Dialogue of Civilizations in International Relations: Some Reflections on Multipolarity, Regionalism and Peace

Fabio Petito

A Paper by Fabio Petito, Director, Sussex Centre for International Security, University of Sussex, delivered at the 10th Rhodes Forum

There is no blueprint for the construction of a multicultural and peaceful world order in contemporary international relations. It is my contention, however, that for such a global structure to emerge, we need a theory inspired by the idea of dialogue of civilizations. In this presentation, I want to offer some thoughts on how the link between the growing multipolar configuration of the international system and regionalism as political process could represent a critical issue for the future of global peace. My aim here is to oppose - not Huntington’s thesis of the Clash of civilizations as analytical framework - but the Huntingtonian construction of a multicivilizational and multipolar system as the normative solution that he proposed to the danger of the Clash. My concern is that a multicivilizational and multipolar world order – that is an unproblematic emphasis (or even an enthusiasm) on multipolarity - leaves us with a worrying system of forces, of civilisational macro-regional great powers, ready for collision – the clash of civilisations. To counter these risks under conditions of multipolarity I shall put forward an argument for multiculturally and dialogically constituted processes of regional integration and for a comprehensive idea(l) of peace as antidotes to the possible negative politicisation of cultural differences on a global scale: these steps are in my view critical to construct a realistic dialogue of civilizations in international relations for the decades to come while preventing the risk inherent in its multipolar configuration. In developing this argument, I will draw on a few examples from the nowadays not-very-popular case of the European integration project which in my view has delivered a realistic peace and constructed a unique regional order of ‘unity in diversity’ since WWII.

The idea of dialogue of civilizations in international relations emerged as a radical critique of the political and ideological dominance of a US-centred Western and Liberal world. At the core of this discourse one finds a clear normative resistance against the idea of a unipolar world order often accompanied by the conviction that we are gradually, but ineluctably’ moving towards a multipolar world. The question then arises of whether the idea of dialogue of civilizations should endorse the notion of a multipolar world order. This is a relevant question, since polarity is clearly associated with a Realist approach to international politics and with a conceptualisation of the international arena as a system of forces to be brought into equilibrium (the stability of the system) by the well-known mechanism of the balance of power. The emphasis here is overwhelmingly on material sources and great power status, the rest - the normative dimension which is at the heart of the vision of dialogue - being fundamentally irrelevant.

In this presentation I want to argue that the increasing consensus on the empirical trend of worldwide decentralisation of power away from what Huntington has defined the ‘lonely superpower’ towards other major regional powers (China, India, EU, Japan, Russia, Brazil, Iran and others) may well be more conducive to the emergence of a more pluralistic, just and peaceful world order. This is why even critical scholars such as Chantal Mouffe and Danilo Zolo have recently focused on the idea of a balance of regional spaces and argued for a multipolar world order in the context of their critique of the American unipolar project. There is a risk, however, that without a process of dialogue of civilizations at different levels, as an overarching framework of reference, this multipolar multicivilizational world leaves us with a worrying system of forces, of civilisational macro-regional great powers, ready for collision – the clash of civilisations. This is an important point as this part of Huntington’s argument – absent in his original Foreign Affairs’ article – has gone largely unnoticed (the reason also being that it is sketched in the last few pages of a book of more than 300 pages - an unbalance which arguably confirms the impression that the book is really about the clash rather than how to avoid it). To counter this risk inherent in the potential antagonistic logic of multipolarity, I want to suggest the need for multiculturally and dialogically constituted processes of regional integration within an a horizon of a comprehensive idea(l) of peace, that is a commitment to a different understanding of peace than the one that is nowadays politically predominant in international relations. But before critically discussing the Huntingtonian risk of a multipolar world order, a few preliminary remarks on the very notion of multipolarity are in place.

A widespread debate has been ranging throughout the post-Cold War period on whether the end of the bipolar international system would lead to unipolarity or multipolarity. While there have been different positions on the nature of the post-89 international system in terms of distribution of power, it is fair to say that the view that we are living in a ‘unipolar era’ is today less popular than it was in the early 1990s and the predictions that the twenty-first century will see the emergence of a genuine multipolar structure are increasingly common. This view is arguably the result of the recent security and political developments and in particular the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is also based on less contingent medium/long term economic evidence and estimations which suggest the fast progression of the (relative) economic decline of America in favour of the new Asian fast-growing economies of China and India; a reality that had become more visible with the recent financial crisis, whose origins were in the American heartland of the West and from which for the first time the way out, the return to global growth, is expected to come from the East.

