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States, Nations, and Civilizations



Nation-states are inherently part of cultural formations, sustaining, legitimating, and inspiring them. The nations sustaining contemporary states are very different, and major routes of historical nation-state formation can be distinguished, which means that global discussions of nation-states cannot be confined to such states “in a European sense” only. Civilization(s) is a concept with different meanings in singular and in plural, belonging to different semantic fields, at least in European languages. As a singular concept it arose in mid-eighteenth century, distinguishing a high degree of social and cultural development from “barbarism” and “savagery”. It spread rapidly across European languages in the nineteenth century with European world supremacy and evolutionism, as a European self-designation. Civilizations in plural first appeared on a large intellectual scale after World War I, the horrendous slaughters of which shattered the Western ideas of continuous evolution and progress, and of the West as the unique pinnacle of human development. In the plural, civilizations have been used in philosophies of comparative history and evolution, but it may also be used as a tool of cultural analysis. In this sense, civilizations refer to large, ancient enduring cultural configurations, to the deepest layer of contemporary cultural geology. In terms of current demographic size five major such civilizations can be identified. They impinge upon the political culture of states, upon the visions and the language of the state rulers. They do not clash, and they do not determine state behaviour. Nations and civilizations are compared as cultural entities or referents, with a view to laying a basis for analytical comparisons of nation states and civilization-states, in particular their implications of agency, time and history, including their different historical contexts of emergence. The nation and civilization designations of states also related to a wider range of contemporary state categorizations. Contemporary politics and political theorizing of civilizations are looked at in brief empirical overviews of the impact of civilizations upon international relations in the wake of Samuel Huntington’s thesis of “clashes of civilizations”, and of the promise of civilization states as a political project, and as an illuminating tool of cognition.
Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences
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States, Nations, andCivilizations
Received: 28 September 2020 / Accepted: 14 October 2020
© The Author(s) 2020
Nation-states are inherently part of cultural formations, sustaining, legitimating, and
inspiring them. The nations sustaining contemporary states are very different, and
major routes of historical nation-state formation can be distinguished, which means
that global discussions of nation-states cannot be confined to such states “in a Euro-
pean sense” only. Civilization(s) is a concept with different meanings in singular and
in plural, belonging to different semantic fields, at least in European languages. As a
singular concept it arose in mid-eighteenth century, distinguishing a high degree of
social and cultural development from “barbarism” and “savagery”. It spread rapidly
across European languages in the nineteenth century with European world suprem-
acy and evolutionism, as a European self-designation. Civilizations in plural first
appeared on a large intellectual scale after World War I, the horrendous slaughters
of which shattered the Western ideas of continuous evolution and progress, and of
the West as the unique pinnacle of human development. In the plural, civilizations
have been used in philosophies of comparative history and evolution, but it may
also be used as a tool of cultural analysis. In this sense, civilizations refer to large,
ancient enduring cultural configurations, to the deepest layer of contemporary cul-
tural geology. In terms of current demographic size five major such civilizations can
be identified. They impinge upon the political culture of states, upon the visions and
the language of the state rulers. They do not clash, and they do not determine state
behaviour. Nations and civilizations are compared as cultural entities or referents,
with a view to laying a basis for analytical comparisons of nation states and civili-
zation-states, in particular their implications of agency, time and history, including
their different historical contexts of emergence. The nation and civilization designa-
tions of states also related to a wider range of contemporary state categorizations.
Contemporary politics and political theorizing of civilizations are looked at in brief
empirical overviews of the impact of civilizations upon international relations in the
wake of Samuel Huntington’s thesis of “clashes of civilizations”, and of the promise
of civilization states as a political project, and as an illuminating tool of cognition.
* Göran Therborn
1 University ofCambridge, Cambridge, UK
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Keywords Nation· Civilization(s)· Nation-states· Civilization states· Modernity
Civilization(al)-states have recently and suddenly become a central phenomenon of
international politics. Civilizations were thrust into the arena of international rela-
tions in the 1990s by the US political scientist Huntington (1993, 1996) predicting a
post-Cold War world as a “clash of civilizations”. “Civilization-state” was launched
as a concept by the British journalist and independent scholar Jacques (2009) as a
characterization of China, referring primarily to its uniquely long continuity as a
political entity. Jacques’ brief but crucial designation was taken up and elaborated
with gusto by the Chinese scholar Zhang (2012). Civilizational analysis entered the
field of international relations in a broader sense than Huntington’s “clashes” with a
volume edited by another distinguished US political scientist, Katzenstein (2010).
By 2019, “the rise of the civilizational state” has become a hot topic of scholarly
and political debate (Coker 2019; Prakash 2016; Rachman 2019; Acharya 2020;
Macães 2020; Roussinos 2020).
To call a state civilizational or a civilization-state is to give culture a pri-
macy in understanding it. It is also a way of distinguishing it from nation-states,
although a nation is a cultural entity or referent too. Now that the range of con-
cept has widened, from a Chinese particularity to a type of states which are even
contemplated as possibly overtaking nation-states, becoming the typical state of
the twenty-first century, at least of large ones, a clarification of the meaning of a
nation-state and its differences and eventual similarities with its new conceptual
challenger is needed.
The nation is a pivot from which the many issues related to controversies
around “culturalizing the state” and “civilizational states” can be approached.
All modern states are nation-states, claiming to represent, to embody one nation,
or more, as binational or multinational states. Canada is an example of the for-
mer, Bolivia and South Africa exemplify the latter. The world still contains a few
non-national states, the most significant are the autocratic dynastic monarchies of
the Arab peninsula non-modern states according to most general conceptions of
political modernity. Culture is intrinsic to the concept of nation, although national
cultures vary not only in their content, but also in their constitutive principles of
construction. A nation-state is therefore always “culturalized” in some ways.
