Civilizational States

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= "A world society seemed to be advancing. But then the civilization state struck back."

- Bruno Macaes [1]

Contextual Quotes


"By accusing Western political ideas of being a sham, of masking their origin under the veneer of supposedly neutral principles, the defenders of the civilization state are saying that the search for universal values is over, that all of us must accept that we speak only for ourselves and our societies."


"If, to all appearances, we have returned to a world of civilization states, the root cause is the collapse of the concept of a world civilization. American political scientist Samuel Huntington started from this realization, arguing in one of the starkest passages of his book “The Clash of Civilizations” that “the concept of a universal civilization helps justify Western cultural dominance of other societies and the need for those societies to ape Western practices and institutions.” Universalism is the ideology of the West for confronting other cultures. Naturally, everyone outside the West, Huntington argued, should see the idea of one world as a threat."

- Bruno Macaes [2]


1. From the Wikipedia:

"A civilization state, or civilizational state, is a country that aims to represent not just a historical territory, ethnolinguistic group, or body of governance, but a unique civilization in its own right. It is distinguished from the concept of a nation state by describing a country's dominant sociopolitical modes as constituting a category larger than a single nation. When classifying states as civilization states, emphasis is often placed on a country's historical continuity and cultural unity across a large geographic region. The term was first coined in the 1990s as a way to describe China, but has also been used to describe nations such as Egypt, Russia, India, Turkey, and the United States. The term has been popularized by Bruno Maçães in a series of essays since 2018."


2. Alain De Benoist:

"Liberal internationalism considers ... the civilizational state ... (its) inveterate enemy because such states are opposed by their very nature to the spread of the values that liberal internationalism represents.

So what are these newcomers to whom some writers have given the name of “civilizational states” (or civilization-states)? They are regional powers whose influence extends beyond their borders and who conceive the nomos of the Earth as fundamentally multipolar. Originally, the “civilizational state” label was reserved specifically for China and Russia, but this qualification can be applied to many other states which, by leveraging their culture and their long-running history, manage to project a sphere of influence exceeding their national territory or their ethno-linguistic group: India, Turkey, and Iran, to name but a few.

Civilizational states set against Western universalism a model according to which each civilizational group is considered to have a distinct identity, both in terms of cultural values and in political institutions, an identity that is not reducible to any universal model. These states do not simply want to pursue a sovereign policy without submitting to the dictates of supranational elites. They also seek to thwart any “globalist” project aimed at making the same principles prevail throughout the planet, because they are aware that the culture they embody is not identical to any other. Here we must bear in mind that no single culture can encompass all cultures; the notion of a “world culture” is a contradiction in terms.

Civilizational states have the common characteristic of denouncing Western universalism, which they regard as a masked ethnocentrism, an elegant way of concealing hegemonic imperialism. But above all, the civilizational states rely on their history and their culture, not only to affirm that these imply a political and social model different from the one that liberal internationalism seeks to impose but also to identify a conception of the world deemed to be the foundation of a “good life”, both politically and religiously—that is to say, built on a set of non-negotiable, substantive values that the state then has the mission of embodying and defending.

The civilizational state, in other words, seeks to establish a conception of the good that is based on particular substantive values and a specific tradition.

Whether they are led by a new tsar, a new emperor, or a new caliph, whether the rejection of the universal occurs in the name of the Confucian notion of “harmony”, the heritage of “holy Russia” (“Moscow, the third Rome”), Eurasianism, Hinduism, or the memory of the caliphate, civilizational states refuse to submit to the standards of the West, which some of them had accepted in the past in order to “modernize”. Westernization and modernization, therefore, no longer automatically go hand in hand."



Civilization state versus nation-state

* "We will never make sense of China if we persist in treating it as if it is, or should be, a product of our own civilization."

Martin Jacques:

"Our western-centric value-judgements about China must no longer be allowed to act as a substitute for understanding the country in its own terms. This is no easy task. China is profoundly different from the West in the most basic of ways. Perhaps the most basic difference is that it is not a nation-state in the European sense of the term. Indeed, it has only described itself as such since around 1900. Anyone who knows anything about China is aware that it is a lot older than that. China, as we know it today, dates back to 221BC, in some respects much earlier. That date marked the end of the Warring States period, the victory of the Qin, and the birth of the Qin Empire whose borders embraced a considerable slice of what is today the eastern half of China and by far its most populous part.

