In 1991, Los Angeles police beat a black man named Rodney King. This sparked the riots of 1992 in which 53 people died. King uttered words often repeated: “Can we all get along?” In the geopolitical arena, it doesn’t seem likely. The cause often lies in differences among civilizations and cultures.
Wait, you say. All people are essentially the same. That must go for nations and cultures, too. The historian Francis Fukuyama might once have agreed. In The End of History and the Last Man (1992), he proposed that the Soviet Union’s collapse ended competition between political-economic philosophies. Democratic capitalism won. The rest of history would only involve all countries adapting to it.
Samuel P. Huntington disagreed. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) predicted hostilities among major civilizations. These included the West, Orthodox Eastern Europe, East Asia and the Muslim world. These civilizations uphold differing political, religious, cultural and economic norms, and would struggle with each other regionally or globally. Many academics and commentators faulted Huntington—foolishly.
Granted, all human beings may pursue the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualization, esteem, social relations, safety and physiological wellbeing. And many people in a world grown smaller have much in common. But cultural views, particularly among “leaders,” often differ markedly about the meaning of those needs and their associated values.
Alexander Lukin, Vice President of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offers insight. In the July/August 2014 FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Lukin explains “What the Kremlin is Thinking.” The United States, he posits, hasn’t a clue. Lukin writes: “If one believes that the meaning of human existence is to gain more political freedoms and acquire material wealth, then Western society is moving forward. But if one thinks, as a traditional Christian does, that Christ’s coming was humanity’s most important development, then material wealth looks far less important… Religious traditionalists see euthanasia, homosexuality, and other practices that the New Testament repeatedly condemns as representing not progress but a regression to pagan times. Viewed through this lens, Western society is more than imperfect; it is the very center of sin.”
Russia and the West share affection for luxury autos, expensive clothes, pro hockey and basketball, and high-priced restaurants. But Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin see the world differently. Moreover, from Moscow’s viewpoint, writes Lukin, the West may be seen not simply as different but as evil.
Does this throw light on the Islamist State’s attempted genocide against Yazidis and forced conversion of Christians? Or the depredations of Nigeria’s Boko Haram jihadis against Christians? Or why, after almost fifteen centuries, Muslim Sunnis and Shiites continue to slaughter each other?
And is Hamas exaggerating when it says it wants to destroy Israel and kill all Jews? Might the Gaza-Israel clash involve more than geopolitics and thus not be amenable to making peace? And might Israel (and the West) and Hamas (and Islamists) define peace differently?
If only we could all get along. But even that phrase may differ in meaning among cultures. Being a person of good faith offers no guarantee of good faith from others who see the world through a markedly different cultural lens.
Let’s hope. Let’s pray. But above all, let’s be honest with ourselves.
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