including historical generalizations that are decontextualized, buying too heavily into Huntington’s oversimplified theory, and upholding the static definitions of religion that he previously criticized. After briefly exploring these, I will incorporate the work of other scholars who have revisited Huntington’s work, coming to conclusions that refute Ayoob’s resurrection of the “clash” theory. While these theories are not without their own faults, they help contribute to the overall point of this paper which is to show that “The Clash of Civilizations” is a fictional narrative that is actively inculcated on both extreme sides of the alleged West/East divide to give legitimacy to regimes in power. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on the rhetoric of the US Administration and ISIS.

Ayoob’s article is rife with generalizations and contradictions that compromise his overall thesis. On page 3, he simplifies hundreds of years of history by claiming that race and religion have always gone together with Christendom morphing into “Europe” and then “the West.” These types of teleological, unidirectional histories do not lend themselves well to academic discourse. Multiple times throughout the article, this simplification results in bombastic claims of certain issues “only” being explainable through the Clash lens: Romney’s endorsement of Israel (4), the bullying of Obama by Netanyahu (5), the acceptance of the Israeli narrative in the US (Ibid), the inability of Saudi Arabia to affect the Israeli-Palestinian issue (6), the double standards applied to Israeli threats on Iran (8) and the cursory treatment of US-Turkey relations (9). The use of the word “only” in terms of how many perspectives can be offered for understanding such complex situations is highly suspect, especially, when in his conclusion, Ayoob concedes that the Clash “may not be able to provide explanations for all American actions in the Middle East” (11). Despite the poor writing, there are more theoretical and historical issues with the paper than what has been shown above. Grandiose claims that Israel has always been a strategic liability for the US (4) and asserting the primacy of the Balfour Declaration in the Zionist movement (with apparently no debate at all internal to England and its Jewish population at the time) paints a distorted historical picture (6) to fit Huntington’s theory (as only two examples). Unfortunately, what remains unsaid is that if a theory such as the Clash is in need of such grossly undercontextualized generalizations to be true, then it must be false.

This is a sentiment echoed by Mojtaba Mahdavi and Andy Knight in “Towards “the Dignity of Difference?’: Neither ‘End of History’ nor ‘Clash of Civilizations’”, which (as the title would have you believe), refutes Huntington’s thesis along with the equally superficial work of Francis Fukuyama. In an exceedingly thorough dissection of both theorists, Mahdavi and Knight argue for a necessarily more pluralistic understanding of the complex Middle Eastern reality from economic, political, cultural, ideological and religious standpoints. Citing a number of different arguments, they conclude with the possibility of a Third Way beyond the dualist constructions of the End and the Clash – one that goes beyond domination, conflict and even mere toleration towards a much more accommodating and accepting paradigm built on dialogue, mutual understanding and working towards similar goals. While I cannot say I necessarily share in the optimism of these two authours (perhaps realist tendencies have seeped too deeply into me), there are two important points that are brought up in this chapter that need to be unpacked more. Firstly, Mahdavi and Knight note that numerous scholars have seen “Huntington’s work as more of a policy recommendation to the US government… than any accurate empirical portrayal of conditions between civilizations today” (10). Secondly, they go even further to assert that the clash of civilizations is “an attempt at a discursive mobilization of civilizational identities which, if not seen for what it is, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy” (12). In other words, the idea of the clash is being used a tool for various areas of interest, which, with enough inculcation, can become the reality it originally fabricated from nothing. This is a common event that is often seen in the field of Social Memory studies, where a concept or narrative is imposed on a population which yields to it, perpetuating the consequences of the narrative despite its counterfactual origins.

