Today's date:
Fall 2010

From a Flattening World to an Interdependence of Plural Identities

Nathan Gardels is the editor of NPQ. His comments here are adapted from a speech at the Ciragan Palace in Istanbul commemorating the partnership with NPQ-Turkiye, published by Bersay in Turkey. Turkish president Abdullah Gul also spoke at the meeting.

Istanbul—When NPQ started publishing in Turkey 20 years ago it was the end of the Cold War and the very early advent of globalization. In the West, Turkey’s importance was as an appendage to NATO. It was still not yet a supplicant to European membership.

Today, Turkey is a regional power in its own right. It is no longer just the proverbial passive bridge between East and West, but an active, pivotal state in the emerging world order. Its long march along the path of democracy and away from the military constitution of the Cold War years is heading toward completion, notably with the recent referendum. Ironically, those in Europe and elsewhere, including some in Turkey, who clamored for democratization now worry when the people have spoken, that a “civilian coup” is handing the state over to Islamism. The big question in the West, and among secularists in Turkey, is whether there will be a sufficient separation of powers so that secularism, god willing, survives democracy.

Over the last two decades, NPQ has covered all these momentous transformations in Turkey as well as globally, taking a distinctively non-Western-centric and plural point of view in our coverage. We will continue to do so in the coming years.

The world will change as much, if not more, in the next 20 years as it did in the last 20. Here is my sketch of the contours of this next turn of events as I see them from a global perspective.

POST-GLOBALIZATION | After the Cold War came globalization. Now freer trade and capital flows, the spread of technology and the torrent of information flows wrought by globalization have so thoroughly transformed the world that we are entering a new phase: post-globalization. This phase is characterized less by a flattening of old differences than the appearance of new ones. That is because economic strength engenders cultural self-assertion. Indeed, the American-led homogenization of the world order is yielding to a new “integrated heterogeneity” or, to put it another way, an interdependence of plural identities.

This has four aspects:

First, the emergence of effective new forms of “non-Western,” or, more precisely, “other than Western modernity,” notably in China and in Turkey;

Second, the erosion of Western media hegemony.

Third, a challenge to Western liberal democracy as the best form of governance.

Fourth, a simultaneous de-coupling and re-coupling of patterns of trade and investment globally along different lines, accelerated by the Western financial crisis.

OTHER THAN WESTERN MODERNITY | We are witnessing the “end of the end of history” as new forms of “other than Western” modernity are taking hold, notably in China, where a neo-Confucian cultural and political order has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty while building glittering megacities and the world’s fastest trains, or in Turkey, where democratic reforms and high growth have been delivered by an Islamist-rooted ruling party with a post-secularist outlook.

Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, and perhaps the leading chronicler and cheerleader of non-Western modernity, argues that “21st century history will unfold in the exact opposite direction of what Western intellectuals anticipated when the Berlin Wall fell. Then they assumed that the End of History equaled the triumph of the West.” Instead, he has said, “we will now see that the Return of History equals the Retreat of the West. Its oversized footprint from the 19th and 20th century will diminish greatly in the 21st century.” Where once the Chinese, the Muslims and the Indians “happily borrowed Western lenses and Western cultural perspectives, with a new cultural self-confidence that accompanies economic vibrancy, their perceptions are growing further apart,” he argues.

For many in China, a return to Confucian roots is the civilizational impulse that lay behind China’s official arrival as the world’s second largest economy. This includes a firm belief that a meritocratic mandarinate, or non-elected bureaucratic elite of the kind that ruled China for centuries and has over the past 30 years competently shifted China from a peasant economy to the factory of the world, is far better at good governance than Western democracy. In their not entirely incorrect view, Western democracy tends to end up being captured by special interests and the short-term mentality.

Further, China’s doctrine of a “peaceful rise” can be traced to the Confucian notion of “non-universalism” and a “geo-civilizational” instead of a “geo-political” outlook that seeks coexistence with others instead of domination or conflict—not unlike Turkey’s current foreign policy of “zero-problems” with its neighbors. For Zheng Bijian, one of the Communist Party’s top ideologists, a reawakened China has proven the superiority of its pragmatic way over the grand Western theories of conflict (“a clash of civilizations”) or of domination (“the end of history”) through solving the “riddle of the century” by developing rapidly without imperialism or war as was the case with Japan and Germany. In Zheng’s view, only universalist ideologies engender conflict or seek control.

In Turkey, authoritarian modernization was imposed from above on the European secular model. Now that society is modernizing from below through democracy, it is necessarily creating cultural space for religious practices and beliefs that European modernity shunned. Secularism is not a condition of modernity, as the American experience clearly shows, since we are a very religious society. What is different about Turkey is that it is a majority Muslim country, not a nation of Christian faiths, which have long accepted, unlike Islam, the separation of the state and religion. That is the distinct aspect of Turkey’s current path of modernity along with its unique Ottoman legacy.

