Dialogue of Civilizations to Foster Cross-Cultural Understanding

Vladimir Yakunin

Lecture of the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” Founding President Vladimir Yakunin drafted for the interactive thematic debate on Fostering Cross-Cultural Understanding for Building Peaceful and Inclusive Societies at the United Nations Headquarters held on March 22, 2012

The lecture touches on the basic principles upon which the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” relies in its work toward achieving consistent and peaceful intercultural interaction among different nation-states and societies.

Today’s multipolar world has largely been shaped in the context of two basic theories: the clash of civilizations and the dialogue of civilizations. Moreover we can see that the financial and economic crisis was caused primarily by a crisis of a certain social type of organization and of the liberal model of economic growth; this crisis, in turn, has triggered global transformations in all areas of civilization, society, and mankind. In our view, it is the optics and tool chest of the dialogue of civilizations, as they have been created and developed over the past ten years, that make it possible to diagnose inclusive societies correctly together, and to chart pathways in possible scenarios for their development.

The events of the past 25-30 years have yet to be thoroughly analyzed, but even now it is absolutely clear that the world as a whole has entered a new and enormous sociopolitical and economic transformation. Several conferences of the World Public Forum – Dialogue of Civilizations have reached this conclusion.

The fundamental impulse and the often extraordinary efforts of those who initiated the creation of a global world that would have a new economy and new politics, and would see the world community organized in a new democratic form, were motivated by the idea that a speedy transformation of human life in a progressive direction would be possible. Willingly or not, it was left out of account that while the human community may undergo dramatic changes in certain areas, at the same time there exists a whole array of elements, both of spiritual-intellectual and of material life, which remain unchanged for long periods of time, for millennia. Thus we may talk in terms of the permanent underpinnings of historical processes or, to put it another way, civilizational constants that cannot be ignored if we wish to build a more attractive future for world development.

The history of recent decades has involved hard and often brutal clashes in various parts of the globe. These clashes occurred because the human community has a greater number of firm foundations than is generally assumed. A part of this unyielding groundwork consists in certain civilizational values, without attention to which it is inconceivable to create a happy image of the future and just governance within the world community.

Ethnic conflicts on our planet intensified during the 20th century, and this process has continued into the 21st century. Let me give some examples from just one region of the world: Africa. Africa has over 50 ethnic groups and as many as 3000 tribes. During the past 40 years the continent has experienced 18 full-scale civil wars, which were largely ethnic conflicts. Around 10 million people have died in these wars. The exploitation of nationalism by various political and economic forces, in order to secure power and redistribute property, plays a huge role in escalating ethnic conflicts. Therefore, despite the availability of conflict-resolution strategies, it is evident that there will be a further growth of ethnic conflicts in the near future.

Under these conditions, the peaceful interaction of various ethnic cultures has become a vital necessity. Building a peaceful and inclusive human society, in which the voice of every ethnic group and confession would be heard, is the fundamental objective of the new, civilizational approach to statecraft, about which I shall speak today.

1. The civilizational approach to history has existed for a century and a half, yet the study of history generally continues to adhere to the linear paradigm, inherited by Hegel and Marx from the period of the Enlightenment. Civilization, according to that paradigm, is understood as a limiting concept, which denotes humanity as a whole in its historical development, and is synonymous with the concept of "culture." There is, however, another treatment of civilization, one that is more acceptable in the civilizational paradigm. Here, civilization is conceived of as the totality of independent forms of historical development, which have arisen in a particular national-territorial area. In this sense, we speak of Greek, Roman, Chinese, Indian, Russian, and other civilizations. This is the understanding of civilization that is most needed today, in order to analyze the special features of what we call the multipolar contemporary world.

2. In the late 20th century, leading political scientists viewed the 21st century as a time when the basic paradigm of the world order would be changed, with the main vectors of international relations shifting toward conflict and a clash of civilizations.

Samuel Huntington, in his book The Clash of Civilizations, describes a system of civilizational relations on the basis of strategic premises formulated by representatives of the West's traditional culture. In this book we encounter the notion that the primary characteristics of a civilization are ethno-confessional identity and association with a certain territory.

