The civilizational turn that wasn’t

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.

31 thoughts on “The civilizational turn that wasn’t”

  1. Why is this an issue at all? The ‘civilizational’ talk, I mean.

    No one would object to or be surprised by ‘Chinese civilization’, or Japanese, or Hindu. We actually assume that those are different cultures, in a bunch of very significant ways.

    I can’t help but wondering if the reason is that most Russians look European. But that’s just silly.

    Not to mention that not all of them look European. The defense minister Shoygu, for example, does not. And he grew up in Tuva, I understand. Wouldn’t it be natural for him being Russian while identifying with a civilization separate from the West?


    1. “No one would object to or be surprised by ‘Chinese civilization’, or Japanese, or Hindu. We actually assume that those are different cultures, in a bunch of very significant ways. “

      Actually, all talks about multi-kulti and diversity aside, them shy and conscientious intilligents in the West do not believe in other civilizations. There is *the* Civilization (that’s right, their own, “Western”) and then there is the Barbarity ™, an antithesis of the Civilization. If some Barbarians ™ exhibit traits of the One and Only Civilization, then this means not that they have a distinct (small “c”) civilization of their own – only that they might be pronounced as being “honorary White Western” one day. Maybe. Maaaaaaybe.

      Tl;Dr. All these talks about Russia belonging or not belonging to a (small “c”) civilization, distinct from the One and Only Western one are actually about whether the Russians should be treated as proper human beings, or, finally, the West can do as it pleases with these subhumans and feel no pangs of moral regret.


      1. “…them shy and conscientious intilligents in the West do not believe in other civilizations”

        Some do, though. Samuel Huntington did, for example. It’s only part of the western intelligentsia (the one that’s currently in demand by the establishment) that fits your description.


      2. “Some do, though. Samuel Huntington did, for example.”

        Didn’t they “cancel” him recently? 😉

        “intelligentsia (the one that’s currently in demand by the establishment)”

        There can’t be any other, really. Intelligentsia is a service strata, servicing and expressing the will of the ruling class whatever it is at the moment. Falling out of favor with the ruling elites means that they, dissenting intelligents, will soon will join other “downshifters”, unless they recant their heresies.


  2. Well worth noting again:

    An overall agreeable piece.

    It’s incorrect to equate all of Europe with the EU. Not every European nation is in the EU.

    Respectfully disagree with the notion that Russia isn’t a European nation. It can and has been called Eurasian. Much of Russia’s population is in Europe.

    The aforementioned reference to Peter the Great, doesn’t emphasize Russia’s greater interaction with western and central Europe, relative to the Fareast during this period and thereafter. The pre-Mongol invasion Rurik governed period of Russia included contact with Scandinavia.

    Russian sports teams compete in the European (not Asian) zone.


      1. By your “logic”, Mr. Armstrong, neither Ireland, Greece or Finland count as “European”.

        OTOH, you are neither a historian, nor an enthnographer to make an argumented and fact based point. You are (what’s popularly called nowadays) a “narrative-monger”. Given tacky pop-history superfecial nature of your “narrative”, treating it as a valid point is granting it totally undeserved validity.


      2. Patrick, I disagree with your thesis. I read that before.

        Two points I would offer from within my limited mental space:

        a) Russia mattered a lot in our history lessons (baccalaurat, you may be more familiar with the French term, 1970), ,,,.
        b) Russia mattered too in my specific German present.The above alluded to history lessons stopped with the Weimar Republic, curiously enough. I hated it. Seemed to spread out from Bismarck to Weimar so we could never touch times post 1933.


      3. GPA,

        So there’s no misunderstanding I agree with your suggestion that Russia (given its experiences) should tell the EU to essentially shove it on a number of matters. I do take issue with the belief that Russia isn’t a European nation for the reasons I describe further up this thread.

        As a follow-up to this particular matter, compare the Russo-Polish relationship versus the Russo-Sino variant. Despite, their squabbles, Russia and Poland do (to a good enough extent) have a shared experience, along with being ethnically, religiously and linguistically closer to each other than the Russians and Chinese.

        I recall someone saying that many Europeans have a characteristic of simultaneously disliking some other Europeans and liking some other Europeans.