EROSION OF WESTERN DOMINANCE OF THE GLOBAL MEDIA | Part and parcel of “other than Western modernization” is the erosion of Western dominance in the global media. Where once BBC, CNN and MGM ruled, now there are 100 million Chinese blogs, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, the Dubai Film Festival as well as more than 200 satellite channels across the Arab world. Where once American soap operas like Days of Our Lives filled boob tubes globally, now Brazilian and Mexican telenovelas compete for audiences as far away as Russia. Korean melodramas spellbind housewives in China and Japan. And, of course, Noor has illustrated the broad appeal of Turkish soft-power across the old Arab provinces of the Ottoman times.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Chinese epic widely seen in the West, is the best-selling Chinese film of all time. Bollywood, which produces five times as many films as Hollywood, has found a new resonance in the Arab world and Africa. Mahbubani argues that “there is something unique about Indian political and social culture, a spirit of inclusiveness and tolerance. While the West often looks at the world from a black-and-white perspective, either the evil empire or the axis of evil, the Indian mind is able to see the world in many different colors.” Thus, for Mahbubani, the appeal of Hindu cinema to many Muslim audiences.

Though Hollywood still retains a legacy of the blockbuster, these days it must compete on the silver screen as others polish their cinematic skills and know-how with technologies available to all and with a new scale of prosperous audiences.

The John Wayne era, when America could write the script for the whole world, both in Washington and Hollywood, is over. The days are gone when a film like Midnight Express has the global power to define a nation’s identity for others. These days, Valley of the Wolves has a voice in the imaginative space.

As Khan Lee, who runs Zeus studios in Taiwan and is the brother of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee, told me: “Hollywood is a dinosaur that has destroyed and occupied our minds for too long. The world is full of new stories waiting to be told and new audiences to see them, even if we use Hollywood’s template to do so.”

Western dominance is also fading in the news media. Just as interdependence has more tightly linked the world than ever before, the Western media, particularly in America, is turning inward, “renationalizing” so to speak, and fragmenting into millions of digital outlets, all seeking to “monetize attention,” mostly through entertainment, sensation and local and even personal preoccupations.

In the face of this retrenchment, Xinhua News, China’s official information agency, has, on the model of BBC in its heyday, vastly expanded its news bureaus around the world and launched broadcasts in local languages across Africa, Latin America as well the rest of the world in English. Just as most American newspapers, TV and cable stations are shutting down foreign coverage, China is deploying 300 new bureaus globally.

A CHALLENGE TO WESTERN LIBERAL DEMOCRACY AS THE BEST FORM OF GOVERNANCE | The successful experience of China challenges the hallowed wisdom of Winston Churchill, who said in 1947 that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

While the Western democracies today, especially the US, are mired in debt and paralyzed by partisan gridlock, authoritarian China is striding boldly into the future with the world’s largest reserves and fasting growing economy. As I mentioned, it is laying an impressive network of the world’s fastest trains, building 25 megacities of 15 million people each, taking over the global clean-energy industry and building a world-class university system.

Ironically, while the inefficient Soviet economy was said to collapse because of the lack of democratic freedoms, too much democracy may end up providing less good governance in the West than China’s unified leadership, which can act decisively in the common interest and stick to the long-term implementation of policies.

Above all, Western democracy has not comes to grips with the long-term consequences of its post-World War II marriage to consumerism.

Democratic systems are designed to give people what they want—consumer plentitude in our age—when they want it, which is now. By nature, consumer choice is short-term and self-interested. Enabled by the new technologies of the information age, it is this dynamic that has largely driven the powershift of social, cultural and political authority downward and outward toward diverse networks of the like-minded, organized minorities and the individual. Certainly, democracy must accommodate in its institutions this downward devolution of power and authority. And while no one would diminish the very considerable comforts and conveniences of consumer society, a guiding societal ethos of short-term self-interest inevitably tends to eclipse any perspective of the long-term and common good. Indeed, to call America an “industrial democracy” is today a misnomer. It is a consumer democracy. In a consumer democracy, all the feedback signals—politics, the media and the market—tend to steer behavior toward immediate gratification.

In such a society, there is scarce political capacity for the long-term thinking, planning and continuity of governance required for the sustainability of democratic society over time. Climate change is just one example of how the retail sanity of self-interested choice can add up to wholesale madness. The subprime mortgage crisis in the US was rooted in the same absence of a long-term common perspective.

Surely, no system of governance can endure without the self-interested consent of the governed. Yet, neither can it endure, as every political sage from Plato to James Madison understood, when ruled by the popular “appetite” (Plato’s word), which the new technologies have further empowered.

Without question, as China negotiates a middle-income transition that creates large urban constituencies, it will have to develop more democratic feedback mechanisms that respond to the diversifying interests and identities of a more prosperous public. Without the civic software to match the scale of its infrastructure hardware, China will surely stall and face political crisis. The modern mandarinate is already being tested by endemic environmental crisis as well as the labor strikes at Honda and the suicides at Foxconn, which assembles the iPod.

While the Western democracies must devolve more power to the grass roots in response to growing diversity, restoring good governance also means it must invent new feedback mechanisms that favor the long-term perspective over the special interests and short-term horizons of consumer democracy.

