Civilization States Are Profoundly Illiberal

The notion that they can follow their own standards overlooks the need for universally accepted norms to sustain world order.

Mihailo Vucenic

Shashi Tharoor represents Thiruvananthapuram in India’s Parliament. He was an under-secretary-general of the United Nations from 2002 to 2007.

The economic and technological convergence of globalization did not lead to a singular cosmopolitan order, but to a great divergence, in which prospering emergent nations, most notably China, once again attained the wherewithal to chart a path forward based on their own civilizational foundations. Economic and technological strength engenders, not extinguishes, cultural and political self-assertion.   

This development has led Bruno Maçães to argue we are seeing the return of “civilization states,” such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, that are pushing back against the universalist claims of a liberal world order.

In this series, we asked several thinkers to assess Maçães’s argument.

— Nathan Gardels, Noema editor-in-chief

NEW DELHI — My friend Bruno Maçães is an important thinker, one of the rare breed of public intellectuals who has actually served in the world of politics. What he says always deserves close attention. His thesis on the return of civilizations is, however, flawed and requires challenge.

On the core proposition of a central divergence between the idea of liberal universalism and the particularisms of individual civilizations, one cannot disagree. Civilizations rest on an overarching framework for social and political life subsuming elements of religion, ethnicity and language, while liberalism seeks to transcend such elements in claiming universal applicability for its values and principles. 

But where Maçães’ reasoning gets fuzzy is in his insistence that identity and civilization are distinct; thus to him, Ukraine and Russia are not the same civilization, despite Orthodox Christianity, Caucasian ethnicity and similar, if not overlapping, languages. “Both nations are slowly gravitating to their own civilizational worlds,” he argues, “rooted in widely divergent histories and feelings and culminating in different political theories.” To me, these seem to be classic cases of differences in national identity within the same broad civilization; to Bruno, these are civilizational differences. But nowhere does he explain why, preferring averment to argument. Dismissing notions of national identity as “the mutilated corpse of civilization” has an epigrammatic ring to it but is hardly a useful analytical tool.

The distinction becomes even more unclear the more he attempts to delineate it. “Civilization,” he writes, “needs to be distinguished from any notion of religious, ethnic or national identity.” But those are precisely the elements on which civilizations are constructed! The definition of civilization as “an exercise in political reason, the effort to organize collective life around principles,” completely elides the more fundamental distinction that I make in my book “The Battle of Belonging” between identity, which rests on such immutable factors as religion, ethnicity and language, and liberal civic structures based on constitutions and institutions, which have nothing to do with “civilization” as such but which permit entry to all who adhere to the principles embedded in them. 

Bruno is right when he writes, “What distinguishes a civilization state is its ability to provide an overarching framework for social and political life and therefore a viable or plausible alternative to the liberalism of the West.” The problem that he overlooks is what that overarching framework is built on: elements deriving from birth and geography that individuals cannot change. 

“Identity politics, which derives often from civilizational and cultural factors, remains ineluctably opposed to liberalism.”

This is why identity politics, which derives often from civilizational and cultural factors, remains ineluctably opposed to liberalism. Bruno says that “states, thus understood, might well have a territory and a people, but their center of gravity would lie in the way of life embodied in the state. The illusion of a homogeneous people inhabiting an ancestral land is not part of the logic of a civilization state.” I’m sorry, dear friend, but simply saying it doesn’t make it so. 

The logic of civilization is indeed precisely that, and all the existing and would-be “civilization states” he identifies — China, Russia, India, Israel — are predicated on precisely that logic. In India, indeed, the struggle for the country’s soul is between those who celebrate India’s diversity and wish to preserve an idea of nationhood based on civic nationalism, and those who, in the name of civilization, seek to elide that diversity, promoting a uniformity based on the millennial legacies of Hinduism.

To add to the confusion, Bruno acknowledges that “liberalism was conceived as an alternative to the civilization state, in which politics was permanently rooted in an exclusive or particular outlook. Liberalism denounced life in a civilization state as constricted and impoverished. After all, if the state is organized around a certain outlook, it must exclude every possible alternative. Liberals dreamed of a different kind of state, one admitting of endless possibilities.” 

That is precisely why liberal states permit multiple parties, ethnicities, religions and (where necessary) languages to flourish, whereas “civilization states” do not, or seek to subordinate these multiplicities to a civilizational idea. Bruno then advances the breathtaking proposition that “The civilization state is built on ideas, not ‘blood and soil.’” The opposite is true: It is the liberal state that is built on ideas, the civilization state that subordinates them to the timeless verities of civilization and culture.

