Akeel Bilgrami on the Notion of World Order

A Paper by Akeel Bilgrami, Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University, delivered at the 13th Rhodes Forum

Fred Dallmayr in his characteristically mobilizing way asked me if I would speak on the very idea of a world order, and relate it briefly to the subject of religion and link that in turn to the forum’s ongoing theme of a dialogue of civilizations. I am not sure I can manage to bring these diverse topics together in an entirely coherent way in the few minutes I have, but let me make an honourable stab at it. 

 ‘World order’ is an expression used primarily in the discipline of International Relations and, as such, it is mired in a whole range of doctrines that emerged in the Cold War to shape the social sciences as they are now practiced at least in the English speaking world. It has also more recently been extended from its initial moorings in IR theory and political science to include issues around the question of global governance in the wake of financial globalization. All these theoretical contexts come with a set of assumptions which are highly questionable for their ideological bias as well as their selective grounding in empirical data and every one of which affects how both the term ‘world order’ is deployed.

They also come with a specialist jargon that strains to elevate perfectly straightforward concerns, as with most concerns in the social sciences, into a sort of hermetic secular priestcraft of professors advising the prince, and experts thinking in tanks. None of this should be allowed to intimidate us from coming to grips with the issues that surround the term ‘world order’.  In fact, allow me to say with only the merest polemical exaggeration that unlike in the physical sciences, a degree in the social sciences, or a job in a social science department, gives no one any more qualification to speak about world order or more generally matters of society, politics, political economy, or international relations, than anyone in this room, anyone in the street outside here in the island of Rhodes, or in the villages of India, the prairies of Russia, the deserts of West Asia and Africa, the forests of Latin America or the slum populations in every metropole of the world. Everyone in all these far flung places is as qualified to think about these matters and to investigate them, and may often in fact be more insightful than those who wear the masks and illusions and jargon that degrees and jobs in the social sciences bestow on one. In other words, in what follows, I will not take seriously in the slightest, the high-sounding theories and slogans and vocabulary of these social sciences, which in any case, as anybody with a genuine interest in the social and the slightest respect for science will recognize to be an oxymoron.

Now, though the term ‘world order’ began to be deployed with the rise of IR theory in the Cold War, obviously the phenomenon that the term describes has a more longstanding history and conceptual history.  But long though that history is, it still falls distinctly within the modern period.  It makes no sense to talk of there being a ‘world order’ prior to modernity, when, for instance, Venice was, informally speaking, the capital of the Western world and when international or global relations were defined by maritime trade rather than the relations that emerged in the modern period in which, say, London replaced Venice as the capital for some centuries and then later New York and Washington may be said to have replaced London, in turn.   It is only since the rise of nations and the centralized states which integrated the hitherto scattered locations of power in the period since the Westphalian peace that the question of an order issuing from the distribution of power among them could be relevant.  Yet the modern state, which came to be seen in hyphenated conjunction with the rise of nations in Europe since Westphalia, by itself, was not quite sufficient to oblige one to think of a world order, as we come to have.

Let me take my assigned theme of religion to bring out what other crucial element was needed which still persists, even if in hidden forms, in all talk of world order.

We speak much today of Islam, indeed do so obsessively, and we speak of its relations to the West, and when we do, we do so in two quite different registers. First, by contrasting Islam with the liberal ideas of the West. And in this register there is much self-congratulation about these liberal ideas.  We often then switch to a different register that is frequently critical of the West’s attitudes towards Islam, seeing in them a hate-mongering phobia of Islam.  I will argue that if we understand the notion of a world order as the modern idea it is and without any illusions about what it is, both these registers are highly misleading of what is really at stake. 

