The 19th-century popularised the idea of the “nation state”. The 21st could be the century of the “civilisation state”.
A civilisation state is a country that claims to represent not just a historic territory or a particular language or ethnic-group, but a distinctive civilisation. It is an idea that is gaining ground in states as diverse as China, India, Russia, Turkey and, even, the US.
The notion of the civilisation state has distinctly illiberal implications. It implies that attempts to define universal human rights or common democratic standards are wrong-headed, since each civilisation needs political institutions that reflect its own unique culture. The idea of a civilisation state is also exclusive. Minority groups and migrants may never fit in because they are not part of the core civilisation.
One reason that the idea of the civilisation state is likely to gain wider currency is the rise of China. In speeches to foreign audiences, President Xi Jinping likes to stress the unique history and civilisation of China. This idea has been promoted by pro-government intellectuals, such as Zhang Weiwei of Fudan university. In an influential book, The China Wave: Rise of a Civilisational State, Mr Zhang argues that modern China has succeeded because it has turned its back on western political ideas — and instead pursued a model rooted in its own Confucian culture and exam-based meritocratic traditions.
Mr Zhang was adapting an idea first elaborated by Martin Jacques, a western writer, in a bestselling book, When China Rules The World. “China’s history of being a nation state”, Mr Jacques argues, “dates back only 120-150 years: its civilisational history dates back thousands of years.” He believes that the distinct character of Chinese civilisation leads to social and political norms that are very different from those prevalent in the west, including “the idea that the state should be based on familial relations [and] a very different view of the relationship between the individual and society, with the latter regarded as much more important”.
Like China, India has a population of well over 1bn people. Theorists for the ruling Bharatiya Janata party are attracted to the idea that India is more than a mere nation — and is, instead, a distinct civilisation. For the BJP, the single most distinctive feature of Indian civilisation is the Hindu religion — a notion that implicitly relegates Indian Muslims to a second tier of citizenship.
Jayant Sinha, a minister in Narendra Modi’s government, argues that modern India’s founding fathers, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, mistakenly embraced western ideas such as scientific socialism, believing them to have universal applicability. Instead they should have based India’s post-colonial governance system on its own unique culture. As a former McKinsey consultant with a Harvard MBA, Mr Sinha might look like the archetypal bearer of “globalist” values. But when I met him in Delhi last year, he was preaching cultural particularism, arguing that “in our view, heritage precedes the state . . . People feel their heritage is under siege. We have a faith-based view of the world versus the rational-scientific view.”
Civilisational views of the state are also gaining ground in Russia. Some of the ideologues around Vladimir Putin now embrace the idea that Russia represents a distinct Eurasian civilisation, which should never have sought to integrate with the west. In a recent article Vladislav Surkov, a close adviser to the Russian president, argued that his country’s “repeated fruitless efforts to become a part of western civilisation are finally over”. Instead, Russia should embrace its identity as “a civilisation that has absorbed both east and west” with a “hybrid mentality, intercontinental territory and bipolar history. It is charismatic, talented, beautiful and lonely. Just as a half-breed should be.”
In a global system moulded by the west, it is unsurprising that some intellectuals in countries such as China, India or Russia should want to stress the distinctiveness of their own civilisations. What is more surprising is that rightwing thinkers in the US are also retreating from the idea of “universal values” — in favour of emphasising the unique and allegedly endangered nature of western civilisation.
Steve Bannon, who was briefly chief strategist in the Trump White House, has argued repeatedly that mass migration and the decline of traditional Christian values are undermining western civilisation. In an attempt to arrest this decline, Mr Bannon is helping to establish an “academy for the Judeo-Christian west” in Italy, designed to train a new generation of leaders.
The Bannonite argument that mass migration is undermining traditional American values is central to Donald Trump’s ideology. In a speech in Warsaw in 2017, the US president declared that the “fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive”, before reassuring his audience that “our civilisation will triumph”.
But, oddly enough, Mr Trump’s embrace of a “civilisational” view of the world may actually be a symptom of the decline of the west. His predecessors confidently proclaimed that American values were “universal” and were destined to triumph across the world. And it was the global power of western ideas that has made the nation-state the international norm for political organisation. The rise of Asian powers such as China and India may create new models: step forward, the “civilisation state”.
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