In geostrategic circles it is common to speak of China as an island, even though China is very much a part of the Eurasian landmass. China is isolated from its civilizational neighbors by mountain ranges and deserts and an ocean. These barriers have not been absolute, but these have been effective in isolating China and limiting Chinese interaction with other Old World civilizations. The less often recognized flip side of an insular China surrounded by mountains, deserts, and an ocean is that of Chinese unity. Chinese insularity and Chinese unity are two sides of the same coin; China’s geographical barriers both isolate and unify the region.

The idea of Chinese unity has a deep history in geostrategic thought, both in China and elsewhere in Eurasia and the world. Chinese civilization seems to have had its origins in the Yellow River Valley during the Neolithic, and it has been continuously Chinese civilization more-or-less since that time. There is direct line of descent from these earliest origins of civilization in East Asia to the China of today. And while the idea diffusion of Chinese civilization populated East Asia with other civilizations, related to China by descent with modification, few of these other civilizations had a profound reflexive influence upon Chinese civilization, even as they came to maturity and become regional powers. Moreover, when China has not been unified — as during the period of Warring States or the Taiping Rebellion — this has been regarded as an historical aberration.

Chinese unity is a far greater and much older imperative than any one Chinese regime, including the communist iteration of China as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chinese communists are as keen on Chinese unity as any Chinese emperor of the past (much as general secretaries of the communist party in the Soviet Union were as keen on Russian imperialism as was any Tsar). Any great disruption within China threatens Chinese unity, and so is perceived as an existential threat to one of the core strategic imperatives of Chinese civilization. Another way of stating this is Martin Jacques’ contention that China is a “civilization-state” that derives its legitimacy from the continuity of its civilization (cf. Civilization-States and Their Attempted Extirpation).

At the recent 18th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese General Wei Fenghe, State Councilor and Minister of National Defense, PRC, gave a speech largely focused on Taiwan and the South China Sea. Taiwan perfectly exemplifies the Chinese concern for Chinese unity. It has been seventy years since the Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan, and Mao was forced to accept their control of Taiwan because he did not possess the resources to follow the Nationalists across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan has been a de facto independent nation-state since that time, but China has not forgotten Taiwan, and remains intent on re-asserting political control over the island.

After General Wei Fenghe’s speech he was asked questions, and he surprised many in the audience by explicitly answering a question about Tiananmen — the “June Fourth Incident” (天安門事件) — of which he was quoted as saying:

“Everybody is concerned about Tiananmen after 30 years,” Wei said on Sunday. “Throughout the 30 years, China under the Communist Party has undergone many changes — do you think the government was wrong with the handling of June Fourth? There was a conclusion to that incident. The government was decisive in stopping the turbulence.”

Turbulence threatens Chinese unity and stability, and as such it constitutes not merely a threat to the PRC or the ruling communist party, it constitutes a threat to Chinese civilization. Contrast this to Thomas Jefferson’s well known claim that, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Jefferson descended from the tradition of European civilization, which was always at war with itself, and never unified. And if you trace western civilization to its origins in Mesopotamia and Anatolia (cf. The Seriation of Western Civilization) it is obvious that western civilization has a different relationship to its origins than does Chinese civilization.

China’s grand strategy is dictated by these core concerns for continuity, stability, and unity, and China is willing to play the long game in order to secure these grand strategic goals. China has been mostly content to employ persuasion to this end, and this was the motivation for the “one country, two systems” policy that was supposed to assuage concerns in Hong Kong about its reunification with the Chinese mainland. For optimists, the success of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong would persuade Taiwan to voluntarily accept a similar deal for itself. But China also plays the long game in Hong Kong, and it has been steadily wearing away at the autonomy of Hong Kong, so that the “two systems” of the “one country” come ever closer to coinciding.

The Chinese mainland implicitly offers to Hong Kong and Taiwan the opportunity to hitch their wagons to a star, as the large and growing Chinese economy represents the possibility of great wealth for all who get on board (but at the cost of what Rufus Fears called “national freedom”). Now that China feels its growing strength, both economically and militarily, we hear much less about “one country, two systems” and much more about the core strategic concerns of continuity, stability, and unity. China can now afford to be more direct about its grand strategy.

Thirty years’ on, the Tiananmen Square massacre is now perceived as being safely distant in the past so that it can be acknowledged by Chinese military leaders, who have moved on to other concerns. There will be no official commemorations in mainland China, but the Chinese government may eventually become sufficiently confident of its position and its view of Chinese history that it can acknowledge the incident and place it in a context that they believe contributes to the narrative of the ability of the Chinese leadership class to ensure the strategic imperatives of Chinese continuity, stability, and unity.

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Previous posts on Tiananmen Anniversaries:

2009 Anniversary of a Massacre

2010 Twenty-one years since Tiananmen

2011 Was the Tiananmen massacre an atrocity?

2013 A Dream Deferred

2014 Tiananmen and the Right to be Forgotten

2015 Tiananmen and Chinese Grand Strategy

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Fund for Peace has been publishing an annual Fragile States Index for ten years now; to what extent “fragile states” is to be considered a euphemism for “failed states” the reader may judge for himself.

The Fund for Peace has been publishing an annual Fragile States Index for ten years now; to what extent fragile states is to be considered a euphemism for failed states the reader may judge for himself.

Why failed states now?

The idea of a failed state (or, if you prefer, a “fragile state”) has been playing an increasingly prominent role in geopolitical thought at least since the end of the Cold War. Failed States and Institutional Decay: Understanding Instability and Poverty in the Developing World by Natasha M. Ezrow and Erica Frantz identifies the use of the term “quasi-states” by Robert Jackson in 1990 as the source of the failed state concept. Whatever the provenance, the geopolitical analysis of failed states is an idea whose time has come.

Many factors have contributed to this. Rising instability as nation-states re-aligned themselves after the breakup of the Soviet Union, suppressed ethnic conflicts reemerging, de facto tolerance of “rogue” regimes (which previously would have been drawn into an alliance, but which are now on their own), and the absence of superpower sponsors willing to engage with smaller nation-states in the attempt to gain an edge in global competition, among other factors. While some fragile states were consumed by proxy wars during the Cold War, some vulnerable nation-states received substantial support from superpower sponsors and alliance blocs. A marginal nation-state as an ally in a sensitive region might be too valuable to lose, and so support was forthcoming. Also, both superpower sponsors allied themselves with autocratic regimes that were, to some extent, effective in governing, even if contemptuous of human rights.

Developments in armaments and technology have had the unintended consequence of decentralizing and widely distributing combat power, making asymmetrical conflicts sustainable for long periods of time. Also, the growth of international aid organizations that intervene when governments fail, providing food and medical care, and, in so doing, have the unintended consequence of extending the longevity of states experiencing precipitous decline, especially decline due to failures of leadership (cf. Sustaining the Unsustainable, Part Two).

Another source of contemporary state failure is what Brennan Kraxberger calls “the overwhelming bias toward preserving existing territories.” I take this feature of the contemporary international nation-state system to be a function of the stagnancy and ossification of the international nation-state system. The nation-state is geographically defined and derives its legitimacy from the territorial principle in law. Thus an international system of nation-states places disproportionate emphasis upon defining geographical territories through unambiguous borders. In the event of any international crisis, the status quo ante is always preferred, to the point of re-constituting failed states simply for the reason of retaining extant borders.

Mogadishu, Somalia

Mogadishu, Somalia

What is a failed state?

What is a failed state? On the first page of When States Fail: Causes and Consequences by Robert I. Rotberg we read:

Nation-states fail when they are consumed by internal violence and cease delivering positive political goods to their inhabitants. Their governments lose credibility, and the continuing nature of the particular nation-state itself becomes questionable and illegitimate in the hearts and minds of its citizens.

Robert I. Rotberg, When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, “The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States: BREAKDOWN, PREVENTION, AND REPAIR”

We find a more detailed breakdown of factors of state failure from Breaking the Failed-State Cycle, based on the indicators used by the Fund for Peace in their annual rankings of failed states:

“…failed states are of the sort identified by the Fund for Peace in its Failed States Index, which is based on 12 indicators of state vulnerability: (1) mounting demographic pressures, (2) massive movement of refugees or internally displaced persons creating complex humanitarian emergencies, (3) legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance or group paranoia, (4) chronic and sustained human flight, (5) uneven economic development along group lines, (6) sharp and/or severe economic decline, (7) criminalization and/or delegitimization of the state, (8) progressive deterioration of public services, (9) suspension or arbitrary application of the rule of law and widespread violation of human rights, (10) security apparatus operating as a ‘state within a state,’ (11) rise of factionalized elites, and (12) intervention of other states or external political actors.”

