The New World Fracture: Civilizationism and the Failure of Global Liberalism

 /  March 13, 2021, 8:04 p.m.

Little Green Men
Pro-Russian paramilitary forces secure a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean Peninsula during the beginning of the Russian occupation.

During the Cold War, the United States led a global alliance to halt the spread of communism. Many believed the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that all countries were on the road to liberalism. In 2021, thirty years into a post-Soviet world, an ideology has indeed proliferated throughout the world. But this ideology has not been liberalism. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. India Prime MInister Narendra Modi’s Hinduventa, Islamist insurgents in the Middle East and Africa, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s neo-Confucianism, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the anti-immigrant parties of Europe and North America—all of these nationalist-populist movements are regional permutations of an era-defining meta-ideology I have dubbed Civilizationism. To understand the phase of human history we find ourselves in, we need to examine the end of the Cold War from the perspectives of its primary loser and winner.

Sage of the Shattered Empire 

Few would expect the ideological founder of the contemporary far-right to be the son of Soviet military officials, but there is precious little about Aleksandr Dugin that one would expect. A young Dugin came to age in the 1980s, an era when Soviet heads of state were dropping like flies, a disastrous and brutal war raged in Afghanistan, and curious citizens learned about the outside world through the fax machine. During his college years, Dugin affiliated with Satanists and occult groups, read the works of Julius Evola, and learned to speak English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish. During this period, he developed the alter ego Hans Siever, named after Wolfram Sievers, a Nazi official who used paranormal and pseudo-archaeological research to help justify the Holocaust. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he became an activist in numerous Eurasianist parties and capitalized on the nation's newfound freedom of speech to advocate for these positions. 

Eurasianism is both an ideology and a geopolitical strategy that has existed in intellectual Russian circles since the fall of the Russian Empire. Eurasianism proposes civilizations are defined by their adaptations to the unique geographic circumstances or, in Russian, mestorazvities. For example, Arab-Muslim civilizations’ mestorazvities are the arid deserts of Arabia and North Africa. Since resources were scarce in the desert, this civilization developed a complex system of familial and tribal loyalties that would allow for society to be managed well, which eventually developed into their civilizational identity. Eurasianists see Russia as belonging to a unique mestorazvities, combining tundra, taiga, steppe, and desert environments. Eurasian civilization has unique tolerance for ethnic diversity and has a special ability to understand other civilizations. 

Since the political and social character of a civilization is derived from a given mestorazvities, no ideas can universally govern humanity. However, there is one civilization that cannot leave the rest of the world alone: the West. Geographically characterized by its abundance of islands and peninsulas, Europe developed a thalassocratic culture, emphasizing the importance of trade, standardization, and competition. These values would grow into the political and economic systems of liberalism and capitalism. Not having a problem with these ideas in themselves, Eurasianists understand that liberalism, by virtue of its universal nature, and capitalism, by nature of its need to expand to new markets, will inevitably lead the West to imperialism. The West will always attempt to dominate other civilizations and enforce their incompatible values. Due to the aforementioned diversity of Eurasian civilization, Russia holds a special place within this paradigm as the only nation that can unite all victimized civilizations against the West. 

Eurasianism seems strange to many people because it contradicts conventional anti-imperialist thought. Anti-imperialism is commonly a left-wing belief, emphasizing the need to prevent exploitation at the hands of outsiders. Although Eurasianism and left-wing anti-imperialism are in agreement about some problems with imperialism, they come up with markedly different solutions. Left anti-imperialists would establish socialism. Radical social change in Eurasianism is counterrevolutionary, emphasising ancient civilizational traditions and hierarchies. Further, Eurasianists are perfectly happy with imperialist hierarchies of power and control so long as it happens within a given civilization’s natural boundaries. 

Dugin’s writings about a Eurasian Empire might seem far-fetched, but his word carries weight in Moscow. His book The Foundations of Geopolitics, which details how Russia might go about achieving the Eurasian dream, is taught in Russia’s Academy of the General Staff, where students are taught what specific geopolitical maneuvers Russia ought to make. Dugin is also an advisor to officials in Putin’s government and played a decisive role in the formulation of intervention in Ukraine and Georgia. For an anti-imperialist ideology this might seem hypocritical, but from the Eurasianist perspective, these nations are integral parts of Eurasian civilization and whose sovereignty only exists because Western imperialists have propped them up. Dugin’s influence is recognized outside of Russia by enemies and allies. Due to his work with Putin’s government, he is under personal sanctions by the United States and Canada. He also has connections to left-wing and right-wing populist parties across Europe, notably France, Austria, Greece, and Hungary. He held a public discussion with Steve Bannon in Rome in 2018. 

