‘There can be no civilisation worthy of the name if it does not refuse something, if it does not renounce something.’ (Fernand Braudel)
Three major competing models are currently in competition to determine the nature of the Earth’s Nomos, i.e. the New World Order: liberal internationalism, the nation-states born of the Westphalian order and civilisational states.
Liberal internationalism is based on the classical themes of liberal thought: the rule of law, the protection of individual rights guaranteed by the constitution, the primacy of procedural norms, parliamentary democracy, and the market model – all notions proclaimed to be universal and properly ‘human’ – which is only possible by forgetting their history so that those who dismiss what is ritually presented as ‘freedom and democracy’ are immediately placed outside humanity and rejected as part of the ‘axis of evil’ since liberalism interprets any resistance to the expansion of a way of life based on individualism and capitalism as ‘aggression’.
This shows that the liberal system is trapped in a major contradiction: on the one hand, it is theoretically based on a principled tolerance of all individual choices, which leads it to defend the idea of a necessary ‘neutrality’ of public authorities (in France, this is also the basis of laïcité1); on the other hand, it wants to extend its individualistic values to the whole world at all costs, to the detriment of any other value system, which goes against its principle of tolerance. It is not content, for example, to assert the universal and absolute superiority of liberal democracy, but intervenes to impose it everywhere in the world, multiplying interference of all kinds, so what was initially a simple theoretical option becomes the alibi for the most brutal imperialism.
Similarly, in the United States, the Monroe Doctrine (1823) went from a categorical non-interventionism (principle of neutrality) to a moral position giving the United States an unlimited right to interfere. ‘The principle of non-intervention and rejection of foreign powers’, writes Carl Schmitt, ‘has evolved into a justification for US imperialist interventions.’
The nation-state is conceived as the primary political unit in an international order, enshrined in the United Nations, where each country is supposed to be able to assert itself as sovereign. Rejecting the pluralism inherent in imperial power, it thinks in terms of a single people, a single territory, and a single political community, which is why it has little tolerance for differences and tends to homogenise its internal components.
Liberal internationalism is not the principled enemy of nation-states, insofar as these are always susceptible to being colonised by its values – and we know how successful it has been in imposing the principle of universal legitimacy of liberal democracy (which Hayek described as the ‘constitutional protection of capitalism’) and market rules around the world. From a liberal point of view, nation-states are no longer an obstacle to the expansion of global markets. On the political and military level, liberal internationalism does not hesitate to support them when it seems necessary to extend its influence. This is the case today with the war in Ukraine, where the United States is providing massive support to a country that is seeking to become a nation-state because this support is in line with its interests.
The same cannot be said of the civilisational state, which liberal internationalism considers to be its fundamental enemy because the former is by its very nature opposed to the spread of the values the latter promotes.
So what are these newcomers, to whom a whole series of authors2 have given the name ‘civilisational states’? They are regional powers whose influence extends beyond their borders and who conceive the Earth’s Nomos as fundamentally multipolar. Initially, China and Russia, in particular, were considered civilisational states. Still, this qualification can be applied to many other states capable of organising, on the basis of their culture and long history, a sphere of influence extending beyond their national territory or ethnolinguistic group: India, Turkey, and Iran, to name but a few.
Civilisational states oppose Western universalism with a model in which each civilisational grouping has a distinct identity, both in terms of cultural values and political institutions, an identity that cannot be reduced to any universal model. These states do not only want to implement a sovereign policy without submitting to the dictates of supranational elites. They also want to thwart any ‘globalist’ project aimed at making the same principles reign over the whole planet because they are aware that the culture they carry is not identical to any other. This is a reminder that there can be no culture of all cultures.
A common feature of civilisational states is that they denounce Western universalism as masked ethnocentrism – an elegant way of concealing a hegemonic imperialism. Above all, civilisational states draw on their history and culture, not only to assert that these imply a different political and social model from the one that liberal internationalism seeks to impose but also to derive from them a conception of the world that is deemed to be the foundation of the ‘good life’, both politically and religiously, i.e. of the substantial non-negotiable values that the state has a mission to embody and defend. The civilisational state, in other words, seeks to establish a conception of the good based on particular substantive values and a specific tradition.
Whether ruled by a new tsar, a new emperor, a new caliph, whether this rejection is in the name of the Confucian notion of ‘harmony’, the heritage of ‘holy Russia’ (‘Moscow, the Third Rome’), Eurasianism, Hinduism or the memory of the caliphate, civilisational states refuse to submit to Western standards, which some of them had accepted in the past in order to ‘modernise’ themselves. Westernisation and modernisation no longer automatically go hand in hand.
