As Western Liberalism Declines, Civilization States Return

 The civilization state is reemerging and taking us beyond the opposition between liberalism and nationalism. 


Bruno Maçães was Portugal’s secretary of state for European affairs from 2013 to 2015 and is now a senior adviser at Flint Global and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. His two most recent books are “History Has Begun” and “Geopolitics for the End Time.”

KYIV, Ukraine — Samuel Huntington, who is often thought of as having written about civilizations, in fact wrote about identity. The two concepts have nothing in common, and the confusion between them explains why Huntington argued that Russia and Ukraine were part of the same civilization. Therefore, he thought, any conflict between them was essentially impossible. But while Russians and Ukrainians may well share a certain religious identity as Orthodox Christians, this war reveals the priority of national identity in a secular world. 

Ukrainians are fighting to preserve Ukraine as a nation, while Vladimir Putin openly argues that Russia cannot survive if Ukraine survives. Above the dynamic of the war, both nations are slowly gravitating to their own civilizational worlds, rooted in widely divergent histories and feelings and culminating in different political theories. In Russia, the living legacy of imperial power is bringing it closer to China, while in Ukraine, the ideal of Cossack freedom and independence (the name “Cossack” means “free man” or “adventurer”) may soon return to its rightful place as part of the European political tradition. 

It is no coincidence, as the philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko has argued, that modern Ukrainian literature begins with Ivan Kotliarevsky, whose poem “Eneida,” a parody of Virgil’s “Aeneid” written in vernacular Ukrainian, presents Aeneas and his Trojan fellows as Ukrainian Cossacks, thereby anchoring Ukrainian history in a founding Roman myth. 

In the 16th century, Ukrainian Cossacks achieved certain rights and freedoms from various Eastern European rulers, paralleling the way Western European nobles placed limits on monarchical power. And as the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov likes to point out, the Cossack tradition of electing hetmans (military commanders) accustomed Ukrainians to the idea that they chose their leaders. In Russia, on the other hand, people believed the tsars were a gift from God. 

What Huntington and others — like Ross Douthat, who a few months ago penned a New York Times essay arguing that “yes, there is a clash of civilizations” — are unable to understand is that there is a difference between identity and civilization. Civilization needs to be distinguished from any notion of religious, ethnic or national identity. The former is an exercise in political reason, the effort to organize collective life around principles that 

express our fundamental relation to truth, to the world and to each other. Identity, as we shall see, is something peculiar to liberalism; it is the mutilated corpse of civilization. 

“Identity is the mutilated corpse of civilization.”

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 civilization state is a foundational concept reaching the deepest layer of collective existence. If Israel or India, for example, were to become civilization states, their animating mission would be to curate and develop the old and manifold Jewish and Hindu traditions. They would give life to a certain vision of the world and humanity. Civilization 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. 

The very word “civilization” was meant to express the state of political or social existence — as opposed to life in a more primitive or natural condition — and, later, the philosophical concept denoted the principles providing a foundation for collective life. But civilization in this sense came under attack with the ascent of liberalism. One could argue 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. The advantage of the liberal state would be twofold. It promised to expand the wealth of individual experience: Each person could experiment with many different “designs for living” and learn about many opposite and contradictory systems of thought, as well as practical ideals. Meanwhile, a state recognizing all alternative worldviews might be expected to put an end to civil strife by fully embracing everyone living within its borders, irrespective of personal religion or philosophy. 

The selling proposition was simple: In a liberal state, everyone could be Christian, but the state itself would adopt no religion, and thus everyone could just as well be Muslim or Hindu. The laws and principles around which political power would be organized would remain neutral or empty. They would not represent any theory of the world or human life. In brief, they would not embody a civilization. They would be natural, naked, even uncivilized. That was the bold but also odd ambition of Western liberalism. 

Liberals wanted their political values to be accepted universally, much like a scientific theory enjoys universal validity. In order to achieve this, a monumental effort of abstraction and simplification was needed, similar to Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein abstracting from previous physical theories a more formal system of relations. Western civilization stopped being a civilization, or at least it stopped seeing itself as a civilization. It would not embody a rich tapestry of traditions, ways of looking and seeing, and it renounced the classical aspiration to pursue a philosophical or religious vision. Its principles were meant to be broad and formal, no more than an abstract framework of relations. 