DE-COUPLING AND RE-COUPLING | “The earthquake of the past few years has damaged Western economies while leaving those of emerging countries, particularly Asia, standing. It has also destroyed Western prestige,” Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has correctly written. “The West has dominated the world economically and intellectually for at least two centuries. That epoch is over. Up till now, the rulers of emerging countries disliked the West’s pretensions, but respected its competence. This is true no longer. Never again will the West have the sole word. The rise of the Group of 20 leading economies reflects new realities of power and authority.”

Before the Western financial crisis a debate was already underway as to whether the “emerging economies” such as Brazil, China and India—and Turkey—had become sufficiently diversified in their trade and strong enough in their domestic markets to “decouple” from dependence on the West. Though it is too soon to say that “decoupling” has in fact occurred, the financial crisis has accelerated this trend, as the emerging economies have remained resilient and increasingly “recoupled” with each other, intensifying their trade and financial relationships with each other while lifting demand in the slumping Western economies. China, as we all know, is even financing America’s debts the way America financed Great Britain’s at the end of that empire’s hegemony.

At the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Tianjin, China, Nomura securities chief economist Paul Sheard projected that “by 2012, the emerging markets will contribute three-quarters of global growth—with China contributing one-third.” Indeed, the vast bulk of Germany’s respectable growth in the last quarter was due to exports of machines and chemicals to China, leading some analysts to argue that there is less of a German “miracle” going on than a “Chinese miracle.” China has overtaken the UK and Germany as the top export market for French Bordeaux wines.

BYD, the Chinese company, is building the storage batteries for the City of Los Angeles solar plant in the desert. Like the proposed bullet train between LA and San Francisco that China is also bidding to finance and design—the US simply does not have the resources and technology to do it on its own. This is true elsewhere as well, for example, in Poland where China is building the new highway from Lodz to Warsaw.

Gerald Lyons of Standard Chartered Bank argued in Tianjin that the strong growth in the East versus the stagnation in the West is “a tale of two worlds.”

South-South trade and investment, a stated priority of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) coordinating group, has increased dramatically. A few examples make the point: China has become Brazil’s largest trading partner. Its direct investments in Brazil will reach $100 billion by 2013. China is slated to finance and provide the design for the new bullet train between Sao Paulo and Rio. Brazil in turn is expanding its links to Africa. 70 percent of China’s overseas investment last year were in other parts of Asia. The ASEAN countries’ trade is now greater among themselves and China than with the US and Europe.

Everyone in Istanbul knows the growing intensity of trade and finance between Turkey and its friendly neighborhood, including Iraq and Iran. Despite US and EU sanctions, Prime Minister (Recip Tayyip) Erdogan expects to push bilateral trade with Iran to $30 billion within five years. Indeed, I have seen with my own eyes this recoupling of the emerging economies at my hotel in Istanbul. It is full of Brazilian and Chinese businessmen.

DANGERS ON THE HORIZON | So, this is the post-global world of “heterogenous interdependence” on the horizon.

There are two dangers for such a world:

While growing diversity and the heterogenous nature of our societies calls for greater devolution of power downward, the complexities of interdependence at the same time require more “supra-national” management and coordination. In the coming years that task will fall to the G-20, of which Turkey is a member, which has supplanted the G-8 as the executive committee of global governance. If the G-20 takes up security issues, which inevitably it will evolve to do, then it is also likely to supplant the UN Security Council. It is far easier to create a new institution than reform an old one.

Never before has a world of such diverse interests and identities—not only of nation states but of societies—been so interlinked. Will a single body of global governance like the G-20 be able to hold it all altogether as it tackles everything from climate change to global financial flows to microbial contagion to nuclear non-proliferation? Multipolar governance on a world scale that is not tipped either East or West, or in a bipolar draw, has never occurred. It won’t be easy. Certainly commonality of interest is no guarantee of commonality of action. Henry Kissinger has not incorrectly remarked that the rising states in today’s world are averse to the shared sovereignty implied by multilaterialism. Surely the imperatives of common action will test China’s proclaimed disposition to “pragmatic discourse” and geo-civilizational cooperation. And it will test Turkey’s “zero-problem” foreign policy with its neighbors as Iran clashes with the West.

Second, the great danger in the fragmentation of the media globally even as interdependence deepens is that, for all the Facebooks, iTune downloads and Twitters, the information age will become the age of non-communication. Re-nationalizing media, which is occurring all across the world today as the power of the Internet grows and the old mainstream media shrink, as audiences return to a preference for their own stories, means that the idea of an open global society risks losing the hearts and minds, that is, the allegiance, of it inhabitants.

Will the global public square created by the media become the building block of a global civilization or, as we’ve seen recently with controversy swirling around the proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York, a battleground where the ignorant, intolerant and narrow-minded fight it out with little real empathy or insight into the minds and souls of others?

That is why, in our own small way, publications of a global perspective like NPQ that seek dialogue across cultural boundaries, rare as they are, are more important than ever.