The Russian philosopher Konstantin Krylov (1967–2020), in his posthumous book Povedenie (‘Behaviour’), published in 2021, describes Russia as a country that has been alien to liberal thinking since its origins. He rejects liberalism but not democracy. Although he became a Zoroastrian during a stay in Uzbekistan, he also stresses the importance of the Orthodox religion. Paul Grenier, who runs the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy in the US and recently wrote an essay on him, writes: ‘I don’t know of any conservative Russian intellectuals for whom Russia is part of Western civilization. All of them see in it something separate and different.’3 This was already the opinion of Nikolai Danilevsky and Oswald Spengler, who emphasised the specificity of Russian social behaviour and ethical precepts, starting with ‘ourness’ (in Russian, we do not say ‘my brother and I went for a walk’ but ‘we and my brother went for a walk’).
To the liberal system based on the search for one’s best interest (self-interest), Russia opposes the prerogatives of the sacred, which it refuses to see relegated to the private sphere, while rejecting the neutrality of the state in matters of values. It is therefore understandable that in Ukraine, Russia not only defends the idea that this country cannot become a nation-state because it belongs to the Slavic civilisational space but also fights against the logic of the nation-state itself, the proponents of a purely secular vision of the world, the liberal values of the ‘collective West’, which are perceived as ‘decadent’, and the American hegemonism backed by the liberal system.
In the past, the Kyōto School, founded in 1941 by Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945) and Tanabe Hajime, was probably the first, long before any decolonisation movements, to develop the idea of a multipolar world, divided into great distinct spaces considered as melting pots of culture and civilisation, and to criticise the abstract principles of Western universalism – based on capitalism and scientism – in the name of the plurality of cultures characteristic of the ‘real world’ (sekaiteki sekai).
The main representatives of this school were philosophers, such as Kōsaka Masaaki, Kōyama Iwao, Nishitani Keiji and Suzuki Shigetaka. The European thinkers who seem to have had the most significant impact on them were Johann Gottfried von Herder and Leopold von Ranke. In recent times, the ideas of the Kyōto School have also been linked to those of communitarian writers such as Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre.4 It was in this circle that the idea of a ‘sphere of co-prosperity of the greater East Asia’ was elaborated, bringing together several countries based on shared values and respect for their autonomy. This idea should not be confused with the ‘Japanocentrism’ of the nationalist Right or with Japanese imperialism of the same era. As early as June 1943, official censorship ordered silence on the school’s publications, precisely reproaching it for wanting to assign to the Japanese government a mission that was not identical to mere imperialist expansion.
In today’s China, members of the Tianxia School should also be mentioned, such as Zhao Tingyang, historian Xu Jilin, Xu Zhuoyun, Wang Gungwu, and Liang Zhiping, who advocates ‘using China to explain China’ (yĭ zhōngguó jiěshì zhōngguó) – with possibly Jiang Shigong, a proponent of ‘Chinese-style socialism’ added to the list.
Its theorists refer to the central notion of tianxia (‘all under heaven’)5, a spiritual principle of premodern China whose institutional body was the Celestial Empire. This polysemic term, used since before the time of Laozi and Confucius, refers to an ideal civilisational order, a spatial imaginary in which China constitutes the core, a hierarchised order in which the ‘virtue’ of its members determines the place they must occupy, and a political system meant to guarantee the harmony of the whole. According to Zhao Tingyang, it is a ‘dense concept, where metaphysics as political philosophy replaces metaphysics as ontology as the first philosophy’,6 which asserts that cultures are incomparable in terms of values and that China must escape from Eurocentrism and fully assume its role as the Middle Kingdom.
For Xu Jilin, ‘the origin of the [current] crisis is nothing but the mentality that gives absolute supremacy to the nation’. ‘To really deal with the root of the problem’, he adds, ‘we need a form of thinking that can serve as a counterpoint to nationalism. I call this thinking the “new tianxia“, a pearl of axial civilisational wisdom from China’s premodern tradition, reinterpreted according to modern criteria.’
The way in which, since the 1990s, the Chinese authorities, claiming to have ‘Asian values’, have rejected criticism in the name of the human rights ideology is significant. In January 2021, at the Davos Forum, Xi Jinping said, ‘Just as no two leaves in the world are the same, no two histories, no two cultures, no two social systems are the same. Each country is unique in all these areas, and no country is superior to another. There is no need to worry about differences, but rather … about attempts to impose a hierarchy between civilisations or to force some of them to align themselves with another in terms of history, culture or social system.’
