Is the 21st century going to be marked by a fruitful conversation among civilisations or marred by a frightening conflict of civilisations? This is one of the most vigorously debated questions in our times.
In the closing decade of the last century, Samuel Huntington, a noted American political scientist, put forward the thesis of ‘The Clash of Civilisations’. He claimed that the future trend of world politics would be defined by the conflict between Western and non-Western civilisations. His belief: the West’s superior civilisation would triumph in this clash. Many in America and Europe lapped up his thesis, since it had appeared soon after the end of the Cold War, which saw the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the U.S. as the sole superpower.
Since then, numerous public figures around the world have countered Huntington’s theory. Notable among them was Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s President from 1997 to 2005. To its abiding credit, the United Nations endorsed his counter-concept and proclaimed 2001 as the “UN Year of Dialogue among Civilisations”.
The U.S. has become a diminished power in the past three decades. Nevertheless, it appears that Huntington’s argument still has backers in the Donald Trump administration. One of its high-ranking officials has sought to paint the current U.S.-China trade war on the canvas of a ‘clash of civilisations’.
In a recent speech, State Department Policy Planning Director Kiron Skinner alerted Americans to the “long-term threat” posed by China, and said that countering this threat is “a fight with a really different civilisation”. She described the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union as “a fight within the Western family”. In contrast, she said, “It’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.” In addition to arrogantly proclaiming civilisational superiority, her remark was plainly racist. Many around the world are today wondering: is Washington planning a new Cold War? Will the world have to pay a heavy price once again?
It is against this backdrop that we should see the significance of a new initiative by Chinese President Xi Jinping. In recent years, no leader has been championing the need for inter-civilisational dialogue for world peace and common prosperity more forcefully and consistently than Mr. Xi. He is also the only contemporary global leader proposing such dialogue as a path to reach a much loftier goal, of “building a community of common future for mankind”, which he expounded at the UN’s 70th anniversary summit in 2015.
In the debate on whether there will be a conflict or confluence of civilisations, three questions become pertinent. Are all civilisations equal? Can dialogue really help in addressing the big challenges before the world today? And how should nations learn from one another? Mr. Xi has answered these squarely.
In his speech at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 2014, Mr. Xi had said: “All civilisations are equal, and such equality has made exchanges and mutual learning among civilisations possible. All human civilisations are equal in terms of value. They all have their respective strengths and shortcomings. There is no perfect civilisation in the world. Nor is there a civilisation that is devoid of any merit. No one civilisation can be judged superior to another.”
Speaking at the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2017, he highlighted the relevance of this debate to the newest, and one of the most pressing, problems facing the entire planetary population: climate change. He said the world needs to make a transition from “industrial civilisation” to “ecological civilisation”, and learn to create “harmony between man and nature”, a noble teaching embedded in all the world’s civilisations, cultures and religions.
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He continued his advocacy by hosting a major ‘Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations’ in Beijing last month, in which I participated as a non-governmental delegate. Over 2,000 participants representing the 48 Asian countries, and also many distinguished personalities from other continents, attended the event. In his keynote, Mr. Xi stressed the importance of Asia, a continental “cradle of civilisations” that “covers a third of the earth’s land mass and has two-thirds of the world’s population”. Explaining the purpose of the conference, he said, “The world today is moving toward greater multipolarity, economic globalisation and cultural diversity, and is becoming increasingly information-oriented. All this points to promising prospects for the future. Meanwhile, instability and uncertainties are mounting and the global challenges faced by humanity are becoming ever more daunting, calling for joint responses from countries around the world.” His prescription: “to meet our common challenges and create a better future for all, we look to culture and civilisation to play their role, which is as important as the role played by economy, science and technology.”
In an indirect reference to the protectionist and supremacist stance being adopted by the U.S., Mr. Xi cautioned: “Civilisations don’t have to clash with each other; what is needed are eyes to see the beauty in all civilisations... If countries choose to close their doors and hide behind them, human civilisations would be cut off from each other and lose all vitality. We Asian people hope that all countries will reject self-exclusion, embrace integration, uphold openness and promote policy, infrastructure, trade, financial and people-to-people connectivity.”
History is witness to how civilisations decline and die when they become exclusivist. Mr. Xi put it well: “We need to stay open and inclusive and draw on each other’s strengths. All living organisms in the human body must renew themselves through metabolism; otherwise, life would come to an end. The same is true for civilisations. Long-term self-isolation will cause a civilisation to decline, while exchanges and mutual learning will sustain its development.”
As an Indian, I was happy when Mr. Xi in his speech made a special reference to India’s contribution to the richness of Asian civilisations by mentioning the Rigveda, Ganga and Indus rivers, and, above all, the priceless gift of Buddhism. However, again as an Indian, I was assailed by a disturbing thought: when China is taking the lead in spiritedly championing inter-civilisational dialogue within Asia and around the world, why is India, inheritor to one of the richest and oldest civilisations, so inactive at the governmental level? Also, why didn’t India send an official delegation to the conference?
An official delegate could have presented a picture of India-China civilisational solidarity, which is best described by this poem by Rabindranath Tagore, who is as highly respected in China as in our own country: “Once I went to the land of China,/ Those whom I had not met/ Put the mark of friendship on my forehead/ Calling me their own”.
Sudheendra Kulkarni, an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia — Powered by India-China-Pakistan Cooperation’
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