The 20th century marked the downfall of empire and the triumph of the nation state. National self-determination became the prime test of state legitimacy, rather than dynastic inheritance or imperial rule. After the Cold War, the dominant elites in the West assumed that the nation-state model had defeated all rival forms of political organisation. The worldwide spread of liberal values would create an era of Western hegemony. It would be a new global order based on sovereign states enforced by Western-dominated international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.
But today we are witnessing the end of the liberal world order and the rise of the civilisational state, which claims to represent not merely a nation or territory but an exceptional civilisation. 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. The ascent of civilisational states is not just changing the global balance of power. It is also transforming post-Cold War geopolitics away from liberal universalism towards cultural exceptionalism.
Thirty years after the collapse of totalitarian state communism, liberal market democracy is in question. Both the West and “the rest” are sliding into forms of soft totalitarianism as market fundamentalism or state capitalism creates oligarchic concentrations of power and wealth. Oligarchies occur in both democratic and authoritarian systems, which are led by demagogic leaders who can either be more liberal, as with France’s president Emmanuel Macron, or more populist, such as Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. In both the older democracies of western Europe and in the post-1989 democracies of the former Soviet Union, fundamental freedoms are in retreat and the separation of powers is under threat.
The resurgence of great power rivalry, especially with the rise of Russia and China, is weakening Western attempts to impose a unified set of standards and rules in international relations. The leaders of these powers, including the US under Donald Trump, reject universal human rights, the rule of law, respect for facts and a free press in the name of cultural difference. The days of spreading universal values of Western enlightenment have long since passed.
Globalisation is partly in reverse. Free trade is curtailed by protectionist tariff wars between the US and China. The promotion of Western democracy has been replaced by an accommodation with autocrats such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. But more fundamentally, geopolitics is no longer simply about the economy or security – Christopher Coker describes it in The Rise of the Civilizational State (2019) as largely sociocultural and civilisational. The non-Western world, led by Beijing and Moscow, is pushing back against the Western claim to embody universal values.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping champions a model of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” fusing a Leninist state with neo-Confucian culture. Vladimir Putin defines Russia as a “civilisational state”, which is neither Western nor Asian but uniquely Eurasian. Trump rails against the European multicultural dilution of Western civilisation – which he equates with a white supremacist creed. Common to these leaders is a hybrid doctrine of nationalism at home and the defence of civilisation abroad. It reconciles their promotion of great-power status with their ideological aversion to liberal universalism. States based on civilisational identities are bound to collide with the institutions of the liberal world order, and so it is happening.
Civilisations themselves might not clash, but contemporary geopolitics has turned into a contest between alternative versions of civilised norms. Within the West, there is a growing gap between a cosmopolitan EU and a nativist US. And a global “culture war” is pitting the West’s liberal establishment against the illiberal powers of Russia and China. Cultural exceptionalism is once again challenging, and arguably replacing, liberalism’s claim to universal validity. The powers redefining themselves as state civilisations are gaining strength.
A new narrative has taken hold among the ruling classes in the West: that the aggressive axis of Russia and China is the main threat to the Western-dominated international system. But the liberal world order is also under unprecedented strain from within. The Iraq invasion of 2003, the 2008 global financial crash, austerity and the refugee crisis in Europe, which began in earnest in 2015 and was partly the result of Western destabilisation in Libya and Syria, have all eroded public confidence in the liberal establishment and the institutions it controls. Brexit, Donald Trump and the populist insurgency sweeping continental Europe mark a revolt against the economic and social liberalism that has dominated domestic politics and neoliberal globalisation. The ascent of authoritarian “strongmen” such as Putin, Xi Jinping, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, Turkey’s President Erdogan and Brazil’s new leader Jair Bolsonaro are a major menace to liberal dominance over international affairs. But the principal danger to the West is internal – namely the erosion of Western civilisation by ultra-liberalism.
The dominant idea of the last four decades is the belief that the West is a political civilisation that represents the forward march of history towards a single normative order. But experience has shown that this force, with its tendency towards cartel capitalism, bureaucratic overreach, and rampant individualism, is devastating the West’s cultural civilisation. Part of the legacy of this civilisation is the postwar model of socially embedded markets, decentralised states, a balance of open economies with protection of domestic industry and a commitment to the dignity of the person, enshrined in human rights.
It is a legacy that rests on a common cultural heritage of Greco-Roman philosophy and law, as well as Judeo-Christian religion and ethics. Each, in different ways, stress the unique value of the person and free human association independent of the state. Western countries share traditions of music, architecture, philosophy, literature, poetry and religious belief that make them members of a common civilisation rather than a collection of separate cultures.
