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The Perils of the Cosmopolitan Dream

9 MINS READAug 17, 2016 | 08:00 GMT
Urbanization and the potential for a clash of civilizations
Commuters pass through Grand Central Terminal during morning rush hour in New York City, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.
(MARIO TAMA/Getty Images)

In a New York Times column published on July 1, David Brooks argued that American politics is undergoing a fundamental realignment. The old left/right spectrum is less relevant to current reality than the split between open and closed: "Trump's only hope," Brooks asserts, "is to change the debate from size of government to open/closed. His only hope is to cast his opponents as the right-left establishment that supports open borders, free trade, cosmopolitan culture and global intervention."

One month later in its July 30 edition, The Economist published a piece under the title, "The New Political Divide: Farewell, left versus right. The contest that matters now is open against closed," that made a very similar argument:

"The conventions highlighted a new political faultline: not between left and right, but between open and closed. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, summed up one side of this divide with his usual pithiness. 'Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,' he declared. His anti-trade tirades were echoed by the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party."

The Economist then went on to cite similar dynamics in Hungary, Poland, France and, of course, the United Kingdom: "Populist, authoritarian European parties of the right or left now enjoy nearly twice as much support as they did in 2000, and are in government or in a ruling coalition in nine countries. So far, Britain's decision to leave the European Union has been the anti-globalists' biggest prize."

Both in Trump's following in the United States and in the rise of populism in Europe, we are witnessing a profound challenge to the cosmopolitan dream, the dream that the peoples of the world can put aside their differences and live together peacefully in a multicultural society. We are seeing the friction that results when tribal identity gets challenged by the leveling effects of globalization.

The cosmopolitan dream draws sustenance from a view of the world that is rational and universal, like science and mathematics. The tribal reality is particularistic, not universal, and it is less rational than emotional. It values on a visceral level what is close, and is suspicious of what is far away. We cosmopolitans, and I count myself and most who subscribe to these pages as cosmopolitans, are at risk of failing to appreciate the emotional appeal of home and hearth. Is it not natural from an evolutionary, biological perspective, to feel more attached to one's family than to those one neither sees nor touches? None of us has ancestors who didn't protect their own. The uncared for go quickly extinct. Perhaps we cosmopolitans need to look beneath hasty attributions of "bigotry" and "xenophobia," not to defend them, but to understand their roots.

Pushback Against Globalization

The rapid advance of globalization via travel, trade and ever more ubiquitous technologies of communication has felt in recent decades like a juggernaut trend — as inevitable and unstoppable as advances in technology. But recently we've experienced a countertrend: resistances in forms such as the Brexit and the other closures listed by The Economist, to say nothing of Trump's literal call for a wall. What is this reversal all about?

To understand the breadth and depth of anti-globalist devolution, one can do worse than go back to Samuel Huntington's 1993 essay in Foreign Affairs, and its expansion in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. I know: I took issue with his thesis in a previous column, where I argued, "more important than the clashes among the great civilizations, there is a clash within each of the great civilizations. This is the clash between those who have 'made it' (in a sense yet to be defined) and those who have been 'left behind' — a phrase that is rich with ironic resonance."

Many of Huntington's critics misunderstand his main argument: He does not predict a clash. Rather, he is offering a different set of lenses through which to make sense of world affairs.

I don't want to take it all back. I stand by my thesis. But I see it more as a family quarrel with Huntington than as an attempt to refute his larger thesis, namely, that a civilizational paradigm does a better job of explaining our current world than does the Cold War, Westphalian nation-state paradigm that preceded it. I was not about to deny the usefulness of looking at the world as divided among great civilizations. I was pointing to intra-civilizational fissures in that picture that were different from the inter-civilizational clashes Huntington featured.