Although most of his writings concern Russia’s particular situation, he has written more general political theory as well, the most famous of which is his 2009 book, The Fourth Political Theory. The core assertion of The Fourth Political Theory is quite simple: leave us alone. Dugin asserts that there have been three global defining political ideologies driven by a defining subject, the individual in liberalism, class in Marxism, and the nation in fascism. Marxism and fascism are functionally extinct, and now liberalism, led by the United States, has asserted a global universalist hegemony. Dugin’s primary problem with liberalism is its universality and its disconnection from specific religious and cultural traditions. He further proposes that due to the hegemonic nature of liberalism, there are only two types of positions one can have. You are either a liberal who upholds the status quo or someone who opposes it. In Dugin’s eyes, the far-right and far-left are on the same side because they both oppose liberal hegemony. Even the most ardently left-wing third-world rebel is helping achieve Dugin’s vision because they are opposing American influence. But what idea could possibly unify such disparate forces? Dugin’s answer, Dasein.

The defining idea of Nazi Party member Martin Heidegger, Dasein is a German word best conveyed as “existence” or “being there.” Dasein contrasts with the famous declaration cogito, ergo sum—I think, therefore, I am. Descartes’ famous epithet asserts that what defines a human as a being is her individual consciousness. Dasein, on the contrary, does not retreat into the self, but instead declares that one’s identity comes about by engaging and being in the world.

Heidegger is one of Dugin’s greatest influences. Dugin applies Heidegger’s abstract ideas to contemporary geopolitics. Dugin says that the West has no right to assert its moral understandings globally because other civilizations have their own traditions. Dugin actually takes this idea a step further, asserting that sometime in the sixteenth century, as a result of the Enlightenment, Western civilization lost some essential traditionalist, Catholic character. While all other civilizations draw from some tradition of religious piety, patriotism, and a strong state, the liberal West is spiritually defunct, relativist, and hellbent on spreading its perverted ways to the rest of Earth.

Although Dugin and his ideas may hold sway throughout the world, orthodox Eurasianism is not going anywhere inside or outside of Russia. Eurasian identity acknowledges ethnically non-Russian and religiously Muslim Central Asians as part of a shared civilization. This position is unpopular in Russia, which is defined by Slavophilic and not Eurasian character.

Eurasianism is a compelling ideology if you swallow the core assumption that there is a Eurasian civilization. If not, it appears as little more than ideological window dressing for Russian expansionism. When Dugin began promoting Eurasianism outside of Russia, the philosophical concepts expressed in The Fourth Political Theory proved popular among nationalists, but buying master-crafted geostrategic instructions of The Foundations of Geopolitics seemed like a road to vassalage. For example, China, a nation that dwarfs Russia economically and demographically, has no interest in reliving the 1950s as a junior partner in the Russian-led global revolution.

The reason why there isn’t a single word that can describe this global ideological revolution is because it is an anti-ideological revolution. As Dugin wrote, at the end of the Cold War, liberalism was the only global ideology, so all those opposed to global liberalism fell back into civilizational values to build an ideology. Civilizationism is a meta-ideology, acting as a general framework that can be applied to a specific cultural context. Civilizationists from China, Tunisia, and France have radical disagreements about how the world works. 

Civilizationism posits that certain people groups, transcending national boundaries, constitute a distinct entity based on shared religious, linguistic, cultural, or social traditions. The people groups that constitute these civilizations ought to work under the leadership of the largest state in a given civilization to act in the interest of improving the welfare of civilization members and preserving sacrosanct traditions. In order to accomplish these goals, civilization states must oppose foreign meddlers who wish to exploit or corrupt civilization members. 

Sins of the Father

In the wake of Gulf War I, then-president George H. W. Bush gave one of the most consequential speeches in American history. For half a century, American foreign policy had been synonymous with the containment of the Soviet Union, and through this speech, Bush proposed not only a new American foreign policy but also a global system led by America to deal with problems. He envisioned the United States as a global policeman and the United Nations as a global judge, working to deal with the world’s problems. For the first time in its history, the UN was going to be a means of tackling terrorism, genocide, and the illicit drug trade, rather than being a stage for shouting matches. 

