China

My view of the West: The West as a Standard of Civilization

By Henna-Riikka Pennanen

In 2014, I was finalizing my PhD in History (which you can read here), when in a brainstorming session Jukka Jouhki suggested that we should turn our gaze to “the West.” My thesis was about conceptions – and the key concept – of civilization in the writings of nineteenth-century U.S. experts on China and Japan. Unavoidably, it was also about Orientalism. But Jukka’s proposition that we should delve more deeply into Occidentalism made sense: in relation to the concept of civilization, I was already focusing inasmuch on U.S. views on “the East” as on U.S. views of “the West.” Since then, we have co-edited together a journal theme issue and a Finnish-language book on the topic. The latest addition is the edited volume with Jukka and Marko Lehti, Contestations of Liberal Order: The West in Crisis?

My research interests include representations, threat perceptions and images; conceptual and intellectual history; history of U.S.–East Asia relations; and contemporary International Relations and U.S. foreign policy. While these interests are wide and varied, there is one running theme: the West as a “standard of civilization.” Although, it should be pointed out at the outset that the notion of a standard of civilization is not the sole intellectual property of those who hail from western Europe or northern America.

In conjunction with the idea of the West, this standard can refer to the material, mental, and moral gauges with which the nineteenth-century intellectuals measured the level of civilization a given nation had attained, and then ordered those nations hierarchically. Overlapping with these hierarchies was an idea called the “family of civilized nations.” This idea – and a bundle of practices associated with it – encapsulated the nineteenth-century European international order, which was built on hegemony and asymmetrical relations. As Andrew Hurrell characterizes, it was a “world of differentiated sovereignties.” Arguably, more recent manifestations of a standard of civilization, regulating and underlying a hierarchical relationship between “the West” and everyone else, have been the (more informal) standards of liberal internationalism and liberal peace.

The West is claimed as something particular on one hand: a unique civilization, if you will. And on the other, it is claimed as something universal, an epitome of a universal, progressing civilization. It is this curious tension between these claims, that continues to pique my interest.

pennanen

The author is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies (TIAS). Her TIAS research project “Rising Dragon, Rising Sun: A Century of Threat Perceptions of China and Japan in the United States” analyzes U.S. elite threat perceptions of China and Japan from the turn of the 20th century to the present. The project draws from international relations studies, and contributes to U.S. diplomatic, intellectual, and cultural history.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

My View of The West: Exploring the Causes and Consequences of Civilizational Politics

By Gregorio Bettiza

One of the major lines of my research has been motivated by a paradox. Why, despite the nearly universal critique of Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis, his Foreign Affairs article and book remain among the most widely cited and read pieces of scholarly – or, better, ideological – work within the social sciences (see here for an effort at providing an explanation). Along the way, I’ve been fascinated by how Huntington’s thesis, and more broadly the view that we are in a world of multiple civilizations whose relations drive global peace and security, have not just been confined to academic books and university classrooms. But have also increasingly animated public debates and shaped international practices and institutions in novel and dramatic ways since the end of the Cold War. These developments constitute, in my view, the emergence of a particular type of politics, which I have come to define as civilizational politics.

Like most in this network, analytically I do not approach civilizations – whether it is ‘the West’ or any other civilizational entity – as objective, clearly identifiable, realities. Rather I view them as socially constructed identities. Importantly, these are not just discourses that are instrumentally deployed, but meaningful imagined communities and social imaginaries that many around the world – whether in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, Africa, or across South and East Asia – collectively hold and draw upon to interpret and define their realities. An important part of my research has been dedicated to investigating the causes and consequences of civilizational politics in our contemporary globalized international system. Over the years I’ve explored how US foreign policy has contributed to reifying – under both the Bush and Obama presidencies – the ‘Muslim world’ in international relations (here), how the Islamic State (ISIS) has represented ‘the West’ in its propaganda (here), how ideas of civilizational dialogues have reshaped international institutions (here and here), or why rising authoritarian powers like Russia and China are increasingly reconstructing their identities along civilizational lines in an effort to contest the liberal international order (here). 

Recently I’ve been intrigued by the growing contestation, emerging in the context of rising populism and far-right groups across Europe and the United States, around what constitutes the essence and boundary of ‘the West’. Namely, whether the West should be principally defined in racial terms (whiteness being its key attribute), linguistic-ethnic terms (a fragmented West of Anglophone, Germanic, Latin and possibly Slavic peoples), in cultural and religious terms (the Judeo-Christian West) or along secular ideological lines (the Liberal West). Which understanding prevails in the coming decades will have important repercussions on a host of issues, including: the transatlantic relation and membership in NATO, the future of the European Union, relations with Russia, the War on Terror, immigration policies, and many other aspects of international politics. These debates, and the scholarship unpacking them, are all finding their way in the reading list of my MA course The West, Civilizations and World Order.

My publication with David Lewis on rising powers and normative contestation is now out!

Dr Gregorio Bettiza

Photo source.

Dr Gregorio Bettiza is Senior Lecturer in International Relations. His research interests are in IR theory and in the role of ideas, norms and identities in international relations. I focus in particular on the complex interactions between liberal and non-liberal ideas, actors and practices in world politics.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.