Our discussion takes place at the end of the political symposium of the Alpbach Forum.
When compared to security, economic, resources or environmental issues, the dialogue of
civilizations might appear a very marginal political question.
Why are we talking again about the dialogue of Civilizations or, as I prefer to say, about
intercultural dialogues? Intercultural dialogues may be a tool but not an aim by themselves.
Why should we care about that if we don’t consider culture as a politically important
matter? It maybe interesting to note that culture seems to matter when cultural differences
become political issues. This is now the case. But we should be very careful not to
confound culture and religion. Intercultural dialogues should not be assimilated or limited
to dialogue between the Western World and the Islamic World: with globalization, every
society is involved.
Three reasons have brought up cultural matters on the political agenda, especially in
First, the important migrations that had a rapid impact on most European countries’
demography during the last fifty years have made cultural differences immediately
sensible. As many immigrant groups have come to constitute communities
numerous enough to ask for recognition of what has been coined as their cultural
rights, national societies started worrying not only about their “assimilation” ability
but even about their capacity to keep the cohesion needed to function as a sociopolitical
Second reason : this evolution of many national scenes has been coupled with
another phenomenon still largely unnoticed even if its huge influence maybe
understood through a simple question: where do models, ideals, values and ways
of living come from nowadays? From family, local society or from the screen? The
effects of these transformations are being experienced at the local level while
forces generating them seem to be nowhere and everywhere without anyone able
to manage them. This may explain the concerns for cultural security as well as the
lost of confidence in politics.
Third reason : 1989 has opened for the market the possibility to expand worldwide.
But a global market does not create a global or unified society. Who can deny the
reality and the political importance of cultural divisions that do not run along nationstates’
borders? Furthermore, following the terrorist attacks on New York and
Washington, many have interpreted 9/11 in the wake of Samuel Huntington’s
famous “Clash of Civilizations”.
Therefore culture might well be not only the hidden dimension of globalization but
its most crucial turning point. This is far from being generally admitted. Many still think
that politics and market should not care about cultural differences. The Convention
adopted by UNESCO on cultural diversity is about protecting the right for States to adopt
their cultural policies: it is not about the cultural dimension of politics.
That is why, among so many possible ways to address intercultural dialogues, often
considered mainly from a national scope, I will try to focus on their political and strategic
Two quotations might help to appreciate the critical importance of cultural factors:
Hu Jintao, president of China, in Riyad, 23 April 2006 :
Differences between Western cultural norms and those of other nations “should not be
used as a pretext for casting false accusations against other countries’ internal affairs or
for criticizing a particular culture, people or religion and stir problems and conflicts around
the world” (1).
Pierre Hassner, french philosopher and politist :
“What happens when we enter in more and more intensive relations with societies and
cultures, groups and individuals with which we feel to have very little in common but
which we cannot escape while being afraid of loosing our own identity in doing so? This
is a source of the current violence and of the reactions that arise from it.” (2).
Can we get away from this reality by some academic denegation or official declaration? Are
we prepared to cope with constantly renewed cultural differences?
Let me summarize what I intend to say:
With globalization emerges a new symbolic ecosystem. The relations between existing
societies and their cultures are being radically changed by the global media. Differences
between the representations of the world and ways of living become widely perceived
and thus acquire a new strategic dimension. Power is closely tied to the ability to
manipulate symbols in the media global and virtual sphere. Rivalries and conflicts are no
longer developing mainly within the framework of a physical territory. Therefore one may
contend that the main challenge raised by globalization is not “How to trade more
together?” But: “How to live together” with resilient cultural differences, not only at the
local or national levels, but also at the extra-national level? This calls for politics to invent
the new ways of living and acting together.
I will develop these ideas in three sets of remarks. Before advancing some ideas on how
Europe could launch initiatives to become a laboratory of intercultural dialogues, I think
important 1) to clarify what we are talking about, and 2) to assess the importance of the
sensitive issues we are talking about. We should see why intercultural dialogues should
take place in the new political processes needed to manage the challenges raised by
1- First, we need to understand the relations between culture, identity and
Even if “dialogue of civilizations” has the plain advantage of offering a conceptual
alternative to the “clash of civilizations”, (3). I will use “intercultural dialogues”, an expression
that should not apply only to intra-national processes as it is the case most of the time.