Huntington also writes about certain necessary characteristics of civilization as a certain “cultural commonality” which representatives of a civilization share, and which comprises language, history, religion, and customs. One of the essential characteristics of participation in a given civilization is that each individual person understands what civilization he belongs to. That is, Huntington’s definition of civilizations is inseparable from questions of individual personal identity.

Huntington’s civilizational schema closely links geographical location with belonging to a civilization, thus defining the boundaries of contemporary civilizations. The main conflicts, according to Huntington, take place along these borders, along the so-called “fault lines between civilizations"(1). In his view, the main “fault line” in the world today is “the interaction of Western power and culture with the power and culture of non-Western civilizations”(2).  At the same time, however, he acknowledges that in the global “‘real clash,’ between Civilization and barbarism, the world’s great civilizations, with their rich accomplishments in religion, art, literature, philosophy, science, technology, morality, and compassion, will also hang together or hang separately”(3).

Peter Katzenstein, a leading scholar of civilizations, has noted that The Clash of Civilizations "became arguably the most influential book published on international relations since the end of the Cold War”(4). While acknowledging the author’s scholarly brilliance, Katzenstein notes the shortcomings of Huntington’s work. For Huntington, “civilizations are coherent, consensual, invariant, and equipped with a state-like capacity to act.” Katzenstein identifies two contradictions in the book, in this connection: first of all, that “numerous analyses have established beyond any reasonable doubt that clashes occur primarily within rather than between civilizations.” Secondly, the notion of a conflict between civilizations is “implausible in light of the conspicuous failure of its second main claim. Since the end of the Cold War, the relations between Sinic and American civilizations have been summarized best by terms such as encounter or engagement rather than clash.” It would be difficult not to agree with that observation, as well as with Katzenstein’s idea that “plural and pluralist civilizations represent what many have called ‘multiple modernities,’ that activate different cultural programs under new conditions. The emergence, for example, of Judaeo-Christian and Afro-Islamic patterns of identity and practice in world politics points to the combinatorial richness of civilizational politics. Common preconceptions shared alike by conservatives and liberals in both West and East are thus seriously misguided. Rather than helping us build a better, more diverse world in which all civilizations can teach and all can learn in a common context, these preconceptions risk building a world of fear and walls, in which civilizations are reduced to delivering monologues of the one right way. In denying the pluralism and plurality of civilizational politics, we help bring about the very conditions that make us forget to celebrate and cherish the heterogeneity of the world’s civilizational heritage and the richly rewarding encounters and engagements it yields”(5).

As we entered the new century, President Mohammad Khatami of Iran stated the need for developing a new project, which would compete with and counteract the ideologies of mistrust, animosity, and confrontation between civilizations. This initiative for a dialogue, as mutual understanding and cooperation among civilizations in practice, was supposed by the UN General Assembly, the 53rd session of which proclaimed 2001 the Year of the Dialogue among Civilizations. President Khatami proposed that this dialogue “discuss the historical and philosophical aspects of the problem, and explore the metaphorical and literal meanings of the concept of ‘dialogue’ and what great thinkers have thought and said about it"(6). Khatami talked about the fundamental principles that should underlie this dialogue: equality and mutual respect among the parties involved, to be expressed in readiness to "listen to" each other, mutual tolerance and good will. In his view, a genuine dialogue is incompatible with such concepts as “influence” or “cultural domination": “No civilization has the right to appropriate as its own the achievements of another civilization, nor to deny that any civilization participates in the history of common human civilization”(7).

Thus the project of a dialogue among civilizations emerged not as an antagonist of the theory of a “clash of civilizations,” although it was proposed in polemics with the latter, but as a constructive model for creating a new paradigm in international relations, aiming to achieve such goals as "overcoming the tragic state of today's world," freeing humanity from wars, violence, and exploitation, opposing moral degradation, and meeting the challenges of environmental catastrophes.

3. In recent speeches Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, and David Cameron, the heads of major European nations, have drawn attention to what they see as the obvious failure of the European doctrine of multiculturalism. The main reason for this unexpected consolidated position was their recognition that political means and government regulation are not achieving the kind of acceptable sociocultural harmony that would justify Europe’s migration policy.