A modern state without a national cultural identity is conceivable, and has
actually been conceived, without much practical success though. The idea of
“constitution patriotism” (Verfassungspatriotismus) was launched in West Ger-
many in 1979 by the political scientist Dolf Sternberger and taken up in the 1980s
by the great West German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. German nationalism had
been utterly discredited by the atrocities of Nazism, and Germany was divided
into two. In the eyes of many Germans, there was not much German to be proud
about. In international surveys from 1970 to 1990, West German national pride
was the lowest in the world, and domestically clearly a minority phenomenon
(sources in Therborn 1995, p. 280). The only legitimate patriotism, then, accord-
ing to Sternberger and Habermas was attachment to the “libertarian-democratic”
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States, Nations, andCivilizations
(freiheitlich.demokratisch) constitutional order. This “thin-blooded even though
well-meaning professorial fiction” (H.-P. Schwarz) never got much traction, and
faded away with the rejuvenated Germanismus of reunified Germany (Schölderle
2011) In several European countries, including Sweden, practices of national rit-
uals and symbolism have increased in frequency in this century.
1 Nations andTheir States
Nation refers to a collectivity of people, born or living in the same place or territory.
As such it emerged as a medieval European concept, used, for example, to group and
accommodate university students or Christian Church Council delegations from dif-
ferent parts of Europe. Later on it acquired a political meaning, comprising the col-
lectivity of the institutionalized elites of a realm, basically the nobility and the high
clergy, the “lords and the bishops” as Montesquieu defined the nation in mid-eight-
eenth century (Schulze 1994, p. 117). With the French Revolution, that definition
was turned upside down. The “complete” nation was the ordinary people, without
the privileged orders (Nora 1988, p. 803). That was the revolutionary version of the
modern meaning of nation, as a political collectivity of people.
The rise of nations in the modern sense was due to the erosion and successful
challenge of heteronomy, of a profound divide between rulers and ruled. A nation
is a population with a collective identity and with a collective claim to some kind
of self-rule, not necessarily a sovereign state of its own. Inherent in this collective
identity is a common culture of meaning. A nation-state is a representative of this
common culture and the national claim to self-rule. The late 18th-early nineteenth
century Atlantic revolutions of France and the Americas saw the breakthrough of
nation-states. Nation-state making became a central political preoccupation of nine-
teenth century Europe, finally successful with the breakdown in World War I defeats
of the dynastic empires of the Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, the Ottomans, and the
A common culture does not have an intrinsic primacy in nation-states, indeed
its position is a major variable among nations. However, it has an intrinsic pres-
ence, nations have cultures and the legitimacy and the cohesion of nation-states are
dependent on national cultural identities among their citizens, and all nation-states
devote considerable efforts at inculcating and cultivating them, with symbols, ritu-
als, rhetoric, and curricula.
Nation-states have arrived along very different paths, with very different cultural
baggage. We may distinguish four major pathways, along which the cultural forma-
tion of nations was moulded. Culture had a different meaning and importance in
these types of nation-state formation.
First, there is the pioneering European route, centred around Nation-Prince rela-
tions, a route along which a coalescing nation asserted itself against the dynastic
realm of the Prince, by violent revolutionary rupture or by gradual negotiation. The
emerging European nation-state developed out of the internal contradictions and
conflicts of European societies—although these were often impacted by imperi-
alist wars overseas—, laying the foundations of the characteristic combination of
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(relative) cultural unification and class division of the new states. The post-dynastic
nation-states of Europe were strongly anchored in popular and territorial history,
distinguished from the shifting extensions of the landed property of princely power,
a history with a rich congruent cultural heritage, though differentiated by dialects
and local customs. The creation and imposition of a unified national language, by
dialect selection and by grammatical and orthographic codification became a major
task of many European nation-states (See, e.g. Weber 1976). Where possible, minor-
ity languages were driven out of national culture.
The typical European nation-state emerged out of internal conflicts of a dynastic
state, and class is first of all an intra-state division. The pioneered Industrial Revolu-
tion provided the political division with a strong socio-economic foundation. As the
established churches almost everywhere—except in Ireland and Poland—sided with
the monarchy and the aristocracy, Europe gradually became the world´s most secu-
larized continent.
Secondly, there are the settler states, the socio-political outcomes of the over-
seas European conquests and settlements in the early modern period: the Ameri-
cas, White Oceania, South Africa. Nation-states emerged here as political seces-
sions from the colonizing motherland. These nations have little cultural heritage of
their own, sharing their language, their religion, and most of their history with the
divorced motherland. The distinctive culture of their nation-state formation is that
of the universalistic European Enlightenment, together with Christianity and a res-
urrection of ancient Greco-Roman republicanism, which they are claiming against
their motherlands’ denial, betrayal, or corruption of Enlightenment values. The
claim to represent a universalist Enlightenment and Ancient Republic politics is
strongest in USA, where it is reinforced by the millenarian New World ambitions of
Puritan Protestant Christianity. From the very beginning, USA is not just the state of
the former Thirteen North American Colonies of Britain but the No. 1 state of free-
dom and equality in the world. (Commager 1950; Wood 1971; Lepore 2018).
In Latin America, with a thin proto-national culture left after almost two decades
of Independence wars, it was unclear what the nation was to be. The Liberator-Hero
Simon Bolívar led a successful rebellion in Venezuela, and became later President
of Bolivia, of Peru, and of Gran Colombia. Nation-concepts from colonial adminis-
trative units at varying level competed with Panamericanism of variable dimensions.
The former finally won out (Annino and Guerra 2003).
All the settler countries define their nation as a club, which people are encour-
aged to join—provided they have the proper criteria. But the clubs are exclusive.
The Natives of the country were excluded from membership in the US, Canada,
Australia, and gradually also South Africa. In Latin America they were mostly too
many and too strong to be denied entry of the new state on their own land, so also
in New Zealand. Slaves and freed descendants of slaves were generally excluded
from participation in the new states of the Americas. Desired immigrant members
were White Europeans, preferably Northern Europeans. Targeted immigration from
Europe was a major dimension of nation formation. Others might occasionally be
allowed in, for hard work, but without membership. The Supreme Court of Califor-
nia motivated this 1854 by declaring Chinese as “a race of people whom nature has
marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress…” (Lepore 2018, p. 325).