There is no intercultural dialogue possible without acknowledging the importance of
culture in its social and thus political function. Culture is not reducible to folklore, heritage,
fine arts or audiovisual products.
Culture is the symbolic system that institutes every social group, makes it different from
others while enabling it to interact with them. Human beings are linked by symbols, social
reality is symbolic by nature. Culture, - like language, this cultural element by excellence - ,
is a permanent process through which social relations are built and organized in time.
Culture acts like a membrane that is not a tight barrier but a living organ that defines the
identity of a system, protects it and organizes its outside interaction with tolerance and
rejection thresholds. Culture does not act in a deterministic way, it is a habilitating system.
Culture has a vital relation to identity. Like culture, identity is not a heritage, or a given
status. Both are all about building social relation. A human being acquires his identity as a
social subject through an individual process that takes place in an evolving social context.
Culture and identity are permanent interactive processes operating in the symbolic sphere
as two active poles, culture being the social one and identity the individual one. The
relative strength of each pole varies according to historic and social situations.
Throughout history, these processes have taken place mainly within and between localised
human groups even if there have always been men who travelled and lived far away. With
the development of a globalized media sphere, more and more individuals around the
world find elements of identification that allow them to be recognized as different from
their original social group’s fellows.
Globalization is not only about the worldwide economic integration, it has an important
cultural dimension. Cultural globalization is a complex process characterized by the
multiplication, intensification and acceleration of interactions between societies and their
cultures and not only between states or economies. It brings into constant and intensive
relation and competition models, values, ways of living whose differences become widely
perceived and thus acquire a strategic dimension. Cultural globalization changes the way man sees and inhabits the world. Due to travels, migrations, instantaneous
communication, the adoption of worldwide consumption patterns and habits, and the
penetration of media visions of the world everywhere, the pattern of human geography is
changing. An important part of the relations between societies and their cultures are now
carried on within a new symbolic ecosystem that is generated by the media and that
might be called Hyper Globalizing Culture. It expands as an Empire of seduction that raises
no fear else than to be excluded from this virtual Eldorado accessible by virtue of individual
consumerism. The socializing power of every particular culture is affected by its relation to
this new symbolic ecosystem that obeys the rule of cultural capitalism with the important
structural inequalities in the cultural flows.
One huge result is a new and rapid process of “creative destruction” that generates fears
about cultural security and stimulates demands for cultural protection amid this pervading
and culturally disturbing process that seems to be out of control. Culture has already
become a matter of realpolitik. However, this new cultural realpolitik falls outside the
nation-state political reach, the usual framework of international relations, the logics of
“raison d’État”or the WTO’s free-trade approach. In other words, cultural globalization
obliges to see intercultural relations or dialogues as a central issue for global governance
at least as important as trade regulation, peace-keeping and security or environment: is the
symbolic human ecosystem less important than the physical ecosystem? It opens
opportunities to reinvent politics that could confront effectively such extra-national issues. (4).
To do so, we cannot rely on concepts or formulas adapted to former realities, we have to
think and act differently. No local or national policy can be efficient without taking into
account the global dimension of reality. But it is impossible to understand and to deal with
global issues only with the traditional national tools. Methodological nationalism (U.Beck,
M. Shaw) that is also a cultural nationalism makes it difficult to understand realities without
reference to Nation-State.
In order to cope with geo-political and geo-economic issues, geo-politic and geo-economic
entities have been created following different models suitable to specific realities. Could
geo-cultural issues stimulate the emergence of geo-cultural entities according to the
different cultural situations? This raises the question for Europe :
2- Can Europe act as a geo-cultural entity? Does Europe want to be a geo-cultural player?
The European Union is the most ambitious political project of the last half-century. It has
developed around some strategic concerns like peace, economic resources (coal and
steel) and an area of free trade and exchange. At the information age when power is
increasingly linked to the capacity of manipulating symbols in the media sphere and when
cultural capitalism seems to be the spearhead of the coming economy, does Europe
understand the strategic importance of cultural issues? Can its political project move
forward without assuming its cultural dimension?