On October 16, 2010 German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that multiculturalism policies had failed: “The concept that we are building a multicultural society, living side-by-side and are happy about each other, this concept has utterly failed”(8). On February 5, 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the failure of the government policy of multiculturalism, calling on his European partners to “wake up to what’s happening within their borders"(9). On February 11, 2011, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France also spoke out on this area of policy: “Yes, it is a failure. The truth is that in all our democratic societies we are too concerned about the identity of the immigrants, and not enough with the identity of those who receive them"(10).

What is the reason for such unanimity? Under the doctrine of common European democratism, it was thought that one could simultaneously be a European and share, for example, Islamic values, i.e., one person could be imbued with the spirit of two civilizations. And that this might supposedly be achieved exclusively by legislative measures. It became clear, however, that the interpenetration of ethnic cultures and civilizations cannot be brought about either by laws and the institutional arbiters of values from various cultures, or on a compulsory basis, enforced by government institutions.

Furthermore, British Prime Minister Cameron went on to state that his country needed stronger national self-identification, in order to prevent people from turning to extremism. He drew public attention to the inflexible position of Islamic extremist groups. Cameron indicated that Islamic groups that receive public funds but do little to combat extremism should come under closer official scrutiny. It was apparent that their access to public funding should be limited, and they should be banned from distributing their tracts to university students and prison inmates. “We need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism,” was the prime minister’s brusque statement (11).

“Let’s properly judge these organizations: do they believe in universal human rights, including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration, or separatism? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask. Fail these tests and the presumption should be not to engage with organizations,” said Cameron (12).

Even as they criticize the shortcomings of the multiculturalism policy in this way, neither Cameron nor Merkel abandon their liberal hope, that the representatives of different cultures and religions will still be able to live together in the future without giving up their identity and national characteristics. The EU leaders have made clear, however, that national peculiarities must not spill over into radical protests against the state. Thus the British and German leaders are trying to invent a magic formula that would allow social consolidation to coexist peacefully with cultural diversity. It is a far from consoling conclusion: the consensus is that tolerance alone will not work, and that liberalism needs to be “muscular,” as Cameron put it.

The world community and processes of international interaction by no means thrive through some kind of fusion or “mixing” of culture into something "national in form and international in content." Least helpful for the development of the world community is politically “coercive understanding and respect" – crudely put, an enforced notion of the interchangeability and substitutability of cultures and civilizations to suit political interests or certain doctrinal ambitions. B.S. Yerasov, a Russian scholar specializing in civilizational issues, has written very precisely about the absurdity of carrying out civilizing activity by force under the flag of democracy and liberal economics. “How much simpler are constructs that assert the possibility of ‘changing civilizations’ and ‘becoming a normal society.’ How many societies, in history or the world today, would pass this psychiatric test? And what does it take to “change civilizations” “extremely rapidly"(13)?!

4. The coherence of world civilization and the potential for integration, quite the contrary, presume that a variety of cultures and civilizations will be preserved. First of all, each civilization must preserve its identity in the furiously changing contemporary world and make its contribution to the common treasure house (otherwise, the world “common” becomes meaningless). Secondly, preserving any identity currently means creating a certain civilizational infrastructure for interaction and dialogue, which exerts an organizing and ordering influence on the civilizations which are interacting.

As B.S. Yerasov wrote: “It is not the clash of civilizations that threatens world relations, but precisely the weakening of civilizational principles, encouraged by the West, which asserts that it’s system takes priority. This leads to the destruction … of civilizational regulators”(14).

The degree of disparity among models of a decent existence in today’s world, which is undergoing a crisis stemming from simplistic, approaches based on economics, is just as high as in the first years after the destruction of the system of political confrontation. In a certain sense, from 1917 until the end of the 1980s there was a dipolar bloc arrangement in which nation-states, like molecules in chaotic motion, were partially oriented under the influence of a field. Precisely this was the cause of the polarization; in other words, it fairly gently defined the model of international behavior. Then, almost instantaneously, most of the players in international relations were forced to begin to orient their own independent projects of development to comply more strictly with the tough laws of the world market economy. Some succeeded in this kind of self-sacrifice, and some were unable to. The outbreak of the systemic of the liberal economic foundations of this world system has placed on the agenda the question of long-term strategies to guarantee the preservation of statehood, freedom, and the very survival of the entire system of inter-state and interpersonal relations which took shape over the millennia. It seems to me that projects with a civilizational grounding have the greatest potential to reach consensus through dialogue, regarding the basis of a more stable and just world order.