This civilisational heritage and its principles are under threat from the forces of liberalism. In the name of supposedly universal liberal values, the Clinton administration adopted as its civilising mission the worldwide spread of market states and humanitarian intervention. After the 9/11 attacks, left-liberal governments such as Tony Blair’s New Labour waged foreign wars and curtailed civil rights in the name of security.
Emmanuel Macron, the latest cheerleader for Western progressives, has led a crackdown of the gilets jaunes protesters in France that threatens fundamental freedoms of speech, association and public demonstration. As Patrick Deneen, the Catholic legal scholar and author of Why Liberalism Failed (2018), and others have shown, liberalism is undermining the principles of liberality on which Western civilisation depends, such as free inquiry, free speech, tolerance for dissent and respect for political opponents.
At the heart of the West is a paradox. It is the only community of nations founded upon the political values of self-determination of the people, democracy and free trade. These principles were codified in the 1941 Atlantic Charter signed by Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt, and enshrined in the post-1945 international system. Yet liberalism is eroding these cultural foundations, and we are now living with the consequences. Western civilisation is much less able to confront both internal problems such as economic injustice, social dislocation and resurgent nationalism, and the external threats of ecological devastation, Islamist terrorism and hostile foreign powers.
After the fall of communism, the liberal West sought to recast reality in its progressive self-image. As Tony Blair put it, only liberal culture is on the “right side of history”. The US and western Europe viewed themselves as carriers of universal values for the rest of humanity. Liberal leaders mutated into what Robespierre called “armed missionaries”. They exported Western cultural norms of personal self-expression and individual emancipation from family, religion and nationality. Nations were seen by Western liberals as egos writ large that desire nothing but to adapt to the imperatives of globalisation and a world without borders or national identities.
The shallow culture of contemporary liberalism weakens civilisation in the West and elsewhere. Liberal capitalism promotes cultural standards that glorify greed, sex and violence. Too many liberals in politics, the media and the academy are characterised by a “closing of the mind” that ignores the intellectual, literary and artistic achievements that make the West a recognisable civilisation.
Some cosmopolitan liberals even repudiate the very existence of the West as a civilisation. In one of his BBC Reith Lectures in 2016, the British-born Ghanaian-American academic Kwame Anthony Appiah, the grandson of the former Labour chancellor Stafford Cripps, maintained that we should give up on the idea of Western civilisation. “I believe,” Appiah said, “that Western civilisation is not at all a good idea, and Western culture is no improvement.”
The rejection of Western universalism by the elites in Russia and China challenges the idea of the nation state as the international norm for political organisation. The Chinese and the Russian ruling classes view themselves as bearers of unique cultural norms, and define themselves as civilisational states rather than nation states because the latter are associated with Western imperialism – and in the case of China a century of humiliation following the 19th-century Opium Wars. Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World (2009), argues that, “The most fundamental defining features of China today, and which give the Chinese their sense of identity, emanate not from the last century when China has called itself a nation state but from the previous two millennia when it can be best described as a civilisation state.”
Xi Jinping has repeatedly called on the country’s elites “to inject new vitality into the Chinese civilisation by energising all cultural elements that transcend time, space and national borders and that possess both perpetual appeal and current value”. By this he means the timeless appeal of Confucian harmony that is promoted by the Communist state at home and abroad. A vision of a civilisational sphere of influence underpins Beijing’s efforts to bring Taiwan and the South China Sea under Chinese control.
The unfolding trade war with the US is just the beginning in a larger East-West confrontation over two rival civilising missions, including control over technology that has the potential to redefine what it means to live in society and be human. The furore over the Chinese state-backed company Huawei and its involvement in the building of a 5G mobile phone network in the UK and elsewhere is a harbinger of battles to come.
China presents its path of development as not for export, whereas the US-led Western model is portrayed as expansionist. In reality, the Beijing consensus of Leninist state capitalism and neo-Confucian global harmony is being pushed across Central Asia and even into Europe through the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
Xi’s China is also deploying propagandist PR and soft power. A worldwide network of more than 500 Confucius Institutes embedded in foreign universities and its domestic film industry promote the Chinese civilisational state. This is supported by the English-language edition of the official newspaper China Daily and China Central Television’s multilingual programmes.
The Chinese Communist Party is creating a surveillance system that makes Western tech platforms look like paragons of privacy protection. The all-seeing internet and advanced facial recognition technology control individual behaviour in cities and in restive regions such as Xinjiang, where according to estimates cited by the UN as many as one million of the Muslim minority have been locked up in re-education camps.
Corporations collude with the state by feeding it data used to blacklist dissidents and enforce censorship. Knowledge and power are concentrated in the hands of party planners who manipulate the wider population to their way of thinking. During Mao’s rule from 1949 to 1976, the Communists replaced the idea of a government of people with the administration of things. Under Xi, China looks set to evolve into a tyranny by numbers.
