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Event Report: Peter Katzenstein on Civilizations in World Politics

On February 2, eminent international relations scholar Peter Katzenstein (of Cornell University) spoke to an overflowing CIPS audience on the theme “Beyond the West: Civilizations in World Politics”. Having edited three volumes on world civilizations and international politics, Katzenstein began by noting that this project’s raison d’être is epitomized by his undergraduate IR students’ ongoing partiality to Samuel Huntington’s thesis of a ‘clash of civilizations’. The category of East/West civilizational divides, he finds, is a deeply-embedded part of our ‘mental map’ that Huntington exploited to gain traction for an account of post-Cold War global clashes. It is also, Katzenstein noted, a paradigm embraced in today’s China, whose president, Hu Jintao, proclaims a view of civilizations as clashing, combative and centred on unchanging core values.

In Katzenstein’s account, the Huntington/Hu view is half-right: there do exist plural civilizations that cannot be reduced to the single ‘universal’ civilization embraced by cosmopolitan liberalism. That view is wrong, however, in seeing civilizations as monolithic and unchanging; instead, they are internally diverse and evolving. In short, our world is one of plural and pluralist civilizations.

Watch the video of this event.

Defining civilizations not as nations or actors but as ‘contexts of greater or lesser familiarity’, Katzenstein described them as akin to town hall meetings, in which a range of options for action are debated. Within them are a multiplicity of actors, traditions and processes. Because of this internal pluralism, there can be different outcomes of encounters between civilizations: violent clash, cultural imperialism, trans-civilizational engagement and—most dominantly in today’s world—hybridization.

The bulk of Katzenstein’s talk explored his third (soon to be published) volume on world civilizations, Anglo-America and its Discontents: Civilizational Identities Beyond West and East. To the question “What is Anglo-America?”, he answers that many Wests exist, which have evolved through different eras. Post-1945, the West is a community of complex sovereignties, shared diplomatic cultures, and special relations. During the past 300 years, the entire world has become more Anglo-American through market forces, imperialism and ‘cultural insinuation’.

Katzenstein singled out Islam and Anglo-Americanism as two civilizations as exemplary of ‘polymorphic globalism’ in their capacity to ‘bridge’ across widely different contexts. While the former spreads ‘horizontally’ across geographic locales, the latter establishes ‘vertical’ ideational and praxis connections within the civilization of modernity. Anglo-Americanism, Katzenstein argued, spreads by spurring individual and collective imaginations with ideas such as the New World, human rights, science and technology, and pop culture industries.

The upshot of seeing civilizations as plural and pluralist, Katzenstein contended, is a demanding picture of ‘polymorphic globalism’. On one hand, pace liberalism, the plurality of civilizations means there can be no legitimate imperialism that would seek, for instance, to impose a single standard of good governance world-wide. On the other side, though, there also can be no relativism that accepts any and all political practices as equally legitimate. Ideas of human rights and well-being are now so pervasive as to set parameters on the range of arrangements that can count as good governance.

The need to grapple with the complexity and indeterminacy of these present-day realities, Katzenstein concluded, is why he embraces a ‘baroque’ rather than a ‘gothic’ orientation to the analysis of world civilizations in all their diversity.

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