[Viewpoint] Reinventing our civilization

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[Viewpoint] Reinventing our civilization

An essay by American political scientist Samuel Huntington published in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1993 under the title of “The Clash of Civilizations” gave a refreshing perspective on the possible world order in the new millennium and the conflicts that could be anticipated.

The article, which was later expanded into a book, argued that the conflicts that could serve as tipping points in world history or jeopardize global peace - unlike the Cold War, which was a simpler conflict between the Capitalist West and the Communist bloc - would be among civilizations - Western, Islamic, Hindu or Asian - due to profound incompatibilities among the cultures.

His clear-cut logic gained cachet after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and, at the same time, was criticized for legitimizing American military interventions in the Middle East over the last two decades.

From the 17th century to the early 20th century, the world was a battlefield for Western empires trying to expand their reach. The period from 1917 to the end of the Cold War in the 1990s served as a transitional phase before the fight for dominance stretched beyond the Western world.

Huntington predicted that the contemporary world would inevitably witness a head-on clash between Western civilization (with its individualism based on Christian morality, pluralism and democracy) and the Islamic world (where the Muslim faith and scriptures are more powerful than the interests of nations and individuals).

New York Times columnist David Brooks in an article on March 3 argued that Huntington has erred in lumping all Arab people together, and doubted his premise that Muslim lands are inhospitable to democracy, pluralism and openness, as proven in the recent revolutionary movements sweeping through Arab societies.

When Huntington advised Western nations to keep their distance from Muslim affairs because of the inevitable clash with Islamic notions, he committed what Brooks called the Fundamental Attribution Error.

The people of the Arab world, as everywhere else, are a multitude of authentic individual beings harboring universal aspirations for human dignity and liberty. Human aspirations, whether triggered by political repression that is no longer feared or technology and communication tools that allow freer expression, can be transcendent and diverse. They are not linear and totally predictable according to the times, circumstances and cultural foundation.

We need not join the debate on the theory of a clash of civilizations, but we should be aware of our own civilization’s character and its ability to meet the challenges and risks of a changing global order.

The world long ago shifted away from U.S. dominance and has turned multilateral in all aspects in the realms of politics, military matters and economics.

It has now become imperative for all global members to change their civilization identities in accordance with the new needs and risks of a changing world.

The founders of this nation aspired to join the global mainstream to make up for the humiliation of colonization brought about by feeble monarchical rule. For the last century, this country has galloped nonstop and won global admiration for its modernization and democratization.

As we confront an historical turning point, we must contemplate solemnly and deeply to decide the direction of our future journey. We have already reached a broad consensus to preserve our traditional values and culture while contributing positively to world peace and prosperity.

But our aspirations may not be that simple in the new global context. We still have a long way to go to realize the goal of creating a regional bloc among the East Asian powers of Korea, China and Japan, which share Confucian values and traditions.

Huntington categorized Japan as a semi-Western civilization. Japan, which prides itself on being a member of the Group of Seven, won’t easily jump ship into the smaller Asian group. It’s also uncertain whether China can control its historical aspirations for regional hegemony for the greater good of the region and the world.

For ourselves, we would have to refine our vision of a single East Asian community with our 60-year-old alliance with the United States. That will require a reinvention of our culture and identity, our civilization, to prevent tensions in our neighborhood and among our allies.

*The writer is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAngIlbo.

By Lee Hong-koo
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