Are western countries really civilized countries?

The measure of civilization

How can we establish generally binding rules of conduct in a world full of cultural differences? Even the earliest works of ancient historiography deal with this question. Herodotus, for example, reports on the different customs of the Greeks and the peoples of Asia. And even in today's world of international law, cultural difference is still an important issue. As the name suggests, it wants to be a right for all peoples. But which rules and principles could apply to societies of different cultures, forms of government and values?

In the 17th and 18th centuries, international law emerged on the assumption that it was based on natural law and therefore applicable to all of humanity. But by the end of the 19th century, ethnologists and sociologists had found sophisticated ways of distinguishing between “civilized” and “uncivilized” states. They examined the political systems, social structures, economics, law, customs and even art and literature in and outside of Europe. This was accompanied by a profound change in international law. Suddenly this right was no longer a right “of all peoples”, but expressly a product of European culture and history. European standards were set up as general and all societies had to measure themselves against them.

International lawyers of the time - all Europeans - declared that their law was only applicable to relationships between “civilized” Western states with a similar legal culture - even if the countries differed greatly in other areas. “Uncivilized” peoples in Africa and most of the Asian countries have been demoted as irrational. They lack the common sense and morals to conform to Western standards in the areas of trade, property protection, or martial law. They were therefore excluded from the scope of international law and thus also robbed of their sovereignty. Without sovereignty, they could not participate in the shaping of “general” law, but were subject to it as objects of control. For example, they had no part in the formulation of the “free trade” rules, which were intended to be binding.

In addition, any resistance by non-western states to these rules was seen as a breach of elementary legal norms and a reason for war. In the mid-19th century, for example, the British claimed to be rightfully waging war against China, while the Chinese tried to stop the destructive opium trade in their country. An even more extreme example of the exclusion of non-European peoples as legal subjects was the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. Without the participation of a single African, it created the legal framework for the economic exploitation of Africa and, to name just one example, helped Leopold II of Belgium to rule over the Congo Basin.

"The European states refused to recognize laws, uncivilized states" and justified the violence of colonial conquest in the name of a "cultural mission". "

Establishing a so-called “civilization standard” was not easy. European states could at least not deny that societies like the Chinese or Japanese were high cultures. So they claimed that the culture in question was different from the European and therefore only half civilized. Many African societies, on the other hand, were classified as completely wild and thus declared goals of conquest.

The European states used two methods in particular to maintain these differences and contradicting gradations. First, they refused to recognize the laws of "uncivilized states". They invented legal strategies and institutions that ensured that European citizens and merchants were only subject to European laws when they were active in non-European countries. Second, European international law incessantly spawned new doctrines and institutions for “civilizing” the “savages”. The violence of the colonial conquest was justified in the name of a “cultural commission”.

The Europeans claimed that non-European states could gain sovereignty by adhering to the "standard of civilization". As a result, countries like Japan made extensive changes to their social and political order, their armies and political systems to conform to the European model. In this way Japan gradually found acceptance into the European "family of peoples". That it had crushed Russia in the sea battle of Tsushima was of decisive importance as the first victory of an Asian state over a European power. A Japanese diplomat is reported to have said: "We are proving to be at least equal in the scientific butchery of human beings, and suddenly we are admitted to your negotiating tables as civilized people."

"When powerful international institutions promote good governance‘, they are promoting a globalization that has exacerbated inequalities and is now increasingly criticized. "

With the decolonization and condemnation of imperialism, the “standard of civilization” largely disappeared from the vocabulary of international law. However, it was reproduced as an analytical framework: instead of the pair of terms “civilized” / “uncivilized”, the opposites “developed” / “underdeveloped”, “liberal” / “illiberal”, “civil -” / “rogue state” appeared. And in all cases doctrines of international law were created to improve the situation on the ground, to transform underdeveloped states into developed ones, from failed democratic ones, or to ensure “good governance” in “corrupt” societies. These “humanitarian” ventures were often accompanied by extensive acts of violence. And when powerful international institutions promote “good governance”, they are promoting a globalization that has exacerbated inequalities and is now increasingly criticized.

The basic rules of international law are actually more general today than before, since they were created with the consent of all states, including those of Africa and Asia. Nevertheless, there are calls to change the rules in favor of the new “barbarians” labeled as terrorists and extremists. What is remarkable about the traditional “civilization standard” and the “cultural mission” is that both still play a major role in important political disputes and international initiatives. But could we really do without them? There is no doubt that there is an urgent need to condemn countries that grossly violate human rights or threaten the world order through war and aggression. History shows, however, that civilizational norms are too simple to analyze complex global problems. It often remains controversial what counts as "uncivilized" and what is not. And finally, the supposedly legal means of enforcing “civilized” conditions are often themselves violent and destructive.

The article was written as part of the project Die Nowzeit der Monster, which took place from 23.-25. March 2017 took place at the HKW.

Image galleries, video and audio recordings of selected events are available in the HKW media library.