For over two millennia, the Chinese thought of themselves as a civilization rather than a nation. The most fundamental defining features of China today, and which give the Chinese their sense of identity, emanate not from the last century when China has called itself a nation-state but from the previous two millennia when it can be best described as a civilization-state: the relationship between the state and society, a very distinctive notion of the family, ancestral worship, Confucian values, the network of personal relationships that we call guanxi, Chinese food and the traditions that surround it, and, of course, the Chinese language with its unusual relationship between the written and spoken form. The implications are profound: whereas national identity in Europe is overwhelmingly a product of the era of the nation-state – in the United States almost exclusively so – in China, on the contrary, the sense of identity has primarily been shaped by the country’s history as a civilization-state. Although China describes itself today as a nation-state, it remains essentially a civilization-state in terms of history, culture, identity and ways of thinking. China’s geological structure is that of a civilization-state; the nation-state accounts for little more than the top soil.

China, as a civilization-state, has two main characteristics. Firstly, there is its exceptional longevity, dating back to even before the break-up of the Roman Empire. Secondly, the sheer scale of China – both geographic and demographic – means that it embraces a huge diversity. Contrary to the Western belief that China is highly centralised, in fact in many respects the opposite is the case: indeed, it would have been impossible to govern the country – either now or in the dynastic period – on such a basis. It is simply too large. The implications in terms of the way the Chinese think are profound.

In 1997 Hong Kong was handed over to China by the British. The Chinese constitutional proposal was summed up in the phrase: ‘one country, two systems’. Barely anyone in the West gave this maxim much thought or indeed credence; the assumption was that Hong Kong would soon become like the rest of China. This was entirely wrong. The political and legal structure of Hong Kong remains as different now from the rest of China as in 1997. The reason we did not take the Chinese seriously is that the West is characterised by a nation-state mentality, hence when Germany was unified in 1990 it was done solely and exclusively on the basis of the Federal Republic; the DDR in effect disappeared. ‘One nation-state, one system’ is the nation-state way of thinking. But, as a civilization-state, the Chinese logic is quite different. Because China is so vast and embraces such diversity, as a matter of necessity it must be flexible: ‘one civilization, many systems’.

The idea of China as a civilization-state is a fundamental building block for understanding China in its own terms. And it has multifarious implications. The relationship between the state and society in China is very different to that in the West. Contrary to the overwhelming Western assumption that the Chinese state lacks legitimacy and is bereft of public support, in fact the Chinese state enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state. We have come to assume that the legitimacy of the state overwhelmingly rests on the democratic process – universal suffrage, competing parties et al. But this is only one element: if it was the whole story, then the Italian state would enjoy a robust legitimacy rather than the reality, a chronic lack of it. And to explain this we have to go back to the Risorgimento as only a partially fulfilled project.

The reason why the Chinese state enjoys a formidable legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese has nothing to do with democracy but can be found in the relationship between the state and Chinese civilization. The state is seen as the embodiment, guardian and defender of Chinese civilization. Maintaining the unity, cohesion and integrity of Chinese civilization – of the civilization-state – is perceived as the highest political priority and is seen as the sacrosanct task of the Chinese state. Unlike in the West, where the state is viewed with varying degrees of suspicion, even hostility, and is regarded, as a consequence, as an outsider, in China the state is seen as an intimate, as part of the family, indeed as the head of the family; interestingly, in this context, the Chinese term for nation-state is ‘nation-family’."



... of ideological sources for the concept in different regions of the world


1. Alain De Benoist:

"The Russian philosopher Konstantin Krylov (1967-2020), in his posthumous book Povedenie (“Behavior”), published in 2021, describes Russia as a country totally foreign to liberal thought since its inception. He rejects liberalism, but not democracy. Although he personally became a Zoroastrian during a stay in Uzbekistan, he also emphasizes the importance of Orthodox Christianity.

Paul Grenier, the founder of the U.S.-based Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy, who recently devoted a provocative essay to Krylov, writes:

- “I do not know for my part any Russian conservative intellectual for whom Russia is part of Western civilization. Everyone sees in it something separate and different.” This was already the opinion of Nikolaï Danilevski and Oswald Spengler, who underlined the specificity of social behavior and Russian ethical precepts, starting with “nostrité” or us-ness (in Russian, one does not say “my brother and I went for a walk”, but “we with my brother went for a walk”).

