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George Will’s So-Called ‘Civilized Nations’

The columnist's two-tiered cultural hierarchy justifies the worst neocon impulses. It's also just plain wrong.

A Women's March in Washington, D.C., October 2020. (Julian Leshay/Shutterstock)

WaPo columnist George F. Will, the liberal establishment’s token house conservative, is ecstatic about the apparent end to the warmongers’ short-lived wilderness years, celebrating “civilized nations’ efforts to deter Russia and China”—a welcome change from the relative detente of the Trump era—in his most recent semiweekly column.

The octogenarian commentator—historically a moderate on foreign policy, at least by GOP standards—opens with some vicarious saber-rattling about the British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender, which last month reportedly entered Russian-claimed waters off Crimea in the Black Sea. Will is quite proud of the rather modest show of force, which he counts as “one episode among several lately that demonstrate increasing resistance to Russian and Chinese assaults on a rules-based international order.” To that list Will adds a virtual event put on by the Hudson Institute last month on “The Transformation of Japan’s Security Strategy,” as well as a smattering of details, including joint military exercises, that suggest the U.S. and Japan may be prepping for the possibility of war over Taiwan.

More interesting than the routine spasms of hawkishness Will observes is the final line he discharges in cheerleading them: “It is, therefore, well to notice how, day by day, in all of the globe’s time zones, civilized nations are, in word and deed, taking small but cumulatively consequential measures that serve deterrence.”

Whatever the faults of the Chinese and Russian governments (those of the former being particularly egregious) Will’s attempt to set them up in contrast to “civilized nations” can hardly be taken seriously. Under what definition of ‘civilization’ does China—with its morally rich, globally unique, and socially integrated philosophical system; its national history stretching back over four millennia and a political heritage in the making every bit as long; its arts, architecture, and traditions to rival the very best cultural productions of the West—not obviously fall? Likewise Russia, where, for instance, some of the finest works of world literature have been produced even within the last two centuries, and where a pious and profoundly beautiful national Christianity took root more than a millennium ago.

Apparently the brutality of the reigning regimes in these two nations is enough to mark them as uncivilized. But we can hardly claim the moral high ground here. In the United States, some 60 million children have been slaughtered in legal abortions just since 1973; civil authorities cannot even maintain the barest minimum of order, with arson, murder, and looting commonplace in major cities over the past year; our government (not without reason) cannot even maintain public faith in the integrity of its elections. Civilized?

If “civilization” is anything more than liberal procedures and gross domestic product, the United States is anything but—or, at the very least, has no better claim to the label than Russia or China might. If a civilized nation is one with a highly developed culture, marked by social order and historical identity, then on these and numerous other counts China and Russia, political problems notwithstanding, are two of the most civilized in the world.

The first Chinese kings reigned in the last days of the third millennium before Christ. The first U.S. president served yesterday in comparison. Even if we prefer to speak of an Anglo-American civilization (George Will, giddy at the adventures of a British naval destroyer, surely will not object), we cannot trace our roots back much further than the early days of Russia, when China had been an empire for centuries already. Besides, it cannot be forgotten that each of the three nations in question, as it now exists, is the product of a revolutionary rejection of its roots and of its ancient systems. The Russia of the tsars cut off its head in 1917; imperial China had done the same already in 1912; and Anglo-America had beat them to the punch in 1688. If there is any difference between our civilization and theirs, it is that ours emerged last and was abandoned first.

We have seen already and at length what happens when self-professed civilized nations attempt to rule the world beyond their borders. In places like Afghanistan (where Will, no unflinching hawk, was advocating U.S. withdrawal by fall 2009) American failure to understand native civilizations has led to untold suffering and destruction. With nations like China and Russia, the mistake cannot be so easily made, and even less easily excused. Any impending conflict—not between civilized and uncivilized nations, but a true clash of civilizations—may leave George Will very much surprised.

about the author

Declan Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative. He was previously an editorial intern at National Review and a frequent contributor to such publications as National Review Online and Crisis Magazine.

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