Marla C. Haims, David C. Gompert et al., Breaking the Failed-State Cycle,

While helpful to a certain extent, there are countless questions that could be raised in regard to the presuppositions embedded in the above definitions. What exactly counts as the factionalization of elites? Might not the Republican and Democratic parties in the US be characterized as a factionalized elites? And would we really prefer an oppressive elite that speaks with a single voice, as in North Korea? In many repressive states a factionalized elite would be a good thing.

If we instead adopt an ostensive definition, and point out examples rather than attempt to formulate what logicians call a “real” definition, we are not much better off. While there is widespread consensus on certain examples of state failure (e.g., Somalia), there are other instances that are much more problematic, and much more political. For example, the Index of Fragile States annually published by the Fund for Peace, which ranges from “very high alert” (with South Sudan at the top of the list) to “very sustainable” (a category including only Finland), places China — by some measures now the largest economy on the planet — as being “high warning,” while Argentina is listed three classes below China as “stable,” only one rung above the US. I would be the first concur that China is problematic on many levels, but to rank it that much higher than Argentina with its severe economic troubles (albeit self-inflicted) strains credulity.

It is perhaps inevitable that any definition of failed or fragile states, or any rankings based on such a definition, will be controversial in some cases and uncontroversial in other cases. State failure is evaluational and not factual; the fact/value distinction (also known as the is/ought distinction) would seem to forbid us from making making any evaluational judgment on the basis of mundane facts. This distinction is not observed in the literature, and I can even imagine that it sounds a bit strange in this context.

Such social science-derived political judgments — like the index of fragile states — derive what legitimacy they aspire to precisely from their factual basis, drawing on extensive statistics and social science research. If there were a way to conceptualize state fail in purely factual terms, this would be appropriate; or if there were a way to base an evaluative judgment of state failure on the basis of evaluational criteria, this too would be appropriate. But the subtle shift from factual survey to evaluational judgment is not merely politically problematic, but also logically problematic.

Can a civilization be judged to have failed?

Can a civilization be judged to have failed?

Beyond state failure: civilization failure

Let us consider political order (and its failure) at a larger scale — larger in both space and time — than the political order represented by the nation-state. Martin Jacques has introduced the idea of a “civilization-state” to identify China, and the idea is also applicable to India (European civilization never coalesced into a civilization-state). I wrote about Martin Jacques’ conception of a civilization-state earlier in Civilization States and their Attempted Extirpation. China and India as nation-states are part of the international nation-state system, but they also represent the contemporary development of ancient civilizations that can be traced all the way to separate origins during the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.

How do we identify and differentiate civilizations, and, once we have done so, how do we identify a particular civilization with a present-day nation-state? In accordance with the paradigm of the geographically-defined nation-states, we typically differentiate and identify on the basis of geographical regions. Less often, we make these differentiations and identifications on the basis of the ethnicity of the population, or by other markers of ethnicity, such as language. All of these can be made to work in some contexts, and yet all are problematic.

There are a few familiar lists of civilizations from which we might draw, as, for example, those of Toynbee and Huntington. These, too, are problematic. Toynbee identified a Syriac civilization, and in so far as Syria today is the remaining legacy of Syriac civilization, Syria could be considered a civilization-state, and a failed civilization-state at that. Of Toynbee’s Syriac civilization Walter Kaufmann wrote:

“…no ‘Syriac Civilization,’ for example, ever existed, though it may possibly be convenient in some contexts to lump together the many kingdoms that existed between ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and to give them some such name as this; but this fictitious civilization could hardly be studied very fully without reference to its two mighty neighbors.”

Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism: Studies in Poetry, Religion, and Philosophy

Perhaps a better procedure would be to recur to those half dozen or so civilizations that had their origins in the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution — another list that would consist minimally of the Indus Valley, the Yellow River Valley in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt (not clearly distinct from Mesopotamian origins), Peru, and Central America. (On early civilizations cf. my post Riparian Civilization.) However, limiting ourselves in this way to a small class of “founder” civilizations would mean that we would miss out on a lot of the most interesting developments in the history of civilization. Western Civilization, for example, is a distant descendant of the Mesopotamian founder civilization, but only after one branch of that civilization moved west and encountered a series of other civilizations, such as Viking Civilization, that ultimately changed its character decisively.