This becomes clear in Bruno’s apologia for the likely emergence of “civilization states” in India and Israel, which he rightly situates in their religious and geographical traditions. “[T]here is no reason why the Jewish tradition should be made to fit within liberalism rather than the other way around. After all, Judaism is thousands of years old, while liberalism dates back at most two or three centuries. It is an argument often made in India as well. … Judaism and Hinduism have, for thousands of years, developed their own ways of dealing with diversity and social conflict. It beggars belief that nothing on these matters can be learned from those traditions, or that we had to wait for the Western value of tolerance to finally see the light.”

“The very concept of a civilization state is profoundly illiberal.”

Exactly right. Which is why it is odd, to put it mildly, when Bruno proceeds to contradict himself by arguing that “A civilization state is rooted in a fully developed political philosophy rather than a racial or national identity.”

Bruno’s argument for the merits of the civilization state rests on defining it in a way that suits his argument. “Civilization is not identity,” he says, but identity emerges from a consciousness of belonging to a civilization — Christian, Islamic, Arab, Orthodox, Hindu, Jewish, whatever — with the distinct features exclusive to that civilization. While he is right to insist on the distinction between a civilization state and a nation-state, he fails to accept that civilizations do produce nationalism anchored in their unchanging verities, while liberal nation-states are those that, by being built on constitutions and institutions, transcend the limitations of identity to promote ideas and values that apply to their citizens beyond considerations of race, religion or language.

The very concept of a civilization state is profoundly illiberal. It implies that any attempt to introduce “imported” ideas like democracy or human rights must be resisted because they are “foreign” to the civilization in whose name the state is being constructed. The rejection of values (like democracy, civil liberties, minority rights, freedom of the press and so on) that liberalism trumpets as universally desirable is justified on the grounds that a civilization needs political institutions that reflect its own traditions, history and culture. A civilization state is inhospitable territory to religious and ethnic minorities, dissidents and challengers because they are seen as intruders into a civilization to which they do not essentially belong — and which regards what matters to them as alien, and therefore illegitimate.

Indeed, this is exactly what we have seen in the biggest and most powerful example of a civilization state in the contemporary world: China. The entire argument for China’s rejection of liberal democracy and “Western” political concepts is that Chinese civilization has a distinct character going back thousands of years with, in Martin Jacques’ words, “a very different view of the relationship between the individual and society.” 

This is then seen by apologists for China as explaining and indeed justifying its authoritarian one-party Communist dictatorship, suppression of minorities, repression of free speech and outlawing of political dissent. The notion of a Chinese civilization state, portrayed so benignly in Bruno’s telling, is little more than a fig leaf for tyranny.

“The advocacy of ‘civilization states’ all too often masks the malign intentions of tyrants.”

It is possible to be proud of one’s civilization and honor one’s traditions while striving to ensure that one’s nation upholds the principles and values one deems desirable for oneself and one’s fellow citizens. While do so, the reason I resist the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempts to reconstitute India as a civilization state is precisely because such a notion has no place for non-Hindus (some 20% of the country’s population) except as second-class citizens confined to subordinate roles. My idea of an “inclusive India” embraces different languages, religions, regions and ethnicities on an equal basis and emerges from classical liberalism. I can justify it in terms of my civilizational heritage too, but resist the notion of a “civilization state” because its advocates have a narrow and exclusionary idea of what such a state implies.

Maçães sees liberalism as itself part of European civilization, but if that means it should be denied to others hailing from different civilizational traditions, I cannot agree. There is room for debate on how far the supposedly universal principles advanced by advocates of liberalism are truly universal, but none on the standards most human beings seek to apply to themselves. When one hears of the unsuitability or ethnocentrism of liberal norms, what are the human rights that someone in a “civilization state” can do without? The right to life? Freedom from torture? The right not to be enslaved, not to be physically assaulted, not to be arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned or executed? No one actually advocates the abridgment of any of these rights for themselves.

Objections to the applicability of democracy and human rights standards are all too frequently voiced by authoritarian rulers and power elites to rationalize violations that keep them in power. Just as the devil can quote scripture for his purpose, the advocacy of “civilization states” all too often masks the malign intentions of tyrants. 

In international politics, similarly, the notion that civilization states can follow their own standards overlooks the need for universally accepted norms to sustain world order — which even states like China and the former Soviet Union had hitherto upheld as being in everyone’s interest. Principles like the absolute sovereignty of states, the inviolability of borders, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and the inadmissibility of the use of force to settle disputes all provided common ground to all countries, whether civilization states or otherwise, to live together amicably. 

Maçães argues that “In a world of civilization states, the ruling global principle is something akin to balance of power.” That isn’t good enough. The world needs something better than that if we are not to return to the law of the jungle.