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States, Nations, andCivilizations
Racism and racial division are intrinsic part of settler culture and settler socie-
ties, reflecting and legitimating the conquests and expropriations by the settlers and
slaveholders. As the Black Lives Matter movement and the lethal police shootings
of Black men in the summer of 2020, racism is still endemic to at least a part of the
American state.
A third pathway of nation-state formation went through the vast Colonial Zone,
stretching from northwestern Africa to Papua New Guinea, lands conquered and
ruled but not stably settled by colonial powers coming from far away. The anti-
colonial movements here learnt their notions of nation, self-determination, human
rights, and development from their colonial masters, applying the ideas to their own
situation, and turning them against their rulers. The colonized peoples usually com-
prised several ethnic groups, each with its own culture, language, history, and of
different religious beliefs. The only basis for a national culture was the experience
of colonial rule, the national borders the result of colonial carve-ups. What came out
of this was a particular kind of nation-state, with diverse and fractured indigenous
societal agglomerations contained in post-colonial states, governed in the language
and according to juridico-administrative procedures of the former colonial power
by a political elite with colonial-size privileges.—Post-apartheid South Africa has
changed from a particularly racist settler state into a rather common post-colonial
Finally, there is a course to political modernity without directly establishing a
nation-state, which we may designate as Reactive Modernization. The designation
refers to polities seriously threatened but never fully subjugated by alien imperial-
ism; polities which managed to survive into the modern world by adopting mod-
ern state institutions from abroad and grafting them on to indigenous rule and a
moulded indigenous society. Modernization, including modern citizenship rights
(but not democracy), in this case came from above, from rulers in power rather
than from popular struggles. Modern instrumental reason of statecraft, technology,
and economics was selectively imported and fitted together with a relatively uni-
fied, evolving but basically preserved indigenous society and its culture. Japan of the
Meiji Restoration is the grand historical case of a successful non-European trajec-
tory through modernity by Reactive Modernization. Below we shall look into how
the outcome of the Meiji Ishin relates to the concept of a civilization state. Siam did
also pass, although at a more modest level, while attempts by the late empires of
the Qing and the Ottomans failed. (On enduring effects of these different kinds of
nation-state formation, see Therborn 2011).
2 Civilizations andStates
Civilization, derives from Latin civitas, city, and has a different meaning in singular
and in plural. As a singular it became a concept in French in the mid-eighteenth
century, distinguishing a high degree of social and cultural development from “bar-
barism” and “savagery”. It spread rapidly across European languages and became an
important part of the nineteenth century evolutionist conception of history (Bowden
2016). However, since 1919 it is mainly used in plural, particularly in scholarly
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contexts, in comparative studies of world history (Braudel 1987, p. 41ff). In aggres-
sive political rhetoric it continues to be used in singular.
The moment of nations and nation-states, we noticed above, was the breakdown
of heteronomy of peoples, by dynastic states, closed urban oligarchies, tribal elders
and chiefs. Civilization in singular arose with European world supremacy and evo-
lutionism, as a European self-designation. Civilizations in plural first appeared on a
large intellectual scale after World War I, the horrendous slaughters of which shat-
tered the Western idea of continuous evolution and progress. Between the two World
Wars and just after a number of ambitious and much-debated works on civilizations
appeared, from Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918-22/1991) to Arnold Toyn-
bee’s A Study of History (1934–61) A main focus here was the historical develop-
ment and, especially, the decline of civilizations. In the 1990s Huntington added a
vista of coming inter-civilizational conflicts.
There is no consensus on what civilizations in plural are, how they should be
defined, and how many of them there are. But Huntington (1996, p. 43) provides a
fruitful starting-point for different specifications: “A civilization is the broadest cul-
tural entity”. He goes on to say that it is the broadest level of identification, the big-
gest entity within which people “feel culturally at home”. Taking an agnostic posi-
tion on identification in this context, I have found the concept useful for analysing
the cultural geology of societies, by designating large ancient cultural configurations
with an enduring cultural impact (Therborn 2011, ch. 1).
3 The Five Largest Civilizations oftheWorld
By civilizations I am referring to enduring ancient, large-scale, territorial cultural
formations, transcending political regimes in space and time. The cultural con-
figuration developed embedded in characteristic trans-ethnical affinities of eco-
nomic and social practices developed in interaction with the natural environment
which the population had to adjust to. The cultures of civilizations have three main
First, a foundational culture, a cosmology, a view of the world, of its origin, its
meanings, and its destination, a conception of the supernatural and a location and
identification of the divine. Religion is usually a central part of a civilization, but not
necessarily its core, as the Sinic East Asian example shows.
Secondly a pattern of social relations, embodied in institutions of family, kinship,
and practices of livelihood in coping with a given environment, shaped by the natu-
ral ecology of the cultural formation. For example, the temperate lands of mixed
agriculture in Europe, close to water and navigation, with long, winding coastlands
and navigable rivers. The desert-cum-oases ecology of Arabo-Islamic civilization
of nomadic pastoralist Bedouins and urban merchants. The vast labour-scarce, inter-
related tropical and savannah lands of Africa, with limited riverine navigability and
largely off the Eurasian trade routes of cultural exchange, sticking to hoe agriculture
and non-literary at its core, despite the Ethiopian Church and the Muslim Timbuktu
library. The Sinic civilization, the only continuous and enduring riverine early high
culture civilization, encompassing the continental land mass of China as well as
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States, Nations, andCivilizations
spreading to the Korean peninsula, the Japanese islands, and southwards to northern
Vietnam, areas with an affinity of wet-rice agriculture. The large and ancient Indic
civilization has a more discontinuous history with the disappearance of the origi-
nal Indus valley culture, while remaining a river plain socio-cultural formation—its
territorial base is the large agricultural territory of the Indian sub-continent, since
ancient times connected to China in the East and to West Asia and Europe in the
Thirdly, a historically developed guiding tradition. Literary civilizations define
what is the “classic” canon and a “classical education”, of language, literature, art,
architecture, thought. A common tradition of a non-literary civilization, such as the
African, can be expressed through orally transmitted tradition in interlocking chains
of myths, artistic expressions, like dance and masks, and even housing. In my inter-
pretation, civilizations constitute the deepest layer of the cultural geology upon
which our current cultures are built. An implication of this perspective is that we are
formed also, and often more importantly, by other, more recent cultural strata. One
example is the historical pathway to modernity, expressed inter alia in the different
routes to a nation-state, which we touched upon above.
