Rome, the Civilisation State

In Beijing, we are making History. In Venice, they are selling history. Professor Zhao
A spectre is haunting the liberal West: the rise of the civilisation-state. As America’s political power wanes and its moral authority collapses, the rising challengers of Eurasia have adopted the model of the civilisation-state to distinguish themselves from a paralysed liberal order. Adrian Pabst observes that “in China and Russia the ruling classes reject Western liberalism. They define their countries as distinctive civilisations with their own unique cultural values and political institutions.” From China to India, Russia to Turkey, the great and middling powers of Eurasia are drawing ideological succour from empires which they claim descent, remoulding their non-democratic, statist political systems as a source of strength rather than weakness, and upturning the liberal-democratic triumphalism of the late 20th century. The Chinese political theorist Zhang Weiwei observed with pride that “China is now the only country in the world which has amalgamated the world’s longest continuous civilization with a huge modern state… Being the world’s longest continuous civilization has allowed China’s traditions to evolve, develop and adapt in virtually all branches of human knowledge and practices, such as political governance, economics, education, art, music, literature, architecture, military, sports, food and medicine. The original, continuous and endogenous nature of these traditions is indeed rare and unique in the world.” Unlike the ever-changing West, constantly searching after progress and reordering its societies to suit the intellectual fashions of the moment, Weiwei observes that “China draws on its ancient traditions and wisdoms.” It is in these hallowed traditions, of a centralised state with a 4000-year history, of an efficient bureaucratic class adhering to Confucian values, and of an emphasis on stability and social harmony over liberty, that Chinese theorists credit their civilisation-state’s rise, now “seemingly unstoppable and irreversible”. Surveying a West in decline and a Middle East mired in bloody chaos, Weiwei remarks with cool detachment that “if the ancient Roman empire had not disintegrated and been able to accomplish the transformation into a modern state, then today’s Europe could also be a medium-sized civilisational state; if the Islamic world today made up of dozens of countries could become unified under one modern governing regime, it could also be a civilisational state with more than a billion people, but the chance for all these scenarios has long gone.”
Yet the appeal of the civilisation-state model is not limited to China. Under Putin, the other great Eurasian empire, Russia, has publicly abandoned the Europe-focused liberalising projects of the 1990s — a period of dramatic economic and societal collapse driven by adherence to the policies of Western liberal theorists — for its own cultural sonderweg or special path of a uniquely Russian civilisation centred on an all-powerful state. In a 2013 address to the Valdai Club, Putin remarked that Russia “has always evolved as a state‑civilisation, reinforced by the Russian people, Russian language, Russian culture, Russian Orthodox Church and the country’s other traditional religions. It is precisely the state‑civilisation model that has shaped our state polity.”
This unresolved tension between East and West, Europe and Asia defines the political stance of Byzantium’s other successor state and Nato’s current problem child, Turkey. Like China, a great premodern empire eclipsed by the rise of the West to global dominance, Turkey under Erdogan now cloaks its revanchist desires in the sumptuous mantle of the Ottoman past. Trapped in the post-historical dreams of liberalism, many Western observers of Erdogan’s growing aggression had missed these symbolic cues, or dismissed them as empty rhetoric, a luxury not available to Turkey’s former subject peoples in the Balkans. When, in March, Turkey attempted to force Greece’s borders open with thousands of migrants assembled from the slums of Istanbul, the Bayraktar drone that hovered above the contested border fence bore the callsign 1453, the date of the fall of Constantinople, just as the drill-ships that constantly threaten to violate Greek and Cypriot sovereignty bear the names of the Ottoman admirals and corsairs who ravaged the coasts of Greece and Europe. In a speech at the same time as the Turkish navy threatened Greece with war, the interior minister Suleyman Soylu outlined Turkey’s intent: a civilisational vision of the new world order: “On this path,” he told the assembled audience of military dignitaries, “we’ll design by embracing the entire world with our civilisation, holding the West and East with one hand, the North and South in the other, the Middle East and the Balkans in one hand, the Caucasus and Europe in the other.”
In an overlooked speech last year to a gathering of France’s ambassadors, Macron mused that China, Russia and India were not merely economic rivals but “genuine civilisation states… which have not just disrupted our international order, assumed a key role in the economic order, but have also very forcefully reshaped the political order and the political thinking that goes with it, with a great deal more inspiration than we have.” Macron observed that “they have a lot more political inspiration than Europeans today. They take a logical approach to the world, they have a genuine philosophy, a resourcefulness that we have to a certain extent lost.” Warning his audience that “we know that civilisations are disappearing; countries as well. Europe will disappear.” The West, and Europe, struggle to define their own very natures, and place greater intellectual emphasis on deconstructing it than on defending it: an urge that is, like the impetus to deny the existence of civilisations as bounded entities, itself ironically a unique marker of our own civilisation. As Portugal’s former foreign minister Bruno Macaes observed in a perceptive recent essay, it is precisely the global aspirations of liberalism that have severed the West, and Europe particularly, from its own cultural roots. “Western societies have sacrificed their specific cultures for the sake of a universal project,” Macaes notes. “One can no longer find the old tapestry of traditions and customs or a vision of the good life in these societies.” Our naive faith that liberalism, derived from the political and cultural traditions of Northern Europe, would conquer the world has now been shattered for good. Instead, it is the defiantly non-liberal civilisation-states of Eurasia that threaten to swallow us whole. Where then, does that leave Europe, and what are we to do with liberalism? “Now that we have sacrificed our own cultural traditions to create a universal framework for the whole planet,” Macaes asks, “are we now supposed to be the only ones to adopt it?”

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