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 Shaping cultural globalization

Europe as a Mediator in the Dialogue of Civilizations

Europe as a Geo-cultural player?

by Jean Tardif

A lecture presented at the European Forum, Alpbach Political Symposium,
29 August 2007. Print this text (.pdf)

Mankind, as language, exists only in the plural (Paul Ricoeur)

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 Europe.

  • 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 body.
  • 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 dimensions.

    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 cultural globalization.

    1- First, we need to understand the relations between culture, identity and globalization.

    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 non-European media.

    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 former situation.

    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 declarations.

    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 ago?…

    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 other.

    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 reciprocity.

    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.

    To go further :
    TARDIF, Jean et FARCHY, Joëlle : Les enjeux de la mondialisation culturelle. Hors Commerce, Paris, 2006.

    Discuss this topic on the FORUM »

    « Back to Theme 5 : Shaping cultural globalization

    Notes :

    1.- Brice Pedroletti : « À Riyad, Hu Jintao a fait progresser la ‘diplomatie du pétrole’ chinoise », Le Monde, édition du 25 avril 2006. (back)

    2.- Pierre Hassner, Conclusion du volume Justifier la guerre ? De l’humanisme au contre-terrorisme, Les Presses de Science po, 2005, p. 357. (back)

    3.- Samuel Huntington defines a civilization as “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have … It is defined by both common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people” . He sees the world divided into 8 such major cultural groups (Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and African). (David Held : 7 polities. A.Toynbee, Study of History (1934-1961: 27 civilizations in the world history). (back)

    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 (Ulrich Beck, Martin Shaw) that is also a cultural nationalism makes it difficult to understand realities without reference to Nation-State. And to imagine politics otherwise than the state’s affair. (back)

    5.- “In Praise of Cultural Imperialism?”, Foreign Policy, Summer 1997. (back)

    6.- “Washington’s crusade for free trade is often seen as a Trojan horse for companies, such as Walt Disney Co. and Cable News Network that would dominate foreign lifestyles and values. Most Americans react to these fears with a shrug. That’s a big mistake”, Jeffrey Garten, former Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, Business Week, November 30, 1998. (back)


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