The peoples of this planet desire both peace and order, but we have become gridlocked in our thinking about how to achieve this: The European and North American nations have simply assumed that the world would naturally adopt westernization as the way forward; Islam has been locked for over a thousand years in its faith that the Koran is the only way for global unity and peace; and the Chinese have traditionally viewed themselves at the center of civilization. How to proceed? The outspoken Indian writer, Pankaj Mishra, has observed that many now doubt “that western institutions of the nation state and liberal democracy will be gradually generalized around the world, and that the aspiring middle classes created by industrial capitalism will bring about accountable, representative and stable government. In short, that every society is destined to evolve just as the west did.”1
The evaluation of this educated scholar demands a careful examination of both how the current state of global disorder has come about and why “westernization” is not necessarily the answer. Many nations are still eager to catch up with the living standards of the more advanced states in Europe and North America and peoples of divergent cultures are being swayed by the external pressures to make them conform to an alien socio-economic outlook.
Can states like Nigeria, Myanmar, Pakistan or Thailand overcome the inner contradictions incorporated in nationalism, democracy, globalization, and economic instability? Its populations do not accept the driving force of western “rules” for the world, namely market capitalism, with its impact and outlook on time, speed, way of life, as well as on work, energy and pollution of the environment. They see this economic system being imposed on them as very much at odds with their local as well as traditional social and political structures. Some also fear that the era of rapid growth may now be at an end and that consequently they may be on the edge of a descent into chaos.
Even members of the more “advanced” societies find it difficult to accept that our “humanism” and civilization have been founded on the back of centuries of wars, conquests, slavery and the exploitation of peoples and resources. There is concern that, with its emphasis on human rights, as well as on equality and democracy, “westernization” cannot be something that can be exported effectively with swift results. Cultural and political concepts such as legal frameworks, rationality, democracy, constitutions and legitimacy, when combined with economic forces such as increasingly freer trade, have taken centuries to develop.
The United States, ever since its inception, has been at the forefront of spreading democratic principles. With great insight, the fathers of the American Revolution instituted the separation of church and state. From the first, Americans believed the world would progress if it could follow or emulate its example. Theodore Roosevelt was the first President to deal systematically with both the responsibilities and implications of America’s increasing world role. He declared that when it came to interference in Latin America: “All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly and prosperous.”
Woodrow Wilson went further in expressing this desire when declaring war against Germany in 1917, saying: “We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion … We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind.” President Wilson’s outlook was in tune with the aspirations of an electorate of diverse migrants eager to spread democracy beyond its borders. Since the end of WWII, Presidents have insisted that the United States had global interests while most other countries merely had national interests. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in his latest book World Order, defined the “American Consensus” as “an inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing liberal economic systems … and adopting participatory and democratic systems of government.”2
Such a position is diametrically opposed to that of the Muslim world. There is no “Islamic Consensus,” just an obligation binding on every Muslim to expand his faith through struggle by means of “his heart, his tongue, his hands, or by the sword.”3 This is now known globally as “Jihad.” The Muslim approach by-passes that of most western leaders and politicians seeking pragmatic and rational solutions as an alternative to conflict. Islam’s universal vision is that the overthrow of “foreign legitimacy” (that is, western legal, political and economic practices) is mandatory. The incompatibility of the western forms of international order with the ruthlessness of Jihad has been recognized by Europeans for over a thousand years.
In Islam’s universal concept of world order, which has hardly evolved over the past thousand years, a single divinely sanctioned governance rules and unites all parties that have either accepted the Koran or have been forced into submission.* Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, who proclaimed his people as “the shadow of God on earth,” was to declare in the 15th Century that “There must be only one empire, one faith, and one sovereignty in the world.” This dictum remains in Muslim hearts to this day. Even the brutal leaders of Isis and al-Qaeda believe that what the Koran prescribed in the building of the social order has been historically tested and is therefore valid and will ultimately bring Islamic unity. How the bitterly divisive struggle between Shias and Sunnis, which has raged for 1,300 years, can be resolved into a united faith remains unclear.
