The great old/new debate

Abdel-Moneim Said
Friday 14 Sep 2018

Is democracy in global recession? Will chauvinism drown out universalism? The age-old debate on the nature of the future world order continues

Where is the world order headed, as the result of recent developments? The debate that governs the answer has evolved between two theories.

The first is the “Clash of Civilisations” theory espoused in 1991 by Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington who attempted to forecast the nature of global conflict following the end of the Cold War that brought the victory of the US and capitalism over the Soviet Union and socialism.

Since the world order had to be characterised by a dominant dialectical conflict of some sort, what would constitute the new dialectical poles?

Huntington suggested that a contest would unfold not just between two, but between seven world faiths/civilisations among which were not just the Islamic civilisation, but also the Hindu civilisation and faith (which brought the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in India) and the Buddhist civilisation and faith (in which zone there have emerged various forms of violence and fanaticism from Sri Lanka to Myanmar).

The second theory was propounded soon after the first by Francis Fukuyama who is now a Stanford University professor. It posits the “End of History”, not in the sense of historical events but in the sense of the dialectical battle between grand ideas, after democratic liberalism came to prevail in the world as a comprehensive ideological frame of reference for the international community in the context of a process known as “globalisation”.

In Globalisation Versus Clash of Civilisations, which was published by the General Egyptian Book Organisation in 2002, I attempted to differentiate between Huntington’s and Fukuyama’s ideas which, in popular Arab thought, had merged into one and were reduced to a product of Western civilisation and its antagonism to everything different.

In fact, the two theories were not entirely divorced from each other. Huntington did not deny evident phenomena since the emergence of what he termed the “third wave” of democracy (the first occurring after World War I and the second after World War II).

Occurring between the mid-1970s and the end of the 20th century, the third wave led to the rise of democratic countries in the world from 35 to 115.

He also acknowledged the impact of global information, communications and transportation technologies on the international markets for goods and services and how they contributed to the evolution of what he called “Davos Man”. Named after the Swiss town where political and intellectual leaders from around the world gather to deliberate and solve major global issues, the “Davos Man” is the cosmopolitan world citizen who is comfortable with flying from continent to continent and settling in this country or that. 

However, in his theory, Huntington brought culture and civilisation centre stage as the fundamental components of the impending global conflict and, moreover, he made religion the backbone of these components.

Thus, “Protestant ethics” and especially the Protestant work ethic became the foundation for modern Western civilisation in conjunction with Lockean philosophical concepts that emphasise the role of the individual as a citizen, producer and a consumer.

Fukuyama, for his part, did not refute the influence of “civilisation” or religion on the state of the world order. In one of his most important works, Trust, he discussed culture as a form of social cement that enables societies to achieve security and exchange benefits.

He elaborates further in Identity, in which culture comes into play as an adhesive that binds different social groups.

However, to Fukuyama such phenomena as culture, civilisation, religion and identity were in a permanent state of dynamism in which internal conflicts were no less influential than external ones and were influenced by a broad and complex range of interwoven economic, social, environmental and technological factors all of which fluctuated in accordance with rates of economic growth and social and political developments.

In a lecture commemorating Huntington, Fukuyama spoke of the “change” that enabled Catholicism to accept democracy, negating the political difference between it and Protestantism, while conflict was intensifying in Somalia and Afghanistan in spite of the prevalence not just of a single faith but of a single sect of that faith, and while the common Eastern Orthodoxy of Russia, Georgia and Ukraine failed to prevent conflict between these countries.

Nevertheless, beneath the headline “Huntington’s Legacy” in the last edition of American Interest, Fukuyama confesses, “at the moment, it looks like Huntington is winning” because the world has entered a phase in which the democratic wave has gone into reverse.

Moreover, as democracy has gone into “recession” quantitatively and qualitatively, “big authoritarian powers like Russia and China have grown self-confident and aggressive.”

He then wonders “whether the current democratic recession will turn into a full-blown depression, marking a more fundamental shift in global politics towards some alternative regime type, or whether it is more like a stock market correction.”

In other words, he is asking whether current socio-political developments are a corrective response to policies and behaviours that caused the uneven and inequitable distribution of the results of globalisation and, simultaneously, that contributed to the massive tide of migration from the countries of the South to North America and Europe, precipitating waves populism, national chauvinism, Islamophobia and, in general, xenophobia and hatred of the “other” of all sorts.

The answer to the question as to whether or not liberalism and democracy are headed for a great depression and whether or not mankind is fated to live in separate islands of different faiths, cultures and identities, depends on whether mankind can actually summon the resolve to live in accordance with common universal values based on civil liberties, human rights and the peaceful rotation of authority.

The answer is also contingent on how deeply entrenched the current “recession” has become. The economy is no longer the single-most important determinant and the traditional left-versus-right partition has fallen by the wayside.

The dominant factors, today, are “identity” and ultranationalist populism, or what has been called “Trumpism” which has spearheaded a rebellion against the liberal elites in the US and elsewhere, and which has inspired similar types of leaderships in Europe and elsewhere.

Trumpism has reverberated so broadly because of the US’s position in the international order. However, the phenomenon actually preceded Trump and his election as US president, and its manifestations have been seen in Poland, Hungary, Brexit, and the rise of the ultra-right in Austria, Germany and Italy.

It has also been manifested in the decline in popular support in European countries for the EU, which is one of the most important expressions of globalisation and one of globalisation’s most sophisticated projects in liberal and democratic political engineering.

Still, Fukuyama has not despaired. While he has gone on record as saying that Huntington is winning, he believes that something deeper resides behind identity and religious affiliation: “human dignity”.

Harm or offences to this can be remedied by economic development, political participation, social equality and the rise of transnational solidarity movements of women and youth which carry universal messages.

* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The great old/new debate 

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