Berlin, 7 November 2019: Christopher Coker, professor of International Relations at LSE, director of LSE IDEAS and author of “The Rise of the Civilisational State: China, Russia and Islamic Caliphate and the Challenge to the Liberal World Order” joined the DOC last night for our Meet in Mitte Event Series.
Coker very eloquently discussed the growing trend of framing issues in “civilisational language”, which inherently leads to confrontational interaction along a new geopolitical fault line, one of culture. Russia and China being the eminent examples of entities portraying themselves as civilisation states, pitting themselves culturally in opposition to “the West”, and to each other. In that sense, Coker asserted that “culture has become a currency of power”. Areas of the world, and their cultural particularities, were once “airbrushed” out of history, as the dominant Western-led liberal order sought to homogenise the world. These areas are now remembering and reinforcing their own cultures, and Coker suggests that we should get “used to value pluralism”.
Coker believes this to be a natural consequence of globalisation, as societies protect themselves from cultural homogenisation. Indeed, according to Coker, imperial Japan is considered the first “civilisation state”, a self-proclaimed title used in response to the threat of cultural diffusion following contact with the West, and with China.
The Chinese state reinforces this view of itself as a civilisational state through a curriculum which emphasises the greatness of Chinese civilisation throughout history. Unlike the West, China claims it has no interest in spreading its world-view beyond its borders, and believes in the end of universalism, the end of judgement of and interference in domestic matters.
As for Russia, Putin is using a language of its culture, as distinct from European culture and the fascism it wrought, against which Russia fought. The Russian military is considered a tool to protect the dignity of the Russian diaspora, as is seen in the Crimea.
And what of Western civilisation? Coker asserts that Western political civilisation, founded on the dual imaginaries of cosmopolitanism and liberal internationalism, is in crisis. The EU has lost interest in cosmopolitanism, and liberal internationalism is dead, due in part to President Trump’s disbelief in the notion, and the UK’s participation in the Iraq war. This crisis might signal a reordering of international politics, and the emerging world order sees no state willing to assume the mantle of leadership, which will leave global governance institutions ever more destitute.
Coker stated that cultural and civilisational language employed by world leaders reflects a sentiment uttered by Gideon Rachman in light of Islamist terrorist attacks: “Together these developments are narrowing the space for those who want to push back against the narrative of a ‘clash of civilisations’”. Indeed, as the fault lines become more pronounced, conflict becomes harder to avoid.
The event’s discussion ties in closely to the themes of changing global order presented in this year’s Rhodes Report, produced by Professor Richard Higgott who was also present at the lecture.
The evening’s discussion with Coker ended with two positive takeaways. Firstly, he claimed that while there is no universal definition of human rights common to all civilisations, they have established what are human wrongs. For example, slavery has widely been outlawed by all civilisations. The establishment of human wrongs is, according to Coker, a great achievement, and a step in the right direction. Secondly, on the question of solutions, Coker maintains that a solution will come from the enterprise of dialogue itself, not before. Open channels of dialogue between civilisations are now more important than ever.
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