The West’s Civilisational Model: Can It Be Salvaged?

Christopher Coker

Have you given much thought to civilisation? It is one of the most important words in the cultural lexicon, but what does the concept actually bring to mind, if anything at all? It is one of those concepts which you are expected to recognise instantly, along with others such as the nation-state.

You might identify with Western civilisation.’ But when you hear that term, what image does it conjure up? The great cathedrals of Europe? Intense expressions of beauty, like the pictures of Raphael or Rembrandt? Or, perhaps, a unique literary canon that dates back to Homer?

So, although you may not have given much thought to the concept of civilisation, there is really no escaping it, is there? Whenever there is a terrorist attack in Brussels or Paris or London, the newspapers are quick to invoke the Western values that are being attacked. 

Even the concept of civilisation has been said to be under attack: This is the world’s fight/​This is civilisation’s fight/​Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.’ This is one of George W. Bush’s most famous sayings, and it is fashionable these days to make fun of both the man and the sentiment. 

But what to make then of cultural vandalism’, an instrument of war employed by ISIS as they bulldozed Nimrud and destroyed the Temple of Bel in Palmyra? 

But what do I really mean when I talk of Western civilisation’? After all, it is quite common to speak of the 500-year ascendancy of the Western world and to date it from 1492 and the so-called discovery of the New World. But when one focuses in a little more, the picture is a little more complicated. 

Economically, after all, Europe didn’t overtake the East until the late eighteenth century. Militarily, its hegemony really only dates from the Industrial Revolution. But, in terms of ideas, the European ascendancy certainly did begin almost 400 years ago. 

The ideas of the French Revolution found their way into the political and legal systems of almost all European states. Late-nineteenth century imperialism, even if driven partly by industrial cartels and surplus finance capital, also involved the global projection of a civilizing mission. In other words, Europe was able to tap into a large reserve of conceptual capital. 

In a speech delivered in 1937, two years before the outbreak of the Second World War, Churchill told his audience that as a child he had learnt that there was a continent called Europe and that he still believed that to be the case. 

Geographers, however, now informed him that Europe was not a continent but merely a peninsula of the Asian landmass. He objected that he found this an arid and uninspiring conclusion. The real demarcation between Asia and Europe was not a chain of mountains or a national frontier but a system of beliefs and ideas which we call Western civilisation.‘1

So, while you may not have given civilisation a great deal of thought, rest assured that others certainly have. In fact, you are living in a world in which civilisation is fast becoming the currency of international politics. Neither civilizational identities nor national loyalties can be written off as the delusions of those who cannot make the most of globalization. They exist even if the historical conditions which gave rise to them have changed. And they are likely to be exploited by politicians. 

Byzantium was never as powerful as the Western Empire at its height, so had to be more resourceful. Mosaic of Emperor Justinian- Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
Byzantium was never as powerful as the Western Empire at its height, so had to be more resourceful. Mosaic of Emperor Justinian- Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna


A Post-Liberal World

In a speech at the NATO summit in Warsaw in July 2017, President Donald Trump asked his fellow Western leaders: Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?’

Trump brought with him a set of assumptions that was summed up best, perhaps, by the now disgraced Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist. 

One of Bannon’s aims in joining the Trump bandwagon, he told The Economist, was that the West should continue to dominate the high ground of history.

In fact, he had a much larger mission than just seeing off Islamic fundamentalists: I want the world to look back in a hundred years and say that their mercantilist Confucian system lost. And that the Judeo-Christian-Liberal West won’. 

Bannon himself was driven by a populist indignation about what the future might hold. His remarks expressed a despairing sense that the West was losing its place in the world, and that it was time to push back. It reflected a zero-sum view of international politics in which the winner takes all. 

Whatever Trump’s record in office, the incoming Biden administration is likely to find itself constrained by some of the forces which got Trump elected. As America’s position in the world continues to erode, Biden is likely to be mindful of American domestic concerns. Trumpism may merely be a mild foreshadowing of what is to come. 

Indeed, Western leaders are beginning to recognise that although they were once powerful enough to set the rules, their power to enforce them is diminishing fast. Russia is now powerful enough to break them. China will soon be powerful enough to remake them. 