In his 1996 book, Huntington argues that the only way to avoid the clash of civilizations is to envisage a multipolar multicivilizational order organised around what he calls ‘the core states of civilizations [which would be the] sources of order within civilizations and, through negotiations with other core states, between civilizations’. He then adds that ‘a world in which core states play a leading or dominating role is a sphere-of-influence world’ and that ‘a core state can perform its ordering function because member states perceive it as cultural kin.’ The problem with such a model of order is its being constructed only on the grounds of a material structure of power, which might well represent the spatial/geopolitical orientation of the global order but does not make for the normative structure of such an order. It is true that Huntington sketches very briefly (in less than a page) three rules for a possible normative structure of his multipolar multicivilizational order: the abstention rule (core states should abstain from intervention in conflicts in other civilizations); the joint mediation rule (core states should negotiate to contain or halt fault-line wars among states or groups from their civilizations); and, finally, the commonalities rule (peoples in all civilizations should search for and attempt to expand the values, institutions and practices they have in common with peoples of other civilizations). These rules, however, reveal even more neatly the ‘(IR) realist’ assumptions of the model as they in essence amount to nothing but a minimalist ethics of non-interference – the commonalities rule pointing perhaps to some ‘thin’ minimal communal denominator of universal morality, but in fact being the perfect exemplification of that rhetorical technique which consists in vaguely referring to some kind of undefined normative necessity of an opposite aspiration to the clash. The result of the Huntingtonian construction is, therefore, a worrying system of forces, of civilizational macro-regional great powers ready for collision – the clash of civilizations – and the only possible hope is to make the stability of the system attainable through the mechanism of the balance of power. However, the ‘realist’ emphasis, shared by Huntington on the centrality of fear, insecurity and threats in an anarchic environment, seem simply to make the clash of civilizations unavoidable – as merely a matter of time.

Paradoxically, at first sight such a framework seems strikingly similar to the arguments advanced by Mouffe and Zolo in the context of their critique of the American unipolar project, the idea being the construction of a multipolar planetary balance of power around macro-regions defined along civilizational lines. Mouffe has argued that the central problem that the current unipolar world, under the unchallenged hegemony of the United States, is facing is the impossibility for antagonisms to find legitimate forms of expression. Under such conditions, antagonisms, when they do emerge, tend to take extreme forms. In order to create the channels for the legitimate expression of dissent we need to envisage, Mouffe suggests, a pluralistic multipolar world order constructed around a certain number of ‘greater spaces’ and genuine cultural poles. Along similar lines, Zolo argues that to confront the United States’ dangerous imperial tendencies, “the project of a peaceful world needs a neo-regionalist revival of the idea of Großraum [greater space], together with a reinforcement of multilateral negotiation between states as a normative source and a democratic legitimisation of the processes of regional integration”. These arguments for a multipolar multicivilisational world order, however, require a degree of caution for as Zolo has correctly sensed ‘before this kind of order can be achieved complex economic, technological, cultural and religious conditions must be met that make a dialogue between the world’s major civilizations possible’.

Zolo correctly cautions about the apparent self-evident force of this multipolar model and points to the necessity of immersing it in a broader and real process of dialogue between the world’s major civilizations. This is even more necessary in the present international situation which imposes on all of us a moral obligation to pursue a politics of inter-civilizational understanding: to engage in an inter-cultural dialogue is today crucial for peace as it cannot be ignored that since September 11, in the very year designated by the United Nations as the ‘Year of Dialogue of Civilizations’, global political violence and conflicts have reached a critical new level both quantitatively and qualitatively and the shadow of a future clash of civilizations has been hammering down on the world and, very worryingly, in the collective psychologies of its peoples.

This overall political context of growing cultural misunderstanding and mistrust, which prompted Edward Said to speak of a real danger of a clash of ignorance, should be opposed by creating the conditions for widespread processes of ‘inter-civilizational mutual understanding’ at multiple levels. In this respect, the link between civilizational dialogue, mutual understanding and peace is fortunately becoming more widely acknowledged. The ideal of ‘building bridges of mutual understanding’ in order to learn (or re-learn) how to live together among different cultural communities – what Andrea Riccardi has called in his last book the art of ‘con-vivere’ – I want to argue, is also critical for the global order in a more specific sense: it provides the key antidote to the potential antagonistic logic of multipolarity. To explain this point I want to return for a moment to the Huntingtonian model of multipolar multicivilizational order discussed above.

The popularity of Huntington’s thesis no doubt has to do with bringing to centre stage of the post-89 debate on the future of international relations the political resurgence of religion and the emergence of a multicultural international society. In other words, it could be said that Huntington has framed post-89 international politics as a multicultural fact. In this respect, its proposal of multipolar multicivilizational order is indeed an acknowledgment of the centrality of the growing multicultural nature of international society but, and here lies the problem, is based on the opposite logic to what I would call ‘dialogical multiculturalism’ and that I want to argue we need to strengthen.

In Huntington’s view the multicultural nature of the world has, on the one hand, internationally to be almost confined within a civilizational cage following the ‘good fences make good neighbours’ principle and, on the other hand, has domestically to be contrasted through strict immigration policy and a new integrationist approach, as Huntington has argued in his most recent book with reference to the growing presence of Latinos in the United States and what, he argues, could be its weakening effect on American national identity. In sum, his argument is not about building bridges of mutual understanding but rather walls of containment and separation.