To the liberal system based on the pursuit of individual self-interest, Russia opposes the prerogatives of the sacred, which it refuses to see relegated to the private sphere, at the same time as it denies state neutrality with regard to values. It is, therefore, understandable that in Ukraine, Russia believes it is not simply defending its stance that Kiyv cannot become a nation-state because it belongs in the Slavic civilizational space, but that it is also engaged in a larger struggle against the very logic of the nation-state, the proponents of a purely secular or laical vision of the world, the liberal values of the “collective West” it perceives as “decadent”, and American hegemony bolstered by the liberal system."


2. CHARLES MCKELVEY (citing Vladimir Putin, 2023):

" Putin emphasized that Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept is based on the civilization-state. This concept holds that there are many civilizations in the world, and none is superior to another. All are equal civilizations, each with its own culture, traditions, and aspiration. In the new and more just world order, there is diversity, as “each state and society strives to develop its own path of development which is rooted in culture and traditions, and is steeped in geography and historical experiences, both ancient and modern, as well as the values held by its people.”

There also is diversity, Putin notes, within each of the world’s civilizations. Russia, for example, has learned its lessons, and it is able to construct national unity and state integrity on the basis of diversity.

The world is becoming increasingly diverse, Putin observed, such that it cannot be governed with the same methods, which certain states are still trying to impose.

“A truly effective and strong state system cannot be imposed from the outside. It grows naturally from the civilizational roots of countries and peoples. . . . Relying on your civilization is a necessary condition for success in the modern world. . . More and more states are coming to this conclusion, becoming aware of their own interests and needs, opportunities and limitations, their own identity and degree of interconnectedness with the world around them.”

Putin expressed optimism that the world of the future will be guided by the civilizational approach. “I am confident that humanity is not moving towards fragmentation into rivaling segments, a new confrontation of blocs, whatever their motives, or a soulless universalism of a new globalization. On the contrary, the world is on its way to a synergy of civilization-states, large spaces, communities identifying as such.” Where all civilizations are different, and each civilization is “culturally self-sufficient, drawing upon its own history and traditions for ideological principles and values.”

The West, Putin noted, has forgotten the notion of reasonable self-restraint. The elites of the West are fixated on their one goal, which is to promote their particular interests at any cost. In this situation, Russia has the duty to protect its own civilization. This is a duty that all civilizations have.

The civilizational approach “is based on the fundamental, long-term interests of states and peoples, interests that are dictated not by the current ideological situation, but by the entire historical experience and legacy of the past, on which the idea of a harmonious future rests. If everyone were guided by this, there would be far fewer conflicts in the world.”

Putin concluded by declaring that “Russia was, is and will be one of the foundations of this new world system, ready for constructive interaction with everyone who strives for peace and prosperity, but ready for tough opposition against those who profess the principles of dictatorship and violence. We believe that pragmatism and common sense will prevail, and a multipolar world will be established.”

The Russian Foreign Policy Concept as formulated by Putin is based in Russian history and collective struggle. The history of Russia is fundamentally different from that of China and the Third World, in that Russia was one of the competing world imperialisms of the nineteenth century, ultimately losing out to English, French, and American imperialisms. During the twentieth century, as the Soviet Union, it opted for a militarist defense of its Western frontier against Western imperialist threats, combined with inconsistent and selective cooperation with anti-imperialist states in China and the Third World, including a significant relation with revolutionary Cuba. Today, having recovered from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia seeks a constructive engagement with the world, bringing it to a foreign policy formulation that is in full harmony with the concepts of a New International Economic Order and a multipolar world-system as expressed by Chinese President Xi Jinping (see “China proposes Global Civilization Initiative,” March 21, 2023); and with the formulations during the last twenty years of a revitalized Non-Aligned Movement, the Group of 77 plus China, BRICS Plus, and regional integration projects in Latin America and the Caribbean, East Asia, the Arab world, and Africa."



Alain De Benoist:

"In the 1930s and 40s, the Kyoto School, formed around Nishida Kitarō (1870-1945) and Tanabe Hajime, was undoubtedly the first—well before all the decolonization movements—to develop the idea of a multipolar world, divided into distinct large spaces considered as the many crucibles of culture and civilization, and to critique, in defense of the plurality of cultures characteristic of the “real world” (sekaiteki sekai), the abstract principles of Western universalism based on capitalism and scientism.