Of these founder civilizations, all have some living presence today, sometimes a mere remnant absorbed into another civilization, and in other cases a vital and distinct tradition remains to this day. If mere longevity is the criterion for civilization failure, none of these civilizations could be said to have failed. Of course, longevity is not the whole story. To cite my own western civilization once again, we have the catastrophic experience of the failure of the Western Roman Empire as an atavistic memory that continues to inform our historical conceptions to this day, two thousand years later. And then, in the very different kind of civilizational transition, the medieval world gave way to the modern world, and again after a three hundred years of modernism without industrialism, modern western civilization gave way to industrial-technological civilization. In all of these transitions, something is lost and something is gained. Shall we call the losses civilization failure? If so, what shall we call the gains?

There are no easy answers as to what constitutes a civilization and what constitutes civilizational failure. Books have been devoted to the topic, and more will yet be written. The really interesting intellectual questions are those that are revealed to us after we make the attempt to differentiate civilizations and define civilizational failure. Any initial effort will fall short, and the ways in which we discern the inadequacy of our initial intuitions has much to teach us. This must be regarded as an ongoing inquiry, and not a question that can admit of a definitive answer.

Civilization-states and state failure

In general, civilization-states are too big to fail. (Perhaps the smallest nation-state that could be identified as a viable civilization-state is Iran, and there are those who would argue that Iran is a failed state — I would not make this argument.) Too big to fail civilization-states find themselves propped up by the international nation-state system, not unlike a puppet regime, but here the puppet is not a particular leader whom more powerful leaders want to keep in office, but a particular kind of state structure that more powerful nation-states want to keep intact. The catastrophic failure of a nation-state implies the possibility of the failure of the international nation-state system predicated upon the viability of the nation-state, and the breakdown of the nation-state system is an existential threat to all nation-states. This explains, in part, the semi-hysterical response on the part of elites drawn from the leadership of nation-states to the breakup of nation-states (which has happened repeatedly since the end of the Cold War, and has therefore provided ample opportunity for political hysteria of the most polished and authoritative kind).

There is, however, a relationship between failed states and failed civilizations: failed states are, at least in some cases, symptoms of failed civilizations. In more detail: there is a poorly defined relationship between state failure and civilization failure in regions where a tradition of civilization never coalesced into a civilization-state; there is a slightly more well-defined relationship between contemporary state-failure and civilization failure where a tradition of civilization did coalesce into a civilization-state. Thus if contemporary China or India were judged to be failed states (which is, needless to say, a judgment I would not make), then there would be reason to consider whether we could judge the civilizations of China and India to have failed.

But an incipient civilization-state, which initially fails to unify the geographical region of which it is the central political entity, fragments into multiple states, each of which aspires itself to be the civilization-state, and each of which lacks legitimacy in this role because too much constitutive of that civilization lies outside its borders. Thus if, for example, we were to judge, say, France of Germany as failed states, there would be very little reason to maintain that western civilization had failed, because western civilization has so many representative nation-states as the bearer of its traditions (or, at least, some subset of its traditions).

The relationship between state failure and civilization failure is not robust because it admits of countless exceptions. A civilization that is productive of a sequence of failed states might be judged to be failed, but in another sense it could be considered successful merely in terms of fecundity: if a civilization continues to produce states, even if every such state fails, the tradition of civilization remains vital in some way. A tradition of civilization in this case may represent a particular perennial idea, something to which the human mind returns like a moth to a candle flame. Every implementation of the idea may prove disastrous, but the idea is as definitive of the human condition as civilization itself.

If a civilization-state can fail, this would represent the failure of the contemporary iteration of an ancient tradition of civilization. If it is controversial to identify some nation-states as failed, it is even more controversial to identify an entire civilization as failed. It is considered to be in bad form to compare civilizations and to rank any one as being better than any other. If we are ever going to get the point at which we can formulate a science of civilization, or, at very least, a theory of civilization, we will have to get past this proscription on the use of comparative concepts in the study of civilization.

In The Future Science of Civilizations I noted how Carnap distinguished classificatory, comparative, and quantitative conceptions as all playing a role in arriving at a scientific conception of a body of knowledge. Civilization, or the study of civilization, must pass through these stages of conceptual development, and in this process it must not allow itself to be threatened by its past errors if it is ever to make progress. As Foucault said, and as I have quoted many times, “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.”

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