Striking a balance between great civilizations

By Andreas Herberg-Rothe and Key-young Son Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/21 17:43:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The Belt and Road initiative of China does not only need financial investment, but even perhaps more importantly a mechanism of mutual recognition between the great civilizations of the earth.

This immense project may only succeed if China is not only able to portray itself differently from the tradition of the hegemonic state, but also to develop a self-understanding based on mutual recognition and a floating balance among the great civilizations.

After 200 years of imperialism and Euro-American hegemony, which produced the varied adaptation or rejection of Western modernity, perhaps the time has come for the great civilizations to learn ways to live harmoniously with one another.

The 21st century world order will not be based entirely on modernist ideas and institutions, such as nation-states, laissez-faire capitalism, individualism, progress, and science and technology. Thus how can we accommodate other civilizations and cultures?

We propose mediation, recognition, harmony and floating balance as the key principles for inter-civilizational and inter-cultural dialogue and conviviality. Mediation and recognition between friends and foes will be the initial recipe for transforming animosity into partnership, while harmony and floating balance between and within contrasts, for example, individual versus community, freedom versus equality, will help to maintain the momentum for forging constructive relationships.

As former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin put it, "You don't need to make peace with your friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies." Being the legacy of the previous centuries, however, the binary thinking of "we against the rest" retained a paradoxically strong presence in the international relations of the 21st century. If this thinking endures to be the decisive force, we might repeat the catastrophes of the 20th century.

After the process of political de-colonization in the 20th century, we still need to de-colonize our way of thinking. The values of the East and the West cannot survive in their absolute form in this globalized world. It is our deepest conviction that Western and like-minded states could hold on to such values as freedom, equality, emancipation and human rights, only if these could be harmoniously balanced with the contributions of other civilizations and cultures.

The concept of floating balance originates from our interpretation of the "wondrous trinity" of the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz who aimed to find a floating balance between various contrasts and contradictions. His theoretical contributions could offer an insight in addressing the problems of the current phase of globalization, described by Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman as "liquid modernity."

The current phase of globalization enables, on the one hand, the former great empires and civilizations (China, India and Russia) and some developing countries with large populations (Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa) to reestablish their status as major powers. This development could evolve into a global network of mega-cities which compete over connectivity more than borders, like China's endeavor to restore the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road.

On the other hand, it dissolves traditional identities and forms of government, to some degree, as a result of social inequality, which leads to fragmented societies and re-ideologization of domestic conflicts, as already witnessed through the rise of the Islamic State. The rise of post-modern ideologies like Salafism is the result of globalization as well as the Western denial of recognition to the other civilizations and cultures of the world.

Therefore, we need a floating balance as a methodological recipe for mediation between the established and rising powers and values.

The first step is the acknowledgement that the great civilizations have to learn from one another for the sake of their own interest.

If the liberal values of the Western world led to an intolerable and immoral level of inequality, we have to re-think our value systems.

And if the concept of hierarchies in the East leads to the degradation of a harmoniously balanced society, we also have to rethink these value systems.

Whereas classical Confucianism harmony was based on hierarchical relations, we, in the 21st century, need a floating balance between symmetrical and hierarchical relations, combining the best of the two philosophical traditions set by Clausewitz and Confucius.

Andreas Herberg-Rothe is a renowned Clausewitz scholar and senior lecturer at the faculty of social and cultural studies, University of Applied Sciences, Fulda, Germany. Key-young Son is Humanities Korea Professor at the Asiatic Research Institute, Korea University, Seoul.

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