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A Review of Geoculture: Plaidoyer pour une civilization durable

Two strategic thinkers of the famed French military academy at St. Cyr, Thomas Flichy de La Neuville and Olivier Hanne, have produced an important new study entitled Geoculture: Plaidoyer pour une civilization durable.  Their modest and figurative translation of the title is Geoculture: A new approach, aiming to assess the liveliness of civilizations. But I prefer a more literal translation, something like, A plea for an enduring civilization.  For, much more than a standard social science strategic tome, their achievement carries both urgency and moral weight.  It is a plea for strategic sanity.

Flichy and Hanne present as their central organizing idea the notion of “geoculture” as it applies to their unit of analysis, the civilization.  Approaching civilizations as they do reminds one not just of thinkers such as Spengler and Toynbee, whom the authors hope to supplement or even surpass by moving beyond mere descriptions of how civilizations develop from infancy to power to decay, but more recently of Samuel Huntington and his controversial work, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.  They share with Huntington an interest in culture as a driver of civilization, and as strategic thinkers Flichy and Hanne are likewise attuned to the political and military implications of their work.

“Geoculture” as explained by the authors goes beyond viewing man as “homo economicus,” and beyond a “guns and germs” determinism that sees culture as entirely an accident of geography or climate or resources or regime type, though those factors are certainly important.  In particular, contra the forces of political correctness in Europe and the United States, they point to both religion and ethnicity as important features of culture, noting in particular the decisive influence of the former while not overplaying the latter into a racialism that would locate civilization solely in the bloodlines of its bearers.  Their notion of geoculture is broad and historically founded, and is thus comprehensive in its possibility of assessing the full range of human activity — political, economic, military, and in all domains of truth, beauty, and goodness — to understand civilizational health and longevity.  This geoculture rests implicitly on the truth of a human nature which perdures over the generations of a civilization and which is the central focus of the success or failure of civilizations.

Why should we care about the longevity of civilizations, our own or others?  The answer the authors give is perhaps the major contribution of this work.  They argue that the “vocation” of civilizations is the perpetuation of life, and culture is the “sap” of that life.  Flichy and Hanne here connect civilization to the vocation of man, to the core of being human and of all that is constitutive of a fully human life as part of something larger than oneself, part of a line that runs from past generations through the present to the future, part of a civilization that may or may not endure, part of a larger order.  The success of civilizations lies in their transmission through and in the lives of persons.  They explain, then, that the most dominant sign of a failing civilization is its turn towards a fascination with death, with all the attendant and morbid features that such fixation brings, such as a flourishing pornographic industry.  Wittingly or not, Flichy and Hanne thus integrate one of the most important distinctions in the thinking of Pope John Paul II, the distinction between a culture of death and a culture of life, with the success of civilizations.

This claim is hardly irrelevant to sound strategic thought.  The authors devote considerable effort as to how their geocultural assessment would apply to Rome, and to other civilizations which now contend with the West, or what is left of the West, for political and military — and ultimately cultural — influence.  Though they do not draw the link, Flichy and Hanne provide a foundation for understanding the family, the fundamental basis for the transmission of life and culture, as a strategic “unit” or, better, they point towards the success of the family as a strategic goal and end in need of a practical program.  That link would put them in perfect alignment with no less a strategist than Winston Churchill, who in his 1946 “Sinews of Peace” speech said, “What then is the over-all strategic concept which we should inscribe today? It is nothing less than the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands.”

If there is a weakness to this work, it is a weakness that political thinkers and philosophers from Plato and St. Augustine to Locke and Montesquieu have wrestled with: the specific steps, in any given moment, necessary to establish and sustain the enduring civilization that brings human flourishing and happiness into political reality.  Flichy and Hanne offer some critical hints and some means to identify what might help and what will surely hurt.  They provide trenchant critiques of American and European foreign policy in recent years, and they weave in arresting observations about eclectic subjects such as the civilizational effects of the internet.  But they know their limits, and those limits have, in all the history they elegantly survey, ensured that thus far, their plea for “une civilization durable” remains a plea to do the best we can, while accepting that the full fruition of their vision remains elusive and distant, yet vitally important.

This book combines history, strategic thought, and philosophy, in an affecting treatment that American and Anglo-Saxon readers especially will find novel and valuable.  It is both refreshing and encouraging to see such thinking coming out of a distinguished military institution such as St. Cyr, and we can hope that other centers of strategic thought will follow Flichy and Hanne in approaching strategy in the most integrated fashion possible.  Only that kind of thinking will enable us to deal with the threats of the moment in order to realize the most important and enduring strategic, and human, goals.

Joseph Wood
Professor, Institute of World Politics