The principal representatives of this School were above all philosophers, such as Kōsaka Masaaki, Kōyama Iwao, Nishitani Keiji, and Suzuki Shigetaka. The European thinkers who seem to have influenced them the most were Johann Gottfried von Herder and Leopold von Ranke. Recently, the ideas of members of the Kyoto School have also been brought closer to those of communitarian authors such as Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre.

It was in this inner circle that the idea of a “greater East Asian co-prosperity sphere” was developed, associating several countries on the basis of shared values and respect for their autonomy, an idea that should neither be confused with the “Japanocentrism” of the nationalist right nor with the Japanese imperialism of the same period. As early as June 1943, in fact, Japan’s official censorship body ordered that the School's publications be kept silent, reproaching it precisely for wanting to assign to Japanese power a mission that must not be confounded with simple imperialist expansion."



1. Alain de Benoist

In today's China, we must also mention the members of the Tianxia School, such as Zhao Tingyang, the historian Xu Jilin, Xu Zhuoyun, Wang Gungwu, and Liang Zhiping, whose catchphrase is “using China to explain China” (yĭ zhōngguó jiěshì zhōngguó) — possibly including among them Jiang Shigong, a proponent of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

Its theorists refer to the central notion of tianxia (“all that exists under heaven”), a spiritual principle of premodern China whose institutional embodiment was the Celestial Empire (Tiāncháo), an ideal whose origins can be traced to the Duke of Zhou (11th century BCE) who used the “mandate of heaven” to justify Western Zhou’s overthrow of Shang dynasty. A polysemic term, tianxia was used even before the time of Laozi (Lao-Tseu) and Confucius: it designates at once an ideal civilizational order, a spatial imaginary in which China lies at the core, a hierarchical order in which the “virtue” of its members determines their rank, and a political system supposed to guarantee the harmony of the whole.

Tianxia is “a dense concept”, argues Zhao Tingyang, “wherein, with respect to first philosophy, the metaphysical as political philosophy comes to replace the metaphysical as ontology”, which affirms that cultures have incommensurable values and that China must escape from Eurocentrism and fully assume its role as the Middle Empire. Relatedly, for Xu Jilin, “the origin of [China’s current] crisis is nothing but the mentality that grants absolute supremacy to the nation”. He adds, “To truly address the problem at its roots, we need a form of thinking that can serve as a counterpoint to nationalism. I call this thought the ‘new tianxia’, an axial civilizational wisdom derived from China’s pre-modern tradition, interpreted anew according to modern criteria”.

In this regard, the way in which, since the 1990s, the Chinese authorities, claiming “Asian values”, have rejected criticism directed at them in the name of human rights ideology is illustrative.

In January 2021, at the Davos Forum, Xi Jinping declared:

- "Just as no two leaves in the world are identical, no [two] histories, cultures, or social systems are the same. Each country is unique with its own history, culture, and social system, and none is superior to the other. […] Difference in itself isn’t a cause for alarm. What does ring the alarm…is the attempt to impose a hierarchy on civilizations or to force one’s own history, culture, or social system upon others."


2. From the Wikipedia:

"The term "civilization-state" was first used by American political scientist Lucian Pye in 1990 to categorize China as having a distinct sociopolitical character, as opposed to viewing it as a nation state in the European model. The use of this new term implies that China was and still is an "empire state" with a unique political tradition and governmental structure, and its proponents asserted that the nation state model fails to properly describe the evolution of the Chinese state. Proponents of the label describe China as having a unique historical and cultural unity, derived from a continuous process of cultural syncretism.The term was further popularized by its use in When China Rules the World by British political scientist Martin Jacques.

According to Li Xing and Timothy M. Shaw, the central feature of analyzing China as a civilization state is the view that the Chinese state derives its legitimacy from the continuation of a sociopolitical order which posits that the state maintains natural authority over its subjects, and that it is the "guardian" of both its citizens and their society, a view of the state that is completely distinct from the Westphalian nation-state model. Other scholars make the case that the key features of a civilization-state are the maintenance of an ethos of cultural unity despite displaying significant cultural diversity, across centuries of history and a large geographic space.[10] Some specifically draw attention to the longevity of the Chinese writing system, or describe China's existence as being uniquely and inexorably tied to the past.

Guang Xia pushes back on the idea of the uniqueness of a Chinese civilization-state. Xia argues that civilization-state discourse in China studies is an important and positive development, as it allows for characteristics of the modern Chinese state to be properly analyzed in the context of their history. However, Xia concludes that ultimately, all civilizations must reinvent themselves in the context of their history, and that it is a mistake to view China as a static entity or to portray it as being more tied to its past than the rest of the world."