In order to understand the necessity of a New World Order, one has to understand Cold War foriegn policy. A treasure trove of examples can be found in the declassified files from Operation Cyclone, the CIA’s program to finance the Mujahideen. First, the United States encouraged Israel to send Soviet-made weapons seized in the Yom Kippur War to the Taliban. Next, the CIA coordinated donations to Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, which was responsible for turning teenage refugees into ferocious Islamists. This project received funding from the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and the People’s Republic of China. The Saudis were particularly passionate about this project, promising to match every dollar the CIA sent to the Mujahideen. Many of its own citizens, including Osama Bin-Laden, would become ideological and political leaders of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Naturally, the CIA’s operations were coordinated with Britain’s MI6. 

We might remember the Cold War as a conflict between a liberal West and a communist East, and although this paradigm might be somewhat accurate in the European theatre, on a global scale America’s objective was simply to contain Soviet communism. Under this paradigm, Anglo-American conservatives, Zionists, Islamists, and market socialists working together is completely logical. The nations under the American umbrella didn’t need deeper uniting geopolitical interests or moral values, as they all understood that the proliferation of Soviet socialism was a threat to their respective governments and ways of life.

Bush Sr. recognized that this model wouldn’t be sustainable in a post-Soviet world, and his son’s actions proved it. After the first foreign attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor—on September 11, 2001—the world’s governments were unfailingly behind America’s back. Putin told then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice that all the nation’s hostilities were to be put aside to deal with terrorism. Tens of thousands of people placed flowers and letters of condolences outside of the American embassy in Beijing. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder declared the attack "a declaration of war against the entire civilized world." Even North Korea formally denounced the attack. And yet, by the end of Bush Jr.’s second term, the president was reviled throughout most of the world. In many Islamic countries, his disapproval rate exceeded 90 percent. This catastrophic collapse in political capital was caused by the invasion of Iraq.

The two Gulf Wars have little in common. Gulf War I was waged to preserve the self-determination of Kuwait, and it succeeded in doing so. Gulf War II’s justification was that Saddam Hussein had violated UN Security Council Resolution 678, the resolution that dedicated Iraq’s status after Gulf War I, by manufacturing chemical weapons. Most UN members objected that a violation of that nature was no justification for the invasion, and would only become more infuriated when post-war surveys failed to find these weapons of mass destruction. Gulf War I recruited troops from around forty nations. American troops in Gulf War II were accompanied by soldiers from the United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland. In fact, in the lead up to the war, Germany, France, and Belgium vetoed a NATO declaration affirming that the organization would defend Turkey if it were attacked by Iraq. 

Gulf War I in 1990 was a war sold to the public as internationalism for self-determination. Gulf War II—or the Iraq War—was a unilateral war waged to remove a dictator and install democracy. When it became clear that Saddam’s Iraq was not actually producing weapons of mass destruction, the world asked why it was invaded in the first place. Many scoff when they’re told that the point was to make Iraq a democracy, so much so that people forget that Iraq did become a democracy. Since the invasion, there have been four multi-party parliamentary elections, with a fifth scheduled for October of this year. However, the majority of Iraqis continuously vote to align with Iran. Bush Jr.'s core mistake was assuming that there would be a global liberal order to welcome Iraq, even after he had spectacularly disregarded their concerns when the war began. Despite America acting in the name of the global liberal order, Gulf War II was not global, liberal, or orderly. 

Gulf War II opened the pandora’s box of Civilizationism. In the non-Western world, whatever credit America had as a world leader was lost due to its unapologetic adventurism. Liberal values began to seem less valuable. Autocrats began talking about cultures governing themselves based on ancient traditions, rather than abstract values that were really just tools for Western imperialism.

In the West, a distinct form of Civlizationism began to develop. Western leaders had lied to voters, which could mean a few things: their leaders thought they unworthy of hearing the truth, were dangerously incompetent, or were actively malicious. It became apparent that there was some elite governing the world, with its goals and identity being distinct from that of regular people. Many in the West also questioned why Iraqis had spent years resisting democracy and liberty. Many believed there was an unbreakable cultural barrier between “us” and “them.” Engaging with them, or welcoming them into Western civilization, would only lead to chaos and destruction due to incompatible ways of thinking.

