INTERREGNUM: Civilizations; Clash or coexistence? Fernando Delage

(Traducción: Isabel Gacho Carmona) The rise of China is not only transforming the global balance of power. It is also a challenge to the liberal values that served as the basis for the international order still in force, created after the Second World War. China is a great defender of the Charter of the United Nations and the principle of absolute sovereignty of the nation-state – which in its opinion is incompatible with Western efforts to promote its political schemes in the rest of the world – but at the same time it define itself, rather than as a nation or territory, as an exceptional civilization that can offer an alternative model to liberal democracy.

The new authoritarianism stands, in practice, more on cultural than on ideological pillars. Capitalism also prevails in China (or Russia), although under the direct supervision of the State: economic interventionism is a central element of their definition of “sovereignty”, and of the battle against Western pluralism. It is the cultural differentiation which is also used to justify the rejection of the universality of human rights, the rule of law or press freedom.

The irruption of the breakdown among civilizations as a structural factor of the world’s geopolitical dynamics-in addition to economics and security-was a famous argument advanced by the Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington 25 years ago. But the way in which States like China or Russia (also Turkey or Daesh itself) resort to criteria of civilization to express their identity in the international system, is a phenomenon that has not been given enough attention. It is a deficit that some experts try to correct, such as the professor at the London School of Economics Christopher Coker in his recent book “The rise of the civilizational state” (Polity Press, 2019).

The People’s Republic of Xi Jinping defends, as is well known, a model of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that combines a Leninist State with a neo-Confucian culture. Resorting to the historical continuity of its civilization, the nationalist discourse of Beijing pursues the promotion of its status as a great power by criticising liberal universalism. The challenge is, therefore, how to articulate the coexistence among very diverse civilizations, including those that have placed themselves at the centre of world power and will not continue to accept a subordinate position to the West.

Also, here China seems be taking the initiative. Last week, at a conference on the dialogue between Asian civilizations´ opening in Beijing, President Xi pronounced himself on the grave error of considering one race and civilization as superior to the others, and the disaster that would involve trying to remake one´s civilization on the basis on other from the outside. “The different civilizations are not destined to face each other,” Xi said. “The growing global challenges facing humanity, he added, require joint efforts,” in which culture will play a fundamental role.

We do not know if it’s a coincidence, but a few days before the head of the planning office of the US State Department declared in Washington that, for the first time, the United States faces “a competitor that is not Caucasian.” The current commercial tensions develop in a context in which a “battle with a truly different civilization” is fought. The controversy was served, in a new demonstration that the pressures on the liberal order come not only from China or Russia, but-perhaps more worryingly-from within, driven by this phenomenon of identity populism, and by a US administration who seems to have forgotten the secret of its leadership for seven decades. Demonizing third powers when the West is eroding in its own bosom will not serve to restore the strength of the principles that created the modern world. It can even lead to lose the ability to define the terms of the debate that will shape the history of the coming decades.

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