Many of Huntington's critics — and they line up in a 2013 20th anniversary issue of Foreign Affairs — misunderstand Huntington's main argument. He does not predict a clash, though, as I argued in that earlier article, recent events from the Charlie Hebdo massacre to the rise of the Islamic State make him look pretty prescient. Rather, he is offering a different set of lenses through which to make sense of world affairs. Instead of an ideological spectrum, from right to left, or capitalist to communist, he offers a civilizational perspective that slices the world into nine great civilizations: Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist and Japanese.

Of course, the edges of these civilizations blur. Their lines are not as sharp as the borders that bound nation-states. But their differences are as recognizable as the differences among the religions at the hearts of their different cultures. And the resurgence of religions around the world during the second half of the 20th century, which he chronicles with quantitative evidence in a section titled "La Revanche de Dieu," may strike the modern Western mind as irrational or regressive. But that is just the point: We Western modernists don't get as well as we might what makes the rest of the world tick.

Rather than viewing "the rest" as proving the reality of human freedom by making up the human game as they go along in ways that are different from the way we in the West do, we're too inclined to think of the West as better, as more civilized — a belief that relies on the idea of linear, universalistic, secular progress from the less civilized to the more civilized, rather than a pluralistic understanding of multiple civilizations. And given our economic success, our standard of living, our life expectancy, our science and technology, it's no wonder that we do.

The cosmopolitan dream draws sustenance from a view of the world that is rational and universal, like science and mathematics. The tribal reality is particularistic, not universal, and it is less rational than emotional

But we do so at our peril. Our universalism tempts us to arrogance and to interventions in the affairs of other civilizations that cause trouble, including the mess in the Middle East. One of Huntington's main messages toward the end of his book reads:

"[C]ultural and civilizational diversity challenges the Western and particularly American belief in the universal relevance of Western culture. . . In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous."

Huntington's Critics

Reading Huntington's critics in light of recent events is enlightening. In a 2013 article titled "Twenty Years after Huntington's 'Clash of Civilisations,'" Jeffrey Haynes writes:

"Many have addressed his claims of global cultural conflict between the 'Christian West' and the 'Islamic fundamentalists' by a counter-argument: 9/11 was not the start of a clash of civilisations but rather the last gasp of transnational Islamist radicalism. (It remains to be seen if the unfolding events in Mali and Algeria are the start of a new phase.)"

Alas, by no fault of his own in 2013, Haynes was utterly innocent of the imminent rise of the Islamic State.

In a 2011 column largely devoted to Huntington's work, David Brooks writes:

"But it seems clear that many people in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty. They feel the presence of universal human rights and feel insulted when they are not accorded them.

Culture is important, but underneath cultural differences there are these universal aspirations for dignity, for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people."

But is this not so much a refutation as a simple restatement of the Western universalism that Huntington finds to be false, immoral and dangerous?

In one respect, however, I side with some of the critics. In my last column, after some lengthy quotes from some of my colleagues in this space, I wrote, "We seem to share a sense for the deeply sedimented layering of the human condition. We see geopolitics since the First Reformation as sandwiched between a religious layer going back many millenniums, and an economic layer that assumes prominence with the rise of the Industrial Revolution." While I have an abiding respect for Huntington's sensitivity to the interface between politics and religion, I'm less impressed with his handling of the interface between politics and economics.

In a passage that supports the argument of that last column, Fouad Ajami makes the point perfectly:

"And where is the Confucian world Huntington speaks of? In the busy and booming lands of the Pacific Rim, so much of politics and ideology has been sublimated into finance that the nations of East Asia have turned into veritable workshops. The civilization of Cathay is dead; the Indonesian archipelago is deaf to the call of the religious radicals in Tehran as it tries to catch up with Malaysia and Singapore. A different wind blows in the lands of the Pacific. In that world economics, not politics, is in command."

The question remains, however: Even as a strictly political analysis of global affairs needs to be supplemented by a sensitivity to abiding cultural and religious devotions, so, too, the spread of the global marketplace may not satisfy those emotional needs. Deeply held values and beliefs are not for sale.

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