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10-08-2015, 23:41

GLOBAL VILLAGE OR CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS?

For four decades, such global challenges were all too frequently submerged in the public consciousness as the two major power blocs competed for advantage. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to the Cold War but left world leaders almost totally unprepared to face the consequences. Statesmen, scholars, and political pundits began to forecast the emergence of a “new world order.” Few, however, had any real idea of what it would entail. With the division of the world into two squabbling ideological power blocs suddenly at an end, there was little certainty, and much speculation, about what was going to take its place. One hypothesis that won support in some quarters was that the decline of communism signaled that the industrial capitalist democracies of the West had triumphed in the war of ideas and would now proceed to remake the rest of the world in their own image. Some people cited as evidence a widely discussed book, The End of History and the Last Man, in which the American scholar Francis Fukuyama argued that capitalism and the Western concept of liberal democracy, while hardly ideal in their capacity to satisfy all human aspirations, are at least more effective than rival doctrines in achieving those longings and therefore deserve consideration as the best available ideology to be applied universally throughout the globe.4 Fukuyama’s thesis provoked a firestorm of debate. Many critics pointed out the absence of any religious component in the liberal democratic model and argued the need for a return to religious faith, with its emphasis on the life of the spirit and traditional moral values. Others, noting that greater human freedom and increasing material prosperity have not led to a heightened sense of human achievement and emotional satisfaction but rather to increasing alienation and a crass pursuit of hedonistic pleasures, argued that a new and perhaps “postmodernist” paradigm for the human experience must be found. Whether or not Fukuyama’s proposition is true, it is much too early to assume (as he would no doubt admit) that the liberal democratic model has in fact triumphed in the clash of ideas that dominated the twentieth century. Although it is no doubt true that much of the world is now linked together in the economic marketplace created by theWestern industrial nations, it seems clear from the discussion of contemporary issues in this chapter that the future hegemony ofWestern political ideas and institutions is by no means assured, despite their current dominating position as a result of the decline of communism. For one thing, in much of the world today, Western values are threatened or are under direct attack. In Africa, even the facade of democratic institutions has been discarded as autocratic leaders rely on the power of the gun as sole justification for their actions. In India, the decline of the once dominant Congress Party has led to the emergence of fragile governments, religious strife, and spreading official corruption, leaving the future of the world’s largest democracy in doubt. Even in East Asia, where pluralistic societies have begun to appear in a number of industrializing countries, leading political figures have expressed serious reservations about Western concepts of democracy and individualism and openly questioned their relevance to their societies. The issue was raised at a meeting of the ASEAN states in July 1997, when feisty Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad declared that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed after World War II at the behest of the victorious Western nations, was not appropriate to the needs of poorer non-Western countries and should be reviewed. The reaction was immediate. One U.S. official attending the conference retorted that the sentiments contained in the Universal Declaration were “shared by all peoples and all cultures” and had not been imposed by the West. Nevertheless, a number of political leaders in the region echoed Mahathir’s views and insisted on the need for a review. Their comments were quickly seconded by Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who declared during a visit to the United States later in the year that human rights were not a matter that could be dictated by the powerful nations of the world but rather an issue to be determined by individual societies on the basis of their own traditions and course of development. Although one factor involved in the debate is undoubtedly the rising frustration of Asian leaders at con- tinuing Western domination of the global economy, in fact political elites in much of the world today do not accept the Western assumption that individual rights must take precedence over community interests, asserting instead the more traditional view that community concerns must ultimately be given priority. Some argue that in defining human rights almost exclusively in terms of individual freedom, Western commentators ignore the importance of providing adequate food and shelter for all members of society. It is possible, of course, that the liberal democratic model will become more acceptable in parts of Africa and Asia to the degree that societies in those regions proceed successfully through the advanced stages of the industrial and technological revolutions, thus giving birth to the middle-class values that underlie modern civilization in the West. There is no guarantee, however, that current conditions, which have been relatively favorable to that process, will continue indefinitely, or that all peoples and all societies will share equally in the benefits. The fact is that just as the Industrial Revolution exacerbated existing tensions in and among the nations of Europe, globalization and the Technological Revolution are imposing their own strains on human societies today. Should such strains become increasingly intense, they could trigger political and social conflict. In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, Samuel P. Huntington has responded to these concerns by suggesting that the post – Cold War era, far from marking the triumph of the Western idea, will be characterized by increased global fragmentation and a “clash of civilizations” based on ethnic, cultural, or religious differences. According to Huntington, cultural identity has replaced shared ideology as the dominant force in world affairs. As a result, he argues, the coming decades may see an emerging world dominated by disputing cultural blocs in East Asia, Western Europe and the United States, Eurasia, and the Middle East, with the societies in each region coalescing around common cultural features against perceived threats from rival forces elsewhere around the globe. The dream of a universal order dominated by Western values, he concludes, is a fantasy.5 Events in recent years have appeared to bear out Huntington’s hypothesis. