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Richard Falk: On the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations

June 7, 2012

To solve global problems, we have to starting thinking in terms of civilizations instead of nation-states. A dispatch from the recent Istanbul Partners Forum.

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Image from Flickr via World Economic Forum

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk.

The UN Alliance of Civilization (AOC) was initiated by Kofi Annan in 2005 while he was Secretary General of the UN with the joint sponsorship of Turkey and Spain, with its principal center of operations in Istanbul. It was formed under the dark skies that existed after the 9/11 attacks, and seeks to provide an alternative narrative to that of inter-civilizational war, that starkly negative scenario of Islam versus the West associated with the inflammatory views of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington that continues to provide fuel for Islamophobia that burns ever more brightly in Europe and North America. It was several years since I had heard as many references to Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis as I did during the discussions and presentations at the Istanbul Forum, which was opened by speeches made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

The primary rationale for the AOC is to provide a “platform” for dialogue that explores differences among civilizations, but seeks to promote mutual undertstanding and respect, even affection and celebration. The label platform has become recently popular in international circles to convey the sense of a venue that has minimal restrictions as to participation, agenda, and ideological presuppositions. It is open to all perspectives that accept some presumed core values, and tempers disagreements by insisting upon an atmosphere of civility, and by generally avoiding controversial topics of current events. In this regard both Erdogan and Ban Ki Moon affirmed the broad idealistic goals of the AOC, but also made explicit in strong language their condemnation of the Syrian government for its role in recent atrocities committed against civilian communities, with special reference to the shocking impact of the Houla Massacre, which occurred several days prior to these meetings.

As the failure to act responsibly in relation to nuclear weaponry or climate change illustrates, the peoples of the world remain beholden to the severe limitations of the state-centric world order.

In Turkey the AOC is taken seriously as a new dimension of continuing thought and reflection as is evident both by the establishment of a dedicated academic program at Bahçeshir University and a separate degree granting graduate institute within a new field of academic specialization identified as “alliance of civilizations.” Its first cohort of students played an active part in the discussion periods during the Forum. The AOC is under the administrative leadership of Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal, whose title is UN High Representative for Alliance of Civilizations. It holds periodic meetings on various themes in different parts of the world. I took part in the opening session of the Forum on a panel that included the philosophical founding father of the AOC, Professor Mehmet Aydin, former Minister of State, Rashi Gannushi, the head of the an-Nahda Movement that has emerged victorious in Tunisian elections, and Princess Rym Ali of Jordan, the founder of the Jordan Media Institute. The panel was supposed to address the relevance of global politics, and relied on a Q & A format presided over by the widely admired TV moderator for Al Jazeera, Riz Khan. The session was lively, avoiding the often tedious presentation of a sequence of papers, and led to thoughtful questions posed by members of a disparate audience that included the various constituencies that are brought together by the AOC: governments, international institutions, NGOs, students, and representatives of civil society. Due to the format that I had not known in advance, I had prepared some remarks that were never presented at the session.”

It is a fair question to wonder whether sponsoring such events is worth the expense and effort. Skeptics say there is already too much “empty talk.” My tentative response is affirmative. I find that the quality of such global conversations and associated secondary influences to be an essential dimension of a significant 21st century learning experience, not only or even primarily as a result of what speakers from such varied backgrounds have to say, but for the wider audience in attendance and those reached and influenced through media coverage. It is a step in the direction of creating what I described during the discussion period as an emergent “cosmopolitan pedagogy” that is sensitive to divergent cultural styles and understandings. At its best such pedagogy supplements knowledge with wisdom, rationality with ethics and spirituality, and couples concerns about economic development with attentiveness to injustices and environmental hazards. It is through sustaining a creative tension between the particular and the general, the diverse and the universal, as well as between the controversial and the agreed upon that a cosmopolitan pedagogy responsive to the complexities, fragilities, and interactive dynamics of the early 21st century will come gradually into being. I found the discussions at the Istanbul Forum to be valuable contributions to a process of reconstituting cultural cognition for this moment in history.

My prepared remarks are published here online for the first time, and were formulated before I had the benefit of the discussions at the Forum, and I hope are of some slight interest:

As several others have undoubtedly already had occasion to mention the mission of the Alliance as one of promoting understanding among civilizations by way of an open dialogue that stresses differences, I wish to emphasize the commonalities associated with this undertaking. More than ever before in human history there is the need for peoples throughout the world to find leaders who will facilitate cooperation supportive of the shared needs of the planet. The world is faced with a series of problems of global scope that cannot be successfully addressed by governments acting alone or even by coming to agreements about cooperative arrangements based on their mutual national interests. As the failure to act responsibly from a global perspective in relation to nuclear weaponry or climate change illustrates, the peoples of the world remain beholden to the severe limitations of the state-centric world order in seeking to shape a global policy that serves the human interest, which is long-term survival and an equitable distributions of burdens. The risks associated with the possession and deployment of nuclear weaponry and those caused by the inability to fashion a timely response to climate change depend on global policy formed to benefit the whole of humanity, now and in the future, and not just the parts as represented by the governments of sovereign states. Even a global state such as the United States acts selfishly whenever confronted by challenges that threaten its military dominance, diplomatic prestige, and economic growth.

