It is clear that any state pursues its own policy to strengthen the national identity. First of all, this is important and significant for multi-ethnic countries. How theoretically and practically effective is it to move from here to the next logical level: from national identity to the postulation of each state as a separate civilisation? Here questions may well arise about the combination of this nation-wide civilisation with ethnic identity, etc., writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
The concept of a civilisation state is now becoming almost an official approach to understand Russia’s place in the world. It occupied a prominent place in Vladimir Putin’s recent speech at the 20th Annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club. This concept has both domestic and foreign policy dimensions. It relies to a certain extent on the works of conservative pre-revolutionary Russian thinkers (Ilyin, Danilevsky), and is intended to provide justification for the “peculiarity” and “special path” of Russia.
In more or less modern world politics as it is theoretically understood, the revival of attention to civilisational issues is associated not least with Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations”. The main provisions of this concept were published in 1993. The text itself appeared as a kind of response to the overly optimistic concept of the “End of History”, put forward in 1989 by Francis Fukuyama under the influence of the euphoria of the end of Cold War and bipolar confrontation.
Then the practice of life quickly showed that the history of world politics and the conflicts that drive it did not disappear anywhere during that period. On the contrary, the collapse of the system of pro-Soviet world socialism has made the European and global security situation much more acute than it was during the Cold War. At the same time, the driving force behind new conflicts was no longer the ideological confrontation between the two systems. Huntington tried to explain this by abandoning the analysis of short-term geopolitical interests of certain states and other actors in world politics. Instead, he turned to the primordialist idea of civilisations, seemingly long forgotten under the influence of modernist ideas of the 20th century, but which, in his opinion, remained viable in current conditions.
By this logic, civilisations are practically doomed to eternal conflict. Only its forms and methods can change. Moreover, although not directly, Huntington connected this with the original and equally primordialist difference in values inherent in opposing civilisations. Thus, the value gap was introduced into modern mainstream political science discourse. Moreover, this was not done by Russia.
Huntington’s list of civilisations was largely based on religious identity. It was this criterion that lay behind his identification of Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu civilisations. The combination of religious and general cultural principles formed the basis for the distinction between the Chinese (Sinic) and Japanese (Japonic) civilisations. Where religious criteria in its pure form did not work, geographical criteria came into play. On this basis, a distinction was made between Latin American and African civilisations. Of course, there is a Western civilisation, highlighted by a synthesis of geographical and general cultural criteria.
Almost immediately after the appearance of Huntington’s article in 1993, and later of his book on this topic in 1996, they were subject to fairly widespread discussion and criticism. He was accused of being simplistic, or even grotesque. The fact is that the dynamics of world politics can by no means be reduced to primordialist stereotypes. In practice, there are enough examples of conflicts within the civilisations identified by Huntington. The economic and geopolitical interests of individual states are too difficult to fit into civilisational communities. They may exist in a cultural sense, but are not decisive in determining the foreign policy behaviour of states.
On the other hand, Huntington’s concept played a role in promoting the idea of “the West vs the Rest” and therefore promoted a kind of internal mobilisation of the West in the new political conditions after the end of the Cold War. Although not directly, the influence of this concept can be traced in the development of the political practice of Western countries in the “projection of democracy” to other regions of the world and civilisation in the Huntingtonian sense. Thus, a course was laid for the universalisation of Western civilisation and its absorption by all others in the future (leaving only cultural differences in a kind of folklore sense).
It is in this context that it makes sense to trace the origins of the formation of modern Russian revisionism in geopolitics. Since Vladimir Putin’s famous Munich speech, one of the implicit goals was precisely the desire to resist pro-Western universalism. At first, it was revisionism of an exclusively geopolitical nature, emphasising Russia’s special interests in the sphere of international security, as well as economics and domestic political evolution (remember the concepts of “sovereign democracy” and “hydrocarbon superpower”, which also had a semi-official character in the Russian political discourse of the second half of the 2000s and early 2010s).
