I like to debunk. In my last big post I tackled the Brexit plot that wasn’t. Today, I debunk the ‘civilizational turn’ that wasn’t.
‘What’s this civilizational turn?’, you ask. It’s the idea that since 2012, the Russian state and its leaders have increasingly turned towards a civilizational discourse in their foreign policy rhetoric, describing Russia as a distinct civilization, separate from the West, with its own unique values and institutions.
This form of rhetoric is often seen as originating in the work of late nineteenth century philosophers Nikolai Danilevsky and Konstantin Leontyev, who generated the thesis that the world does not consist of different nations all converging towards some common future, but rather of separate civilizations all progressing along entirely distinct paths. It is no coincidence that in the past few years Danilevsky and Leontyev are among the most cited authors in the works of Russian international relations scholars. The language of civilizations is now pretty much mainstream in the Russian foreign policy community.
In the twentieth century, civilizational theory became strongly associated with Eurasianism, which maintains that the lands of the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union constitute a distinct civilization, bound together by a common history, culture, and so on. The civilizational/Eurasianist discourse favours the idea that Russia/Eurasia is separate from the West, and that the most natural form of world order is polycultural and multipolar in nature. In the eyes of many critics, it is associated with a preference for a new international order, and thus with an aggressive, revisionist, foreign policy agenda.
In the past, I have cast some serious doubt on the thesis that Russian leaders, and especially President Vladimir Putin, view the world in these terms. For instance, in an academic article about Putin’s speeches, my co-author and I noted that while Putin occasionally made use of the word ‘civilization’, he has also consistently referred to Russia as culturally European. And although Putin sometimes makes reference to Eurasia, these references have not increased over time.
As for Putin’s views of the international order, we said, they have been equally ‘consistent over time’, are quite conservative in nature, and place a lot of emphasis on the United Nations as the central body in the international system. And while it is true that the idea of Russia’s distinct values often appears, so to do references to universal values. In short, the civilizational turn isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
Having said all this stuff, it’s nice to find some support from another source. This comes in a brand new article in the academic journal Europe-Asia Studies by Matthew Frear and Honorata Mazepus of Leiden University.
Entitled ‘Security, Civilisation and Modernisation: Continuity and Change in the Russian Foreign Policy Discourse’, the article looks at the official Foreign Policy Concepts produced by the Russian government from 2008 to 2018, and also at President Putin’s speeches to the Federal Assembly. The authors cluster the words used in these documents and speeches into groups: those relating to the world order, including concepts such as security, power, and sovereignty; those relating to identity issues and civilizations; and finally those relating to economics. They then assess how much attention each cluster received, and how that changed over time.
What they find is interesting, though in my mind not surprising: there has been no civilizational turn in Russian rhetoric since 2012. World order issues dominate Russian discourse, compromising around 50% of the content of the Foreign Policy Concepts in 2008, 2013, and 2016. Civilizational issues comprised only 6-7% in all three documents, and issues of identity included references both to distinct Russian values and to universal standards. There is no specific mention of Russia having a Eurasian identity.
Issues of world order, sovereignty, and security similarly dominate Putin’s speeches. Civilizational/identity issues got a big mention in his 2012 speech to the Federal Assembly but since then have pretty much disappeared. Eurasianism as such is never mentioned. Putin does make much greater reference than do the Foreign Policy Concepts to ‘spiritual issues and moral standards’. But Frear and Mazepus conclude that ‘This suggests that the so-called “conservative turn” in the Russian official discourse is aimed more at the domestic than the international audience.’
Overall, the authors conclude that their analysis shows ‘a great deal of continuity in the amount of space dedicated to the discourses under investigation’. Issues of sovereignty and security dominate, and despite a brief blip in Putin’s 2012 speech, identity and civilizational matters remain secondary and have not increased in prominence.
In my recent article in Russia in Global Affairs, I noted that in Russia ‘civilizational discourse has now become mainstream’, but at the same time I cautioned that, ‘the connection between conservative ideology and state practice is weaker than is often assumed’. I concluded:
As with the statements on ‘traditional values’ one should be careful about reading too much into official references to civilizations. Civilizational discourse provides a means of justifying Russian state leaders’ preference for a multipolar order founded on the principle of state sovereignty. But that preference existed well before the civilizational discourse became common. … Although much has changed since 2001, the preference for a stable, multipolar international order, founded on the UN Charter and the principle of state sovereignty, has not. In broad terms, over the past twenty years Russian foreign policy has remained remarkably consistent. This suggests that the driving force of Russian actions on the international scene remains a pragmatic understanding of Russian interests rather than any passing ideological considerations.
I think that this latest research backs me up.