The five largest civilizations today are, the Sinic civilization, originated in and
centred on China, but also including Korea, Japan, and (northern) Vietnam, with
a common high culture of Chinese script and a Chinese classical canon, including
Confucian philosophy.
The Indic with its Sanskrit language, comprising South Asia, with extensions
into contemporary Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar, which three latter
countries derive their script from India, and whose state ceremonies still derive in
part from Indic culture, including the official name of Thai kings, Rama.
The West Asian Arab-Muslim configuration of West Asia and North Africa, rein-
forced by Persian imperial court culture and conceptions of political power, reaching
out to Central and South Asia, with the Timurids and the Mughals. A civilization
connected not only by the Islamic faith and tradition, but also by a High Arabic lan-
guage, above the national vernaculars, and before the European intrusion by secular
Persian language, architecture, and culture.
The European Greco-Roman cum Christian civilization—its two traditions suc-
cessfully married by the early medieval Church—and its overseas offshoots, in the
Americas and in Oceania. The university curriculum of Classics include the lan-
guages of Latin and ancient Greek, and the literature and history of Greco-Roman
Antiquity, from which “classical” European architecture also derives.
Finally, the Sub-Saharan African, the only non-literary civilization and therefore
without “classics” or canon, but nevertheless a complex unity of its own, sustained
by large-scale population mobility, of spiritual-mythical and artistic affinities, of lin-
guistic kinship, of similar land-labour relations and forms of agriculture.
The five largest civilization by population are all among Huntington’s (long) list
of nine, and the four he adds are all smaller, the (Christian) Orthodox, the Latin
American, the Buddhist, and the Japanese.
Each civilization contains at least traditions of political rule, and often explicit,
more or less elaborate principles of government. To what extent they are relevant
today varies and is open to debate. The Sinic civilization has a unique continuity,
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embodied in a core state, China with a millennial imperial institution—now broken,
though only since 1911—, and in revived ancient social philosophy, Confucianism.
African civilization was basically stateless, and its tribal traditions of authority and
identity are still alive. Despite recent attempts at linguistic and cultural re-Sanskriti-
zation, Indic civilization has a fragile continuity, its central religious component was
once Buddhism, now replaced by Hinduism. It was never based on a central core
state, and its Hindu-Buddhist conceptions of ritual kingship are currently politically
marginal, though recently controversial (Thailand), or irrelevant (India). The impe-
rial Persian implant on West Asian Islamic civilization has fallen by the colonial
wayside, and the attempt to revive the more orthodox Islamic Caliphate has been
disastrous. The European civilization included institutions of deciding and voting
assemblies, from the Athenian Assembly of citizens and the Roman Senate, tra-
ditions carried through into the second millennium C.E. by the Christian Church
Councils and by the election of the two highest positions of medieval Europe, the
Pope and the Emperor (of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation). North of
Greco-Roman Antiquity there were Germanic peasant assemblies-cum-courts and
elected kings. However the civilization splintered politically into warring states
rules by Absolutist dynastic monarchs, and has later mutated culturally, into a trans-
Atlantic Western, increasingly secular configuration.
Every civilization has had its periods of expansion, as well as of contraction.
However, they differ whether they have an inner drive to ruling the world or not.
There are missionary and non-missionary civilizations. The Arab-Islamic and the
Euro-Christian civilizations are missionary, of world salvation, the civilizations
of jihad and crusades. The three others are not. The Islamic mission is exclusively
religious, divine sharia law is its main political mission. Euro-Christian or Western
civilization, on the other hand, has largely secularized its mission into liberalism-
cum-capitalism, also traded under the label of liberal democracy.
4 The Political Moment ofCivilizations
Above I argued that the political moment of nations and nation-states was the ero-
sion of and challenge to the heteronomy of peoples by dynastic states and other
forms of autocracy. What is then the political moment of civilizations, in plural?
The moment of civilization politics and international relations arrived with the
unexpected erosion of and challenge to universalistic conceptions of states and poli-
tics. Previously in the twentieth century, states were distinguished in universalistic
political or socio-economic terms, as democracies and dictatorships, as socialist and
capitalist states, as liberal democracies and popular democracies, as belonging to
the “Free World”, to the “Socialist Camp” or to the “Non-Aligned Movement” of
the Third World. By 1991, it seemed that “liberal democracy” had vanquished the
world, and ended history (Fukuyama 1992) However, what happened was that once
one of the universalistic conceptions appeared to have won over all the others, a
series of particularistic challenges emerged. Huntington (1993,1996) was not alone
and perhaps not the first to see this shift (Huntington 1996, p. 324n. 18), but he has
been the author with the main impact, in articulating and elaborating it.
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States, Nations, andCivilizations
After 1991, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there is no politically impor-
tant universalist challenge to capitalist democracy—the only such challenge, fun-
damentalist Islamism, emerging as a force after its Saudi-US financed anti-Com-
munist victory in Afghanistan, has not been without significance but never near an
alternative of global importance. However, liberal democracy could not establish a
peaceful world order, sitting as it was on top of a welter of seismic waves produced
by past streams of violence, exploitation, and domination. Liberal democracy was
unable to cope with the outbreaks of pent-up anger and resentment in any liberal or
democratic way, almost destroying Russia and ex-Yugoslavia, and creating an arc of
aerial slaughter and destruction from Afghanistan to Libya. At the same time it was
largely losing its democratic credentials at home through increasingly obvious and
scholarly documented plutocratic rule (see further Therborn 2020). In this demo-
cratic vacuum various particularistic cultural conceptions of politics are emerging.
The civilizational state is one of them, the most ambitious.