Cultural diversity is what distinguishes Europe from other continents. European history
presents some of the most dramatic expressions of cultural interactions as well as some of
the brightest examples of cross-cultural fertilization.
Today, Europeans seem very keen to preserve the multiple ways of being Europeans. The
EU recent enlargement wave has raised crucial questions about the European identity.
What appears to be an identity crisis raised by rapid enlargements perceived as endless
may well be the main challenge to be met if the European political project is to go ahead
without being limited to a free-exchange zone or an intergovernmental organization in
charge of some common problems.
Basically, politics is about how people do want to live and act together. This question has
now to be answered not only at the local or national levels but also at the extra-national
European level. And the answers cannot be only made through bureaucratic or
intergovernmental processes. People want to be involved in decisions that are of such
consequences for their living and their future. They need to have sufficient confidence
towards each other to participate in a common political project through democratic ways
appropriate for this level. Is this the case today?
While Europeans in their many cultural varieties have already travelled a long a impressive
road of cooperation after fighting themselves so vigorously, they still do not know each
other very well. What do Europeans see, listen to and read one from another? There is
much evidence that most Europeans are much more familiar with American movies, music
and papers than with even their close neighbours’ cultural productions. At this point in
time, for example, there are no real European media. What Europeans learn about each
other still thus remains filtered through national eyes and cultures when it is not through
How can this lack of mutual knowledge not hinder significant progress in their common
European project? Confronted with cultural globalization, Europeans should see that the
EU, far from threatening their cultural or national identity, far from being a globalization’s
agent, may offer a larger framework (area) of privileged interactions by making the
different European cultures more and more present to each other, and really interacting
together. In doing so, the EU would help Europeans to take advantage of the
opportunities of cultural globalization instead of just trying to resist or to defend their
Cultural pluralism, clearly stated as a political choice, would give policy expression to the
reality of European cultural diversity that might offer the foundation of the enlarged
European political project. It could be branded “Europe of cultures”. Obviously, it is not
reducible to some European cultural policies. It could develop as a new model that does
not aim at reducing cultural diversity but would, on the contrary, make it the distinctive
character of its common political project. It could be the foundation for renewed
interactions with other geo-cultural entities, beyond today’s generous but too often empty
3- Are they some concrete paths for Europe to engage in genuine and permanent
processes of intercultural dialogues?
If we are not convinced that culture is a central issue, nothing really important will be
done. Maybe are we are on this subject where environmental issues were 30 years
Intercultural dialogues have become a very concrete daily life obligation in most of the
European societies, but it is not only a national affair. They now take place within a new
global human ecosystem whose structuring influence is being felt in every society.
Genuine intercultural dialogues cannot develop without a mutual recognition of the other
as other. This is the starting point for fair exchanges that do not aim plain integration of the
It would be an error to think that everybody considers intercultural dialogue as a fair
exchange action. Everyone is prone to think that the language and behaviours that enabled
him to think and act in the world are the best. Some even support, as David Rotkhopf, that
“The decline of cultural distinctions may be a measure of the progress of
civilization, a tangible sign of enhanced communications and understanding”.[…]
American music, American movies, American television, and American software are
so dominant, so sought after, and so visible that they are now available literally
everywhere on the Earth. They influence the tastes, lives, and aspirations of virtually
every nation.[…].English is linking the world[…]. The United States is in a
position not only to lead in the 21st century as the dominant power of the
Information Age but to do so by breaking down the barriers that divide
nations -and groups within nations- and by building ties that create an ever greater
reservoir of shared interests among an ever larger community of peoples.” (5).
One may understand that this conception of “soft power” can serve “US economic,
political and security interests”. But is it a sound basis for fair intercultural dialogues? It is
easy to imagine negative reactions to such a strategy. (6).
Let us raise just two questions: when more than 85% of movies and TV series on the
European screens come from Hollywood while the Americans see less than 5% of the
cultural productions from the rest of the world, how are they prepared to understand the
world? What is unknown is easily seen as a threat. And, considering the influence of the
media, how can Europeans engage in real dialogues between themselves when they see,
hear and read so little one from another? No political project is possible without
confidence that requires mutual knowledge. And there is no dialogue possible without
The EU’s future as a political project implies new and permanent processes of greater
interactions between the different European societies and cultures. The media should
assume an important responsibility in this necessary effort to build mutual knowledge and
understanding in a globalized world that will not follow a path of uniformity that, at its
limits, could become a totalitarian utopia. What could be done to engage this movement?