Prior to modernity, the relations between Islam and the West were for centuries understood more simply as the relations between Islam and Christendom.  And in those centuries, Islam and Christendom bore enmity towards each other in the most vilifying terms, both in word and in horrifically violent deed.  But throughout these centuries, they each nevertheless displayed a respect for one another, trading in diverse material products, and engaged in a prolonged and fruitful mutual intellectual and artistic collaboration and influence – all of which when viewed from the thoroughly revised circumstances of modernity, can only seem enviably robust and healthy. For those many hundred years prior to the consolidation of western colonial rule, both cultures were feudal and pastoral, and, despite local difference in religious doctrine, which was in large part the avowed ground of the antagonism, there were shared intellectual premises that governed these differences.  In fact it is the shared element that was the real source of the hostility.  The more ancient religions of the East, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, were not only more removed in space, but were intellectually too remote to be palpably threatening to Christianity, in the way that Islam with its many shared assumptions, was. In fact, I think it is probably right to say that the crusades were fought against a form of heresy represented by Islamic civilization in Arabian lands rather than against some wholly alien presence there.

Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt and the British conquest of India, however, gradually gave rise to an era defined by a quite different tone of relations, a tone of relations that reflected the relations of power which for the first time contained the rudiments of what we would now dress up and domesticate with such terms as a ‘world order’.  Conflict was of course still there on both sides, but it was not the key to future relations.  It was the new tenor of colonial mastery that mastery required attitudes of condescension, and were felt to be so by the subject people, breeding not so much a robust sense of conflict any more, but one of alienation, dehumanization, and resentment. This new moral psychology that accompanied colonial relations was of course undergirded by an altering of the material relations that had held for centuries.  It is those material relations that began to constitute the first semblances of a world order. The growing mercantile and industrial forces of the most powerful Christian lands were, as we well know, steadily destroying the pastoral societies in their own terrain, but their effect on the lands and economies of the colonial subjects was altogether different. What feudal structures it destroyed to recreate new and vibrant economies in its own midst, it left well alone in these other lands, taking only that which was necessary for its mercantile and industrial requirements.  By transforming its own political economy while extracting surpluses but leaving structurally unchanged its conquered lands, European colonialism thereby laid the foundation for an abiding material differential, which would continue until today to be the underlying source of the ideological rhetoric of superior progress, not only material, but also civilizational. The health of conflict by more or less equal foes had, by these material agencies, deteriorated to the alienating effects of condescension and defensive resentment among increasingly unequal ones and this is precisely what persists today in revised forms, whether it is in whole national populations subject to embargoes and invasions or stateless fugitives fleeing the suffering that is a fallout of those embargoes and invasions. It is the increasing complexity that accompanies these material relations and the relations of power in our own time that has prompted social scientists to summon the term ‘world order’ to describe a patchwork form of governance to be found in international bodies defining it, whether they be credit agencies or trade organizations or the Security Council of the United Nations.

So one lesson to draw about religion from all this would be that the so called clash or conflict between civilizations is not nearly as bad if it is a genuine clash as it was for centuries prior to modernity, rather than as it became in modernity a conquest passing off in neutral terms as a ‘clash’.  It is this neutral idiom of ‘clash’ and ‘conflict’ to describe a situation, which is best described as a conquest that is Huntington’s most insidious contribution to these issues. 

The point of these potted historical remarks is to suggest that what the notion of world order describes is something that could not have application in those earlier centuries where Islam and Christendom fought the crusades, even as they influenced each other deeply in a wide range of spheres of mind and culture as equal foes and partners alike.  A world order only emerged when these relations were transformed in the way I described above in the modern period and the much later coinage and deployment of the term ‘world order’ is really just a complex form of updating of these set of relations of an earlier period that were preserved in revised forms after formal political decolonization in the aftermath of the Second World War. 

If I were to shed my assigned focus on religion, I would simply describe these relations, as is often done now, as relations holding between the North and the South.  That is the one constant since the colonial era began until now in all the renewals and transformations of the idea of a world order. To put it more elaborately, the fact of a world order existed in the modern period in the form of colonial relations of power and dependency in the North’s relations to the South but because of formal decolonization and more particularly because the Cold War intervened to complicate things, the term ‘world order’ was coined to make it seem as if things were not a matter of such domination and dependency any more but rather a bipolar arrangement in which a complex form of deterrence existed between two different ideologies and visions of political economy and governance.

