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Cultures of We?

The author is opposed to the one-sided stranglehold of the West, no matter how well-intentioned. Instead, Europe could develop a narrative that recognises cultural differences between societies and leads to new political structures, beliefs and values.

Over the past years, there seem to have been two competing narratives. On the one hand, the world is more closely connected than it has ever been. Economies are more closely knit together, and information travels across the world instantaneously. Many of the traditional measures of prosperity appear to be improving, and technology is viewed as the great panacea.

Yet on the other hand, the world sometimes appears to be tearing itself apart, as cultural and national divisions become much more prominent and a new era of asymmetric warfare driven by age-old prejudices and resentments — and also enabled by technological advances — seems to be on the march. This has been especially marked in the West, which has both been the driver of our modern economic structure and now, perhaps, the place where we see one of the largest reactions against it.

In trying to make sense of this and bring forth global co-operation, comforting narratives and slogans are sought. One of these is that the world should develop a ‘culture of we’. I don’t like the idea of a ‘culture of we’. Such a culture assumes that the best outcome for human society is for everyone to believe the same things, live in the same kinds of societies, and consume the same things.

Excusing Bad Behaviour

But it is important to note that those who push the most for such a universal culture tend to be Western or influenced by Western ideas. Their universal society is based on what they are most comfortable with — a Western society, with a Western-style democracy, a Western-style economy and Western-style values. It is often idealised, so that bad behaviour by Western governments, both in the past and today, can be excused away

When the values being spread are non-Western, the conversation is suddenly viewed quite differently. When the Chinese point of view is expressed in the Western media, or at international conferences, or through Chinese-funded think tanks, the arguments within it have been dismissed as ‘propaganda’.

The Confucius Institute, China’s attempt to encourage study of Chinese cultural values, has been portrayed as a state-funded effort to spread soft power. President Xi Jinping’s efforts to formulate and define a different model of Chinese governance were dismissed in the European media, which instead chose to criticise China for how it had failed to emulate liberal ideals.

It is certainly accurate to describe these efforts as state-funded and state-driven. But instead those terms are used to avoid engaging with the arguments being made.

Abstract image: blurred shadow with pink color stroke from left to right.
It can be difficult to argue against the ‘we’ narrative, because the alternative is often portrayed as ‘us vs. them’, photo: Jr Korpa via unsplash

China is not arguing ‘properly’, therefore its arguments are dismissed, while Western governments are allowed to do the same. In truth, many do not want to face up to the fact that Beijing can now make its case on an equal basis with Western countries. China may be the first, but it certainly won’t be the last.

It can be difficult to argue against the ‘we’ narrative, because the alternative is often portrayed as ‘us vs. them’: a world where cultural differences prevent us from coming together to solve the world’s problems, where the strong are able to oppress the weak, and a world that is not able to provide a safe and secure life for ordinary people. At its most extreme, a world without universal values is argued to be a world without peace.

The End of History

The difference between a ‘culture of we’ and ‘us vs. them’ connects to one of the central debates since the end of the Cold War. The ‘culture of we’ is Francis Fukuyama’s End of History. For Fukuyama, the fall of the Soviet Union meant the end of the only competitor to Western liberal democracy. Thus, all countries and governments would eventually become ‘Western’: there would be no other alternative.

The narrative of ‘us vs. them’, in contrast, is Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations. For Huntington, humanity is irrevocably separated into different civilisational blocs. Societies would clash not on the basis of universal ideologies, but on cultural values, which were too fundamental for there to be any compromise. As the world globalised and contact between different peoples increased, these cultural divisions would become more obvious, and spark tensions and conflict between societies.

Those who push the most for such a universal culture tend to be Western or influenced by Western ideas

These works were written in the Nineties in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, and were written from a Western perspective. Thus, neither of these schools of thought have held up well in light of recent events. Clearly, the rise of China and its alternate model for economic development and governance challenges the idea that Western liberal democracy is the only game in town. Even Fukuyama has changed his tune, growing disappointed with his own school of thought during the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq.

Es ist klar, dass der Aufstieg Chinas und seines alternativen Modells von wirtschaftlicher Entwicklung und Regierungsführung die Vorstellung infrage stellt, die westliche liberale Demokratie sei die einzig mögliche Variante. Selbst Fukuyama hat eine andere Tonart angeschlagen und zeigte sich im Vorfeld des amerikanischen Einmarsches im Irak zunehmend enttäuscht von seiner eigenen Theorie.

The problem with the clash of civilisations argument is different. It is true that one could apply the model to today’s world. But then the problem becomes self-fulfilling. If countries believe that compromise with other cultures is impossible, they will not try to work with them, creating the tension and conflict predicted by Huntington.

A Healthy Respect for Differences

We need something in between the universal values of the ‘culture of we’ and the constant reality of the conflict of ‘us vs. them’. We need a narrative that recognises the cultural differences between societies, that will lead to different political structures, different beliefs and different values. But these differences should not make peace and cooperation impossible. A healthy respect for differences — and choosing not to impose one’s values on another — may in fact open the space for forward momentum on global issues. No side will believe cooperation is a Trojan horse for cultural change.

The idea of a ‘culture of we’ has its roots in a liberal narrative of globalisation, where everything was meant to become like the West or, more specifically, like the United States and the United Kingdom. This wasn’t just held in the West: many in the developing world were perfectly happy to be subservient to Western ideas.

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A healthy respect for differences may open the spacefor forward momentum on global issues, illustration: mymind via unsplash

Technocrats ended up as leaders of many developing countries: a person that was Western-educated, perhaps with experience working for a Western multinational or bank, who promises to implement the ‘right’ economic policies as defined by Western economists and institutions. These arguments would trump even popular sentiment, as support services and protections by the government are removed in order for the country to more cleanly fit the Western model.

This narrative worked so long as Western countries were the world’s most wealthy, powerful and respected. But the rise of the rest has challenged the prime position of Western countries and institutions. This has unnerved Western populations, who were used to considering themselves at the top of the heap. These populations have now turned against the elite schools of thought that pushed for liberalisation and globalisation, and populist politicians have capitalised on the fear created by the rise of the rest.

A Tough Pill to Swallow

Admitting that you’re no longer number one is admittedly a tough pill to swallow. At least in Europe, there may be some acceptance of this on the intellectual level (which is more than one can say about the United States). But one can understand why an ordinary population, after years of being told about the superiority of their country and its values, suddenly finds itself challenged by the rest.

The rise of the rest means that we should treat the idea that different regions have different experiences, and thus approach the world from different places, much more seriously. For example, Europe’s greatest fear is the return of interstate warfare on the continent. The rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, followed by authoritarianism and fascism in the twentieth century, led to several devastating wars and conflicts.

Even after the Second World War, Europe was always on the precipice of another world war, due to the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Thus, one can understand why Europe values the European Union, democracy and liberalism so highly, as it sees them as the best way to prevent conflict in Europe.

About the Author
Portrait of Chandran Nair
Chandran Nair
Founder of The Global Institute for Tomorrow

Chandran Nair founded the Global Institute for Tomorrow, an independent think tank in Hong Kong, which he heads as Managing Director. He is, among others, a member of the of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council for Sustainability and Environment, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Nair advocates for a radical reform of the current economic model and strict limits on consumption.

A selection of books: 

  • Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post-Western World. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Oakland, CA 2022
  • The Sustainable State: The Future of Government, Economy, and Society. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Oakland, CA 2018
  • The Other Hundred Entrepreneurs: 100 Faces, Places, Stories. Oneworld, London 2015
  • Consumptionomics: Asia's role in reshaping capitalism and saving the planet. Infinite Ideas, Oxford 2010