What is particularly appealing about the AOC orientation is the replacement of states by civilizations as the primary units of analysis when thinking about world politics. Such a perspective frees us from the narrowness, egoism, and shortsightedness of nationalist thinking and tribal identities. It also underscores the crucial potential roles of religion and culture in developing an approach to global challenges on the basis of shared and universally endorsed values that draw their inspiration from the East as well as the West. Central to this endeavor is the focus so well expressed by Jacques Derrida on what it might mean for humanity “to live together well” on this planet, a deceptively simple observation that makes a double assertion with profound implications: however we choose as a species to behave, we are destined to live together, which is the inescapable message of globalization, but the more demanding second part of the assertion is the implied encouragement to live together benevolently, that is, in peace, justice, and contentment as attainable ideals. Unfortunately, except as abstractions, we remain mostly in the dark as to how, as a practical matter it could become possible to live, if not well, at least better together: working to achieve real peace, real justice, and real harmony, which presuppose, above all sympathy for and hospitality toward “the other” in all the shapes and forms that human experience presents, and especially, with respect to those others that suffer and are being victimized in various ways by existing societal arrangements. Actually, we have some sense of what such a better world would look like, but we do not have much understanding of how to make the transition from where we are to where we would like to be, and maybe the unstated purpose of the AOC is to bring discussions of such a transition into the domain of public reason, and thus less subject to dismissal as “utopian” wishful thinking. In passing I would note that utopian thought in this period of planetary emergency deserves also to be taken seriously and may provide the world with an emancipatory potential.

The problem-solving capabilities of a world of borders cannot address adequately the issues posed by a world of limits, whether these limits refer to political violence, sovereign authority, or the world economy.

The task set for this panel is to emphasize the relevance of global politics to the work of the AOC. This is a difficult and speculative task although it is probably better undertaken here in Istanbul than anywhere else in the world. The Turkish political leadership over the course of the last decade has been impressively sensitive to the originality of this young century, and its relevance for the conduct of diplomacy and foreign policy. The essence of this sensitivity has been to give substantive implementation to an awareness that the state is a part of more inclusive configurations of influence and belief—region, civilization, religion—and not on its own. That without a world government the state remains the most influential representative of the whole—species, world. In effect, the pursuit of national interests, detached from an appreciation of such wider interests as global interests, civilizational identity, and the human interest is not only a betrayal of core values but increasingly dysfunctional for the ends served by the state itself. In the end, this is a fundamental adjustment that calls for vision, ethics, and a practical understanding of how problems can be best solved in a manner that is also mindful of future generations. Fitting together the parts with the whole has always been a challenge to the political and moral imagination of statesmen, but the bearing of problems of global scope and the need for longer time horizons puts a premium on developing responsive modes of thought, policy, and action. It is in this respect that Turkey’s foreign policy based on principled pragmatism has seemed to be a breakthrough in an era where hard power diplomacy has so often failed and the urgencies generated by interdependence tend to be downplayed even as they are acknowledged.

Against this background I think we need as soon as possible to make a conceptual leap of faith. For several centuries world order has been shaped by a preoccupation with borders and walls, along with the related idea of territorial sovereignty. Political community has been established within defended borders, and what is not bounded effectively is open for occupation or shared use. Of course, the colonial period gave a Eurocentric twist to this more general idea, but since the collapse of colonialism this state-centric manner of distributing authority and establishing order has been accepted throughout the world. It is expressed in international law by the ideas of equality among sovereign states, by sovereign authority within the state and freedom beyond its borders as exercised in such global commons as the oceans and space. It is from this perspective that we speak of ‘the freedom of the high seas.’ The United Nations was organized on the basis of the legitimacy of this state-centric imagery, and its Charter reflects this orientation toward world order, although privileging some states in the procedures of the Security Council.

Identity for persons and peoples followed from this basic spatially conceived mapping of the world, giving rise to nationalism and patriotism. Nationalist ideology and citizenship became in the modern world the exclusive means for individuals and groups to be accorded protection and membership in a state, making statelessness an acute form of vulnerability, an existence without rights. Of course, this conceptual mapping was a crude approximation of reality that overlooked many features of the manner in which this system operated: citizens were frequently helplessly vulnerable to the violence and abuse by their own state; minorities were targets of discrimination; hegemonic and imperial geopolitics encroached upon the territorial sovereignty of weaker states.