Indeed, the time is coming to supplement our public forum with a community of people working to develop the practical aspects of various models of dialogue. The criterion for assessing these models should be not only the widely accepted scientific and humanistic authority of the specialists involved, but also the historical and cultural acceptability of such models.

One consequences of the contemporary world’s geopolitical problems is the rise of processes through which the cultural domain becomes more archaic and barbaric. Society itself, first and foremost, is subject to becoming archaic through a process of simplification and decline in the degree of complexity of its basic formative agencies, taking place in the context of a growing role for simple, primary types of social relations, primarily ethnic relations. The core of barbarization is a process through which peripheral peoples and areas of habitation, which lose their connection with the advanced centers of civilization. Both at the outset and in the last years of the 20th century, these processes of increasing archaic patterns and barbarism had several dimensions: “the political, through the reestablishment of authoritarian or semi-despotic regimes; the social, through the continued propagation and strengthening of local caste and clan structures; and the civilizational, through the destruction of the common spiritual and institutional bases for the integration of a diverse population, and the strengthening of ethnical separatism"(15).

It appears that the deeper roots of today’s condition of the world order, which is close to chaos, lie in the initially paradoxical-seeming interconnection and mutual influence of two, opposite ideological matrices, which maintained the 20th-century world in a bipolar, tense state of equilibrium. This meant balancing on the brink of conflict, through which the two competing systems nonetheless managed to avoid fatal clashes. The positive side of that balancing act cum competition cum opposition, skillfully regulated by both sides, was several decades of peace, and scientific-technological and sociopolitical progress that had excellent results (conquering space, the disarmament program, the WMD non-proliferation policy, etc.). Another necessary element of this two-pole world order was the so-called Third World, which received a real opportunity for modernization and was able to assert its interests after many centuries of colonial subjugation. The interests of the majority of such countries and peoples, however, had practically no protection under the conditions of unipolar globalization.

The world cannot stay poised indefinitely in a state of strained equilibrium, fraught with the danger of tensions and conflicts. The world needs a future of greater certainty and predictability, as well as the foundations for long-term relations based not only on pragmatic interests, but also on profound spiritual aspirations.

The disintegration of the bipolar system, connected with the collapse of one of the political systems, predictably led to an unstable situation for the opposing ideological matrix, which had lost its source of opposing concepts.

The destruction of the world order built by the two competing systems essentially shifted all the world community's problems into the transit zone of intercivilizational relations. Within this “space,” everything acquires specifically involutional and regressive valuation characteristics for civilizational identity, which is expressed in the emergence of archaic slogans and appeals to combat “axes of evil," "Islamic fundamentalism," the Iranian nuclear threat, the suppression of democracy in Russia, and so forth.

We are now witnessing the destruction of the illusions of the unipolar world before our very eyes. In this situation it is important for us to understand that a transition to the new realities of a multipolar world does not happen by itself: when the illusions are destroyed, the desire to preserve unipolar influence in the world remains.

It seems to us that a way out of the dead end of the collapsing “ideology of globalism,” in addition to preserving the real content of the integrative processes of world development, is to be found, above all, in recognizing the primacy of international law in a polycentric (multipolar) world. The problem of the form in which this will occur can be resolved in dialogue. But it is absolutely obvious that its foundation must finally include recognition of the uniqueness and the special historical and cultural features of various civilizational images of the world.

Mutual understanding among peoples in the humanitarian and public realms is becoming particularly important today. We are experiencing the completion of the epoch of spontaneous globalization. One outcome of this epoch is the emerging belief that doubt has been cast on the existence of some absolute, universal forms of humanistic values.

If we speak about the concept of “democracy,” we see a general tendency to the formation of democratic regimes that do not much resemble, for example, the ones in North America. If we speak about human rights, it is worth listening to the opinion that the institution of a formal set of civil rights and freedoms at the national level should serve to promote implementation of the conception of the dignity of the human individual that is proper to the civilization involved. In any events, human rights should not suppress or contradict the conception of human dignity on which a given civilization is based and which constitutes its human essence.

These different versions, however, do not in my view mean that the world is entering a period of values relativism. It only means that the world is entering a time of true civilizational diversity. And we ought to recognize this and learn to live in this reality.