1- The central dimension of culture in the EU political project should be officially
recognized and clearly stated. Cultural pluralism should be the clear political answer to
the fact of European ancient and lasting cultural diversity and constitute the foundation of
the EU’s political project.
2- This recognition should carry the elaboration of a regime to promote fair and
privileged cultural exchanges and interactions between European cultures. Such a
regime should be based on the principles of managed overture and reciprocity. Among
the measures: the concrete promotion of the learning of two Europeans languages other
than national language and English; the extension of Culture 2000; the support of the
production and distribution of cultural works expressing diversity… But also measures in
favour of strong European cultural industries.
3- The media should begin to assume their European responsibility. There should be
regular newspaper pages, TV and radio programs that allow European from other countries
to express themselves. And original productions that expresses European diversity.
Formulae of successes like ARTE, Courrier international, Euronews, New Europe etc. should
be developed by the media with the public support
4- 2008 designated as the Year of intercultural dialogue in Europe, could go beyond a
blitz of communication to be the beginning of a regular process : an annual public
event-debate taking place in every European country about broader European cultural
issues. This would allow Europeans to know each other better.
5- In order to act and to be perceived as a laboratory of cultural pluralism, the EU should
initiate a permanent process of public debate about the issues of cultural
globalization and the answers that can be elaborated and about issues that are the daily
concerns of European and global citizens. This might start with the Lisbon Cultural Forum
(Sept. 2007). All cultural stakeholders, artists, cultural industries, media leaders, NGOs,
public officials, experts, should be involved and participate.
6- This public debate process should be also coordinated with similar debates within
other geo-cultural entities (Ibero-America, Francophonie, The Arab World… for example),
using common frameworks and leading to common annual general public debates, again
open to all stakeholders.
7- Much effort is devoted in favour of an international Organization for Environment. If the
symbolic human ecosphere is considered at least as important as the physical ecosystem,
and since culture is not only a State’s affair, a new and original body, not only
intergovernmental but opened to all categories of stakeholders, should be organized to
discuss issues of cultural globalization and supervise the regime for cultural exchanges. It
could be called a Council of the Cultures of the World that could be the emanation of
the different geo-cultural entities’ Councils, among which a Council of European cultures.
In short, to act as a mediator in intercultural dialogue, Europe should recognize culture as
a central dimension of its political project, and decides to institute itself as a geo-cultural
actor. Europe should assume invent an original way of assuming its cultural diversity as a
competitive advantage by devising a model of privileged and fair interactions and
exchanges between European societies and cultures; this model would include strong
European cultural industries. Thus, EU would demonstrate that far from threatening the
national cultures, it can offer an enlarged field for their development and enrichment. This
European model could then inspire relations with other geo-cultural areas to be recognized
as such (Francophonie, Ibero-America, etc.). Intercultural dialogues will not eliminate
conflicts of interests and rivalries but they will help global governance to care not only for
trade but first with the ways men live together.
There have been scores of writings, research, meetings and declarations about cultural
diversity, clash or dialogue of civilizations, intercultural dialogues. If awareness of cultural
issues is developing and gives sometimes birth to some concrete initiatives, experiences of
genuine intercultural dialogues illustrate how difficult and demanding they are.
Globalization brings the cultures of the world in constant and intensive interaction as never
before. Thus ends the era when, from the western perspective, human horizon could be
defined by the Mediterranean area. The coming world will not have a single centre but will
develop in archipelagos where economic, politic and socio-cultural areas will not always
coincide. There is no way to escape this situation.
However, geo-cultural issues are far from being considered as important as geo-economic
or geopolitical ones. Is it possible to think that laisser-faire and politics as usual will
provide adequate answers to these new challenges? European cultural diversity might
represent a strong advantage to start inventing the politics so badly needed to manage
globalization in its multiple dimensions when it becomes evident that global governance
will not be the simple projection of the nation-state government model.