        I very much respect Chinese civilization. At the same time, I feel that Russians and Poles (differences aside) have overall more in common with reach other than Russians and Chinese.

        Those in the West arguing that Russia isn’t European often (not in your case) exhibit bigoted tendencies towards Russians. On the flip side, those Russians and some others like yourself saying that Russia isn’t European have IMO been perhaps been led into believing a certain IMO snooty definition of what’s European.


    1. Mikhail, concerning our earlier short exchange. I am now 100% sure that the Michael Lind, recently on your mind–via an article you pointed out on ?The National Interest?–definitively is the Michael Lind that caught my attention in the 9/11 aftermath. As one of the saner minds. Though, it feels, earlier than this US war college article ,,,

      And now I have to try to wrap my head around how he surfaces on the Simone Weil website, no doubt in a context where I am an absolute nitwit:

      Our conversations in Moscow and in Washington, D.C. have made clear the importance of the unit, or category of analysis, in international relations. For IR realists (John J. Mearsheimer for example), the best unit of analysis is the nation state. Other analysts (Michael Lind) have suggested that we would be better served studying not states, but blocs (e.g., the American-led, Chinese, Russian, etc. blocs). Still others (Samuel Huntington, Boris Mezhuev) suggest we are best served by trying to balance and/or reconcile not blocs, but different civilizations. Each of these approaches raises its own set of problems and possibilities..


      1. Moon,

        Lind’s piece you mention:

        Excerpt –

        “If Trump, in spite of his unpopularity, is re-elected, then much of the trans-Atlantic establishment will attribute the result to the machinations of the all-powerful, diabolical Vladimir Putin. One reason to hope for a Biden victory (there are not many) is the possibility that it will bring an end to the hysterical neo-McCarthyism that has gripped America’s foreign policy, academic and media establishments for the past four years.“

        !? Dumb. If anything, a Biden victory in essence rewards those using nouveau McCarhtyite tactics to utilize them again.

        If I correctly understand, Lind at one point was more line with the neocons before taking more pragmatic positions. That said, there’re other available go to sources offering better input in some instances.

        I wouldn’t get too bogged down in which category to choose from between the nation state, power blocs and civilizations. They should each be studied with the understanding that all has to be considered.

        John Mearsheimer somewhat disappoints and brings to mind my reference to US foreign policy establishment realism. See the “open letter” he signed as noted in this piece:

        Another qualm with him discussed here:


      2. Lind at one point was more(in line with the neocons before taking more pragmatic positions.

        Yes, that triggers a memory trail. It feels he even mentioned it in the article on my mind.

        Mind you, from the German perspective: all I recall is an article I read (Die Zeit) around the time of the American changing of guards, so to speak, in early 2001. Neocon as label hadn’t entered the German discourse at that point in time. They were only labeled as hawks inside the new admin.


  3. I think a better case could be made that the “west” made a civilizational turn away from the once “common” civilization shared with Russia.

    In my view, the “EU statesman” Putin is probably closest too in terms of temperament etc. is probably Adenauer, who would have probably sold of his grandma for a Russian president that wants to be able to read Faust in the original (which Putin can, also, his German is thus better then my Russian, well, kind of because my attempts to read war and peace in the orginal dont get anywhere because I dont speak french at all) German.

    One of my fondest memories of Moscow was reading war and peace in a metro, and getting into a fit of serious laughter during the part that is in German in the original (some very cunning plan of probably Benningsen). Some Russian inquired why I thought that War and Peace is fun, and I responded, in kind of broken Russian, that Tolstoy totally managed to capture the completely divorced from reality style “thinking” of a certain subset of German officers, which btw. still exists in todays Bundeswehr.

    If you are a German ex grunt, who had some interface with officers who speak like that, that passage is actually comedy gold.


    1. That’s funny! It’s just beautiful that Russians cannot appreciate their own greatest classics without knowing French (and even German, apparently).
      On which note, I would also recommend Fedin’s “Goroda i Gody” which presumes some knowledge of German history and culture (and language).
      Is any more proof needed, that Russia is an integral part of Europe?
      Also, a reminder that Russian children need to work hard and study study study their foreign language classes.


    2. “One of my fondest memories of Moscow was reading war and peace in a metro, and getting into a fit of serious laughter during the part that is in German in the original (some very cunning plan of probably Benningsen).”