The idea of dialogue of civilizations envisages ‘bridges’ not ‘walls’. In particular, here the emphasis is not on the geographical-territorial dimension of civilizations but rather on the normative one, that is, on civilizations as the great cultural and religious social traditions of the world. This implies, for example, that the neo-regionalist revival that Zolo and Mouffe favour as a way of constructing a multipolar spatial ordering does not need to take shape along civilizational-culturalist lines. Rather it cannot be dismembered from reinforcing a politics of multiculturalism ‘at home and abroad’. To illustrate this point I refer to a case of contemporary relevance to European regional integration and the relationship between Europe and the Muslim world: the hotly debated issue of the EU enlargement to Turkey.

From such a perspective, the framing of Turkey’s EU-accession discursive strategy as a ‘bridge’ between Asia and Europe or as a new ‘alliance of civilizations’is to be welcomed and supported. My argument is, in fact, that multiculturally-constituted processes of regional integration are more conducive to a peaceful global order as they act as a preventive antidote to the possible negative politicization of cultural differences on a global scale. A similar additional point can be made to support the creation of multicultural forms of regional cooperation and integration, which are, anyway, arguably justifiable on functionalist grounds to respond to the common challenges brought about by the processes of globalization. Initiatives of regionalization involving, for example, member-states from a plurality of existing regional political organizations can further contribute to the dilution of the risks of a multipolarization along enclosed civilizational lines. For example, from such a perspective initiatives of Mediterranean regionalization involving European and Arab countries are to be encouraged as a way of fostering bridges of communication and mutual understanding between the European Union and the Arab League and can also constitute laboratories for the praxis of inter-civilizational dialogue, in particular in the context of the post-Arab spring. Finally, multiculturalism ‘abroad’ is likely to facilitate ‘living together’ at home and vice versa, a fact that cannot be overlooked in our era of global communication. I would, for example, anticipate a reciprocally beneficial relationship between the integration of the growing Muslim presence in Europe, arguably the greatest challenge facing the future identity of Europe, and a peaceful relationship between Europe and the Muslim world in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East.

An active politics of dialogue of civilizations, in other words, may represent an essential mechanism to mitigate the risk of a ‘culturalist enclosure’ in the multipolarity model and to dialogically inscribe plurality in its configuration. If this is so, however, the driving idea, the polar star of the idea of dialogue of civilizations should be a comprehensive and politically realistic idea(l) of peace. Here I can only suggest a few lines of thought to shed light on this comprehensive and realistic idea(l) of peace which I think should be central to any future model of world order.

A realistic idea(l) of peace points to the need for creatively accommodating into a broader normative vision the realities of interests and power represented, in this case, by the condition of multipolarity. But more importantly, the ideal of peace needs also to be comprehensive. Contrary to an abstract emphasis on legal engineering of the cosmopolitan ‘legal pacifism’ and the ethnocentric and problematic emphasis by the so-called ‘democratic peace theory’ on the liberal-democratic model as conditio sine qua non for international peace; a comprehensive re-conceptualisation of peace should explore the mutually constitutive and reinforcing relationships, at various concrete levels, among peace, justice and reconciliation, as the visionary words of John Paul II, ‘there is no Peace without Justice and no Justice without Reconciliation’ suggest and the remarkable concrete experience of the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ in South Africa proved. It is my view that such a comprehensive re-conceptualisation might effectively inform real-world bottom-up initiatives of conflict-resolution, prevention and post-conflict reconstruction and may indeed have greater chances of politically realistic success that the top-down abstract approach of proceduralism and liberal rule of law.

Wasn’t this sort of realistic peace the very aspiration, which drove Robert Schuman (and Jean Monnet) to imagine the European integration project? In these words of the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950, which I want to quote at length as they are self-explanatory, is the paradigmatic example of a search for a realistic peace whose topicality is today absolute:

World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers, which threaten it… Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements, which first create a de facto solidarity. The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany. Any action taken must in the first place concern these two countries…. It proposes that Franco-German production of coal and steel as a whole be placed under a common High Authority, within the framework of an organization open to the participation of the other countries of Europe.

Today, dialogue of civilizations is at the very heart of such creative effort to secure the future of world peace. My argument is that an alternative model of world order inspired by dialogue of civilizations can indeed have multipolarity as its spatial/geopolitical orientation but under the condition that a global active politics of dialogue of civilizations flourishes as a way to mitigate the risk of a ‘culturalist enclosure’ in this former model and to dialogically inscribe plurality at its centre. Concretely, this neo-regionalist, multipolar and cross-cultural model of greater spaces would be different from the Huntingtonian model of multipolar multicivilizational order as: (1) it is not shaped by civilizational-culturalist lines but by a dialogical multiculturalism; (2) its conflicts and disputes are neutralised by a commitment to a comprehensive ideal of peace; (3) it is committed to a widespread process of ‘inter-civilizational mutual understanding’ at multiple levels.

As I said at the beginning of my presentation, there is no blueprint for the construction of a multicultural and peaceful world order; but as Robert Schuman’s actions and words proved, we need realistic visions as “World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers, which threaten it”. The political articulation of the idea of dialogue of civilizations that I have sketched here – multipolar spatiality, multiculturally constituted regionalism and realistic peaceful ethos – is offered here in the hope that it might contribute to a more peaceful and just future to come. Thank you.