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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe Myth of the “Civilization State”: Rising Powers and the Cultural Challenge...

The Myth of the “Civilization State”: Rising Powers and the Cultural Challenge to World Order

Author: Amitav Acharya 

Affiliation: American University, Washington, D.C.

Organization/Publisher: Ethics & International Affairs

Date/Place: July 8, 2020/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 18


Keywords: Civilization States, Clash of Civilizations, Liberal International Order, Multiplex World, and Rising Powers


The recent period has witnessed a return to the “civilization” concept at the front of global political discussions, especially with the leaders of emerging countries such as China, India, and Turkey emphasizing the distinctive civilization identity of their states in their domestic and foreign political discourse. Accordingly, some scholars claim that the 21st century will be dominated by the “Civilization State” in the manner in which the Nation-State dominated world politics in the past few centuries. In this article, Acharya asks whether the rise of the civilizational state is inevitable, and if it will undermine the liberal international order further. Will this lead to a clash of civilizations as Huntington expected, or will ideas from Asia and non-Western civilizations contribute to maximizing the tendency of pluralism in our thinking about the world order and international relations? Despite the current challenge posed by the civilization state to the liberal order, he argues that the civilization state can’t replace the nation-state as this concept is an artificial political concept characterized by short-sightedness and inconsistent with historical and real facts. Additionally, several political, economic and strategic factors of global politics prevent the embodiment of the civilization state. A civilization state—defined as a state in which its leaders evoke the historical past (often unilateral) to build a unified national identity—uses “the weapon” of culture claiming cultural distinction from others in order to frame their domestic and foreign policies. According to  Acharya, what is being done today by leaders in India, China, Turkey, and to a lesser extent Russia, are contemporary examples of a civilization state. Before deconstructing this concept, the author asserts that evoking history to build the state is not new, as the early founders of the US did it by invoking the distinction of the culture and institutions of their modern state, linking it to the ancient Greek and Roman heritage, generating what is now known as “American exceptionalism.” Also, the civilization identity has always been part of the foreign policy of post-colonial countries, as a conscious response to centuries of Western domination that used “the standards of their civilization” to enslave and marginalize indigenous people. Evoking civilizational history today faces three global developments: the crisis of the Western-led liberal international order, the growing populism as a trend usually centered on the backgrounds of defending the distinct civilizational identity, and the increasing power of emerging Asian states, mainly India and China. However, Acharya argues that civilizational purity or the claims of distinction are often an artificial political construct. There is no homogeneous civilization, just as the civilization is characterized naturally by its complexity. To prove this argument, the author provides historical examples in each of the four countries (India, China, Turkey, and Russia). For instance, ancient India was a diverse civilization in which contradictory political philosophies sometimes prevailed. The Arthashastra Act (the science of material gain) urged for the adoption of “fully practical and unemotional policies” to invade enemies and expand lands through war and assassination. On the other hand, India also saw supremacy in the philosophy of Commander “Ashoka the Great,” who affirmed moral judgment, religious tolerance, and the rejection of war. Similar patterns existed in ancient China (Confucianism vs. legalism), as well as in Turkey, which represents one part of a broad and diverse Islamic civilization, political centers and cultures (Damascus, Baghdad, Cordoba, etc.). Moreover, the Ataturkian-Turkey evoked a narrative with a cultural history different from what the Erdoganian-Turkey is doing today. The same thing happened in Russia in the 1990s when it flirted itself as Western by defining itself as a liberal country; but recently its leadership’s emphasis on the Eurasian cultural distinction of Russia has rejected the Western values and is working to revive the claims of the Tsarist era as a successor to the Roman Empire (Third Rome). All of these are evidence of the incoherence and myth of the civilizational state. The author believes that the current leaders of these countries evoke civilization as a way to gain greater respect and recognition in a world dominated by the West, especially after they feel that their countries have become more powerful and self-reliant. After refuting the myth of the civilizational state, Acharya elaborates on two factors that restrict the rise of the civilization state at present. First, the motive for evoking civilization state is related closely to the security and survival of the political regime in these countries. As these countries know a decline in democracy and the growing of authoritarianism accompanied by economic decline in recent times (he provides some figures), it causes them to cover these shortcomings with cultural and civilizational discourse, challenging internal and external opponents in order to maintain popular support, enhance their legitimacy and thus the survival of their political regimes. Secondly, these countries must establish economic and strategic ties with other countries that are culturally different from them, which prevents the formation of the civilizational state. For example, despite the apparent “civilizational friction” between Turkey and the European Union, the latter remains the first import-export partner for Turkey and the largest source of foreign direct investment. The same is true for India (Hindu-nationalism under the rule of Modi) and the Islamic countries of the Gulf, as India is in a desperate need for the oil of these countries, while the Gulf states need India as a main source of employment. Acharya provides similar practical examples from the speeches and policies of other “civilization states” to argue that the economic and strategic factors that govern the nation-state always prevail over the narratives of civilization state. Finally, Acharya affirms his position in support of global cultural-civilizational diversity and searching for how we can benefit from diversity to build a more pluralistic world order, and that it is necessary to confront all Western and non-Western discourses that use history and culture for narrow purposes.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate 



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