Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

August 6, 2020   12 mins

A spectre is haunting the liberal West: the rise of the “civilisation-state”. As America’s political power wanes and its moral authority collapses, the rising challengers of Eurasia have adopted the model of the civilisation-state to distinguish themselves from a paralysed liberal order, which lurches from crisis to crisis without ever quite dying nor yet birthing a viable successor. Summarising the civilisation-state model, the political theorist Adrian Pabst observes that “in China and Russia the ruling classes reject Western liberalism and the expansion of a global market society. They define their countries as distinctive civilisations with their own unique cultural values and political institutions.” From China to India, Russia to Turkey, the great and middling powers of Eurasia are drawing ideological succour from the pre-liberal empires from which they claim descent, remoulding their non-democratic, statist political systems as a source of strength rather than weakness, and upturning the liberal-democratic triumphalism of the late 20th century. 

America’s decline is impossible to disentangle from China’s rise, so it is natural that the rapid climb of the Middle Kingdom back to its historic global primacy dominates discussion of the civilisation-state. Though the phrase was popularised by the British writer Martin Jacques, the political theorist Christopher Coker observed in his excellent recent book on civilisation-states that “the turn to Confucianism began in 2005, when President Hu Jintao applauded the Confucian concept of social harmony and instructed party cadres to build a ‘harmonious society.’” In any case, it is only under his successor Xi’s rule that China as a rival civilisation-state has really penetrated the Western consciousness.The advent of Xi Jinping as the Chinese president in 2012 propelled the idea of ‘civilization-state’ to the forefront of the political discourse,” the Indian international relations scholar Ravi Dutt Bajpai remarks, “as Xi believes that ‘a civilization carries on its back the soul of a country or nation.’” 

This civilisational ethos radiates from Chinese analysis of the country’s future path. In his influential 2012 book The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State, the Chinese political theorist Zhang Weiwei observed with pride that “China is now the only country in the world which has amalgamated the world’s longest continuous civilization with a huge modern state… Being the world’s longest continuous civilization has allowed China’s traditions to evolve, develop and adapt in virtually all branches of human knowledge and practices, such as political governance, economics, education, art, music, literature, architecture, military, sports, food and medicine. The original, continuous and endogenous nature of these traditions is indeed rare and unique in the world.” Unlike the ever-changing West, constantly searching after progress and reordering its societies to suit the intellectual fashions of the moment, Weiwei observes that “China draws on its ancient traditions and wisdoms,” and its return to pre-eminence is the natural result.

It is in these hallowed traditions, of a centralised state with a 4000-year history, of an efficient bureaucratic class adhering to Confucian values, and of an emphasis on stability and social harmony over liberty, that Chinese theorists credit their civilisation-state’s rise, now “seemingly unstoppable and irreversible”. Surveying a West in decline and a Middle East mired in bloody chaos, Weiwei remarks with cool detachment that “if the ancient Roman empire had not disintegrated and been able to accomplish the transformation into a modern state, then today’s Europe could also be a medium-sized civilisational state; if the Islamic world today made up of dozens of countries could become unified under one modern governing regime, it could also be a civilisational state with more than a billion people, but the chance for all these scenarios has long gone, and in the world today, China is the sole country where the world’s longest continuous civilisation and a modern state are merged into one.”

Yet the appeal of the civilisation-state model is not limited to China. Under Putin, the other great Eurasian empire, Russia, has publicly abandoned the Europe-focused liberalising projects of the 1990s — a period of dramatic economic and societal collapse driven by adherence to the policies of Western liberal theorists — for its own cultural sonderweg or special path of a uniquely Russian civilisation centred on an all-powerful state. In a 2013 address to the Valdai Club, Putin remarked that Russia “has always evolved as a state‑civilisation, reinforced by the Russian people, Russian language, Russian culture, Russian Orthodox Church and the country’s other traditional religions. It is precisely the state‑civilisation model that has shaped our state polity.” In a 2012 speech to the Russian Federal Assembly, Putin likewise asserted that “we must value the unique experience passed on to us by our forefathers. For centuries, Russia developed as a multi‑ethnic nation (from the very beginning), a state‑civilisation bonded by the Russian people, Russian language and Russian culture native for all of us, uniting us and preventing us from dissolving in this diverse world.” 

It is worthy of note that while Russia is frequently characterised by both liberal commentators and far-right enthusiasts alike, particularly Americans, as a breeding ground for state-backed white nationalism, this claim derives from the racial obsessions of the United States rather than the actual ideology of the Russian state. Indeed, for Putin it is Russia’s heritage as a polyglot empire that makes the state he helms a civilisation state rather than a mere nation, explicitly stressing that “the self‑definition of the Russian people is that of a multi‑ethnic civilisation.” 

