In This Review

The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea
The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea
By Brett Bowden
University Of Chicago Press, 2009, 320 pp

The idea of civilization is often seen as old-fashioned, invoked by Europeans in the nineteenth century to explain Western dominance and justify “civilizing” acts of empire. But in this 2009 book, recently reissued in paperback, Bowden argues that the idea of civilization still lurks in the interventionist worldviews of many Western thinkers and leaders. This fascinating book traces the concept to the Enlightenment, when it evolved along with Western visions of progress and modernity as many Europeans looked at the rest of the world and saw the task of civilizing “backward” peoples as “the white man’s burden.” The wars and depressions of the first half of the twentieth century discredited that sense of Western superiority, but it returned with a vengeance after the U.S. triumph in the Cold War, and especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In his most provocative claim, Bowden argues that today’s “new imperialism” -- military interventions, nation building, and financial intrusions led by the International Monetary Fund -- draws on deeply embedded assumptions about Western standards of civilization. But he never quite answers two basic questions: Is there, in fact, something called modernity? And if so, is the world heading toward it?