It was a misplaced ambition; it could never succeed. The failure of the liberal program reveals that politics is not a science, nor can it ever become a science. Neutrality sounded good in theory. But human life takes place on a limited timescale, during which we are fated to place our bets on certain specific understandings of the world. Truth across time and space does not operate in this realm. 


The world we live in today — a world of hundreds of nation-states defined by political boundaries, pitted against each other and often reliant on violent ideologies of supremacy and dominance — is the product, or rather the excrescence, of liberal universalism. 

You might be able to argue that in the beginning, in the 19th century, nationalism was a tool used to dethrone the old monarchies or churches. But in time, it became clear that the national state would never give way to the liberal state. Liberalism wanted to build a lasting edifice of reason and logic, but it turned out to be incapable of reaching large areas of collective existence. It remained, to a considerable extent, powerless over the brute facts of social life to which no reasoning could be applied — nationalism, fascism, and religious and racial bigotry being just a few examples. 

These elements of political life not assimilated into liberal theory were naturally relegated to an irrational core of feeling or tradition, varying from political unit to political unit. The civilization state can interpret these elements on a higher plane, like so many outlooks on political and social life. The civilization state is built on ideas, not “blood and soil.” 

There is an argument that the return of the civilization state was prepared by Jewish thinkers in the 19th century. Leo Strauss and others learned to doubt the promise of liberalism in the school of Zionism. The liberal state failed to ensure the safety and dignity of European Jews. It failed to ensure their physical survival, but it also seemed incapable of delivering on its promise that Jews could be fully themselves in a liberal society, free of the fear of making themselves different. We can detect in these 19th-century debates the germ of the idea of Israel as a civilization state, even if Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, remained a very imperfect guide. 

As Jewish religious conservatives will readily point out, there 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. And it is an argument to be taken seriously. 

“The failure of the liberal program reveals that politics is not a science, nor can it ever become a science.”

At the very least, we should urgently disabuse ourselves of the notion that every political value belongs to the liberal tradition, with every rival tradition being the exclusive precinct of value negation. 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. 

In Israel or India today, the main challenge and task is to turn the revolt against liberalism into a civilizational rather than a national project. The great Hindu monk and philosopher Swami Vivekananda once said that Emperor Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, could be regarded as “practically a Hindu.” He was obviously a Muslim, but the broad spiritual and political order he stood for embodied the principles of the Hindu tradition and the continuity of the Hindu ideal. It is conceivable that a Muslim could live in a Hindu civilization state, just as a Hindu can live in a Muslim civilization state, provided we keep the distinction between a civilization state and a nation-state clear in our minds. 

Civilization is not identity. There are areas of contact between different civilizations. The Hindu civilization state received a strong influence from the Islamic tradition, and Muslims living in India were themselves different from Muslims in Arabia or Africa. Closer to our time, the Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam might perhaps be regarded as a Hindu Muslim. Born in 1899, Nazrul remained a Muslim all through his life, but in many respects, he was able to transcend theology in the direction of a more complex vision. He used Arabic and Persian words in his poetry, but they intermingled with Bangladeshi and Sanskrit. Beyond the different languages human beings speak, there is a single world. 

A civilization state is rooted in a fully developed political philosophy rather than a racial or national identity. To the extent that a civilization state expresses a theory of how best to organize political society, it tends to transcend religious belief in the direction of rational thought. But as opposed to liberalism, the civilization state refrains from expressing a final truth. It develops in time, both in dialogue with its own contradictions and as part and parcel of larger historical processes, including contact and exchange with rival civilizations. The contemporary Chinese civilization state differs markedly from its predecessors, even if certain lines of continuity can naturally be found. 

Why does Huntington neglect the full character of civilizations? In the most immediate respect, because he considers them well after their prime, surviving as no more than cultural expressions. This predicament is made much worse under liberalism, and Huntington is still writing from the point of view of liberal hegemony. In a liberal society, different cultures are downgraded to the status of anodyne expression, mostly present in the cheerful celebration of exotic cuisines or national costumes. It is this decayed meaning of civilization that Huntington takes up. 