      Huh? Bennigsen? The most memetic example of the German sounding on “W&P” pages was in the following scene (Volume I, Part 3, Chapter XII):

      “If at first the members of the council thought that Kutuzov was pretending to sleep, the sounds his nose emitted during the reading that followed proved that the commander in chief at that moment was absorbed by a far more serious matter than a desire to show his contempt for the dispositions or anything else — he was engaged in satisfying the irresistible human need for sleep. He really was asleep. Weyrother, with the gesture of a man too busy to lose a moment, glanced at Kutuzov and, having convinced himself that he was asleep, took up a paper and in a loud, monotonous voice began to read out the dispositions for the impending battle, under a heading which he also read out:

      “Dispositions for an attack on the enemy position behind Kobelnitz and Sokolnitz, November 30, 1805.”

      The dispositions were very complicated and difficult. They began as follows:

      Da der Feind mit seinem linken Flügel an die mit Wald bedeckten Berge lehnt und sich mit seinem rechten Flügel längs Kobelnitz und Sokolnitz hinter die dort befindlichen Teiche zieht, wir im Gegenteil mit unserem linken Flügel seinen rechten sehr debordieren, so ist es vorteilhaft letzteren Flügel des Feindes zu attackieren, besonders wenn wir die Dörfer Sokolnitz und Kobelnitz im Besitze haben, wodurch wir dem Feind zugleich in die Flanke fallen und ihn auf der Fläche zwischen Schlapanitz und dem Thuerassa-Walde verfolgen können, indem wir dem Defileen von Schlapanitz und Bellowitz ausweichen, welche die feindliche Front decken. Zu diesem Endzwecke ist es nötig… Die erste Kolonne marschiert… die zweite Kolonne marschiert… die dritte Kolonne marschiert…

      The generals seemed to listen reluctantly to the difficult dispositions. The tall, fair-haired General Buxhöwden stood, leaning his back against the wall, his eyes fixed on a burning candle, and seemed not to listen or even to wish to be thought to listen. Exactly opposite Weyrother, with his glistening wide-open eyes fixed upon him and his mustache twisted upwards, sat the ruddy Miloradovich in a military pose, his elbows turned outwards, his hands on his knees, and his shoulders raised. He remained stubbornly silent, gazing at Weyrother’s face, and only turned away his eyes when the Austrian chief of staff finished reading. Then Miloradovich looked round significantly at the other generals. But one could not tell from that significant look whether he agreed or disagreed and was satisfied or not with the arrangements. Next to Weyrother sat Count Langeron who, with a subtle smile that never left his typically southern French face during the whole time of the reading, gazed at his delicate fingers which rapidly twirled by its corners a gold snuffbox on which was a portrait. In the middle of one of the longest sentences, he stopped the rotary motion of the snuffbox, raised his head, and with inimical politeness lurking in the corners of his thin lips interrupted Weyrother, wishing to say something. But the Austrian general, continuing to read, frowned angrily and jerked his elbows, as if to say: “You can tell me your views later, but now be so good as to look at the map and listen.” Langeron lifted his eyes with an expression of perplexity, turned round to Miloradovich as if seeking an explanation, but meeting the latter’s impressive but meaningless gaze drooped his eyes sadly and again took to twirling his snuffbox.

      “Une leçon de géographie” he muttered as if to himself, but loud enough to be heard.

      That “The first column marches… The second column marches… The third column marches…” – these memetic lines propelled the scene into eternity 🙂

      “Tolstoy totally managed to capture the completely divorced from reality style “thinking” of a certain subset of German officers, which btw. still exists in todays Bundeswehr.”

      IMO, Anglo-Saxon officer class inherited it and then cranked up to 11 this particular side of the German military tradition. It’s no wonder that it were the Germans who invented tabletop wargames. Just look at the Murikins (and Brits to some extent) now – they wargame everything with the autistic abandon of the people, obsessed with the capability worshipping technp-fetishi(s)ts (no, no typo here).

      Verily, isn’t it a sign of the commonality in “civilization” for such, ah, “diverse” groups to harken back actively to the (myth) of the XVIII c. “War in Laces” pure “proper gentlemanly affair”, while actively ignoring the “icky” stuff introduced since the XIX c. onward? Indeed, with such approach every “simulation” takes the form of the abovementioned “geography lesson” – but without ethnographic, anthropological or socio-economic background input, just plain simple description of “clay” to duke over.