"Three or four years ago, as I drove around Beijing visiting officials and intellectuals, I kept hearing the same message. In my experience, the only moment when a Chinese intellectual or official should be taken literally is when he or she is walking a guest to the car. With no one around and no time to add any commentary, a single sentence can speak volumes. And the sentence I was hearing was this: “Always remember that China is a civilization rather than a nation-state.”

This is not a new idea — far from it. Nor is it a Chinese idea. But having received official sanction, the concept was being used to convey an important and often ignored message: The myth that China is destined to be assimilated to a Western model of political society is over. From now on, the Chinese would be treading their own “Sonderweg” — special path. Progress with Chinese characteristics.

As a civilization state, China is organized around culture rather than politics. Linked to a civilization, the state has the paramount task of protecting a specific cultural tradition. Its reach encompasses all the regions where that culture is dominant."


Relevant Chinese thinkers: The Tianxia school, with Zhao Tinyang, Xu Jilin, Zhuoyun Xu, Wang Gungwu, Liang Zhiping; eventually: Jian Shigong, who has theorized 'Socialism with Chinese characteristics'.



"The importance of this concept became more obvious to me in India during a conversation with Ram Madhav, the general secretary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. After a conference in Delhi, he explained: “From now on, Asia will rule the world, and that changes everything because in Asia, we have civilizations rather than nations.”

The exact nature of those changes was left unsaid. One immediate implication is the role of the diaspora. The new India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be tightening ties with the large Indian diaspora in the Americas, Great Britain and the Gulf, among other places. Why not claim V.S. Naipaul as an Indian writer, for example? Naipaul was born in Trinidad and Tobago, went to Oxford and lived most of his life in London. But so what — he expresses the Indian civilization’s ways of feeling and thinking.

For a civilization state, cultural ties are potentially more important than the mere legal status of citizenship. As India’s recent Citizenship Amendment Act exemplifies, culture may even determine who can acquire Indian citizenship. The bill fast-tracks citizenship for immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — but not if they are Muslim. This is in line with what the ruling ideology in the country increasingly suggests: While you do not have to be Hindu to be an Indian, you do need to know, respect and perhaps even admire the Hindu way.

By affirming that India is a civilization, the Modi administration is consigning the opposition — the Indian National Congress — to the perilous role of a Westernizing force intent on measuring Indian success by the yardstick of a foreign system. The ideas that Congress had presented as too obvious to need much defense — secularism and cosmopolitanism — are seen as cultural imports from which India has to free itself. Naipaul had spoken of India as a wounded civilization, and he may have had a point, but contemporary India is a wounded civilization reasserting itself. Nation-states are a Western invention, naturally vulnerable to Western influence. Civilizations are an alternative to the West.

The BJP’s strong victory in India’s 2019 election, where it captured more than 300 further seats in the lower house of Parliament, shows how powerful that attitude turned out to be. As the political theorist Pratap Bhanu Mehta put it, Modi was able to convince voters that they should rise against a power structure that is essentially made up of Anglicized elites and that a Western philosophy of tolerance had become a symbol and a practice of contempt for Hinduism. There was a time when that liberal philosophy was taken seriously almost everywhere. Many of the independence movements in what used to be called the “third world” fully subscribed to it and used the language of human rights and the rule of law against the European colonizer."


More information

Bibliographic recommendations via David Ronfeldt:

"A little background: The civilization-state concept began to poke up

  • in 1990, when a Foreign Affairs article by Lucien Pye portrayed China as having a state that represents a civilization.
  • The actual terms civilizational state and civilization-state appeared years later with the publication of Zhang Weiwei’s book The China Wave: Rise Of A Civilizational State (2012),
  • Martin Jacques’s book When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order (2014),
  • plus Xia Guang’s scholarly article on “China as a ‘Civilization-State’” (2014).

Numerous more writings by more authors have spread the concept since then. A notable article in The Economist in 2020 even morphed Samuel Huntington’s famous (and infamous) “clash of civilizations” idea into a “clash of civilization states.”

Lately, the magazines Telos and Noēma have offered special coverage to the concept. Indeed, Noema and its publisher, the Berggruen Institute, have done more than anyone in the West to tout the concept. Thus it keeps gaining traction.

Curiously, no major U.S. strategist on China has written much about it, so far; and when allusions do appear, they usually dismiss or downplay it."

(fb, July 2023)

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