The New World Fracture

Those who have developed a deserved skepticism toward American global leadership might not take issue with Civilizationism. Perhaps it is for the better that the world develops into a multi-polar system based on cultural and economic spheres of influence. This is an inherently Civilizationist line of thinking, as it assumes that there is something inherent and natural about these constructs. The crucial difference between these two world orders is that liberalism has universal aspirations, while Civilizationism only has regional goals. While an arrogant or disjointed liberal order can cause enormous damage, a reinvigorated liberal order has the potential to chart a unified course towards international prosperity, order, and liberty. However, the proliferation of Civilizationism encourages regional imperialism, undermines the world’s capacity to tackle global issues, and is fundamentally incompatible with individual rights.  

A core issue of Civilizationism is who gets to define who is and who isn’t part of a civilization. In 2008, Putin declared to Bush Jr. that Ukraine, “Wasn’t even a state!” The following year, he referred to the nation as “Little Russia.” 

In 2014, when pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown, Russia’s military quickly acted to annex Crimea and prop up militant groups in eastern Ukraine. Equally quickly, the Duma created a law that would allow for those within Ukraine “who do not want to break away from the Russian world” to apply for citizenship. Putin would describe the new Ukrainian government as “neo-Nazis [and] Russophobes” to justify his intervention as necessary to protect Russians. Although this is a kind sentiment, the fact of the matter is that 29 percent of Ukrainians are native Russian speakers and the new government has yet to impose any anti-Russian language laws. Through using Civilizational rhetoric, Putin justified a geopolitical movement whose primary concern was not the Russian people, but the Russian state. Ultimately, lines drawn between civilizations are somewhat arbitrary and in a Civilizationist framework are drawn by powerful states within the region to justify domination of their sphere of influence. 

From the regulation of the internet, climate change, infectious diseases, terrorism, the drug trade, and the crisis of aging demographics, the world’s greatest problems are global. In order to combat these problems, there need to be some means for nations to put their differences aside and come to a consensus. This is already a struggle, but will only become worse in a world divided into states that are only interested in the advancement of their civilization. Worse yet, one nation could determine that the fall out of one global crisis will hurt them less than a rival, and encourage the proliferation of this threat. This can be seen in Saudi Arabia’s encouragement of terrorists throughout the Muslim world. The majority of damage done by these groups harms Iran and its allies, so Saudi Arabia has little incentive to stop, even when these units go rough and lash out at the rest of the world. 

A Civilizational government’s basis for legitimacy is its capacity to protect a traditional way of life and expel anything that challenges that way of life, including people. In India, Muslims were explicitly left out of a bill making obtaining citizenship easier for migrants fleeing religious persecution, despite the persecution of the Rohingya in neighboring Myanmar. China has justified the detention of over one million Uyghurs as “liberation,” claiming that Islam was forced upon the population by “by religious wars and the ruling class” and that the government was now liberating them from these practices. In the Islamic world, thoughts turn to extremist terrorist groups, but even the historically secular Turkey has made a turn towards Islamism. President Recep Erdogan has now twice tried to pass a bill granting amnesty to rapists so long as they marry their victims, declaring that having children outside of marriage is not within Islamic culture. In the West, there has been an awakening of white and Christain identities, fearful that third-world hoards are coming to wipe them out. In extreme cases, fragile democracies such as Poland and Hungary are on the road to one-party rule. Ultimately, Civilizationism’s radical ethnocentricity and social conservatism pose the greatest global threat to human rights, the rule of law, and self-expression since those ideas’ genesis. 

The lesson for post-Cold War liberals must be that liberalism, internationalism, and relative peace and prosperity are not the natural states of humanity. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Democratic leaders need to start coming together to rethink and renegotiate a global order that has mechanisms for resolving conflicts, encourages the strengthening and expansion of democracy, and stands for liberalism, not simply against Civilizationism. Further, this organization should focus on deepening diplomatic and economic relations between democracies, while only striving to use only military focus multilaterally in dire situations.  

Civilizationism has only managed to blossom to its current strength due to the collapse of an international order, which saw its total disbandment in all but name with the COVID-19 pandemic. If taken advantage of, this could be a great chance to build a world system that works for the modern age. But if this opportunity is ignored, Civilizationism will only continue to fester until every democracy has been suffocated and we all live in a smaller world. 

The image used in this article is licensed for redistribution under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License, which can be found here. No changes were made to the original image, which is attributed to Anton Holoborodko and can be found here.

Ronan O'Callaghan


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