To some extent, of course, what happened during the Cold War is a departure from the colonial paradigm of North South relations. Though there was talk of ‘the Soviet Empire’ this idea of empire did not have the familiar form to be found in the relations that Western Europe bore to the countries of the African, Asian, and Latin American continents, and, in fact, the Soviet Union even though it maintained a tyrannically iron grip over its satellites, often poured money into its satellites. But the real continuities with the colonial paradigm consists in the fact that prior to the drawing of the Iron curtain, the various parts of the Soviet Empire used to have dependencies on the West that were indeed quasi-colonial. And now with the passing of the Soviet Union, there is a return to those dependencies, with NATO powers pushing constantly on the frontiers where such dependencies have not yet returned.  The motives are clear: that Eastern Europe will provide the cheap and disciplined labor that will undermine the obstacles provided by the European social market system, enabling corporations and states to combat high wages and taxes on corporations as well as short working hours, labor immobility, and the indulgence of social programmes, and to impose instead the Anglo-American capitalist ideal of low wages and decreased benefits, extended working hours, and other such "market reforms" that are resisted by the over-indulged workers of Western Europe.  And in geo-politics, the hope is that Eastern Europe will be more pliant to the United States efforts to impede European moves towards an independent role in world affairs. That independence was something both the US and Soviet Union worried about during the Cold War years. For the US, that anxiety still exists and now extends to the Asia’s North East as well. Those are the hopes of the post Cold War world order.

Several questions remain: can one continue to speak of a world order that maintains imperial relations of the past in disguised current forms when the elites of the South are so much more powerful now than they were in the past and are in alliance with the elites of the North and West?  In other words, is ‘imperialism’ a relevant category of analysis in a period of globalized financial capital? This is a matter of lively debate at present, even within the political economists of the Left, and the outcome of the debate will have no small impact on how to understand the idea of a world order. Another question is how much does the increasing presence of China (it’s current downturn apart) and its economic power in other countries of the South (most vivid in African countries) constitute the possibilities of a new reconfiguration of world order.  If its (and perhaps even India’s) presence develops more intensely, might we see a future of inter-imperial rivalries of the form that defined the period prior to 1914? Should that happen, let’s not forget that Lenin described inter-imperial rivalry as the cradle of radicalization that led to the Bolshevik revolution, but here I am prematurely speculating far beyond anything that the facts on the ground presently allow.

Let me conclude, then, with a word about how what I have said about world order relates to this Forum’s longstanding theme of a dialogue between civilizations. Suppose what I have said is right: that the very idea of a world order is a falsely bland descriptive as well as prescriptive label for longstanding colonial relations of power and dependency between the North and the South, and that the very idea of a clash of civilizations, though it described the mediaeval period well, in the modern period is a misleadingly domesticating label for a centuries long conquest of one civilization by another which continues in revised but abiding form.  Notice that if this is right, then declaring honourably as some critics of the North have done that such a dialogue is preempted by the pervasive Islamophobia in the North is completely beside the point. Anyone with elementary powers of observation will notice that when it comes to a world order, the question is about power among states not about attitudes among populations and when it comes to states there is absolutely no Islamophobia. The United States government suffers from no such phobia. Indeed, it supports to this day the most despised Islamic state in the world. The main point of world order is to have control of a region, its natural resources and its geopolitical advantage. It has nothing to do with attitudes towards religion and ethnicities, which are all niceties that can be left to ordinary people so as to manipulate their fears for statist ends in the maintenance of world order as I’ve described it. So while these relations of domination and control, conquest not clash, are acknowledged to be what is really at stake, it would seem the very idea of a dialogue lapses since one cannot have a dialogue with a master, dialogues can only occur between equal foes and that scenario of equality among foes has not existed basically as I said since the crusades except for a brief and essentially illusory caesura of the Cold War. The point, by the very nature of the case, is this: one can only resist a master, not collogue with him. One may of course have a dialogue within the framework of a resistance. But the resistance must be the prior and the frameworking notion. How to construct and develop that notion of resistance for our time in a world of globalized finance remains the most pressing question of our time.