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of several squabbling new nations and a general atmosphere of conflict and tension in the Balkans and at other points along the perimeter of the old Soviet Empire. Even more dramatically, the terrorist attack in September 2001 appeared to have set the advanced nations of the West and the Muslim world on a collision course. In fact, the phenomenon is worldwide in scope and growing in importance. Even as the world becomes more global in culture and interdependent in its mutual relations, forces have been at work attempting to redefine the political, cultural, and ethnic ways in which it is divided. This process is taking place not only in developing countries but also in the West, where fear of the Technological Revolution and public anger at the impact of globalization and foreign competition have reached disturbing levels. Such views are often dismissed by sophisticated commentators as atavistic attempts by uninformed people seeking to return to a mythical past. But perhaps they should more accurately be interpreted as an inevitable consequence of the rising thirst for selfprotection and group identity in an impersonal and rapidly changing world. Shared culture is one defense against the impersonal world around us. Huntington’s thesis serves as a useful corrective to the complacent tendency of many observers in Europe and the United States to see Western civilization as the zenith and the final destination of human achievement. In the promotion by Western leaders of the concepts of universal human rights and a global marketplace, there is a recognizable element of the cultural arrogance that was reflected in the doctrine of social Darwinism at the end of the nineteenth century. Both views take as their starting point the assumption that the Western conceptualization of the human experience is universal in scope and will ultimately, inexorably spread to the rest of the world. Neither gives much credence to the view that other civilizations might have seized on a corner of the truth and thus have something to offer. That is not to say, however, that Huntington’s vision of clashing civilizations is necessarily the most persuasive characterization of the probable state of the world in the twenty-first century. In dividing the world into competing cultural blocs, Huntington has probably underestimated the centrifugal forces at work in the various regions of the world. As many critics have noted, deeprooted cultural and historical rivalries exist among the various nations in southern and eastern Asia and in the Middle East, as well as in Africa, preventing any meaningful degree of mutual cooperation against allegedly hostile forces in the outside world. Differences between the United States and leading European nations over the decision to invade Iraq demonstrate that fissures are growing even within the Western alliance. Huntington also tends to ignore the transformative effect of the Industrial Revolution and the emerging global informational network. As the Industrial and Technological Revolutions spread across the face of the earth, their impact is measurably stronger in some societies than in others, thus intensifying political, economic, and cultural distinctions in a given region while establishing links between individual societies in that region and their counterparts undergoing similar experiences in other parts of the world. Although the parallel drive to global industrial hegemony in Japan and the United States, for example, has served to divide the two countries on a variety of issues, it has intensified tensions between Japan and its competitor South Korea and weakened the political and cultural ties that have historically existed between Japan and China. The most likely scenario for the next few decades, then, is more complex than either the global village hypothesis or its conceptual rival, the clash of civilizations. The world of the twenty-first century will be characterized by simultaneous trends toward globalization and fragmentation, as the inexorable thrust of technology and information transforms societies and gives rise to counterreactions among individuals and communities seeking to preserve a group identity and a sense of meaning and purpose in a confusing world. Under such conditions, how can world leaders hope to resolve localized conflicts and prevent them from spreading into neighboring regions, with consequences that could bring an end to the current period of economic expansion and usher in a new era of global impoverishment? To some analysts, the answer lies in strengthening the capacity of the United Nations and various regional security organizations to deal effectively with local conflicts. In recent years, the UN has dispatched peacekeeping missions to nearly twenty different nations on five continents, with a total troop commitment of more than 40,000 military personnel. Nearly 100,000 NATO troops are currently attempting to preserve a fragile cease-fire in the Balkans. The challenge is not only to bring about an end to a particular conflict but also to resolve the problems that gave rise to the dispute in the first place. Some observers argue that the UN and similar multinational organizations are not the answer. The second Bush administration in the United States, for example, prefers to place its faith in unilateral strategies such as the construction of an antimissile defense system (a successor of the “Star Wars” project of the 1980s), combined with the adoption of a policy of disengagement from conflicts that take place in areas deemed not vital to U.S. national security. One drawback to such an approach is that conflicts in isolated parts of the world often have the potential to spread, thus affecting issues of vital concern such as the oil supply in the Middle East or the safety of trade routes in Southeast Asia. The U.S. decision in 2003 to launch a preemptive invasion of Iraq has also sparked controversy, arousing misgivings among its allies in Europe, who fear that unilateral actions not sanctioned by the UN could undermine global stability and spark a wave of anti-U.S. sentiment in various parts of the world.

 

 

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