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A world not for a few, but for all


In the past few years, there has been much debate about the present and future world order. This is not just because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but also due to long-term shifts in the world order that were evident before the pandemic.

A critical issue in this debate is the role of culture and identity in shaping the relationship between the West and the Rest. As the West's relative power has declined, there has emerged a great deal of talk about a "clash of civilizations" and the rise of "civilization states" that are culturally exclusive, such as China, India and Turkey.

Yet, history provides numerous examples of peaceful coexistence and mutual learning among civilizations, which any discussion of a future world order must take into consideration.

History offers four key lessons in this regard.

First, no civilization has a monopoly on wisdom. Much of the technology, politics, philosophy and the economics behind the contemporary world order have multiple and diverse origins that overlap.

The civilizations of Sumer, Egypt, China, Islam, India, Africa and the pre-Columbian civilizations of North and South America developed ideas and institutions, the same as ancient Greece and Rome and modern Europe did.

Second, civilizations do not clash but learn from each other and borrow from each other. History provides numerous examples of this.

For example, the ancient Greeks borrowed many aspects of their civilization from the Sumerians, Egyptians and Phoenicians. And Islam served both as an original source and a transmission belt of ideas and innovations in science, philosophy, art and medicine, between the classical world and early modern Europe, fueling the European Renaissance and the rise of the West.

Third, no civilization can advance without learning from others.

We should not see the West as the only provider of good ideas and innovations and the Rest as "downloading" these ideas, as the historian Niall Ferguson claims. The Rest is also "uploading" many ideas and innovations in development, security and ecology for the benefit of the West.

Fourth, there are numerous examples of peaceful interactions and goodwill among different civilizations.

Let me give an example, which is well-known to the Chinese people. This is a poem by Japanese Prince Nagaya from the Nara period (later 7th and early 8th century). It goes like this: "Mountains and rivers on foreign land, wind and moon under the same sky." It is also translated as "Lands apart, sky shared". There is also a Tang Dynasty (618-907) poem expressing a similar sentiment. The fact that both China and Japan shared similar metaphors of inclusiveness and unity shows how civilizations can show mutual goodwill while learning from each other.

Given this past, should not we be talking less about notions such as the Thucydides Trap and more about the "Confucian Embrace"?

Many media commentators and policymakers put too much emphasis on conflict and war between civilizations and states, too little on learning and cooperation.

We should look to history not to selectively promote examples or ideas about conflict but about coexistence and cooperation, which have been plentiful through all ages.

There is no question that the world order is changing. We are leaving a world dominated by the West for the past 400 years. But we are not entering a multipolar, unipolar, or a bipolar world. We are entering, or have already entered a multiplex world. In this world, no single nation or civilization dominates.

A multiplex world is a multi-civilizational world. It is a world of cultural, ideological and political diversity that provides multiple pathways to modernity.

In this world, the ideologies of individualism, democracy, communitarianism, market capitalism and social capitalism can exist side by side.

In a multiplex world there is no end to history. The only history that is ending is the relatively short history of Western dominance. Instead, there is going to be a return to a multi-cultural world order, which was temporarily obscured by the rise of Western civilization.

The key challenges the world faces are from pandemics, climate change, extremists and criminal groups defying national boundaries. No single nation can solve these problems on its own.

But despite these challenges, the world will remain connected by interactions and exchanges in trade, finance, production, infrastructure, the environment and migration. Can COVID-19 doom globalization? No, but globalization will take a new form. It will be shaped more by non-Western countries such as China.

What is also happening is a greater dispersion of authority and leadership in global cooperation and governance. There will eventually be no G1, G2, G7, or even G20, but rather a "G-Plus" leadership, where governments, traditional great powers, emerging powers, regional powers, international organizations, private actors and civil society networks will all provide leadership and skills to manage common problems, sometimes through competition but also often through cooperation. No nation can dominate or lead in every area, but different nations can lead in different areas.

For example, China is already leading in economic and infrastructure development. The United States, when it is not acting unilaterally, can lead in providing genuine collective security. The European Union has been providing global leadership in combating climate change. Japan has for a long time provided cutting edge technology and substantial development assistance to the world. India contributes in the areas of affordable high quality drugs and vaccines, as well as infrastructure and agriculture, although it can do more. State and non-state actors from around the world already provide creative solutions to the problems of hunger, disease and environmental degradation, both locally and internationally.

The challenge for the global community is to find convergence, which exists, rather than to make divergence and conflict a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The author is a distinguished professor of international relations at the American University in Washington and the author of The End of the American World Order. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn