Beyond the Clash of Civilizations: A Pluralistic Universalism Between Cosmopolitanism and Communitarianism

August 10, 2017

Schwarzman Scholars worked together to create an academic journal, reflecting their ability to think critically about the Middle Kingdom and the implications of its rise. These collections of thoughts come together to form “Xinmin Pinglun,” our Journal dedicated to the publication of the informative and analytical essays of our scholars. As the application deadline for the class of 2019 is approaching and the arrival of the incoming class is on its way, we are sharing pieces from Ximin Pinglun to give insight into the critical thinking and scholarship taking place at Schwarzman College. Here, Claus Kao-Chu Soong, (Class of 2017) shares his insights on the intersection of cosmopolitans and communitarians. 

What is the ideal global order in the era of globalization? What should be the rationale or moral basis guiding us to understand world politics? After the end of Cold War, it seems that Western liberal ideology, with its focus on democracy, human rights, and free markets, became the universal standard that should be applied to every country. As international society has become more diverse and the power structure has shifted from a uni-polar to multi-polar world, the assumption that Western liberalism would serve as a universal model became questioned. Yet, if universalism does not have the consent of the global governed it lacks the legitimacy necessary to be globally applicable.

The recent rise of right wing populism in traditionally democratic countries demonstrates the backlash against globalization and shows inequality as a significant factor that challenges the liberal world order. However, economic inequality in Western societies is not the whole story. The political inequality of non-Western countries in the politics is another marker that universalism fails to represent the diverse world. The cosmopolitan view, one world under one single normative system, cannot find common ground among different countries and civilizations. Therefore, the content of universalism in the contemporary day needs to be reconsidered.

The international normative debates on world order have been split into two camps: the cosmopolitans and communitarians. Cosmopolitans insist that there should be a universally applicable form of justice based upon individualism and human rights, two notions common to liberalism. On the other hand, communitarians refute this singular form of justice with the argument that justice should be plural and limited to the boundary of community.

“The content of universalism in the contemporary world needs to be reconsidered.”

If cultural relativism has failed to justify itself as a moral basis for global political norms, what should be the main theoretical basis for the formation of a just global order? Should nation states, communities, or individuals be the ultimate concern in the construction of global justice principles? I believe that a cooperative world order must learn how to incorporate the diverse traditions of political thoughts from around the world.

The cultural relativism behind the clash of civilization

The core argument of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” hypothesis is the potential for identity wars between civilizations driven by either cultural or religious differences. As such, he recommends that the West, composed of North American and West European countries, should reconcile with Russia and ally with Latin civilization to defend itself from the challenge of a potential Islamic-Confucian nexus. Huntington’s view and his advice imply that the purpose of politics is to distinguish friend from enemy, and strangers from non-strangers.

The assumption behind Huntington’s understanding of a world composed of various civilizations is that there is no pursuit of ideal values, but only powers and self-preservation. But is it true that different civilizations are unable to find a common ground among each other to prevent conflicts, especially under the influence of globalization?

Huntington argues that the more interactions there are between people of different civilizations, the more civilizational consciousness will be intensified. Regional organizations like the EU and ASEAN help create common identities, but also perhaps make more clear the differences that remain. Globally, common challenges necessitate a global governance arrangement that respects different political approaches to those problems.

Cosmopolitan and world tyranny

According to Thomas Pogge, cosmopolitans generally affirm three principles: individuality, universality, and generality. Individuality recognizes the worth of individuals, rather than family lines, tribes, or communities; universalism considers every living human being as equally entitled to this ultimate concern regardless of the subsets such as race, religion, or community; generality emphasizes the obligation of ultimate concern has a global forces for all human beings.

Simon Caney further summarizes that cosmopolitanism illustrates the existence of obligations binding all human beings, which is generally regarded as the core tenet of cosmopolitanism. He further asserts that this creates a sphere allowing everyone to be entitled to a set of universal human rights that transcends the ideals of nationality, citizenship, or other divisions. This provides the moral basis for a universal system of human rights and the legal system to enforce said universal human rights.

John Rawls refutes the possibility of global application of liberal principles in his book, Law of People. Rawls denies the application of his domestic justice theories on a global level due to the fact that he thinks liberals act intolerantly when imposing their egalitarian ideas globally. This is because Rawls feels such an approach fails to allow self-determination for peoples who did not personally choose liberalism as their governing ideology. Sharia laws, Amish religious practices, Jewish Sabbath traditions, and Confucian values in politics might be proper examples to describe that self-determination can led to many systems, rather than just the secularism and individuality of liberalism.

Under cosmopolitanism, the focus of global justice is on individuals. This focus on individuals invites questions about the future of the primacy of nation states. Is the nation state – a congregation of groups of people within the territory of a specific border – the obstacle or the core component of realizing the utopia of global justice sketched out by cosmopolitans? It is questionable that the contemporary Westphalian system can achieve equality for all human beings. When considering the development of nation states and the ideals of self-determination in the post-colonial era, cosmopolitanism – both moral and institutional – cannot stand completely neutral and erase all the differences that create inequality.