In a revealing 2018 essay, Putin’s adviser Vladislav Surkov — who was fired from his role this February — foregrounded this hybridity, part-European and part-Asian, as the central characteristic of the Russian soul. “Our cultural and geopolitical identity is reminiscent of a volatile identity of the one born into a mixed-race family,” Surkov wrote. “A half-blood, a cross-breed, a weird-looking guy. Russia is a Western-Eastern half-breed nation. With its double-headed statehood, hybrid mentality, intercontinental territory and bipolar history, it is charismatic, talented, beautiful and lonely. Just as a half-breed should be.” For Surkov, Russia’s destiny as a civilisation-state, like that of the Byzantium it succeeded, is one as “a civilisation that has absorbed the East and the West. European and Asian at the same time, and for this reason neither quite Asian and nor quite European.” 

This unresolved tension between East and West, Europe and Asia defines the political stance of Byzantium’s other successor state and Nato’s current problem child, Turkey. Like China, a great premodern empire eclipsed by the rise of the West to global dominance, Turkey under Erdogan now cloaks its revanchist desires in the sumptuous mantle of the Ottoman past, reviling the West even as Erdogan depends on Trump’s America and Merkel’s Germany for his regime’s survival. When the new imam of the newly-converted Haghia Sophia mosque mounted the pulpit last month, sabre in hand, to proclaim the rebirth of Turkey and curse the memory of the country’s Europe-facing moderniser Ataturk, it was to underline that Turkey’s glorious future depends on reviving its Ottoman past. The date of the ceremony, the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne which dissolved the Ottoman Empire and replaced it with the Turkish Republic was equally symbolic. Just as Justinian, on entering his great new cathedral, remarked that he had surpassed Solomon, so had Erdogan surpassed Ataturk. The age of pleading to join Europe, as an impoverished supplicant, had ended; the age of conquest had returned.

Trapped in the post-historical dreams of liberalism, many Western observers of Erdogan’s growing aggression had missed these symbolic cues, or dismissed them as empty rhetoric, a luxury not available to Turkey’s former subject peoples in the Balkans and Middle East. When, in March, Turkey attempted to force Greece’s borders open with thousands of migrants assembled from the slums of Istanbul, the Bayraktar drone that hovered above the contested border fence bore the callsign 1453, the date of the fall of Constantinople, just as the drill-ships that constantly threaten to violate Greek and Cypriot sovereignty bear the names of the Ottoman admirals and corsairs who ravaged the coasts of Greece and Europe. 

Turkey’s intent, the country’s interior minister Suleyman Soylu boasted during the border crisis, was to destroy the European Union. “Europe cannot endure this, cannot handle this,” he claimed. “The governments in Europe will change, their economies will deteriorate, their stock markets will collapse.” In a speech this month, at the same time as the Turkish navy threatened Greece with war, Soylu outlined Turkey’s civilisational vision of the new world order: “On this path,” he told the assembled audience of military dignitaries, “we’ll design by embracing the entire world with our civilisation, holding the West and East with one hand, the North and South in the other, the Middle East and the Balkans in one hand, the Caucasus and Europe in the other.”

In the newly-annexed regions of northern Syria, Turkey’s rebel proxy militias, dominated by ethnic Turkmen, name themselves after Ottoman sultans, adopt the Ottoman seal as their logos and give interviews in front of maps of the Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent, all while expelling the region’s Kurds and Christians from their homes. In Syria as in Libya and Iraq, Erdogan’s expansionist vision explicitly cites the Ottoman Empire as legitimation for its path of conquest, tracing Erdogan’s “borders of the heart” far beyond the reach of modern Turkey, from Thessaloniki in the West to Mosul in the East. Seizing on weakness wherever he finds it, even the heart of liberal Europe itself lies in the Turkish strongman’s sights. 

When his ministers were barred from addressing crowds of ethnic Turks in the Netherlands and his supporters rioted in The Hague, Erdogan called the Dutch government “Nazis” before telling the Turks of Europe: Make not three, but five children. Because you are the future of Europe. That will be the best response to the injustices against you.” Alternating, with all the passionate inconsistency of a SOAS undergraduate, between triumphalist Islamic expansionism and accusations of racism and Islamophobia wherever his will is thwarted, the Turkish strongman crows over his starring role in the continent’s decline, boasting thatEurope will pay for what they have done. God willing, the question of the European Union will again be on the table,” and exulting that while “they said a century ago that we were the ‘sick man,’ now they are the ‘sick man.’ Europe is collapsing.” 