The civilisational state

Civilisation gives rise to many different definitions; for some it denotes an organic structure, for others a discourse, a value-system, or all and none of the above. 

If you define it more narrowly, however, as a political community or as a belief system that is coterminous with a state, then you move to different ground. 

And some, not least Russia and China, dream of transforming themselves into civilisational nation states that will rival the nation states they have become. 

The civilisational state is an eclectic concept: it is largely a device to legitimise the power of a particular régime and to help it shape the political landscape in its own interests. But if it has one overarching theme it is this: the total rejection of universalism, the great dream of Western writers. 

And the civilisational state, or at least the most important one, China, is likely to come up with some truly transformational ideas to end the dominance of the Westphalian state system. 

The end of Western exceptionalism

Rummaging through the library stacks of his university while researching his senior thesis, the young Saul Bellow learned that two of the French ships in the slave trade had been named the Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Contrat Social. 

Hypocrisy, of course, is not the speciality of any one civilisation, though the West lends itself to criticism more than most because of the immodesty of its claims. 

The Enlightenment may have been one of the supreme accomplishments of Western civilisation, in Western eyes at least, but it is also the principal source of what Martin Jacques calls Euro-provincialism’. But it is still the yardstick by which the West tends to judge those it deems to be less enlightened, democratic or cosmopolitan than itself. 

It would be foolish, nevertheless, to deny that there is still a Western differential’. In the last 200 years the West has managed to craft a set of values and norms that, though grounded in its own historical experience, still enjoy immense cross-cultural appeal. 

Although the human rights revolution may have begun in nineteenth-century Europe, it didn’t remain tied to its roots. The abolition of the slave trade, the emancipation of women, social welfare provision, and universal education may have originated in the West, but are now part of world culture. 

But the world is changing quickly. The West may well have to accept, wrote the American philosopher Richard Rorty, that the ideas of John Stuart Mill may have little appeal to the 3 billion people coming into the world between now and 2050. Its values may not in fact be universal. 

The civilisational state and non-Western values

Just as Western exceptionalism loses traction, the civilisational state is encouraging its citizens to think of their own civilisation as exceptional, at times even immemorial’ or eternal’, something that can be analysed, catalogued and studied as a single entity because it is deemed to have an essence, or a spirit, and, in the case of Russia, a soul’. All this is nonsense, of course. 

In 2013 the Russian government set out to create a series of text books that would eliminate the possibility of internal contradictions’ and encourage exclusive interpretations of historical events’. Three years later, the Russian National Security Council claimed that one of its principal mandates was to prevent alleged distortions’ of Russian history by foreign powers.

The Russian authorities like to insist that their state is under threat. Putin likes to issue dire warnings about the country’s imminent de-sovereignization’ – the threat that it will disappear as an independent cultural entity if Western ideas circulate unchallenged. The patriarch of Moscow talks of defending its values against the contamination’ of Western ideas such as human rights. 

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party likes to claim that the Reform Programme which opened the country to rampant capitalism after 1979 springs from the soil of China’. And just as there must be no dilution of sovereignty, so there must be no dilution of security in the name of cosmopolitanism or multilateralism. Hard power remains the hard reality. In China, internet firewalls have replaced the stone walls of the past. 

All of which calls into question whether the world’s civilisational states have much interest in entering into a dialogue with anyone else – why should they, when they largely prohibit an open dialogue between themselves and their own citizens? 

In China, instead of celebrating a polyphony of voices from the past, the régime embraces just one, Confucianism, in order to further an agreed narrative – the China story. 

Putin’s Russia, meanwhile, finds itself imprisoned in its own private grief, and its message calls attention to emotions that most countries would prefer to keep hidden: shame, resentment, even envy of other people’s good fortune. 

If there is a difference between the two countries it is surely this: whereas Putin would like all Russians to think like him, Xi Jinping would rather have his subjects not think at all, but instead buy into the Party’s understanding of what makes China Chinese.’

Presidents Putin and Xi: challenging Western norms
Presidents Putin and Xi: challenging Western norms


Reshaping the international order

For the first time in many years,’ we are told by Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, a real competitive environment has emerged on the market of ideas’ between opposing value-systems and development models.

The West, he insists, has lost its monopoly over the globalisation process.’ 

As for China, Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew was right to warn the West that it should expect that one day soon it would want to reshape the present world order according to its own interests and values. 

