Rethinking the Standard(s) of Civilization(s) in International Relations

Millennium Conference 'Rethinking the Standard(s) of Civilization(s) in International Relations’, October 2013, London School of Economics and Political Science

Conference Review by Martin De Angelis

Who sets the standards of civilization in world politics?

The LSE Millennium Conference 2013 reflects the growing interest on the recovery of the notion of Civilization in the World Politics. An increasing number of scholars, intellectuals and policy makers have expressed a renewed interest in the concept of ‘Standards of Civilizations’, what are them, who place them and who judges them.

What means to be ‘Civilized’? What defines a society as a Civilization? What makes a Civilization be recognized as such by others? Who defines these ‘Civilizational Standards’? These are some of the most frequent questions raised amongst the scholars at the conference.

During the last decade international organisms such as the European Union, IMF or World Bank set up what are supposed to be standards of good governance and civilized practices. Such conditions illustrated the Western idea of Civility and Civilization and somehow embodied the ethnocentric judgment of world history, and the ultimate triumph of Liberal mindset condensed in Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’.

The Rise of Asia and ‘the Global South’ is not a mere economic phenomenon, as it pushes forward the debate over the Eurocentric Standards of global politics. With the emergence of non-western powers, the old standards of good conduct of economy and politics are being seriously questioned in their claim to be ‘the only civilized way’. This places the question: a culture is a civilization because the enduring traditions or because its modernization and adaptation to the established power? For Dr. Rosemary Shinko, cultural traditions have been unfairly regarded as ‘barbarism’ and westernization/modernization as ‘civilized’, and this way extensively justified oppression over third world countries.

From a critical standpoint, we should dig out the origins of the Western Standard of Civilization. The Eurocentric Civilizational Standards during 19th century subliminally fostered colonialist narratives all over the world. Many of these liberal-rationalist-secularist principles still present in the international rhetoric of western powers. Indeed enduring eurocentric standards mirror their own self image, a projection of standards that can only be met by themselves, as Dr. Shogo Suzuki (University of Manchester) highlighted.

As Professor John M. Hobson (University of Sheffield) placed, the Eurocentric view of Civilizations featured a meta-geographical distinction in 3 Sub Worlds:

a) Fist world of civilized European liberal states and societies
b) Second word of Barbaric Oriental Despotism of Communist and Socialist societies
c) Third World of Savages Anarchic societies

Hereafter, when talking about Civilizational Standard and Imperialism many contemporary questions do emerge, quoting Professor Yonglin Zhag (University of Bristol): who sets the standard? Are Western Practices Universalized as Standard of Civilization, hence reflecting the old imperialist order?

For centuries there has been a tacit differentiation between some ‘higher’ and some ‘lesser’ Civilizations, where the hierarchy was defined under western-colonialist standards. The achievements of non-western civilizations where somehow recognized but regarded as ‘exotic’ in the best of the cases. Development and progress was an exclusive attribute of European liberal civilization(s), everything outside that paradigm was supposed to be doomed to a future of ignorance and darkness.

Consequently, the notion of ‘civilized’ was restricted for those who shared a set of western practices and spoke a particular political idiom, standards that have evolved with sophistication over time but still stand unilateral. Nowadays the practices and the idiom are those of the Financial market and the liberal-secular idiom, championed by western powers. Dr. Yannis Stivacthis (Virginia Polytechnic) made this point in his presentation Russia entering the ‘Civilized Community’, explaining how western powers long resisted considering the Russian identity as valuable and equal to their western ones.

Hereafter we should ask ourselves the question: what defines now the contemporary notion of civility? The notion of ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ Civilizations has been long used to justify imperialists’ projects, and sadly still used under the name of ‘failed states’ or ‘undemocratic democracies’. Notwithstanding we shall not leave the concept of Civilizations to be held captive of western discourses, but to seize it from misusing hands. Civilizations (as multiple and coexisting cultures) could be as well the last stand in the resistance against cultural imperialism.

The international sphere is now facing a time of change, where the established practices and idiom of the declining old Western Standard. A decline, that results not only from evident incapability of the western model to address the contemporary global challenges, but as well due to the emergence of the non-western ways as reliable alternatives.

Non-western rising civilizations should contest the ‘standard’ in favor of multiple and decentralized ‘standards’, resisting the Eurocentric claim of a hierarchy amongst civilizations.

A single Standard of Civilization implies the tacit notion of civilizational and cultural Hierarchies, ultimately justifying the clash between them. More than a decade ago the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” understood the perils of this 19th century idea, challenging it by promoting dialogue amongst civilizations in terms of equals instead of yielding before Eurocentric hierarchies.

The 2013 Millennium Conference ‘Rethinking the Standard(s) of Civilization(s)’ is yet another confirmation that Civilizations matter, and that WPF “Dialogue of Civilizations” has been walking the right path in history.