As with the Netherlands, urging Turks in Europe to outbreed their native hosts and then calling European leaders Nazis when they protest, Erdogan’s civilisational discourse exists in a strange symbiosis with the Western far-right, seen most dramatically in his response to the Christchurch shooting last year. When the killer Brandon Tarrant slaughtered 51 Muslim worshippers in the Christchurch mosque, it was with a rifle on which he had scrawled the names of various European battles against the Ottomans. In his manifesto, Tarrant had explicitly cited Erdogan as “leader of one of the oldest enemies of our people” and threatened Turks, who he described as “ethnic soldiers currently occupying Europe,” that “we will kill you and drive you roaches from our lands. We are coming for Constantinople and will destroy every mosque and minaret in the city. The Haghia Sophia will be free of minarets and Constantinople will be rightfully Christian-owned once more.” In direct response, Erdogan aired Tarrant’s livestream of the slaughter at his campaign rallies, to the horror of the New Zealand government, declaring days after the killings that “you will not turn Istanbul into Constantinople,” and vowing that ”Hagia Sophia will no longer be called a museum. Its status will change. We will call it a mosque,” a promise he fulfilled last month, leading the faithful in prayer in the great cathedral’s second conquest. 

To the horror of liberal European politicians, like the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, who Turkish foreign Mevlut Çavuşoğlu warned was “dragging Europe into the abyss,” and that “Holy wars will soon begin in Europe,” Erdogan’s AKP party revels in the rhetoric of civilisational conflict. Intentionally or not, Erdogan is doing much to drag the continent’s centrist politicians rightwards. Through his actions, he stokes fear and distrust of Europe’s Muslim minority, and then reaps the domestic rewards of the response his warlike discourse brings. But as with many of his stunts, Erdogan’s short-term gains may have unintended consequences stretching far into the future, both for Turkey and for Europe. 

Turkey’s growing naval provocations in the Mediterranean are fuelling such an angry response from European politicians, helmed by Emmanuel Macron, that the EU’s foreign minister Josep Borrell remarked with exasperation in the European Parliament recently that, listening to the mood of the assembled MEPs, “I thought I saw in the Chamber that Pope Pius V had resurfaced calling for the Holy Alliance against Turkey and mobilising the troops of Christendom to face the Ottoman invasion.” It is not difficult to foresee Macron, tacking right as he heads towards the election season, fusing his campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood at home with an assertive European posture against Turkey abroad. A civilisation, like an ethnic group, is defined as much in opposition to a rival Other as from any intrinsic cultural content, and in each other both Erdogan and Macron may have found the perfect foils for their civilisational projects.

Indeed, it is striking that Europe’s soi-disant liberal saviour is the most prominent Western adopter of the new language of civilisation-states: no doubt the former Hegel scholar has discerned the Weltgeist. In an overlooked speech last year to a gathering of France’s ambassadors, Macron mused that China, Russia and India were not merely economic rivals but “genuine civilisation states… which have not just disrupted our international order, assumed a key role in the economic order, but have also very forcefully reshaped the political order and the political thinking that goes with it, with a great deal more inspiration than we have.” Macron observed that “they have a lot more political inspiration than Europeans today. They take a logical approach to the world, they have a genuine philosophy, a resourcefulness that we have to a certain extent lost.”

Warning his audience that “we know that civilisations are disappearing; countries as well. Europe will disappear,” Macron lauded the civilisational projects of Russia and Hungary, which “have a cultural, civilisational vitality that is inspiring,” and declared that France’s mission, its historic destiny, was to guide Europe into a civilisational renewal, forging a “collective narrative and a collective imagination. That is why I believe very deeply that this is our project and must be undertaken as a project of European civilisation.”

There is much here for British conservatives to like, certainly far more than the Global Britain fantasies which neoconservative and neoliberal thinktankers persist in trying to sell the Johnson government. Writing for a British audience in The Guardian last year, Macron remarked that “nationalists are misguided when they claim to defend our identity by withdrawing from the EU, because it is European civilisation that unites, frees and protects us.” Instead, he urged, “we are at a pivotal moment for our continent, a moment when together we need to politically and culturally reinvent the shape of our civilisation in a changing world. Now is the time for a European renaissance.” Yet for Britain, as for the rest of Europe, defining the essential nature of that civilisation is a harder question than it is for China or for Russia. 

