Home Current Issue Federalist Action From the Nation-State to the Civilizational State

From the Nation-State to the Civilizational State

Additional Info

  • Autore:

    Adriana Castagnoli

  • Titolo:

    Historian of Economy, editorialist of the daily Il Sole-24 Ore, former teacher in Contemporary and Economic History at the University of Torino, member of the European Business History Association and Business History Conference (USA)

Christopher Coker

The Rise of the Civilizational State

Polity Press, Cambridge, Oxford, Boston, New York, 2019


The concept of civilization has returned to the forefront of global policy debates. Leaders of emerging or returning great powers such as Russia, China, India, and Turkey have emphasized the identity of their civilizations in communicating their policy proposals both domestically and internationally. The emphasis on identity has also been evident in US President Trump's foreign policy.

In his article published in Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt writes that Trump and his advisors have operated within a conceptual framework that is essentially that of the “clash of civilizations”. As a result, analysts wonder whether the 21st century will be the century of “civilizational states” as the nation-state had dominated in the recent past. Zhang Weiwei was one of the first to throw a pebble in the pond when, in 2012, he presented the rise of China in The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State, questioning many of the Western assumptions about democracy or good governance, and human rights. The following year, Vladimir Putin declared for the first time that Russia was a civilizational state and, since then, he has missed no opportunity to proclaim the end of the liberal international order.

Are, therefore, the rise of civilizational states and the decline of liberal democracy inevitable? Are we moving towards the clash of civilizations as partly predicted by Samuel Huntington? Or will we accept a greater pluralism, without falling into relativism, in the international order?

The clash of civilizational states represents an unconventional contribution to the debate on our future. Christopher Coker, professor at the London School of Economics and author of The Rise of the Civilizational State (2019), writes: “This book is concerned with how non-Western governments and movements are using the currency of civilization for their policy ends. Nevertheless, it is also about why the Western world is facing its moment of crisis: about how Western students learn at increasingly left-leaning universities, obsessed with identity politics and no-platforming speakers they dislike, that there are no civilizational values, and, as the push back against liberal civilization reveals, that there is no widely accepted universal value-system to which everyone subscribes. On the right, on the other hand, there is a despairing denial of the obvious: that the West is not quite as exceptional as it once liked to think. The old civilizational values, lurking below the level of consciousness in the rest of the world, continue to retain their appeal. At the level of consciousness, political regimes are quite cynically tapping into more primal identities. Global citizenship, the great dream of liberal internationalists, is losing traction, as is the dream of the liberal civilization itself.

In the age of decolonization, the concept of civilization was considered too cumbersome. In the mid-1960s, the historian Fernand Braudel had to defend the idea that although civilization had always had a complex relationship with the short period in history, it was ‘still useful’ to denote social-cultural life, with its distinctive rhythms and its cycles of growth.

Then, in 1995, Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations was widely challenged, mainly by criticism based on the development of crises and conflicts within the same civilization, precisely as it happened in the 16th century between Catholics and Protestants. Civilizations are indeed constantly changing works in progress. With references to Paul Veyne, Coker states that no civilization has precise historical roots: “Its character, insofar as it has one, is largely heterogeneous, contradictory, polymorphous.” So, Christianity and democracy are only components of western civilization, not its matrix. As Coker writes: “Ultimately, I think that one has to accept that civilization lends itself to myth-making; it feeds off another very human tendency – to go down to the essence of life, to strip it down to its core, to reveal the eternal behind the commonplace.”

Mythopoeia took place both in the West and in the East. Two opposing forces, cosmopolitanism and nativism, now confront each other, revealing how the imagination can shape identities in bizarre ways and how “intellectuals in cahoots with a political class can hoodwink both themselves and others.”

Coker continues: “The civilizational state is an eclectic concept: it is largely a device to legitimize the power of a particular regime and to help it shape the political landscape in its interests. Nevertheless, if it has one overarching theme, it is this: the total rejection of universalism, the great dream of Western writers”.

While Western exceptionalism is losing traction, civilizational states like Russia and China are encouraging their citizens to think of their civilization as something exceptional, at times “immemorial” or “eternal,” with the sole purpose of preserving the interest of a particular regime. Nevertheless, as Coker confirms: “even if the liberal experiment fails to take roots elsewhere in the world, that is no reason to give up on liberalism.”


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