After all, China is a nation that has already put cosmonauts in space and shot down one of its own satellites with a missile. As a 4,000-year-old culture with 1.3 billion people, the Chinese can potentially tap into the greatest fund of cultural capital in history. Why should they want to join the West? Why should they not want to make history in terms of their own? 

China’s ambitions are hard to pin down. That said, there are some straws in the wind, some suggestions for how the liberal global order might be restructured to reflect the imprint of Chinese characteristics’. And it is not particularly good news for the West. 

Addressing the United Nations in September 2005, China’s President Hu Jintao insisted that the next international order should be one of diverse civilisations, on the understanding that both those that had survived and many that hadn’t had contributed more than anyone else to human progress. The buzzword now is not only a harmonious society’ but also a harmonious world’. 

In Chinese eyes, the present world is zero-sum because it was created by European states that were almost permanently at war with each other. When they arrived in Asia the Europeans pursued nakedly power-related goals, whereas the Chinese had for centuries demanded only the recognition that theirs was a unique civilisation, and the only one that really made the cut. 

But this is a mis-reading of history. Ming China was a classic gunpowder empire which, like every other, bullied neighbouring countries using new technologies that its neighbours had not yet mastered. What killed off the Sinosphere in the mid-nineteenth century was the prosaic fact that Europeans had better guns and were able to impose a very different normative order on East Asia. 

Westphalian conceptions of international order are theoretically egalitarian and intensely legalistic in character. And the Western powers had little time for the hierarchical assumptions upon which the East Asian international order was based. 

It is that order’ the Chinese are now challenging. The Hague Tribunal which considered and rejected China’s historical rights’ in the South China Sea explicitly objected to the fact that China claimed rights outside the Convention.’ 

Will this be true of other international understandings China has signed? Like Russia, China seems to want special civilisational rights’, either in the absence of an agreed rewrite of the rules, or as a way of challenging them. 

What appears to be emerging is a world of two different blocs or two different orders – a US-centric and a Sinocentric system – with Russia ready to do deals with whoever shows it greater respect. 

Russia - eternal spoiler

Whereas China’s policy is perceived to be driven by strength, Russia’s is perceived to be driven by weakness. 

One is experiencing an economic uplift unique in history; the other appears to be in terminal decline. The result would appear to be that Russia has resolved to be selectively obstructive and disruptive, both to frustrate the West and to give it leverage with countries such as China. 

Breaking the international rules without being punished for doing so seems to be Putin’s particular definition of being a Great Power. 

So, do the Russians entertain any constructive vision of an alternative world order? Does Putin want to return to the world of the Yalta Conference, when the allies carved out separate spheres of influence’? Does he want to reset European security back to 1944? Or, instead of re-establishing an Iron Curtain separating two ideological blocs, does Russia want a zone of privileged civilizational interest?’ Remember that its privileged interests extend far beyond the Russian Federation. 

Putin would like to change the international order if he could, but he is not powerful enough to do so. Accordingly, he has been forced back on a compromise: to return to the future, to the nineteenth-century concert of powers. 

And, in the absence of economic and diplomatic clout, he has been forced to rethink war. Every act of Russian aggression’ as the West understands it, from the military intervention in Georgia in 2008 to the hybrid operations in Ukraine six years later, should not be seen so much as acts of aggression as the expression of a wish to return to the viability of national sovereignty. 

After the Cold War, the West tried to define sovereignty in ways that allowed it to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, usually in the name of human rights and the right to protect citizens from their own governments. Today Russia finds itself in a much better position to defend the old rules. Whatever interpretation we prefer, wrote Fyodor Lukyanov in 2017, the era of restoration is over; it is time to start building a new world.’ 

Can civilisation survive?

Which brings me back to my point of departure and the question I raised earlier. Do you give much thought to civilisation? 

It is possible that, wherever you hail from, you may well think that your civilisation is superior to every other because – in a word – it is more civilised.’

This is almost never used to qualify the noun – it would be odd, wouldn’t it, to talk of a civilised’ civilisation: wouldn’t that be an exercise in tautology? 

Except that it really wouldn’t. How civilised are the world’s great civilisations? 