Two fundamental developments altered the descriptive accuracy and ethical acceptability of this image of world order. First, the destructiveness of World War II highlighted by the use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities undermined the idea that war could be rationally reconciled with sovereign control over the technologies of warmaking. Secondly, the rise of human rights in the aftermath of the disclosure of the Holocaust challenged the normative idea that states were unrestricted (that is, sovereign) in their internal behavior except as restrained by the rule of law and institutions of constitutional governance. Expressed more vividly we can say that Hiroshima and Auschwitz gave rise to a new concern with limits to complement the earlier focus on borders. This shift has now acquired an ecological dimension through the fears associated with climate change, and the failures to regulate sufficiently the discharge of greenhouse gasses. What has become evident in each of these domains is that the problem-solving capabilities of a world of borders cannot address adequately the issues posed by a world of limits, whether these limits refer to political violence, sovereign authority, or the regulation of the global commons, including the world economy.

In other words, the degree to which states, and their perspectives, continue to dominate the formation of global policy has become increasingly anachronistic. It is epitomized by the construction of walls and barriers to keep unwanted people in or out, even sea walls are being proposed and some actually constructed to overcome rising sea levels associated with global warming and the prospect of maritime migrants fleeing from places that are uninhabitable due to heat or flooding. Some states are indulging the illusion that they can escape the downsides of interdependence by establishing for their citizenry the kind of security established by affluent “gated communities.” Similarly, the response of the United States to the 9/11 attacks was to territorialize its quest for restored global primacy by attacking Afghanistan, and then Iraq, in what should have been understood to be an essentially non-territorial conflict of global scope that gave rise to transnational policing and information gathering, but also to self-scrutiny as to whether such extremism, while adopting criminal tactics, might not have been prompted by legitimate grievances. Such war making after 9/11 was the source of major confusions as a result of the deliberate intertwining of a worldwide counterterrorism campaign with the pursuit of global state-building, the global domination project of the American foreign policy establishment.

In these contexts, and others, we are living in a world of limits but continue to act as if we can address its challenges by acting as if the world of borders remains sufficient. Of course, in many respects our lives and destinies continue to be controlled by these spatial allocations of authority, but the state is stymied when it comes to solving the most basic challenges of the day, whether it be grasping the impacts of drone technology and cyberwar or handling the transnational ramifications of excessive sovereign debt. Issues of scarcity relative to food, water, and energy are also emerging to pose questions about the future viability of our collective lives on the planet, and the need to think now and urgently about how to address limits in a manner that respects the dignity of persons and peoples, and also adopts a precautionary approach to sustainability and survival risks. The preoccupation with borders in what is becoming daily a more borderless world will give rise to waves of despair as problems that could be solved if limits were agreed upon and institutionalized continue to be ignored, or at best, marginalized in the search for the right solutions for global problems.

In conclusion, we can discern the relevance of the AOC theme of civilizational discourse. Only by enlisting the wisdom, core values, and visions of civilizations, including with special appreciation those associated with indigenous peoples, have we any hope of making the necessary transition from borders to limits in our consciousness and governmental logic. It is within the world’s cultures and religions that the sense of limits is inscribed in the deepest recesses of memory and pedagogy, establishing the imperative that human endeavor is doomed unless respectful of limits, either as generated by divine authority or through the enveloping power of nature. Human tragedy, as ancient peoples well understood, is to ignore or live beyond such limits. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris, which conveyed a deep awareness that tragedy befell those who exceeded limits, however powerful and autonomous they might seem.

To learn from others is particularly crucial for the West, which has not heeded these cultural warnings, and especially the United States, that continues to project its military power and neoliberal dogma on a global scale. It means heeding this message of limits whether articulated by native peoples or by the sages of the East. I close with some words uttered long ago by Rabindranath Tagore in his 1913 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: “It is the East in me which gave to the West. For is not the East the mother of spiritual Humanity and does not the West, do not the children of the West amidst their games and plays when they get hurt, when they get finished and tired, turn their face to the serene mother, the East? Do they not expect their food to come from her, and their rest for the night when they are tired? And are they to be disappointed?” This early utterance of such inspirational sentiments was far too generous to the colonizing East and too hopeful about prospects for inter-civilizational harmony, but at the same time prophetic in reminding the children of the Enlightenment in the West that the spiritual accomplishments of the East should not be overlooked. Of course, spirituality is embedded in all civilizations, and it is more a matter of recovering those suppressed spiritualities of the West that succumbed to a spell of secular absolutism while crafting the modern world by means of its technological prowess that proved so useful in war and economic development.

By arrangement with Richard Falk.

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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One comment for Richard Falk: On the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations

  1. Comment by Matt on June 7, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Meh. Globalising is what got the world into this mess right now. More localisation, less globalisation please. Lets start rolling back. Many in the world now realise they are not interested in allowing anymore supra national organisations consolidate power away from sovereign voting tax paying citizens to a moneyed political elite who gets to write the “global” rules to sign away resources to their own ends.

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