Xi Jinping gives a speech in the first Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations. Photo: CCTV

“The Clash of Civilizations” has resurfaced, albeit in a different form, after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s remark during his keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations in Beijing on May 15. “It is foolish to believe that one’s race and civilization are superior to others, and it is disastrous to reshape or even replace other civilizations willfully,” the Chinese leader said. “Various civilizations are not destined to clash.”

Xi’s remark resembles one by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who criticized the idea of a “clash of civilizations” a decade ago in his book Identity and Violence, saying, “There is no need of clash of civilizations. Each of us has multiple identities and commitments and makes a compelling case for a peaceful co-existence of diverse people.”

The idea of such a clash dominated US foreign policy after Harvard pundit Samuel P Huntington published an article titled “The Clash of Civilizations?” in the summer issue (Vol 72, No 2) of Foreign Affairs in 1993. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, world conflicts had been taking place between the ideological blocs of “Western capitalists” and “East European communists.” In the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union, he predicted, “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.” He added, “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

“The clash of civilizations” became the gospel of neoconservative foreign policy after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001; this resulted in the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, amid the trade war between the US and China and the recent tension between the US and Iran, foreign-policy analysts have started to anticipate a possible “clash of civilizations” again, and suggest that humanity is at the brink of devastation – an analysis that cannot entirely be discarded.

Amid the trade war between the US and China and the recent tension between the US and Iran, foreign-policy analysts have started to anticipate a possible ‘clash of civilizations’ again, and suggest that humanity is at the brink of devastation – an analysis that cannot entirely be discarded

About 20 years after the publication of Huntington’s original essay, the foreign-policy elites, scholars, opinion writers and journalists in Western and non-Western countries have suggested that Western civilization will be diminished instead of being able to withstand the clash between civilizations. Death of the West (Daniel Lattier), “The Decline of the West” (Michel Kimmage), The Collapse of Western Civilization (Erik M Conway and Naomi Oreskes), and “Crisis of Civilization” (Pepe Escobar) are a few entries in the long list of books, articles, and opinion pieces along this line.

In my view, Western civilization is neither in crisis nor collapsing. On the contrary, it is the deviation of the West from its stated values, from which I take the liberty to coin “abandonment of civilization by the West.”

Two factors played a very crucial role in relinquishing core values of the Western civilization by “the West” itself:

  • On the external front, the rise of Asian countries, notably China’s economic, military, strategic, and technological advancement and India’s tremendous economic clout, made the US perceive the potential adversaries who are non-Caucasian.
  • Among internal factors are the economic recession started in 2008, the immigration crisis, the crisis triggered by the free trade and economic globalization. Most important, according to the 2010 population census in the US, the birth rate of non-whites exceeded that of white Americans. This indicates that by the time of the 2028 presidential election, the number of new non-white voters will surpass new white voters for the first time in US history. Besides, the population projection suggests that the white population will be in the minority by 2045 in the US. That means that by 2050, the white American domination in public policy will come to an end forever. The population census of 2011 in the UK revealed a similar story.

The Brexit slogans “Take Back Control” and “I Want My Country Back” in the UK, and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and “America First,” were products of the “existential threat” perceived by white supremacists on both sides of the Atlantic. Not all of the Brexit voters or those who voted for Trump were poor or unemployed. White people felt they were victims of policies on such issues as immigration, free trade, and economic globalization that were chiefly architected by “the West.” Their desperation and resentment triggered the renunciation of Western civilization.

If, as proposed by Huntington, civilization is a real entity  based on certain indispensable core values, and these values are known to be the “soft power” of “the West,” they are rational thinking, free-market capitalism, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and rule-based global governance, scientific worldview, pluralism, and open society. Western civilization, generally an Anglo-American civilization, notably has been abandoning these core values, and the West has been revoking the rules established by its own leaders  throughout history. Let’s assess each one very briefly.

First, the US give up rational thinking after the 2016 presidential election. The executive power of the US rests on morons and absurd people. Logic and rational thought have no place in the US; for instance, Trump imposed tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese goods recently. Of course the US can import from other countries instead of China, but it cannot improve its trade-deficit figures either in the short or long run, for two reasons. First, the high cost of production such as labor in the US as compared with China and other low-cost manufacturing countries. Second, re-establishing the manufacturing plant within the US will take time.

Second, the US has renounced the free-market capitalism that was a significant soft power to influence many countries. For its part, China has adopted the rules and institutions of global governance, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization that “the West” architected immediately after World War II. China’s future growth is unstoppable. Now, the Chinese president is the chief advocate of free-market capitalism and anti-protectionism, and the US president is the chief advocate of protectionism and anti-free trade in the world.

Third, the United States’ human-rights record is worse than ever before. The US has abandoned the idea of human rights. The statement issued by Trump over the killing of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is enough proof. The US president loves money more than the core value of human rights the Western countriesare supposed to have championed.

Fourth, the Brexit chaos and Trump’s presidency are mockeries of democracy. The US no longer can persuade non-Western societies of the merits of democracy.

Fifth, after the hawkish US national security adviser John Bolton denounced the International Criminal Court (ICC) and threatened to impose sanctions against the institution in his federalist speech in Washington on September 10, 2018, the US has relinquished another soft power of “the West,” the rule of law. Bolton’s speech was triggered by an ICC investigation into alleged American war crimes in Afghanistan. He also decided to shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington because the PLO called for an ICC inquiry into human-rights violations by Israel.

Sixth, right after World War II, rules-based global governance was started. The World Bank, the IMF, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, which became the WTO in 1995) were created under American leadership. However, the US abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement in early 2017. in April 2017, it threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement if it was not renegotiated. It has imposed tariffs on European, Japanese and Chinese goods in violation of the rules set by the WTO. The US has not been willing to reform such global governance systems as the United Nations, World Bank or IMF. China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank are the outcomes of America’s refusal to reform these institutions.

Seventh, a scientific outlook toward the world, as Huntington claimed, is another soft power of the West. However, the Trump administration refuses to acknowledge that capitalist greed has triggered the climate crisis that is now at cataclysmic levels. Although the National Climate Assessment report has continuously pointed out the current and anticipated future impacts of climate change on the country, the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord in 2018.

Last, the myth of Western pluralism and open society is now over after American, British and Australian polities relinquished them. The issues of race, immigration, and xenophobia play central roles in social and economic policies in elections. The “border wall” narratives and the miserable plight of Central American migrants on the US-Mexico border indicate the derailment of pluralism in the US. Pluralism is the notion of accepting and embracing different people and their cultures, beliefs, and opinions within society for a good cause.

The white supremacists in the US and many other Western countries have been giving up all the core values of “the West” for the final battle to maintain the dominance of the white race. However, if the US and rest of “the West” fail to uphold the Western core values and accept the rise of Asia, particularly China and India, “the West” will be confined solely to the two sides of the North Atlantic very soon.

At this moment, the US seems to be on a voyage aboard a wrecked ship on which the crew has neither a map nor a destiny. The march of the US and “the West” will reach nowhere in the future on a voyage that relinquishes the destination – the core values of Western civilization.

Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel teaches Development Economics and Global Political Economy in the Master's program at Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.

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