Dialogue among Civilizations
The “Clash of Civilizations” revisited, versus the call of the peoples
In 2019 in Caracas, Venezuela, the heads of state and foreign ministers of the 220 member nations of the Non-Aligned Movement declared the importance of a dialogue among civilizations.
“The Ministers noted that the world today is composed of States with diverse political, economic, social and cultural systems and religions determined by their history, traditions, values and cultural diversity, whose stability can be guaranteed by the universal recognition of their right to freely determine their own approach towards progressive development. In this context, they emphasized that respect for the diversity of such systems and approaches is a core value which relations and cooperation among States in an increasingly globalizing world should be based on, with the aim of contributing to establishing a peaceful and prosperous world, a just and equitable world order, and an environment conducive to exchanging human experiences. They underscored that the promotion of dialogue among civilizations and the culture of peace globally . . . could contribute towards that end.
“The Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to enhancing the dialogue among civilizations and religions, through supporting efforts made at the international level towards reducing confrontation, promoting respect for diversity based on justice, fraternity and equality, and opposed all attempts of uniculturalism or the imposition of particular models of political, economic, social, legal or cultural systems, and promoted dialogue among civilizations, culture of peace and inter-faith dialogue, which will contribute towards peace, security, stability, sustainable development and promotion of human rights.” [Emphasis mine].
The Clash of Civilizations
The call of the Non-Aligned Movement for a dialogue of civilizations stands in contrast to the thesis of North American intellectual Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008), whose 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, was one of the mostly widely read books of the period, and it remains one of the most frequently citied works in U.S. political science courses. Huntington was Director of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, and White House Coordinator of Security Planning for the National Security Council during the Carter administration.
In Clash of Civilizations, Huntington maintained that the world has become multicivilizational, and the most important distinctions are cultural, not ideological, political, or economic. Therefore, the longstanding global reality of rivalry among superpowers has been replaced by the clash of civilizations.
Huntington identified eight major contemporary civilizations: Sinic (China and the Chinese diaspora); Japanese; Hindu; Islamic; Orthodox (centered in Russia and separate from Western Christendom); Western (including Europe, North America, and other European settler countries such as Australia and New Zealand); Latin American (with a path different from the European and North American components of Western Civilization); and African (excepting the north and the east coast of the African continent, which belong to the Islamic civilization).
Huntington projected that one of the key clashes of civilization in the future is likely to be between the West and Islamic Civilization. In Huntingdon’s view, the tendency toward conflict between the West and Islam is rooted in historical cultural differences, including differing approaches to the issue of the separation of religion from the state; and in the conflicting claims of Islam and Christianity to universality.
In addition, Huntington projected that a second important clash of civilizations in the future would be between the West and China. In Huntington;s view, the economic growth of East Asia is altering the world balance of power, a phenomenon that tends to create instability. Moreover, there are fundamental differences in culture between East and West, which Huntington expresses as Confucian hierarchical order versus modern Western individualism. As Huntington sees it, China is unwilling to accept American hegemony in the world, and the USA is unwilling to accept Chinese leadership in Asia.
In a limited empirical sense, Huntington was right. Since the publication of The Clash of Civilizations, we have witnessed the unfolding of the War on Terrorism, with Islamic extremists as the sworn enemy, and the emergence of a New Cold War with China. However, for a person of such academic prestige and political influence, Huntington’s level of oversight is stunning.
The first evident oversight is Huntington’s blindness to imperialism. How can it be said that ideological, political, or economic differences are less important than cultural differences, when the central conflict of our time is rooted in the desire of certain global powers to impose political structures and invent ideological justifications in the pursuit of their imperialist economic interests? and when the neocolonized peoples create alternative political structures and ideologies in defense of their sovereignty and socioeconomic rights? Indeed, it is evident that anti-imperialist interests transcend cultural differences, uniting the peoples of the Chinese, Latin American, Islamic, African, Hindu, and Orthodox civilizations, whose common interest is given organizational expression in the persistent and longstanding declarations of the Non-Aligned Movement, ignored by Western intellectuals, who apparently prefer to speak of cultural differences.
A second important limitation is Huntington’s tepid application of his own model. Let us first be clear on the model. Huntington writes that at the dawn of the twenty-first century, a multicivilizational system has emerged, in which relations among civilizations are in transition from a period of domination by Western civilization to a phase of intense, sustained, and multidirectional interactions among all civilizations. He notes that a revolt against the West has emerged, so that Western power has declined relative to the other civilizations. Balances of political and economic power and political influence have shifted since 1920; the international system has become multicivilizational.
Huntington sees a possible new basis for order in the multicivilizational international system, with a key role for core states within each civilization. “Core states of the major civilizations are supplanting the two Cold War superpowers as the principal poles of attraction and repulsion for other countries.” This is most clear, in Huntington’s view, with respect to the Western, Orthodox, and Chinese civilizations. Herein lies the new potential for world order: “The core states of civilizations are sources of order within civilizations and, through negotiations with other core states, between civilizations.” World peace, Huntington maintains, can be achieved not primarily by the United Nations but by responsible leadership by core states in each of the eight civilizations.