Whereas the rising civilisation-states of Eurasia define themselves against the liberal West, the West, and Europe, struggle to define their own very natures, and place greater intellectual emphasis on deconstructing it than on defending it: an urge that is, like the impetus to deny the existence of civilisations as bounded entities, itself ironically a unique marker of our own civilisation. Perhaps a civilisation is merely an empire that survived through and past the age of nation states, yet it is nation states, carved from the bloody wreckage of past empires, that define modern Europe. Perhaps Guy Verhofstadt, the risible butt of Brexiteer mirth, was right after all when he observed that “the world order of tomorrow is not a world order based on nation states or countries. It’s a world order that is based on empires.” 

But then, though there are strong political taboos against observing it, we already live as subjects of an American empire, though few would want to claim America as a civilisation; fewer, indeed, than view the struggling hegemon as an anti-civilisation, dissolving the variety of European and other cultures in the harsh solvent of global capital.  Does even the West exist as a coherent, bounded entity? As Coker notes, “Neither the Greeks nor sixteenth-century Europeans… regarded themselves as ‘Western’, a term which dates back only to the late eighteenth century.” Macron urges us to root our sense of belonging to a specific European civilisation in the Enlightenment, yet this is a far from convincing prospect. After all, it was the universalising tendencies contained in Enlightenment liberalism that led us to this impasse in the first place. As Portugal’s former foreign minister Bruno Macaes observed in a perceptive recent essay, it is precisely the global aspirations of liberalism that have severed the West, and Europe particularly, from its own cultural roots. 

“Western societies have sacrificed their specific cultures for the sake of a universal project,” Macaes notes. “One can no longer find the old tapestry of traditions and customs or a vision of the good life in these societies.” Our naive faith that liberalism, derived from the political and cultural traditions of Northern Europe, would conquer the world has now been shattered for good. Instead, it is the defiantly non-liberal civilisation-states of Eurasia that threaten to swallow us whole. Where then, does that leave Europe, and what are we to do with liberalism? “Now that we have sacrificed our own cultural traditions to create a universal framework for the whole planet,” Macaes asks, “are we now supposed to be the only ones to adopt it?”

In 1996, the political theorist Samuel P. Huntington observed that ‘in the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, the Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: It is false, it is immoral and it is dangerous. Imperialism is the necessary logical consequence of universalism.” Yet Huntington, like his critics, was writing at a time of unchallenged American pre-eminence. Critics of Huntington’s civilisational thesis, like modern academic critics of the concept of civilisation-states, are challenging a construct that no longer exists, of an all-powerful West arrogantly dismissing the rest from a standpoint of political superiority. Now, however, it is we in the West who are in decline and it is in the universalising myths of liberalism that our powerful civilisational rivals trace the root causes of our failure.

In any case, even within the American empire, the collapse of US power abroad and the growing disfavour with which European civilisation is held in the United States itself do not bode well for the longterm survival of a coherent Western civilisation. If the West, like liberalism, is at this stage merely a justifying ideology for the American empire, then we will be forced to replace it with something else soon enough. It is precisely this problem of determining what that replacement will be that will define Britain and Europe’s politics for the rest of our lifetimes. Europe’s ageing liberal ideologues, the fading 1968 generation which has dominated our politics for so long, do not appear to have answers for these questions; indeed, they do not even seem to realise, even now, that these questions exist. 

It is only when we see Macron struggling to rally European civilisation for the coming age of empires, or observe European strongmen like Viktor Orban, hailed by many Anglo-Saxon conservatives as the saviour of Western civilisation, railing against the West with all the passion and fury of an anti-colonial revolutionary, that we see glimpses of a future stranger and more complex than our current political discourse allows. When we see Poland mandating the study of Latin in schools to imbue pupils with an understanding of “the Latin roots of our civilisation,” or the young rising star of the Dutch radical right Thierry Baudet asserting that we are living through a “European spring,” “contradictory to the political spectrum that has dominated the West since the French Revolution,” which will “change the direction that all our countries are going to take in the coming two generations,” we discern, just as we do in the BLM protests or the spread of the American social justice faith in our streets and universities, the political battlegrounds of Europe’s future.

The most perceptive critique of Huntington’s civilisational thesis was always that the bloodiest confrontations were within civilisations and not between them. In the new age of the civilisation-state, perhaps the greatest challenge to our social harmony will come not from the challengers beyond our cultural borders, but from the battle within them to define who and what they defend.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.