The recognition of the crisis of universalism and Western hegemonism thus goes hand in hand with the feeling that the era of the international order based on the conflicting balance of nation-states has ended, as Carl Schmitt foresaw as early as the 1930s.7 The rise of civilisational states signals the entry into an era in which the world order is no longer reduced to the unstable equilibrium of nation-states. As civilisational norms become a pivotal point in geopolitics, the main competition is no longer the traditional one between nation-states but the one between civilisations. Civilisational states give rise to a new mode of sovereignty that is no longer that of nation-states.
A vocabulary remark is in order here. It concerns the key notion of ‘civilisation’, which is not without its ambiguities, to say the least. Samuel P. Huntington understood that the meaning of the word differs entirely depending on whether it is used in the singular or the plural. It is no coincidence that Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations (1996) was translated into German as Kampf der Kulturen. In Germany, a whole tradition sees Kultur as the very opposite of Zivilisation. Spengler, for example, saw ‘civilisation’ as the terminal stage of the great cultures.
Liberals always claim to ‘defend civilisation’, which, in their eyes, equates to the logic of individual rights and the market. To them, civilisation must be understood in the singular, and it is liberal democracies that embody it. Anyone who deviates from it is no longer part of the ‘civilised world’, and those who refuse to comply with this model are immediately delegitimised and denounced as ‘authoritarian powers’ and antidemocratic, as if liberal democracy were the only possible form of democracy. This idea of a singular civilisation legitimized colonisation in the past before inspiring the speculations of a Fukuyama on the ‘end of history’ in a world purged of all power relations. For civilisational states, on the contrary, civilisations (or cultures) are only conceived in the plural. Civilisational states do not defend ‘civilisation’ itself but their civilization.
One can also question to what extent civilisational states have taken over from empires, traditionally defined as multinational or even multicultural states governing on a vast territory peoples whose local autonomy is generally respected as long as they accept the common law determined by the central power.
The notion of the civilisational state is even more reminiscent of the ‘great space’ (Großraum) theorised by Carl Schmitt to rethink international relations beyond the codification of relations between nation-states. A ‘great space’, Schmitt says, requires a ‘great people’, a vast territory and an autonomous political will. ‘Empires’, he writes, ‘are those ruling powers that carry a political idea radiating out into a determined great space from which they exclude, as a matter of principle, the interventions of foreign powers.’ And he adds this essential reminder: ‘The empire is more than an enlarged state, just as the great space is not just an enlarged micro-space.’ ‘The logic of great spaces does not have a universalist scope. It only integrates the historical evolution of the great territorial powers influencing third countries. The paradigm is therefore no longer national, but spatial.’8
As for Europe, which has been culturally and ideologically hybrid for two millennia, it is for the moment only a neutralised space where opposing civilisational conceptions clash.
1Trans.: La laïcité is a French concept that advocates for the separation of religion and state, ensuring equal treatment and freedom of belief for all individuals.
2Christopher Coker, The Rise of the Civilizational State. London: Polity, 2019.
3‘Konstantin Krylov’s Ethical Theory and What It Reveals about the Propensity for Conflict between Russia and the West’, in Telos 201 (Winter 2022), p. 112.
4Kenn Steffensen, ‘The Political Thought of the Kyoto School’, in Michiko Yusa (ed.), The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Philosophy, New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. See also John W. M. Krummel, ‘The Kyoto School’s Wartime Philosophy of a Multipolar World’, in Telos 201 (Winter 2022), pp. 63-83.
5Tianxia is said to have reached its golden age at the time of the Duke of Zhou, a military leader and writer who lived in the 11th century BC and is sometimes presented as the founder of Confucianism, although he lived several centuries before Confucius.
6‘La philosophie du tianxia’, in Diogène, 2008, 1, pp. 4-25. See also Zhao Tingyang, Tianxia, tout sous le même ciel , Paris: Cerf, 2018.
7Amitav Acharya, The End of American World Order, Cambridge: Polity, 2014; Oliver Stuenkel, Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are Remaking Global Order, Cambridge: Polity, 2016. See also Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, New York: Penguin Press, 2009; Charles Horner, Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.
8Karl Peyrade, ‘Le droit des peuples réglé sur le grand espace de Carl Schmitt’, online text, 23 May 2017.