Foreign policy

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.

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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: Mining the Soviet-era archives to study art exchange

Simo Mikkonen

Last month, I wrote about my key research interest, art in the relationship between the Soviet Union and the West. What follows, is a quick glance at what kind of activities I have been engaged in regarding the topic.  For about ten years, I have been searching through archives, especially in Moscow. Some of the political archives contain reports, decisions and correspondence of Soviet officials between different domestic actors as well as foreign actors. By contrast, the other archives I have been investigating have more cultural content, including materials produced by artists and artistic organisations, and detailing their foreign activities and attempts to interact with their colleagues.

My interests have focused both on the official level, including cultural diplomacy and the use of culture as part of Soviet foreign politics, and on the lower levels of organization. When we look at the interaction of individual artists and artistic organisations, foreign politics play a much smaller role compared to the more official level. The emphasis is more on the transnational networks, the making of art, and attempts to overcome political and ideological divisions in doing so. At the same time, the borderlines of these different layers are far from clear.

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Quite often, my research falls into what is called the study of the cultural Cold War. This concept is elusive; therefore, I found it important to participate in defining it in a volume called Entangled Histories of Cold War Europe I edited for Berghahn in 2015. After editing this volume, I wanted to focus more on Soviet cultural diplomacy, which resulted in Music, Art and Diplomacy (Routledge 2016). Finally, in Entangled East and West (2018), which I edited as part of the Rethinking the Cold War series by De Gruyter, I examined the concept of cultural diplomacy and especially how it can be supported through empirical research.

Today, my research on the topic continues. Through interviews with artists and administrators as well as by examining new archival material, I aim to gain a better understanding of how interactions with the West influenced Soviet art. Furthermore, issues that I feel require further research are the nature of the interaction of artists and how they experienced contacts with the West.

The author is Finnish Academy Research Fellow (2014-19), Docent of Russian History, and Senior Researcher (on leave) in University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

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: Russia, Turkey and Western influence

Toni Alaranta

While I was reading Igor Zevelev’s report Russian National Identity and Foreign Policy (2016), I realized how similar is the close association of foreign policy and national identity in my own research topic, Turkey. Only recently, I have started to better understand how profoundly challenging task the combining of Western influences with own traditions has been in Turkey – and, as I can now see, in Russia as well. These observations lead to the question why all this anxiety? Why is the ability to define and then protect the national identity such a fundamental endeavour? Even though the central role and the need for ‘we’ structures is duly acknowledged in scholarly literature, it seems that the collectively upheld anxiety if these ‘we’ structures come under challenge is even stronger than previously thought.

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Thinking about the last 150 years, one can argue that the problem of how to combine one’s own and Western culture has not for a second ceased to occupy the intellectual class in Russia and Turkey. Further, the current national discourses in these countries are overheated due to this anxiety. All this creates profound turmoil in the current international system. At least partly similar processes of redefinition, or renegotiation, of national identity take place in several other countries, including the Western nations, and these have their repercussions in the international level. However, it feels fair to say that in the case of Russia and Turkey, the idea of own, allegedly authentic (civilizational) national identity under threat now results in a foreign policy transformation where stakes are much higher compared to various other state actors.

The author is a Senior Research Fellow at Finnish Institute of International Affairs. 

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’.