But Huntington’s lack of enthusiasm for these possibilities overcomes him. Having not carefully observed the anti-imperialist movements of the world, he does not see that something approximating his conceptualization has been emerging in practice. The core nations of which he speaks have been emerging in the different civilizations, and more than that, they have been cooperating across civilizations to forge universal principles that ought to guide humanity, such as the right of all nations to sovereignty and to socioeconomic development, and the right of all citizens to the provision of fundamental human needs. They have forged this process in political practice, appropriating key concepts from Western civilization, but reformulating them, deepening and expanding their meaning, from the perspective of the colonized. They thus are convoking the acceptance by humanity of a common set of values, beliefs, practices, norms, and institutions. They seek to cast aside European universalism, replacing it with a human universalism
The important leaders and intellectuals who are forging this process are invisible to Huntington. He remains a Western imperialist. To be sure, he recognizes that the United States can no longer dominate the world, and he observes that intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is a dangerous source of instability. But he wants to protect the U.S. advantage, constructed on colonialism, and maintained through imperialism. To this end, he proposes U.S.-European alliance and cooperation in order to contain China and to maintain Western technological superiority over other civilizations.
Accordingly, Huntington sees that “clashes of civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace,” but he puts forth a proposal for a U.S. strategy that would make likely the continuation of such clashes, rather than a reformulation of U.S. goals in the context of a new multicivilizational world. He sees the “real clash” as that between civilization and barbarism, but he is unable to imagine that dialogue of civilizations necessary to keep barbarism at bay.
Dialogue among civilizations
“El Diálogo entre Civilizaciones y el Mundo Islámico,” by Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, was published in 2012 by Fundación Cultural Oriente, Islamic Republic of Iran, as a preface to Ricardo H.S. Elía’s La Civilización de Islam. Nasr identifies three civilizational types: the traditional, the modern, and the post-modern, each with its unifying ideas. And he identifies approximately the same eight civilizations as Huntington, except that he adds remnant indigenous civilization.
The following reflections on the dialogue among civilizations appropriate Nasr’s conceptualization, yet they go beyond his formulation. So Nasr should not be held responsible for any errors or offenses.
Traditional civilizations are based in religion. In spite of particular differences, they all affirm human subordination to a transcendent authority, defining the meaning of human existence. There is thus in traditional civilizations a transcendent truth, and the integration of all dimensions of human life. Traditional Islamic civilization is the most advanced manifestation, more advanced than Christianity, because of its rigorous fidelity to monotheism (as against the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the intercession of the saints), and for the wholeness of the revelation to the Prophet Mohammad (as against multiple and sometimes contradictory sources of the Christian Old Testament and New Testament).
Modern civilization was built in the West, forged in opposition to many of the guiding principles of Latin Christianity. It replaced the reign of God with the reign of man. It stands against all traditional civilizations; it arrogantly believes in the possibility of human life without subordination to God the Creator of the universe. The modern West has separated science from the sacred, giving rise to overconfidence with respect to knowledge, believing that human beings can advance in understanding without the aid of revelation. The modern West seeks liberty from tradition, and thus it separates politics from religion, confining religion to the person. The modern West was born through colonial domination of the world; it proclaims liberty and equality for all, but it does not apply the principle to the colonized and enslaved peoples.
Although modern civilization emerged from the West and was disseminated throughout the world by the West, Western civilizations predated modernity, and therefore, Western civilization is distinct from modern civilization. Moreover, all the traditional civilizations have been corrupted by modernity, because of European colonial domination, which included a cultural dimension. Yet the West remains the principal promoter of modern values, and it continues to be sufficiently powerful to project its modern values on the world, in spite of the decline in its economic and political power relative to the other civilizations, a process that began in 1920.
In the conflict between the modern West and traditional civilizations, the colonized have resisted. The resistance of the colonized includes dialogue, inasmuch as the colonized have appropriated elements of modern Western political culture and philosophy in order to propose a multicivilizational reality based in mutual respect among civilizations.
There are important historic examples of the dialogue among civilizations in practice in the resistance of the peoples to Western colonialism. They include the appropriation by Toussaint in the context of the revolution in Haiti of key concepts of the French Revolution. They also include the appropriation of concepts of Western democracy by Confucian scholars in Vietnam in the 1890s, adapted forty years later by Ho Chi Minh, who had been educated in French socialism and Russian communism. We also could mention the appropriation of concepts of Western democracy and Russian Marxism-Leninism in the historic moment of the formation of the Communist Party of China in the 1920s. And we should note the appropriation of the concepts of the Western democracies in the conference of Bandung and the Non-Aligned Movement, a process that has been unfolding in the Third World from 1955 to the present. In addition, there is the participation today of the nations of the Third World in various organizations of the United Nations. All these examples illustrate the phenomenon of transformative appropriation in resistance, involving a critical and reflective synthesis of understandings rooted in two or three civilizations, forged in the context of a struggle against imperialism and for social justice. This process, I repeat, constitutes the dialogue among civilizations in practice.