The new angle of the 2010s, is that civilizational states has come to the fore as
a reflection of a challenge to liberal-democratic superiority by the meteoric rise of
China in prosperity and power. The contrast to the outcome of the restoration of cap-
italism in Russia under Western liberal-democratic imposition—including import of
Thatcher’s election managers from Britain—is stunning. Russia’s national income
per adult fell from two thirds of the Western European in 1975 to less than forty per
cent of it in the 1990s, about the same level as in the mid-1920s or in 1870. By 2000
the richest ten per cent appropriated more than half the national income, ten percent-
age points higher than in 1905 under the Czars (Alvaredo 2018, figs.2.8.2, 2.8.3).
For a serious political debate—scholarly, intellectual, and civic—a questioning of
actually existing liberal democracy should be welcome. Particularly since the latter
is now in many parts of the world very different from the rule of the people which
the historical democratic movements had in mind and fought hard for (cf. Therborn
2020). Actually existing liberal democracies may be governments of the people, but
hardly by the people or for the people. However, the meaning and implications of
civilization states in relation to the prevailing modern pattern of nation-states have
to be clarified before a fruitful debate.
5 Nations andCivilizations
Nations and civilizations are both cultural concepts, so what are the differences
between nation-states—of which there several very different kinds—civilization-
states? Most nation-states of the world are not, as we saw above, the “coherent cul-
tural complexes”, which Katzenstein (2010, p. 5) thinks they are. Jacques (2009) has
said that “China is not a nation-state in the European sense of the term”, agreed, but
neither is India, Nigeria, USA, and most of non-European states. Jacques’ analysis
of the singularity of China is in many ways eye-opening, and has been acknowl-
edged by Chinese scholars as insightful, to the extent of being elaborated upon
(Zhang 2012). However, the civilization-state has become a general concept of con-
temporary political science and rhetoric, which takes the discussion, and needed
clarifications, beyond China.
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Nation-states and civilization-states are both political inventions, and both are
used as tools of political rhetoric. As such, civilization is a heavier hammer in rhe-
torical combats, with higher requirements of age and, in particular, size. Nation-
states are always younger, because they all belong to the future-oriented epoch of
modernity, despite their frequent historical myths of their nation, whereas the gravi-
tas of a civilization derives from its ancientness, i.e. its pre-modernity Size means,
for instance, that Sweden can claim to be a nation-state, but not a civilization-state,
which is an option to Russia. State rhetoric more often than not uses civilization as
something larger and deeper than state culture, in their claims to represent and to
defend “Western civilization”, “Christian civilization”, “Asian civilization”. It cer-
tainly sounds more solemn and lofty than, say, Apartheid civilization, Zionist civili-
zation, Hungarian or Singaporean civilization.
Thirdly, the boundaries of civilization are usually more blurred than those of
nations, which might create problems for self-proclaiming civilizational states. Pro-
fessor Bai (2020, p. 207) has pointed to the problematic of Chinese state territories
with Uighur and Tibetan populations inherited from Qing dynasty conquests but not
integrated into Chinese civilization. On the other hand, civilizational fuzziness may
also be used for making claims to regional hegemony, as in a Turkish nationalist
self-designation of Turkey as a civilizational state, “Such a state aims to create a
regional space … (through) strong cultural and social bonds with other people of
the region.” (Al-Hafidh 2020) Or for overriding state boundaries of citizenship, in
claims to allegiance by a national diaspora, and in privileges of immigrant citizen-
ship to fellows of the same civilization, be they European in 19th-early twentieth
century Americas or Hindus from neighbouring countries as in contemporary India.
Agency is an important difference between nations and civilizations. Nations
act, or can at least be imagined as acting. Civilizations mould actors, and they may
“clash”, in the sense worldviews or values collide, but civilizations do not act.
Nations and civilizations are both “imagined communities”, but a nation is an acting
community and a civilization is a community of values, worldviews, and practices.
Huntington’s (1996, p. 207ff) clashes of civilizations or “intercivilizational con-
flicts” are actually either conflicts between neighbouring states or groups belonging
to different civilizations or between “core states” of civilizations.
Time and history also differentiate nations and civilizations. As cultural com-
plexes both are, of course, situated in history and flowing with time. This moving
situatedness in time was actually the main focus of the original historiography of
civilizations in plural, by Spengler, Toynbee and others. However, the current
recourse to civilization as a foundation and as a distinguishing characterization of
states tend to use the concept as a timeless essence without history. National cul-
tures, by contrast, are full of historical events of the nation, of defeats as well as of
victories, of subjugation as well as of glory, of villainous as well as of heroic and
magnificent actors.
Together, agency and historicity probably best highlight and distinguish
nations and civilizations, nation-states and civilizational states. Nations are actors
and the political rise of nations, the constitution of nation-states were historical
events, of fundamental political change. The sovereignty of the nation replaced,
by negotiation and reform or by rupture and revolution, the sovereignty of the
1 3
States, Nations, andCivilizations
dynasty, the lineage, or the sword. National sovereignty meant, inter alia, that the
nation claimed the right to build a new future, unhampered by inherited tradi-
tions. Because of this future orientation, the constitution of nation-states marks
the arrival of political modernity. By contrast, the recent declarations of civili-
zational states mean an invocation of an ancient past. It also entails attempts at
erasing the modern history of the country, such as in China and Russia the top-
pling of the dynastic empires of the Qing and the Romanovs, and the deep socio-
economic transformations by the USSR and the PRC.
The rise of nations and nation-states was a revolt against the prevailing “elites”,
the dynastic families, the imperial bureaucracies, the aristocracy, the high clergy,
the big landowners, the big merchants and factory owners. Civilizations, are, above
all and particularly in their inherited and currently invoked form, crystallizations of
elite culture. In current Chinese discussion (e.g. Zhang 2012; Bai 2020; Bell and Pei
2020) argumentation for rule by meritocratic elites is central. Without here entering
into a debate of democratic popular rule versus meritocratic elite rule, I will make
three comments problematizing meritocracy.
First the question, Whose merits? Meritocracy in ancient Chinese civilization had
a quite limited range. The emperors and the dynasties were not recruited by selec-
tion of talents by merit. Kinship and inheritance of land patterned wealth and power.
