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10-08-2015, 23:33

CONTEMPORARY CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS

With the end of superpower rivalry and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the attention of the world shifted to the new post–Cold War era. For many observers, the prognosis was excellent. U.S. President George H.W. Bush looked forward to a new era of peace and international cooperation, while pundits predicted the advent of a new “American century,” marked by the victory of liberal democratic values and free enterprise capitalism. Some, however, held a more somber view. In a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri (the site of Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946), past Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev pointed to ominous clouds on the horizon. One danger, he warned, was that of an “exaggerated nationalism,” the product of centrifugal forces that had been frozen by the Cold War. Another was the growing inequality in the distribution of wealth between rich and poor nations. With the passage of time, it seems fair to say that Gorbachev had the more accurate vision of the immediate future. Although superpower conflict based on a fragile balance of nuclear terror had come to an end, sources of conflict still abound throughout the world, and the gap between rich and poor nations has grown ever wider. Strong forces—rapid transportation, mass entertainment, the Internet—are in the process of creating a single global civilization. But equally powerful impulses, sometimes armed with modern technology, violently resist the new global society and assert the primacy of traditional values and identities. In the face of such pressures, international organizations appear paralyzed by deep divisions over potential solutions while, as recent events in the Middle East demonstrate, the New World Order is still characterized primarily by the use or threat of force to achieve national goals. Howcan nations and peoples bring an end to this spiraling cycle of violence in a world beset by bitter national, ethnic, and religious rivalries? For Mikhail Gorbachev, it is essential to develop new ways of thinking: to reject the traditional reliance on force in world politics, to increase mutual understanding and communication, and “to base international politics on moral and ethical norms that are common to all mankind.” Vaclav Havel, the onetime playwright who became the first president of a post – ColdWar Czechoslovakia, agreed. In a speech before the U.S. Houses of Congress in 1990, he called for a new human consciousness that would transcend family, community, and national interests in a broader commitment to the “family of man.” In an address at Harvard University five years later, he noted that the clashing interests of globalism and tradition could only be transcended by a new spirit of tolerance, and by recognizing the reality of a multicultural and multipolar world civilization. As both statesman were quick to concede, these were revolutionary goals and would not be easy to achieve. Yet the alternative was unthinkable. Without a new sense of human morality and responsibility, Havel warned the members of Congress, “the catastrophe toward which this world is headed—be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization—will be unavoidable.” Sources: Speech by Mikhail Gorbachev at Fulton, Missouri, in the New York Times, May 7, 1992; Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika (New York: HarperCollins, 1997); Vaclav Havel, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice (New York: Fromm, 1998); Speech by Vaclav Havel to the U. S. Congress, quoted in the Washington Post, February 22, 1990).

 

 

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