In conclusion I would like to read two quotations:

“The United Nations itself was created in the belief that dialogue can triumph over discord, that diversity is a universal virtue, and that the peoples of the world are far more united by common fate than they are divided by their separate identities,” said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, one of the initiators of the dialogue of civilizations, in 2001. “What that history should teach us also is that alongside an infinite diversity of cultures there does exist one global civilization, based on shared values of tolerance and freedom. It is a civilization that must be defined by its tolerance of dissent, its celebration of cultural diversity, its insistence on fundamental, universal human rights, and its belief in the right of people everywhere to have a say in how they are governed. It is a civilization based on the belief that the diversity of human cultures is something to be celebrated, not feared. Indeed, many wars stem from people’s fear of those who are different from themselves. And only through dialogue can such fears be overcome”(16).

“The standard of international law is not the homogenization of social and economic relations, but the creation of a framework for the existence of multiple social and political experiments. We now that a number of economic and social experiments have been politically discredited or outlawed in the past. We need to create a new order that precisely defines this multiplicity,” said Alfred Gusenbauer, the former Federal Chancellor of Austria, in his speech to the World Political Forum on September 9, 2010 (17).

In our view, only a broad public movement will be capable of making practical progress toward the objective of broadening the domain of dialogue and transforming it into an effective international process.



1. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations. (Cited from Russian edition, Moscow: AST, 2003, p. 15

2. Ibid., p. 23

3. Ibid., p. 532

4. Katzenstein P., Why the Clash of Civilization is Wrong: Experiences from East to West // Lecture at the 8th Annual Session of the World Public Forum – Dialogue of Civilizations, Rhodes (Greece), October 8, 2010

5. Ibid.

6. M. Khatami, Speech to the annual conference of UNESCO, Paris, October 29, 1999, “Dialogue among Civilizations: a Pathway to Mutual Understanding” // (Cited from a Russian edition of President Khatami’s speeches) – http://iran.ru/rus/knigakhatami.php

7. M. Khatami, Speech at the University of Florence, Italy, March 8, 1999, “The Soul of the East and the Reason of the West are Concentrated in Man” // (Cited from a Russian edition of President Khatami’s speeches) –  http://iran.ru/rus/knigakhatami.php

8. http://www.svobodanews.ru/content/article/2193880.html

9. http://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/uk/2011/02/110205_cameron_multiculturalism_failed.shtml

10. http://www.rian.ru/world/20110211/333034181.html

11. http://www.bbc.co.uk/russian/uk/2011/02/110205_cameron_multiculturalism_failed.shtml

12. http://www.pravda.ru/world/europe/european/08-02-2011/1065918-england-0/

13. B.S. Yerasov (Erasov), “Rossiya v Yevraziyskom prostranstve” (“Russia within the Space of Eurasia”) in Obshchestvennye nauki i sovremennost (Social Sciences and Modern Times), 1994, #2, p. 58

14. B.S. Yerasov (Erasov), Dukhovnye osnovy i dinamika rossiyskoy tsivilizatsii (The Spiritual Foundations and Dynamics of Russian Civilization) // Speech at the independent theoretical seminar on Sociocultural Methodology in the Analysis of Russian Society, Moscow, December 11, 1996

15. Ibid.

16. http://www.un.org/russian/dialogue/sgstat.htm

17. http://2010.gpf-yaroslavl.ru/layout/set/print/sections/new_challenges/Al-fred-Guzenbauer-Stremlenie-k-gomogenizacii-nikogda-ne-prinosilo-udachi

Huntington’s civilizational schema closely links geographical location with belonging to a civilization, thus defining the boundaries of contemporary civilizations. The main conflicts, according to Huntington, take place along these borders, along the so-called “fault lines between civilizations."[1] In his view, the main “fault line” in the world today is “the interaction of Western power and culture with the power and culture of non-Western civilizations.”[2] At the same time, however, he acknowledges that in the global “‘real clash,’ between Civilization and barbarism, the world’s great civilizations, with their rich accomplishments in religion, art, literature, philosophy, science, technology, morality, and compassion, will also hang together or hang separately.”[3]

[1] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations. (Cited from Russian edition, Moscow: AST, 2003, p. 15.

[2] Ibid., p. 23.

[3] Ibid., p. 532.