Would a global government do any better? Rao Rahul argues that “replacing self-governance by good governance, institutional cosmopolitanism demonstrates the possibility leading the global government to elitism, imperialism, and world tyranny.” Rao’s concern is reasonable from the perspective of the history of colonialism and the consequential development of inequality from globalization.

Class, race, and religion as the sources of universalism

Socialist internationalism in the former Soviet Union presents a precedent for realizing cosmopolitanism. However, as Alejandro Colás states, the cosmopolitan movements of socialism can hardly be neutral from the consideration of nationalism and state interests. Marxist cosmopolitanism as class solidarity in reaction to a worldwide experience of class exploitation, and that social class transcends other sources of identity to become the single factor that can bind the world together.

However, it is hard to distinguish whether exporting revolution represented belief in class solidarity or furthered the national interests of Soviet Russia. This question also reflects on whether the liberal desire to develop a theory of justice intended to apply globally might be the opposite of socialist internationalism. Nation states still play a critical role in the universalization of the theories of both socialist internationalism and liberal cosmopolitanism. However, as seen from previous Soviet practices, when the agent promoting revolution involves its own interests, cosmopolitanism can no longer be separate from nationalism.

Cosmopolitanism that views the formation of the modern world through the eyes of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery, such as in the Francophone Caribbean, might be an alternative source of understanding. Francophone Caribbean thought scrutinizes the transformation of slavery and colonialism into global racial hierarchies, which in turn denied the development of self-identity in many places outside of Europe. However, this thought also asserts that the lack of development also triggered the Creolization of the modern Caribbean identity.

Edouard Glissant proposes a Theory of Relation, which maintains a situation of equality and respect between the other and the self. This theory has no hierarchy and attempts to not impose any universal values, but rather respects the particularity of communities instead of assuming all formerly colonized regions are the same. The significance of Glissant’s Theory of Relation is that it recognizes the unchangeable social attachments of individuals and stress mutual respect amongst peoples from different cultural backgrounds.

Finally, religion plays an important role in non-western cosmopolitanism, given its importance to the self-identity of so many. Islam is a particularly illustrative example. Unlike the development of nation states and nationalism that are the products of de-colonialization through secular thinking, a caliphate is the Islam global political order with pan-Muslim influence in the practice of history. While the ideal of a caliphate might be appealing to Islamic fundamentalists to support jihadist movements, this does not erase the roots in Islam of the original imagination of caliphate as a form of cosmopolitanism. A re-imagined caliphate might be trivial, but when its support base increases and more Muslims become fundamentalist, the caliphate form of cosmopolitanism might no longer just have a small effect but could rather profoundly influence the modern global order.

Plural universalism in the contemporary world

In order for justice to have broader coverage that includes all peoples of the globe, cosmopolitanism should not isolate itself from existing communities when aiming to formulate universal justice. Without considering the existing communities and recognizing the significance of these communities and their contributions to the current global order, cosmopolitanism might become a new form of imperialism that features the domination of elitism, imperialism, and world tyranny through liberalism. Taking references from existing communities on forming a cosmopolitanism view of justice, it is not shifting to moral relativism but rather attempting to tolerate and include the differences within various cultures. By using tolerance, cosmopolitanism can avoid the flaws of forcibly imposing values on certain peoples. Finally, it is also important to note the linkage between community and individuals, as individuals are inherently the product of the communities from which they originated. As such, without respecting the right to self-determination of all individuals, regardless if they are liberal or not, there cannot be true equality among communities.

“Is the nation state the obstacle or the core component of realizing the utopia of global justice?”

Although this article mainly focuses on bringing critiques to the existing liberal cosmopolitanism as the moral basis for universalism, the discussion above might provide few guidelines for states as prerequisites for fulling the spirit of universalism that can represent universally. By finding balances between the individual-based cosmopolitanism and communitarianism, certain features are required to be maintained in both domestic and international society. First, is the necessity of respecting cultural diversity within the world. Respecting diversity means the equality of cultures and there should not be certain cultures or civilizations are more superior or some are inferior.

Secondly, by recognizing diversity, it is also important to understand that justice is a human constructed concept rooted in historical and cultural particularism in each society. This is not to say that different societies are entitled to brutal practice, but to emphasize the need of the concept of society in a global scale. When imagining the world as a society, universalism needs to envision that its rules and ideas are not only universally applicable, but also evolved and generated from the global society it represented.

Thirdly, one must prohibit practices that degrade the dignity of individual. Here comes the question that what kind of practices should be prohibited and what should be tolerate. Some clear examples that should not be tolerated might be slavery, discrimination, and torture. The meaning of dignity might have different meanings based upon different circumstances, but the rationale is that it provides every individual the basic chance to survive with making meaningful choice. Female genital mutilation, for instance, clearly demands worldwide condemnation as this practice imposes irretrievable damage, physically and psychologically, to individuals that impede them to pursue self-determination.

The conflict between collective and individual interest vexes all societies and is a source of conflict between them. Cosmopolitanism can address these conflicts between the liberal universal principle and local custom or traditions might be empowering the local communities to have the ability to change, to inspire the people in those communities, and most importantly, respect their  choice.

Claus Kao-Chu Soong (Class of 2017) is from Taiwan, and graduated from National Chengchi University.