In fact, it is my impression that both sides of the so-called civilizational divide are actively perpetuating the clash as a method of legitimizing their control to their own populations. This is a subject that cannot be explored in-depth here but I want to touch on a couple of points of relevance. Mahdavi and Knight briefly point to the use of clash rhetoric in the NeoConservative US Administration under George W. Bush which explicitly made use of Huntington-esque terminology to set up a dualist framework of understanding the relationships between America and the Middle East, or the West and Islam. In Julide Karakoç’s article “The Failure of Indirect Orientalism: Islamic State”, the author makes it clear that the presence of ISIS and its complicated relationship with Turkey has destabilized the typical alliances of the US in the region. (602-3) What is not elaborated on, however, is a point that Ayoob actually makes: that the US stands to gain from orientalizing or Othering Turkey and aligning them with the bloody terrorist organization of ISIS which is threatening to take over the entire region. In a case-by-case analysis, Ayoob shows that relations with Turkey have been eroding significantly because of their condemnation of the actions of US ally Israel, their UN countervote against additional sanctions on Iran, and their relations with Iran over Syria. (Ayoob 9-10) While Ayoob sees this as definitive evidence that Ankara has “sold out” to the Muslim world and points to the continued delay in their EU membership as further evidence that they are not considered part of the West, it is actually more of a rhetorical construct than reality. By actively portraying US alliances in the Middle East as untrustworthy or autonomous powers that freely choose which issues they act on, the US “proves” that any action made in the direction of the “East” is a betrayal, buttressing the argument of East/West mistrust and incompatibility. Right or wrong for Turkey, the fact that they either have to unilaterally align themselves with US interests or they are the enemy is preposterous and only feeds the divide.

While this type of state-level propaganda used for the endorsement of political-economic and cultural imperialism by regimes based on war profits is perhaps not surprising, it is even more interesting that the same tactic has allegedly been appropriated by the “enemies” of America – arguably to their own detriment. In this most recent manifestation, I am referring to ISIS. In Alastair Crooke’s article “You can’t understand ISIS if you don’t know the history of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia”, he points out that the terrorist group is a modern (re)manifestation of early the Saud-Wahhab project, built on the dichotomous and murderous polarity of “submit to our doctrine or be killed.” Implicit in this is not only an absolute hatred of the West as a “civilizational” whole, but anyone deemed to be cohorts with the West or a heretic of Islam creating a double clashing front: one that upholds Islam and the West as enemies and another that separates “True” Muslims from disbelievers with takfiri doctrine, including Westernized Saudis who are believed to have sold out the Wahhabist movement by pandering to the desires of the British and Americans. In part two of his article, entitled “Middle East Time Bomb: The Real Aim of ISIS…” Crooke goes on to say how the intentional adoption of Wahhabist language is a method employed by ISIS to “knowingly light the fuse to a bigger regional explosion” as part of its greater agenda to get the Hijaz (Mecca and Medina) before likely turning their sights Westward. Crooke’s claim, however, that ISIS does not serve a direct threat to the West might be a moot point as ideologically, they do – particularly when much of their sectarian religious violence is perceived to have been instigated by American patronage of Shia groups in Iraq (Chulov, 2014). While an interview with ISIS man, Abu Ahmed, reveals discontent with all of the violence in the ranks, there is a sense of helplessness that is felt by those fighting the so-called “jihad.” Not only are they unable to leave the organization if they disagree with its particular worldview at any given moment, there is a general sense that ISIS is now being “swept along by events that are now bigger than” it: a red flag that harkens back to Mahdavi and Knight’s warning that what becomes institutional in its rhetoric may end up as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in the end. Given the limited space of this paper, this cannot be fully explored and will largely need to be left to future research to offer more concrete examples from both ranks.


Ayoob, Mohammed. “Was Huntington Right? Revisiting the Clash of Civilizations,” Insight Turkey. Vol 14: 4, 2012, pp 1-11.

Chuklov, Martin. “ISIS: The Inside Story” The Guardian. December 11, 2014.

Crooke, Alastair. “You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia” Huffington Post, August 27, 2014.

Crooke, Alastair. “Middle East Time Bomb: The Real Aim of ISIS Is to Replace the Saud Family as the New Emirs of Arabia” Huffington Post, September 2, 2014.

Karakoç, Julide, “The Failure of Indirect Orientalism: Islamic State,” in Critique, Vol 24:4, 2014, pp 597 -606.

Mahdavi, Mojtaba and Andy Knight, “Introduction: Towards ‘The Dignity of Difference? Neither ‘End of History’ Nor ‘Clash of Civilizations’” in Towards the Dignity of Difference? Neither ‘End of History’ Nor ‘Clash of Civilizations’, Mahdavi and Knight, eds. Ashgate, 2012, pp 1-26.