The country’s dependence on huge investments in Africa, Latin America and Central Asia for market outlets and political influence suggests hegemonic ambitions. Xi’s vision of a harmonious world order is one in which China’s civilisational state will be beyond criticism from within and without. Yet the Chinese leadership is on a charm offensive to seduce the liberal West. In Davos in January 2017, while Donald Trump denounced the dogma of free trade, Xi told the World Economic Forum that “globalisation has powered global growth and facilitated movement of goods and capital, advances in science, technology and civilisation, and interactions among people”.
China is advancing under the cover of economic liberalism.
Like Xi, Putin believes that Western liberal values are not universal and do not reflect Russia’s unique cultural identity. In a 2012 speech to both houses of the Russian parliament, he declared that Russia’s “civilisation state” protects the country from “dissolving in this diverse world”. The West is a threat to this civilisation because, according to Putin, it denies moral principles and traditional ways of life. Both Trump and his former adviser Steve Bannon broadly agree with the aspiration to recover Judeo-Christian values, despite their own immoral behaviour.
For the Kremlin, the West’s weakness makes it unpredictable and more aggressive, as with anti-Russian economic sanctions. But, equally, it offers an opportunity to affirm Russia’s Eurasian identity against any integration with Western powers. Russia’s self-definition as a civilisational state provides Putin with a justification to intervene in the affairs of post-Soviet countries with Russian minorities, such as Georgia and Ukraine. The aim is not territorial conquest but strategic leverage. It serves the wider purpose of reasserting Russia as a great power alongside the US and China.
Russia has used civilisational arguments to frame its intervention in the Middle East, where it has supplanted the US as the pivotal player. Military aid to the regime of Bashar al-Assad has turned Syria into a Russian client state during the long and brutal civil war. Intervention bolstered Moscow’s mission to stop Islamist jihadists from controlling a large army and administrative apparatus that could have been used to kill the remaining oriental Orthodox Christians in the region.
In 2016 Valery Gergiev, a renowned Russian conductor close to Putin, led a concert in Palmyra’s Roman Theatre, a Unesco heritage site recaptured from Islamic State militants who had carried out summary executions in the ruins. In his address to the audience by video link, Putin called for a worldwide battle against the barbaric forces of Islamist terrorism. The message was that the West had lost its moral monopoly and Russia was a force for good. This is the Kremlin’s version of a civilising mission.
In one sense the ruling classes in self-styled civilisational states are avowed enemies of the West. They reject universal human rights and democratic freedoms in favour of their own cultural exceptionalism. Chinese and Russian elites invoke ideas similar to counter-Enlightenment reactionaries such as Joseph de Maistre and Johann Fichte, who glorified nationalism. They also appeal to Enlightenment concepts – such as Rousseau’s General Will that unifies society and demands absolute obedience, or Hegel’s notion that the state embodies the spirit of a people. These ideas are prominent in the religious philosophy of Ivan Ilyin and Aleksandr Dugin, both cited by Putin.
However, neither the Western cult of private freedom without social solidarity nor the totalitarian tendencies among China’s and Russia’s elites can nurture resilient societies against the disruptive forces of technology and implacable economic globalisation. At present, nation states and civilisational states are failing to create a genuinely democratic contest. Instead, they privilege the “will to power” of some over others – the strong, powerful and wealthy over the weak, powerless and poor. In both democratic and authoritarian systems, oligarchic power, demagogic politics and social fragmentation are increasing.
What is missing is a rich conception of humans as social, political beings who are embedded in relationships and institutions. Who among contemporary Western liberals or the illiberal elites elsewhere is thinking about how to balance individual rights with mutual obligations? Or how to foster freedom and fraternity outside the authoritarian state or the unfettered free market?
Yet across different civilisations there is an inchoate sense that the purpose of politics is the free association of people around common interests and shared social virtues of generosity, loyalty, courage, sacrifice and gratitude. The practice of such virtues can bind us together as citizens, nations and cultures beyond colour, class or creed.
The liberal West and the civilisational states of China and Russia are locked in a battle over competing “civilising” missions. And the terms of debate between different civilisations will surely not be Western. As Christopher Coker argues in The Rise of the Civilizational State, the resistance of the non-Western world means that “the West may be out of the business of shaping history for everyone else, or even itself”.
One plausible scenario is that the decisive conflicts will not be between the West and Asia but among oligarchic and demagogic forces on each side. The world is sliding into a soft totalitarianism based on surveillance and social control. Liberal universalism is fragmenting, and a new global “culture war” is pitting conservative nationalists against liberal cosmopolitans. The new pivot of geopolitics is civilisation. l
Adrian Pabst is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Liberal World Order and Its Critics” and “The Demons of Liberal Democracy”