Tag Archives: civilizations

Crackpot Theory no. 12: Civilizations

In an article yesterday for RT, my Ottawa colleague Professor Piotr Dutkiewicz discussed the influence of Lev Gumilev on the thinking of Russian president Vladimir Putin, particularly in terms of the idea that the world is divided up into distinct ‘civilizations’. In this, Professor Dutkiewicz notes that,

‘The Russian leader believes that the long period of the last three centuries in which the West has been a dominant economic, cultural, and political force is not only ending but is being replaced by a new paradigm. This paradigm features the emergence of the civilizational model of international relations and regional dialogue, in which cultural/civilizational similarities and differences will possibly influence global patterns of collaboration, confrontation, and dependence.’

I’ve discussed Gumilev before in my Crackpot Theory series, both in relation to Eurasianism and the concept of ‘passionarity’, but today I want to move beyond him to this broader concept of civilizations, as it seems to me to be decidedly dodgy.

The idea that the world is made up of distinct civilizations dates back to at least the late nineteenth century and Nikolai Danilevsky’s book Russia and Europe. Danilevsky rejected the historical determinism of Western liberalism that saw the world as a whole as progressing towards a single end (normally defined in terms of Western liberalism, though communists gave it a different spin). Instead, he claimed that the world was divided up into distinct ‘cultural-historical types’ that progressed according their own particular dynamics. Variations on this idea were then developed by the likes of Konstantin Leontiev, Arnold Toynbee, and in more recent times Samuel Huntington.

The initial problem with the theory is that the very idea of a ‘civilization’ is extremely vague. Dutkiewicz comments that, ‘Civilization rests on its participants’ faith in joining a specific stream of history. While the final historical destination is unclear, an embedded sense of belonging forms the base upon which members of a civilization ground their sense of purpose.’ One might ask what then distinguishes a civilization from a nation, given that nations are also founded on a ‘sense of belonging’. The answer might be that civilizations are not individual nations, but groups of them. But to what extent can it truly be said that groups of nations anywhere share an ’embedded sense of belonging’ and ‘sense of purpose’? At times, they may come together in alliances for specific reasons, but beyond that ‘civilizations’ as such are rather intangible and hard to identify.

To a certain extent, I think, this idea is one that is transposed from the West to the rest of the world. There is some sort of sense of ‘the West’ as a collective whole, founded on a common Graeco-Roman and Christian heritage, and nowadays bound by commonly accepted liberal values which provide a sense of universalizing historical mission. But it’s hard to see how this model applies elsewhere. Take a look at the civilizations identified by Huntington – these include such amorphous ‘civilizations’ as ‘Orthodoxy’ (many of whose members are now part of the ‘the West’), and ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ and ‘Latin America’ (are these really areas with an ’embedded sense of belonging and obvious sense of common destiny?). Huntington’s ‘Muslim World’ is not a unified whole, and others of his ‘civilizations’ are actually single states – China, India, and Japan.

In short, civilizations are not just hard to define, they’re even hard to locate.

They are also decidedly fungible – states move in and out of them. Britain was part of the EU; now it’s not. Do Brits really feel ‘European’? Clearly, a lot of them don’t. Can you lump Ukraine in with Russia as part of ‘Orthodox’ civilization, when it’s obvious that a large part of the Ukrainian population has decided to throw in its lot with Western Europe? And in any case, is Russia really that different from the West? It seems to me that whatever the differences, they are less than they were 40 years ago when I first visited Russia. Back then, in Soviet times, it was a far more alien place than it is now.

Yes, there are differences between Russia and Western states, but there are huge differences between Western states themselves. There are large cultural divides even between states as close as Canada and the USA – not to mention, of course, the cultural divides within Western states, especially contemporary America.

This brings us on to another problem: ‘civilizations’ are not constant. What counts for Western civilization today isn’t what counted for Western civilization 100 years ago, let alone 200 or 1,000 years ago. When something changes that much, does it make sense to consider it a single thing?

Beyond that, when I listen to Russians trying to explain why they are a distinct ‘civilization’, most of what they say isn’t distinctively Russian at all. For instance, they say things like ‘Russia has a more collective culture than the individualistic West, exemplified in its attitude to social welfare.’ Yet not only is this disputable in and of itself (some commentators consider Russian culture to be highly individualistic), but collectivism, social welfare etc, are visible in many Western states – e.g. Canada where I live.

Or take another so-called aspect of ‘Russian civilization’ people talk about – ‘family values’. Russia has a very high (though declining) abortion rate, lots of divorce, marital violence, etc etc – hardly proof of ‘family values’. As for Russians attitudes to LGBT issues, they are merely where the West was 20-30 years ago. That’s proof of a time-lag but not of a distinct ‘civilization’.

In other words, the idea that Russia and the West are distinct ‘civilizations’ doesn’t meld with reality.

Nor it is obviously the case that alleged civilizational distinctions determine geopolitics. Japan is part of the ‘the West’ in geopolitical terms, for instance. Many Asian, African, Middle East, and Latin Amerian states are also closely allied with the West. Meanwhile, as Chinese influence spreads, it will among states that have nothing to do with Chinese ‘civilization’ – e.g. in Africa. ‘Civilization’ per se isn’t, and wont’ be, the primary determinant in international affairs.

The Western liberal model of history sees everybody starting off in different places and then gradually converging, albeit retaining some national peculiarities. The civilizational model of history views things the opposite way – Danilevsky compared it to roads leading out of a common town square, i.e. diverging not converging. On the whole, despite its many imperfections, I think that the former model is rather closer to reality.

What we in the West get wrong is trying to force the pace of change on others, and also assuming that convergence means convergence towards the West, rather than mutual convergence. But despite those failings, I don’t buy into the civilization discourse. I see its popularity in Russia as being founded on its ability to excuse Russian divergence from some Western norms, as well as on its ability to justify Russian resistance to Western geopolitical pressure. But its utility as a political tool doesn’t make it right from a historical/philosophical point of view. Civilizational theory fits the political zeitgeist of Cold War 2.0, but to my mind competing national interests have far more to do with the current state of East-West relations than amorphous ideas of civilizational difference.

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.