Female talent was never asked for, although a few women in the dynastic complex
could manoeuvre for influence. Those, and other limitations, were only swept away
by the modern revolutions.
What merits? Was classical literary knowledge and skills good merits for govern-
ing a country in a period of industrial technology and industrialized warfare? Mod-
ern critics of China’s ancient tradition did not think so. There is knowledge from
books, and there is knowledge from experience, and for providing welfare for the
population, knowledge from the bottom of society is as necessary as knowledge out
of the fortunate life experiences of the elites, arguably more necessary. These and
similar considerations delegitimized the merits of the mandarin elites. The general
problematic of the vast range of knowledge necessary for a society to function well
still holds. The brightest computer scientist is not necessarily the best person to run
a city.
Thirdly, there is a question of the merits of generations. Meritocracy is what lib-
erals call equality of opportunity. Usually lost in the argument is that the opportuni-
ties and the merits of one generation are largely shaped by the inequalities of the
parental and still earlier generation. In the United States this is now being noticed
because of the enormous investments in their children which upper and upper mid-
dle class parents are making, from exclusive pre-schools, exclusive private schools,
preparations for elite universities, to expensive elite higher education (Markovits
2019). Inter-generational mobility in contemporary China has declined for the
cohorts born after 1970, both with respect to income and to education, i.e. paren-
tal income and education is influencing more strongly the income and education of
their adult children (Fan etal. 2015). In international comparison, the correlation
between the relative) income of parents and children appears very high, whereas the
education connection is rather low, probably largely due to the disruption of the Cul-
tural Revolution (Gong etal. 2012).
1 3
Once functioning elites may lose touch or function with social evolution. The
history of nation-states includes what I have called Popular Moments, most often
peaceful, crucial events of national agency, when a prevailing national elite is wid-
ened or replaced by rising popular forces, e.g. the workingclass in Europe, excluded
ethnic groups in the settler states, other nationalist movements in ex-colonial coun-
tries, lower castes in India (Therborn 2017, ch.6).
6 The Politics ofCivilizations
The politics of civilizations entered the world because of the way the Cold War
ended. The victor was liberal democratic capitalism, but the victory was not. Politi-
cally, capitalism was nowhere a winner, the Eastern European anti-Communists stu-
diously avoided demonstrations for it, and socialist values remained majoritarian,
even in East Germany, well after the implosion of Communism (Therborn 2020).
The Soviet Union was fought to a very costly stalemate in Afghanistan, not by lib-
eral democrats, but by fundamentalist Islamists, financed and armed by Saudi Arabia
and USA. The break-up of the USSR and of Yugoslavia—including multicultural
Bosnia-Hercegovina, whose civil war provided an important bridge of fundamen-
talist Islamism from Afghan reaction into a global strike force—was not efforts to
establish liberal democratic capitalism, but political entrepreneurship promoting
ethnic nation-states.
Liberal democratic capitalism is a thin identity, and intrinsically self-contra-
dictory as capitalism is antagonistic to democracy, and usually illiberal in its rule
of enterprises. Despite its victor status, it could not cope hegemonically—only by
dominant power—with the inequalities, resentments, and conflicts of interest in the
world. The alternative of “Western civilization” as a singular pinnacle of human
development had already lost most of its appeal in the West itself. The famous oblig-
atory university US university course on “Western civilization”—a US equivalent to
the Soviet course on “Marxism-Leninism”—petered out in the late 1960s, with the
Western student rebellion (Allardyee 1982).
Universalist worldviews are not all unable to enlist intense identification and
commitment. Hundreds of thousands have risked their jobs, their safety, and their
lives fighting for socialism. Many more have risked martyrdom for their faith in uni-
versalist religions like Christianity and Islam. Anti-Communism has also recruited
fervent attachment and fighting spirit. Bereft of Communist foes as well as of the
glory of Western civilization liberal democratic capitalism stand culturally naked.
7 The International Relations ofCivilizations
The strongest claim for the current importance of civilizations has been made by
Huntington, a prominent scholar and an adviser of US imperial policy. First laid out
in an essay in Foreign Affairs in (1993), and later expanded into book form, Hunting-
ton argued that “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations
and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global
1 3
States, Nations, andCivilizations
politics” (Huntington 1993, p. 22). In other words, state actions will be determined
by their civilizational affinity. Huntington singled out “seven or eight major civi-
lizations”: “Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin
American, and possibly African civilization” (1993, p. 25). In his book elaboration
(1996, ch. 1) Huntington added a Buddhist civilization, while remaining ambivalent
about Africa.
This is a hodge-podge of cultural formations, very different in vintage, depth, and
extension, not much theoretically developed in the book version. It is meant as a
map for post-Cold War US foreign policy and wars, hot and cold. As such it is not
off the mark, subsuming Europe under Western, distinguishing Japan from China,
marginalizing Africa. Treating Latin America as one cultural area makes geopoliti-
cal sense, although hardly a civilizational. It is less helpful to the planners of the
State Department and the Pentagon by subsuming South and, in particular, South-
east Asian Islamic culture (of Indonesia and Malaysia) under one Islamic label,
and Huntington acknowledges himself the East–West divide of “Slavic-Orthodox”
It derives its relative persuasiveness from the late twentieth century “return of
God”, and the surge of organized religion in most parts of the world, save Western
Europe. That religious renaissance in turn goes back to the failures and defeats of
the two major secular ideologies of the century, secular developmental nationalism
and socialism,/communism, which also “culturalized” states, in different ways.
Huntington was a perceptive cartographer of coming wars and conflicts of the
US, and he also had some good advice. He warned against the dangers of interfering
in other civilizations, and added “In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civi-
lizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three
problems: it is false, it is immoral, and it is wrong” (Huntington 1996, p. 310). How-
ever, the catchy phrase “clash of civilizations” is too simple to account for the com-
plexity of the seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia,
Libya, and their spread into the Sahel south of Sahara, clashes which in many ways
are also intra-civilizational and old imperial geopolitics.
