China, Russia, India, and Turkey

The Idea of Civilization-States Becomes a Geostrategic Talking Point

I first heard the term “civilization-state” in 2012 (cf. some brief comments on the article and Civilization-States and Their Attempted Extirpation), and then just a few weeks ago I ran across an article by Bruno Maçães, The Attack of the Civilization State.

Now Black Pigeon Speaks has made a video about civilization states, Clash of Civilizations and Neo-Turkish Caliphate Rising, in which he cites several sources of which I was unaware: The Irresistible Rise of the Civilization-State by Alex Roussinos, China, Russia and the return of the civilisational state by Adrian Pabst, and the book The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State by Zhang Weiwei. The Roussinos article references several additional discussions, including the book The Rise of the Civilizational State by Christopher Coker.

Clearly, the idea of the civilization-state has become a geostrategic talking point, and, as implied by the title of Black Pigeon’s video, it easily plays into Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which was a big talking point in the 90s, along with Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis, which latter many take to be refuted by the clash of civilizations and the rise of the civilization state.

So far, most of the discussion of civilization-states have focused on China, probably because Martin Jacques,who introduced the idea, introduced it in the context of a discussion of China, China is a Civilization-State. But the recent increase in discussion of civilization states has branched out to identify, in addition to China, Russia, India, and Turkey, inter alia. And certainly all of these contemporary nation-states can draw upon a deep civilizational tradition. However, I don’t see any of them being prepared to challenge the fundamental presuppositions of the anarchic nation-state system, including the clear definition of national boundaries and the territorial principle in law. These presuppositions are now planetary in scale, and any regime — like a regime of civilization states — that would challenge the anarchic nation-state system would have to challenge these assumptions on a planetary scale.

I think that what is actually happening here is not the rise of a new kind of geopolitical entity, or even the return of an ancient kind of geopolitical entity, but rather it is that contemporary nation-states that have a particular civilizational tradition to draw upon are showing their willingness to draw upon this tradition in order to differentiate themselves and to offer justifications for policy positions that fly in the face of what some imagine to be international norms. However, it needs to be observed that the policy positions, however controversial, immediately benefit the nation-states in question, and do not advance some civilizational agenda that marginalizes or supersedes the nation-state or the anarchic nation-state system.

Now, I will allow that Turkey may turn itself into a regional power that is able to tap into the history and prestige of the Ottoman Empire, and this may prove to be a durable power in the world. Turkey has a robust economy and a growing population. Russia, by contrast, is not going to be a great power in the 21st century as its population is crashing, and China’s population will crash later in the 21st century, so China’s moment in the sun may be yet to come, but it won’t last long. And China, we recall, is ruled by a communist party that can never completely identify itself with Chinese civilization. Erdogan in Turkey, by contrast, can take on the mantle of leading Islamic state, and, if he wanted to, he could even proclaim himself Caliph. Recall, again, that the dissolution of the Caliphate was accomplished in Turkey with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, so there is an historical case to be made for the resurrection of the Caliphate in Turkey.

I will further allow that Turkey may yet become a civilization-state, and it could well outlast the epoch of nation-states and come to represent Islamic civilization in a post-nation-state world. But that remains to be seen, and it is by no means inevitable. While Turkey has a better claim to representing Ottoman civilization than the Chinese communist party has to representing Chinese civilization, there is a tension here, too. Islam has never had a central coordinating body, so that the leading Islamic power was simply the most powerful Islamic state at any given time in history. The Turks were peripheral to Islam until they conquered the lands of the former Byzantine Empire, and, becoming the most powerful state representative of Islam, Islamic authority fell to them. But there are other states that would also be the leading power of Islam, if only they can assert themselves as such. The Saudis have a better claim to centrality in the Islamic world, and the Saudis have de facto access to nuclear weapons through their relationship to Pakistan, but if Turkey pursues the path of being one of the leading world powers, it will have to develop nuclear weapons of its own — and certainly it can do this. (George Friedman, who founded Stratfor, in his book The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century included Turkey among the major world powers.)

Of the presumptive civilization-states, then, Russia is a declining power that cannot claim to be in the vanguard of any civilization, China is still growing but faces great obstacles, chief among them that the communist party cannot transparently identify itself with Chinese civilization without ceasing to be the communist party, and Turkey has a potential future as a civilization-state, but it has a long way to go before it can reasonably claim to have attained this status.

Whether the future is going to be a future of civilization-states remains to be seen, but you can count me as skeptical. The nation-state system remains essentially unchallenged, even if a growing number of nation-states reject what was once seen as an inevitable future of liberal democratic nation-states seeking to maximize GDP and consumer spending in a peaceful international state system. Nevertheless, whatever my skepticism, I am glad to say that I visited Hagia Sophia in 1993, when it was still a museum open to westerners, since Erdogan has now re-converted it into a mosque. However, when I was in Istanbul, I also visited the Blue Mosque, which never was a church, and westerners were at that time allowed to see the inside (as long as you left your shoes outside). In the 90s I also considered going to Jerusalem, but didn’t do so. I now regret this. For all the violence in the 80s and 90s, it was probably then a better time to visit Jerusalem than today. Perhaps I will never make it to Jerusalem.

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