The Post WWI creation of European style secular states in the Middle East, such as Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, by French and English cartographers, civil servants and politicians was a blue-print for trouble. The leaders of certain tribal factions used the concepts of statehood and sovereignty imposed on them for their own ends. While the “Pan Arabists” continued to view the region as a single linguistic and cultural entity, such as it had been under the Ottoman Empire, the political Islamists saw their common religion as the best way forward in creating a modern Arab identity without having to abandon their historic cultural values, that is, without becoming westernized.
Towards the end of the 20th Century, the excesses and failures of the secular rulers in Iraq, Syria and Egypt led to a more religiously inspired governance backed by opportunistic terrorism for those seeking to fulfill their own universal mission. Groups like Hamas, al Qaeda, Isis, and Hezbollah all regarded the nation state as a secular institution and thus illegitimate. The United States and other western powers tried to hold the artificially created nation of Iraq together when it was really a number of different groupings of Kurds, Shias, Sunnis and others who regarded each other with open hostility.
Christendom, by comparison, has never become a strategy for imposing international order. Christians have made a clear distinction between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. This has enabled the evolution towards a secular, pluralistic nation-based international system. Kissinger’s endorsement of the Westphalian system of the balance of power between nation states was based on their acceptance as being legitimate units in search of a common creation of order.
Other societies, such as that of China, never historically engaged in the creation of order with other nations. For millennia the Chinese inhabited their own ordered world surrounded by ”barbarians” whom they disdainfully dismissed. To this day China does not accept the proposition that international order is fostered by the spread of democracy or human rights. They firmly believe that any international effort towards a balance of power must be combined with the concept of partnership. Order and freedom have yet to be understood by them as interdependent in a pluralistic world.
Our era is intensely pursuing a working concept of a world order (which thus far has been no more than a phantom). National interests have to gradually accept second place to universal interests in such areas as the environment, economic stability, and the long-term future. But it is hard for new nations like India, Indonesia and South Africa to maintain an internal political consensus when faced with privatization of their water and energy as well as the exploitation of their land and mineral resources by foreign companies. Western prescriptions for what is ailing their societies are not appealing.
The EU has already made some progress in transcending narrow national interests through a structure of pooled sovereignty. The EU as well as the English-speaking world have been striving to curtail mounting international chaos by creating a network of international economic, legal and organizational structures dealing with free trade and market capitalism. However, unstable economics now dominate the world, not religion, science, technology, ideology, morals nor even rationality. As two outspoken editors of The Economist warn in their latest book4 the western way is in danger of being left behind. They suggest that it is unclear which political values will triumph in the 21st Century. The battle is between the liberal values of democracy and freedom versus the authoritarian power of command and control.
Indeed, where has western progress led us? It has forced billions off the land into stiflingly overcrowded cities; it is producing such levels of pollution that survival itself has come into question; it is robbing the land and the seas of its resources; and it has produced a scientific and technological revolution which may be separating mankind from its humanity.
Widening voter disaffection in the US, the UK, France, Italy and most democracies reveals that the realities of our disordered world do not match the ideals of yesteryear. Pankaj Mishra claims that “The time for grand Hegelian theories about the rational spirit of history incarnated in the nation-state, socialism, capitalism or liberal democracy is now over.”5 Indeed current political leadership in the western world seems unable to tackle their rapidly growing economic inequalities, the millions of young people without employment and the vanishing prospects of continued growth.
The nations of the world have yet to accept that a long-term strategy based on careful consideration of the needs as well as the prospects of all its inhabitants is essential. We must begin to understand where we want such strategy to lead us and how it could meet humanity’s basic aspirations.
1Pankaj Mishra, “Once Upon a time in the West,” The Guardian, October 14, 2014.
2Henry Kissinger, World Order, 2014, p.1
3Majid Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam, (1955) p.56
4John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Fourth Revolution, 2014.
*Note: “The first deliberate attempt in history to unite heterogeneous African, Asian and European communities into a single organized international society” was formulated by the Persian Kings in the 6th Century BC. (Kissinger. op cit., p.5)