The dialogue among civilizations in practice has led to the codification of certain principles, which the leading states of the traditional civilizations are united in affirming. These principles include: the right of all states to sovereignty, without interference by more powerful states; the right of all states to equal participation in world affairs; the right of all states to control their natural resources and their economies, including the nationalization of companies, foreign and domestic, when such steps are necessary to advance the socioeconomic development of the nations; the right of states to direct their economies in order to maximize sustainable productivity; and the right and duty of states to intervene in their economies to ensure provision of the fundamental human needs of the people.
Today, humanity has entered a civilizational crisis. The root cause is the fact that the capitalist world-economy, constructed on a foundation of colonial domination, has reached and overextended the geographical and ecological limits of the earth; while the leaders of the powerful states, possibly taken in by their own ideologies, act with desperation to preserve an imperialist world order that can no longer be sustained. The situation has created a crisis of values and of democracy, as the people no longer have confidence in the principal institutions of the society, including but not limited to structures of representative democracy.
Meanwhile, the proposal for a more just world order, constructed on the basis of a dialogue among civilizations, advances in concrete practice. In this emerging pluripolar world, various poles/civilizations can be identified: Chinese socialism, with Vietnam also having a leading role; Islamic Civilization, led by Iran; Latin American socialism, led by Cuba and Venezuela; the modern West, whose autonomy was always respected by the colonized; and renewed movements in Africa and India.
At the same time, post-modern anti-civilization has emerged in the West. Whereas the modern world confined human subordination to God and transcendent truth to the personal, post-modernism eliminates them. Whereas modern civilization permits some state action in the name of minimal human decency, post-modern neoliberalism eliminates entirely the regulatory role of the state. In the post-modern world, national identities are obsolete; only local ethnic affiliations and tribal bands have vibrancy. In the post-modern world, there are no transcendent truths; truth is determined by power, and the quest for truth is reduced to power games.
When modern civilization was at its height, the Left in the imperial core countries accepted the benefits of modern civilization and colonialism, but it proposed the softening of imperialism by moral principles. Accordingly, the Left in the imperial center endorsed the dialogue between traditional and modern civilizations. However, when humanity entered the current civilizational crisis, the Left cast its lot with post-modernism, rejecting national identities for ethnic and tribal identities. The Left of the imperial center no longer hears the voices of the colonized and their continuous and persistent proposal for dialogue between traditional and modern civilizations.
Thus, today there are two civilizational projects in play. On the one hand, there is post-modern neoliberalism, which is giving way to a global military dictatorship directed by the United States, and which invites social chaos and barbarism. And on the other hand, there is the emerging pluripolar, post-colonial world that affirms transcendent truths, constructed on a dialogue among civilizations in practice. Modern civilization, unconstrained by dialogue with traditional civilizations, is no longer a viable option, neither politically, nor economically, nor ecologically.
The Chinese and Islamic civilizations were the most economically, scientifically, and philosophical advanced civilizations prior to modern European colonialism. With the survival of tradition and the engagement of these civilizations with the modern West, they are important contributors to the dialogue among civilizations.
The dialogue among civilizations is integral to the development of a pluripolar world order, and there are a number of evident signs of its emergence. China, Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela are vanguard nations, playing a leading role in their respective regions and in the world in the construction of an alternative, more just and cooperative world-system. Russia is a key actor in Eastern Europe, and it is developing cooperative relations with other civilizational zones. Other nations have played leading roles in the past, suggesting possibilities for the future: Indonesia, Egypt, and India were fundamental to the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement; Ghana and Tanzania were central in the political and ideological process of African unity; Bolivia and Ecuador have played leadership roles recently in the G-77 plus China; and Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Nicaragua have been leading participants in the process of Latin American union and integration in the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
Japan, the Asian Tigers, and Saudi Arabia have been allies of U.S. imperialism. Their strong economic capacities indicate possibilities for the future, through an ideological rectification forged by people’s revolutions, as occurred in Cuba and Iran.
The Chinese, Japanese, Indian, African, and Latin American and Caribbean diasporas in the West could play an important supportive role in the emergence of a pluripolar world, through commercial relations and ideological connections to their respective civilizational regions, and by educating the peoples of the West concerning the necessity for a post-imperialist, pluripolar world. At present, prominent members of the Chinese and Indian diasporas in the West are doing political and ideological work in defense of a pluripolar world, and Cuba is pursuing an active policy of establishing constructive relations with the Cuban emigration.
The West in the Left remains a weak point. It has limited understanding: of the civilizations of the world; of the concrete political and socioeconomic gains of their vanguard nations; and of the possibilities for world peace and prosperity through the emergence of a pluripolar world, expressing itself it concrete steps. The other civilizations of the world must creatively address this political and ideological problem.
The dialogue among civilizations is more than a proposal. It is a historical and contemporary fact and reality, forged by the colonized peoples in defense of themselves and their rights as an inseparable part of humanity. The advance of the dialogue among civilizations is a precondition for the survival of humanity, and it is the best hope for a future world of peace and prosperity.
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