The escalating conflict between USA and China is probably aggravated by involv-
ing states of two very different civilizations, but it would be grossly misleading to
characterize it as a clash of civilizations. It is a challenge of US socio-economic
primacy and world hegemony by China and an American refusal to accept China
as an equal. The challenge to an existing hegemon by a rising power is a classical
phenomenon of geopolitics. A US international relations scholar (Allison 2015) is
calling it “the Thucydydes Trap”, after the historian/participant of the Peloponne-
sian War in ancient Greece between hegemonic Sparta and rising Athens, with their
allies, 2400years ago. The form of the US–China conflict and its prospects are sig-
nificantly affected by the very different civilizations to which the competing states
belong, but the conflict is typically geopolitical. As such, its outlook is pretty scary,
World War I had roots in the German challenge to the dominating British empire,
and the global widening of a European conflict into World War II was due to Japan
challenging the US and US refusal to compromise.
The Markets First globalization since the 1980s stumbled on the financial crisis of
2008, and may now be seen as overtaken by a state-driven geopolitical globalization,
1 3
announced by Donal Trump at his inauguration in January 2017, “America First”!
In this, more state-centred context, cultural experiences and outlooks, national and
civilizational, are likely to increase their influence upon international relations,
through their impact on the political culture of nation-states. Civilizational politics
of international relations, it should be noticed though, is not reducible to conflicts
and clashes. It has also inspired inter-civilizational dialogue, most ambitiously the
United Nations Alliance of Civilizations initiative, an institutionalized platform for
intercultural encounters and cooperation (www.unaoc .org).
8 Civilization States
A civilization state can be two different things, a political project of power legitima-
tion or a cognitive tool, a scholarly concept which can enrich political understand-
ing and knowledge. A state may be both, but that is not to be assumed, and in fact a
coincidence of political rhetoric and institutional intelligibility is empirically rare. A
civilization state is by definition a pre-modern state, claiming its uniqueness by its
inheritance of a pre-modern civilization. Civilization states are conservative, not to
say literally reactionary political projects.
The best example of political understanding being illuminated by the concept
of civilization state is Japan. The pathway to political modernity by Reactive Mod-
ernization did not directly lead to a nation-state. No nation was rising and claim-
ing sovereignty, instead a sector of the pre-modern elite seized power and set out to
transform the state and society in order to meet the threats of Euro-American impe-
rialism. Japan was not only the most successful case, it managed through creating—
N.B. not simply inheriting—a political system topped by something well captured
by the concept of a civilizational state. That is, a unique Japanese polity (kokutai),
centred on an emperor of divine descent, in whom sovereignty resided due to his
belonging to “a line of Emperors unbroken for ages eternal”, as the constitution of
1890 says, a constitution presented as an “imperial gift”. Eisenstadt (1996, p. 430)
sums up the specificity of the Meiji Restoration well: “It was proclaimed as a ren-
ovation of an older archaic system, which in fact had never existed, and not as a
revolution aiming to change the social and political order …” At the same time, the
“Restoration” was a modern opening, “knowledge shall be sought throughout the
world” in the pursuit of country strength said the new regime’s first major declara-
tion, the Charter Oath of 1868 (Beasley 1990, p. 56).
Japan became a modern power, not as a nation- state but as a “national struc-
ture with the emperor at center” (kokutai), a specimen of a civilizational state. Only
under US occupation and dictation of the constitution did Japan became a state of
national sovereignty, and only with Japanese translations of the American draft try-
ing to obscure the change from imperial to popular sovereignty (Dower 1999, ch.
13) By 1996, the understanding of the key concept of the Japanese civilization state
had faded so much that the newspaper Asahi Shimbun found it necessary to insert an
explication of kokutai (the one I used above) in an interview with a witness to the
1946 constitutional debate Dower 1999, p. 615).
1 3
States, Nations, andCivilizations
China was transformed from a dynastic to a nation-state, by the Republican revo-
lution of 1911 and reasserted by the People’s Republic of 1949. The current argu-
ments about a Chinese civilization(al) state1 (Jacques 2009; Zhang 2012) refer to its
importance as an aspect of the contemporary state and political regime. This is also
an illuminating deployment of the concept, pointing to a state with a uniquely long
continuous history, across its several ruptures of power, and a cultural civilization
still in touch with its past 2500years ago as a formidable source of legitimacy and
resilience. The pertinence of the argument is summed up by a Singaporean observer
of world affairs: “America is not competing with an anachronistic Communist party.
It is competing with one of the world’s oldest and strongest civilizations.” (Mah-
bubani 2020, pp. 129–30). The strength and durability of this, rather recent, align-
ment between the CCP and a reinvigorated neo-Confucian civilization is an empiri-
cal question for the future. It is an interesting and important question following from
the conceptualization.
In India and Russia, by contrast, the civilization state appears mainly as a politi-
cal project, of controversial aims of power.
Indian civilization is large and ancient, but it has neither a long state continu-
ity, nor a religious one, and it has less of a tradition of political philosophy than
China. Its current state was established as a post-colonial nation-state, as part of a
universalist anti-colonial nationalism. Few post-colonial states resembled the Euro-
pean model, of historical borders and cultural commonalities, but as the first post-
colonial state and because of its sub-continental linguistic, religious and cultural
diversity, India became more preoccupied with its new variant of a nation-state than
most other states of the former Colonial Zone of Africa and Asia. The idea of India
as a civilization state emerged as a way of coping with contemporary diversity while
building on the pride of ancient Indian civilization. (Kumar 2002; Oommen 2004;
Singh 2016) It was mainly a cultural project of identity, lacking any specific political
prescriptions, and any strong pan-civilizational traditions to build on.
Much more politically important is the Hindu civilization project pushed by
the current BJP government and its Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It portrays the
almost millennial Muslim part of Indian civilization as an alien intrusion, and is
doing its best for erasing the memory of, and for further marginalizing the remain-
ing poor Muslim population, about 13 per cent of the total population, roughly equal
to the proportion of African-Americans in USA. An exclusive Hinduist state is a
quite possible political project, but whether it would be enlightening to label it a
civilization state is another question (Cf, Coker 2019, p. 126ff; Macães 2020).
