Trump, Macron, and the meaning of civilization

Trump, Macron, and the meaning of civilization, by Noah Millman.

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron could have talked about any number of topics over dinner last night. In many ways, they are perfect complements to one another, each grasping opposite ends of the same stick. Both leaders took unlikely and previously-untrodden paths to their respective countries’ highest office, and they have a shared Napoleonic appreciation for the role of spectacle and performance in the establishment of authority.

They’ve both also recently made provocative comments about “civilization.” I doubt they talked about it over dinner last night, but I hope they did. Because this is another area where the two leaders have grasped the same stick from opposite ends.

Trump’s Warsaw speech proclaimed the urgent need to defend Western civilization from threats from the “south” and “east” — but most especially from within, from a lack of will to defend it and pass it on. Critics from the left expressed alarm, as if any defense of specifically Western civilization was necessarily a variety of white supremacy; critics from the right objected that the problem was not so much the message as the messenger. But regardless, the question was put on the table: Is there such a thing as Western civilization? If so, does it need defending? And of what would that defense consist?

Macron, meanwhile, got into trouble talking not about the West but about another civilization. Asked by a reporter from Côte d’Ivoire about the prospect of a Marshall Plan for Africa, Macron said that the Marshall Plan was a bad model because Europe already had stable structures and just needed to be rebuilt, while Africa?

“The challenge of Africa, it is totally different, it is much deeper, it is civilizational, today. What are the problems in Africa? Failed states, complex democratic transitions, demographic transition…”

Macron went on to talk about high birth rates as another source of instability, all leading to a conclusion that a simple cash transfer would be ineffective without first tackling these pervasive social, political, and governance problems. …

Could Africa’s problems be plausibly described as “civilizational?” Or is it problematic to even talk of “African civilization” as opposed to distinguishing between the many, highly distinct countries and cultures on the continent of Africa? …

The West, though, has a far more indefinite character [than Chinese civilization]. It has no definite geographic definition, nor linguistic continuity; its native religion has already been supplanted once by an import from the Middle East (Christianity); and its most central pillar in the 20th century — the United States of America — is one of the most ethnically polyglot societies in history. One might define Western civilization as that part of the world that draws its inspiration from Greco-Roman antiquity — but the medieval Muslim world drew heavily on the legacy of Greece for its science and philosophy, and Russia long conceived of itself as the new Byzantium, which in turn saw itself as in continuity with Rome. Yet Russia has rarely been considered part of the West. And yet, the West is something, even if we can’t readily define it. It is not a myth, but a blur.

Macron and Trump have obviously found they are birds of a feather in some respects. Could the chaos in Africa provide opportunities for a new generation of Europeans? Black Africans are the only group other then the Muslims who are increasing in number — the battle against Islam is opening up the old Arab African conflict. Macron is a closet autocrat, Napoleonic in his vanity, but makes some good points.

hat-tip Stephen Neil