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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’.