Even a rudimentary study of history suggests that a huge gap has always existed between civilisation and its pretensions to civility. The great material achievements of the former are only part of the reality. 

But let’s wax optimistic. Let’s imagine that the campaign against liberal civilisation’ peaks, that populism too burns out. What will the future hold? 

If the Western world manages to hold together, even in a much looser form, I suspect that it will continue to harp back to its Ur-text, the Greco-Roman World. The West may reconnect with a very particular element of that past – the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium. 

Because Byzantium was never as powerful as the Western Empire at its height, it had to be more resourceful. It couldn’t rely on force alone and used diplomacy, deception and religious conversion to manipulate its enemies. 

But what really made a difference was what we now call soft power’ – an elaboration of the idea of conceptual capital earlier in this essay. This mustn’t be confused with our present understanding of the term – Byzantium had no UNESCO world heritage sites, famous football teams or world-class universities. 

But it had a capital city that topped the list of any outside Baghdad, as well as a world-class product, Christianity. 

Its brand was exported to the Middle East, Russia and Western Europe. And its ceremonial, antiquarianism and church decoration allowed it to present itself as Roman’ to the very end. These deeply resilient characteristics allowed Byzantium to retain its identity and keep its ideas afloat for almost ten centuries. 

Why does this matter, you ask? On today’s soft power index, all but one of the top ten places are accounted for by Western countries. The only exception is Japan. And that is unlikely to change in the immediate future. 

At the very least, I would say, soft power may permit the West to compensate for its diminished political status; at best, it may help it secure for itself the values in which it still professes to believe. Contrary to appearances, the West may not be shrinking – merely changing shape. 

The author is Director of the LSE think-tank, LSE IDEAS. His most recent book is The Rise of the Civilizational State: China, Russia and Islamic Caliphate and the challenge to the liberal world order.

1 Burleigh, Michael (2010) Moral Combat: A History of World War II. London: HarperPress. Page 76.

How Strong are the Civilisational States?

While Professor Coker’s argument about the relative decline of The West is persuasive, pressures generated by Covid-19 have shown cracks in the resilience of some of his civilisational’ states – and their leaders are showing signs of wear and tear. 

Vladimir Putin’s Russia, its economy battered by low oil prices, the pandemic and continued sanctions, looks weaker than it has for some time. Worryingly for the Kremlin, aspects of its foreign policy now appear decidedly shaky. 

In the vital near abroad,’ a troubled political autumn in Kyrgyzstan, the rise of a Harvard-educated leader intent on EU membership in Moldova and Azerbaijan’s success at Armenia’s expense in Nagorno-Karabakh are headaches. Other friends like Belarus and Serbia appear caught between a desire to Westernise and pressure to remain in Russia’s sphere of influence. 

All the while, China’s financial and political influence grows as the Belt and Road Initiative expands into Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans. 

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, while celebrating its role in Nagorno-Karabakh and intervening in Libya and other former Ottoman domains, is facing domestic economic turbulence so serious that it may have cost his son-inlaw and assumed heir apparent, Berat Albayrak, his job as Finance Minister. And, tragically, Turkey looks set to have a very hard winter as Covid surges. 

In Western capitals, the mood appears to be turning. Turkey’s assertiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean has forced the European Union to act, with talk of Brussels extending currently very limited travel blacklists and the possibility of more penalties to come in 2021. Meanwhile, from Washington there is news that Congress may force President Trump to sanction Ankara for its 2019 acquisition of the Russian S‑400 air defence system. 

Xi Jinping’s China has so far proved the exception, as Beijing has combined its authoritarian handling of the pandemic and its less-than-honest analysis of the problem with the best economic performance of any nation. 

As 2020 rolls into 2021 can China really continue to afford the Belt and Road Initiative and its more muscular international approach to Hong Kong and Taiwan, not to mention regional powers like Australia and India? 

And yet for The West to reassert itself, much will depend on President Biden’s success in restoring faith in the international system. Even if the broad structures of the Western approach are restored, as Professor Coker concludes, we are in a different world now – and as we emerge from the pandemic, further change seems inevitable. 

Christopher Coker is Director of the LSE think-tank, LSE IDEAS. His most recent book is The Rise of the Civilizational State: China, Russia and Islamic Caliphate and the challenge to the liberal world order.