In world politics, there is less a clash than a meeting of civilizations. It is natural for particular civilizations to acquire universal ambitions. They may expand and conquer. They often go to war against rival worldviews. But they also change, as each particular civilization is necessarily forced to confront alternatives and to respond to the challenges they pose. 

Before liberalism, the world system tended to be governed by fragile understandings, areas of overlap between rival civilizations. Shared principles — not universal principles — provided common ground. Those practices of cultural exchange that propitiated the development of shared ideas were immensely valuable. Today, different identities are exclusive. They are defined against each other and no dialogue between them is conceivable. 

That a civilization could become universal was something believers or fanatics might entertain, but men and women of genuine understanding knew that every civilization must develop in depth and would in fact disintegrate if it attempted to expand to a universal common denominator. In a world of civilization states, the ruling global principle is something akin to balance of power. 

Another misunderstanding about the civilization state is the notion that a civilization state exists and can exist only outside the West. Perhaps China and India and Turkey will return to the old concept of civilization, but liberalism will continue to live and even thrive in the geography or geographies where it originated. According to this view, the contest of the future is one between Western liberalism and the civilization state. 

“A civilization state is rooted in a fully developed political philosophy rather than a racial or national identity.”

I find the suggestion implausible. Both the formal logic and practical appeal of liberalism resulted from its universality. Once liberalism becomes a provincial affair, it is no longer liberalism. Inevitably, it evolves into its own version of a civilization state. 

Today, every European politician with continental ambitions likes to speak about European values and is not shy about proclaiming that Europe is the best place in the world. These are civilizational ideas. European values are no doubt connected to the liberal legacy, but they return us to its civilizational core. They are rooted in an exclusive theory of the world and political life, brimming with intellectual and moral content, sharply distinguished from rival theories. 

When Europeans talk about the sacred role of rules in political and social life, these are specific ideals, whose validity is subject to permanent contestation and whose appeal is both of a philosophical and personal nature. They help make sense of the natural world and provide guidance in all matters of daily life.

Above all, they are one way among many of making sense of the world and may look strange or perhaps incomprehensible to an Indian or Chinese — maybe even to an American, at least of the kind who has broken away from the core elements of European civilization. 

If one tries to speculate on what European civilization might become after it too loses faith in universal liberalism, the most plausible answer is that a new civilization will be built on those elements of the European tradition least opposed to liberalism and therefore better able to survive the age of liberal triumph more or less undamaged. Civilization states evolve in time, and that evolution is not free from path dependence. The concept of the rule of law was developed in some form by the Romans. Some have argued that liberal neutrality is best understood as an extreme variant of the rule of law. The variant may once again be replaced with the original. Christianity, for so long the main foe of liberals, is naturally a less viable candidate to be the basis of a renewed European civilization. 

“Once liberalism becomes a provincial affair, it is no longer liberalism. Inevitably, it evolves into its own version of a civilization state.”

The European Union is perhaps the best example today of the rich dynamics internal to a civilization state. On the one hand, it was directly created as a response to European nationalism, an attempt to move beyond national identity toward something closer to political reason. At first, this new form of political reason was identified with universal liberalism, but it soon became evident that no political unit can be based on strictly universal principles. 

It is hardly surprising that, for a number of years, the EU has been stressing its particular nature: European — not universal — values now provide the glue for the difficult task of bringing more than two dozen countries together, possibly including Ukraine. 

The result is a third way, different from both nationalism and liberalism. Organized around a set of principles, the EU no longer regards them as universal. European values are the European adventure: a special path chosen in the knowledge that other alternatives are available but guided by the image of a distinctive and flourishing civilization. 

Thomas Mann wrote during the darkest hour of World War II that the conflict was ultimately between the dynamics of nature, of instinct, of blood, of the unconscious — the primitive spontaneity of life on one side, pitted against reason and civilization on the other. If Russia today represents the rule of instinct and unreason, Ukraine is the affirmation of light and progress. 

No city in the world today represents as well as Kyiv the permanent but fragile attempt to place human reason in charge of human circumstance. Long ago, Paris may have evoked the same feelings and aspirations. Today it is Kyiv that best preserves the European legacy of revolution, the collective effort to build a new future. It is up to us to rise from the primitive unconscious of blood and nation to the future civilization state.