      This very embrace of “capabilities uber alles” of the firm belief that their military’s (supposed) ability to win on the battlefield at the operational level immediately translates into a insta win on the strategic level. Meaning – the US also adopted the “blitzkrieg” as their ideal of warfighting. Since the “Desert Storm” of 1991 they try to shamanistically invoke its spirit time and again with the political and diplomatic equivalent of incense burnin’, hallucinogenic ‘shrooms eatin’ and war drums beatin’ of the proper certified shamans. Instead they get into the dreaded war of attrition time and again. And that’s too ungentlemanly of them, let alone unwinnable. Ergo the *pivot* to the “great power competition” and, ha-ha, “new strategy”, that’s just tactics wearing adult’s shoes.


      1. There is of course the funny thing that “Marsch” means “march” and “Arsch” means arse (argot, the polite word is “Hintern”), and there is a lot of german grunt humor about the phonetic similarity. There is also the “marschieren bis wir im Arsch sind” (we march until we are in the arse) or “Marsch in den Arsch”. “Wir sind im Arsch” means ” we are fucked up, shit!”, not “we have achieved a degree of anal penetration of the enemy”.


      2. Off-top

        Alexander, in one of your previous coments you wrote about reading Dominic Lieven’s “Russia against Napoleon” and likeing it. Have you read Hans Delbrück’s coverage of the period? To my enormous shame, I’ve discovered him only last year. Despite wanting to punch the fellow in the gonads about 75% of the time, still, I’ve found his writing enLYTTENing to the galaxy brain meme level.

        Liked by 1 person

    3. A.I.S, I liked your response to one of the lately very rare military topics over at SST. If that was you, which I assumed. Unfortunately my response is still sticking in the filters. Not that it matters.

      I disliked Adenauer when I was a juvenile/young adult, I only much later realized the fox-like nature of the man in his time.

      Vaguely around that time I encountered a sly monk as a tourist guide that perfectly entertained us while showing us around. Adenauer had spent some time there during Adolf’s reign. The monk kept his best joke for the end of the monastery tour. The tour was free covered in the entrance fee.

      But honestly wouldn’t you want to give after having been so perfectly entertained? Up to that final joke that had everyone around explode in laughter. And yes, very, very discretely there at the end of the tour, there in the crypt, very discreetly, was this bowl where you could say thank you. I didn’t watch anyone ignoring that bowl.

      Thanking you for the entertainment.


    4. “Da der Feind mit seinem linken Flügel an die mit Wald bedeckten Berge lehnt und sich mit seinem rechten Flügel längs Kobelnitz und Sokolnitz hinter die dort befindlichen Teiche zieht”

      Having been a grunt in the Bundeswehr for two years in a rather technical function (artillery, Schallmessbatterie) I never encountered that style of language from any officer.
      The linguistic skills were rather more developed at that time than the rather primitive style that now holds sway in verbal communication.
      I immensely adore the language the main villain in the US show “Justified” – Walton Goggins – communicates with.
      To me it is one of the best shows in this genre and seems to have much learned from the Cohen Brothers work.


      1. “I immensely adore the language the main villain in the US show “Justified” – Walton Goggins – communicates with.”

        “Ah, I see you a man of culture as well” (c)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Actually – Coen Bros. My mistake always. Can never get used to this butchered jewish surname…


  4. Okay. Another semi-strawman valiantly toppled, Professor. But what kind of long-shot (and, no doubt, ideology derived) point you are trying to make here?


    1. Goodness gracious, no-no-no-no! The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Armstrong. Never let the lack of qualification to stand in front of your desire to be heard high and wide..

      Bless your heat.


  5. That was a great meeting of minds, Paul. Thanks for the invitation. Unfortunately I missed the start and due to that was too late to figure out how to record it. It seems possible.

    It’s a bit of a pity the Simone Weil Center does not record these talks and puts them up on YouTube. For nitwits like me who would like to take a closer look at passages.


      1. Yeah, I tried to get it as well. Too bad CSPAN didn’t pick it up. Seems like a nice offset to a recent German Marshall Fund panel it aired.


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