Vladimir Putin talks since 2012 of Russia as a “state-civilization” (gosudartstvo-
tsivilizatsiia)) rather than as a civilization state (Linde 2016, p. 23), which seems to
mean a state-centred, multi-ethnic civilization, where the Russian Orthodox Church
has an important part, alongside the Russian language and Russian cultural tradi-
tions. These speeches should probably be taken as a unifying identity project for a
1 Zhang (2012, p. 47) makes a distinction between a civilization state and a civilizational state, the latter
being an amalgamation of “the world’s longest continuous civilization with a huge modern nation-state”.
1 3
disoriented post-Communist Russia hurt by the West. Civilization state implications
remain unclear and uncertain.
9 Conclusion
As incarnations of nations, modern states are inherently cultural entities, but the
meaning of the nation varies with the path of nation-state formation. Nations and
nation-states of the world cannot be reduced to European examples. An analytical
comparison of nations and civilizations as cultural entities yields insights into both,
about their different modes of impact and their different location in time and history.
Civilizations, in plural, is a legitimate and valuable concept of cultural and eco-
logical analysis. The abuse of it for rhetoric of exclusion and supremacy/subordina-
tion is a reason for critical scrutiny, not for conceptual abandonment. Ancient civi-
lizations do have enduring effects, both as traces of long past experiences and as a
cultural repertoire which can be played upon, for aesthetic as well as for political
reasons. As such they impinge upon the political culture of contemporary states but
they do not clash, movements, politicians, states, organized religions do.
All civilizations are rich depositories of knowledge, experiences, and imagina-
tions. Bringing them to light is an invaluable contribution to human culture, particu-
larly in an era in which modern mass culture tends to drown classical civilizational
education. Investigations of civilizational influence on political cultures, and thereby
on states and their international relations are not only intellectually promising. In
a world increasingly governed by states and other actors not coming out of West-
ern civilization, inter-civilizational knowledge and comparison become increasing
Civilization states have in the past decade become a fashionable topic. Publica-
tions about their “rise” abound. The secretary general of the Hinduist current Indian
government party, BJP, has declared: “Asia will rule the world, and that changes
everything because in Asia we have civilizations rather than nations.”(Ram Mad-
hav quoted by Macães 2020). The empirical record conveys a more modest picture,
of intellectual constructions or political rhetoric with uncertain prospects. The only
full-blown modern civilization state, the Japanese emerging from the Meiji Restora-
tion, has faded away, mutating into a conservative nation-state. The concept opens
up new insights into contemporary China, but a Sino-centric worldview would may
not be much of an intellectual advance over a Western-centred view.
While ancient civilizations impinge upon contemporary states, the latter’s mod-
ern history including the rise of the nation cannot be truthfully erased, and would
mislead efforts to understand the current state. The imagined communities of
nations and civilizations and their cultural affinities and alienations clearly have both
an impact on and a propelling potential of international conflicts, but they continue
to operate within a framework of universalist geopolitical conflicts of power and
Finally, it should be noticed, that there is an embryonic alternative to a politics
of civilizations emerging, a planetary politics, focused on planetary and panhuman
issues, on the threats of global warming, of recurrent pandemics, and of worldwide
1 3
States, Nations, andCivilizations
human inequality and inequity. It is part of the global shift going on in the world that
while missionary universalism is running out of “America First”, in 2020 it has been
the government of the civilization(al) state of China which has given support to a
planetary politics.
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“Civilization” is back at the forefront of global policy debates. The leaders of rising powers such as China, India, Turkey, and Russia have stressed their civilizational identity in framing their domestic and foreign policy platforms. An emphasis on civilizational identity is also evident in U.S. president Donald Trump's domestic and foreign policy. Some analysts argue that the twenty-first century might belong to the civilization state, just as the past few centuries were dominated by the nation-state. But is the rise of civilization state inevitable? Will it further undermine the liberal international order and fuel a clash of civilizations, as predicted by the late Samuel Huntington? Or might ideas from East Asian and other non-Western civilizations contribute to greater pluralism in our thinking about world order and the study of international relations?
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The essay examines Vladimir Putin’s civilisational discourse, which arose in earnest with the publication of his presidential campaign articles in 2012. It argues that what makes Putin’s rendering of Russia’s civilisational identity distinctive is its strongly emphasized Statism, understood as a belief in the primacy of the state. This suggests that while his endorsement of a distinct civilisational identity represents an important conceptual turn as regards how national identity is articulated, there are also significant lines of continuity with previous presidential periods, given that state primacy has been at the heart of Putin’s political agenda since the very beginning of his presidential career. This detail also reveals a great deal about the political rationale behind Putin’s commitment to a Russian civilisational identity. It provides the government with a theoretical justification of an illiberal political course. There are important implications for foreign policy-making as well. In relation to the West, there is an attempt to limit its normative reach by depicting liberal values as less than universal. In regional affairs, Russia is attempting to legitimate its involvement in the near abroad on civilisational grounds. The loose definition of ‘co-patriots’ as foreign nationals experiencing some affinity with Russia gives it plenty of leeway in this regard. Lastly, Russia has petitioned for Ukraine’s neutrality based on the argument that the country is straddling a civilisational fault line.
This is a best-seller in China and a geopolitical book for our times. As a leading thinker from China, Zhang Weiwei provides an original, comprehensive and engrossing study on the rise of China and its effective yet controversial model of development, and the book has become a centerpiece of an unfolding debate within China on the nature and future of the world’s most populous nation and its possible global impact. China’s rise, according to Zhang, is not the rise of an ordinary country, but the rise of a different type of country, a country sui generis, a civilizational state, a new model of development and a new political discourse which indeed questions many of the Western assumptions about democracy, good governance and human rights. The book is as analytical as it is provocative, and should be required reading for everyone concerned with the rise of China and its global implications. © Horizon Media Co., Ltd., 2011 and 2012 by World Century Publishing Corporation.