My latest piece for DIPLOMAT looks at some rather, er, basic issues. Namely the idea of civilisation(s). As raised by President Trump in his speech in Warsaw:
President Trump’s speech helpfully gave a long list of Western values and practices:
The world has never known anything like our community of nations. We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honour God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression. (Applause.)
We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives.
And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves. (Applause.)
And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.
That is who we are.
To which one might add other broad principles. Checks and balances. Democracy. Some separation of Church and State. A sense of fair play. Free markets. Limited state power. Consent of the governed. And so on.
Yes, it’s easy to spot manifold examples of any of these principles either being subject to all sorts of pesky qualifications, or not being upheld in practice. But there’s no denying that in themselves and as a bloc of profound ideas they represent something colossal and astonishingly productive.
It’s also not difficult to spot civilisations and beliefs that disagree with some or all of those principles as principles. For example, hundreds of millions of people in the ‘Muslim world’, the ‘African world’ and the ‘Russian world’ each might offer a different list of things that they think civilisation should mean in theory and practice.
This in part is why the ambitious UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are such a hotch-potch of contradictory ideas. Any UN resolution that wins the support of every state on earth must make messy compromises between radically diverging civilisational ideas of what’s important – and what matters
For example? Do people really disagree on such things for deep reasons of civilisational principle?
Zhang Lihua blithely explains loyalty in terms that would be furiously denounced if a Western leader used this language:
Loyalty stresses service to the motherland. It is an emotion and a value that evolves from blood ties … in cases of foreign invasion citizens should exert all efforts to protect their country as they would protect their own homes.
Blood ties! Purity! Good grief! The idea that our personal and cultural identity – maybe our very civilisation – are in part innate and might be ‘diluted’ by the presence in our midst of people with different blood?
That is surely some sort of anti-scientific racism.
Does that mean that a billion or so Chinese people are in fact racist if they believe in Chinese ‘blood ties’? Or does racism apply only to ‘white’ people who are not therefore allowed to defend their countries?
The legal rules are usually clear enough: a migrant moving from country X into country Y has to accept country Y’s rules: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. But what if within the space offered by those rules separate and very different community values start to apply?
What if enough Greeks or Corinthians or even pesky Gauls get to Rome and blithely start to do as the Greek/Corinthians/Gauls do, whether the Romans like it or not? They have their RIGHTS, you know.
Back to President Trump in Poland:
Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield — it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls … I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.
Hmm. Never ever is a long time. As we know from history, ‘civilisations’ come and go. Greek and Roman civilisations; Aztec and Inca civilisations. All gone. And what does President Trump mean when he proclaims that Western values will ‘prevail’, nay ‘triumph’? If Western civilisation is winning, are other civilisations losing?
That said, what if most Poles want to keep Poland ‘Polish’, just as most Chinese people might want to keep China ‘Chinese’? Do ‘Polish civilisation’ or ‘Japanese civilisation’ count for nothing?
*Waits for a clear sensible answer*