But later, as relations worsened, this geopolitical revisionism in Russia’s official position moved to the next level and began to be increasingly complemented by value revisionism. Its essence was that Russia and the West do not share not only interests, but also values. Moreover, these values were postulated and presented not in a constructivist, but absolutely in a primordialist sense (although we will not deny that the value policy itself in modern Russia can be quite clearly described within the framework of the constructivist paradigm). This value revisionism in Russia entered into a certain synergy with the search for a definition of non-Western identity, which developed after the creation of BRICS. It is enough to look at the annual communiqués following the BRICS summits to understand how much space they devote to issues of the value alternative that the Non-West offers and formulates in relation to the West. As a result, Russia’s value revisionism was able to enter the international arena and receive there, on the one hand, external support for its ideas, and, on the other hand, promote its own concepts to other non-Western countries.
From this postulation of a primordialist value gap, there was only one logical step left to put forward: the concept of a “civilisation state”. It was done now, also influenced by current geopolitical conditions. On the one hand, it differs from Huntington’s approach because it equates state and civilisation, which Huntington generally did not do. On the other hand, the Orthodox civilisation, according to Huntington, was largely “centred” on Russia, just as the Hindu civilisation was on India, and the “Sinic” civilisation was on China; in the already-begun discussion of the concept of “civilisation state” it is proposed to extrapolate it from Russia primarily to China and India. Here one can see a certain overlap with Huntington. He perceived each of these three large countries as a kind of “nucleus” of civilisations, but now these countries themselves are postulated as civilisations. There is not much difference here, although Huntington didn’t interpret the large state as a whole civilisation, but as the core of a wider civilisation. This message, by the way, carries a greater expansionist charge in relation to the actions of the “core” of civilisation in relation to the states at the periphery of “their” civilisation (and here the “core” of civilisation appears almost a priori imperial one). The concept of a “civilisation state” in this logic looks more neutral and self-sufficient, at least in theory.
But this “civilisation state” approach, if it takes root in theory and practice, poses its own questions. First of all, these are the criteria by which one or another state can be declared a civilisation. If we are talking only about the “big” states and the elite, then such an approach will be discriminatory in nature, and can serve as a dividing factor between large and small states of the Non-West. Or is this approach universal and can be applied to any state? More precisely, in the context of current geopolitical realities, it can be applied to any non-Western and to one degree or another revisionist-minded state. Let’s say, as a conditional example, is it possible to talk about Belarus as a civilisation state? Or has it “dissolved” into a larger civilisation centred on Russia in Huntington’s sense? Can Nepal be considered a civilisation state or is it just a part of Huntington’s Hindu civilisation? Is it possible to talk, for example, about Mali as a civilisation state, or about Burkina Faso? Or are they part of the general African civilisation, according to Huntington?
It is clear that any state pursues its own policy to strengthen the national identity. First of all, this is important and significant for multi-ethnic countries. How theoretically and practically effective is it to move from here to the next logical level: from national identity to the postulation of each state as a separate civilisation? Here questions may well arise about the combination of this nation-wide civilisation with ethnic identity, etc. Thus, the Russian case of a civilisation state, even if accepted on its own, still leaves room for questions about its universal applicability in other countries of the world.
Returning to Huntington’s scheme of civilisations, we can also raise the question of the possibility of a kind of “transfer” of states from one civilisation to another. For example, Ukraine in Huntington’s scheme is included in the Orthodox civilisation “centred” on Russia. If we consider the current conflict not only through the prism of geopolitical interests, but in the Huntingtonian civilisational sense, then we can see this “transfer” of the state from one civilisation to another (let’s not forget here the above-mentioned universalist logic of the “projection of democracy”). And then the “core” of that civilisation, from where its periphery leaves away, strives in every possible way to prevent this (including by military means). According to Huntington, everything is logical. But in the context of the “civilisation state” there are some nuances.
In conclusion, one more interesting question: was the Soviet Union a civilisation state? It is clear that in the official Marxist Soviet ideology, the question was never posed this way. But if we extrapolate the logic of the concept of a civilisation state from modern Russia to the Soviet Union, then, perhaps, we can give an affirmative answer. In this case, the question arises: how can we explain the collapse of a primordialistically integral civilisation state? What are the reasons for this? And doesn’t this mean that the seemingly uniting element of civilisational unity “for centuries” in the national sense can suddenly lose its strength under the influence of ethnic, foreign policy and economic factors?
In general, a new concept has been put forward. Now it’s a matter of its theoretical development and practical application.