The One Belt, One Road initiative could enhance material prosperity across the world. But without engaging the shared spiritual resources of the diverse communities it encompasses, its full potential will not be realised.
The spiritual foundations of humanity, as Karl Jaspers explains in his famous book, The Origin and Goal of History, were laid out simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece from the 8th Century BC to the 3rd Century BC, a period Jaspers called the Axial Age.
Since this time, the history of humanity has been replete with both crisis and liberation. Each generation has had its own way of achieving ‘progress’; its own way of dealing with the difficulties and questions facing humanity, from the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, to the advent of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.
The great pity is that although humanity has made progress in terms of technological and medical advances, we are repeatedly caught up in wars, economic crises, and famine. The widening gap between the global rich and poor is symptomatic of humanity’s ongoing challenges.
The problems of a globalised world
Hannah Arendt once asked whether it was man or the world which was in jeopardy. The answer is surely both! It should be obvious that humanity and the world are inextricably linked, but this innate connection has been lost in conventional conceptions of modernity.
At a macro-level, globalisation has made encounters across regions and cultures unavoidable. However, at a micro-level, what makes mass society difficult to live with is the fact the world has lost its ability to bring people together.
This fundamentally existential condition necessitates authentic dialogue through which we can identify problems, root causes, and solutions. We need alternative social, political, and economic models which connect different cultures to one another and reconnect humanity to the biosphere.
OBOR, Dialogue of Civilisations, and the search for solutions
The development of new models depends on the influence of broader schools of thought. This is particularly true for economic paradigms. Neither Adam Smith’s economic philosophy in 18th Century Scotland nor the set of neoliberal policies implemented globally in the latter 20th Century could have emerged without the presence of wider currents of liberal thought from to which they belonged.
In order to develop the new economic models humanity so desperately needs, we need to develop a new macro-theoretical framework.
The Dialogue of Civilisations framework is one such school of thought.
The Dialogue concept was first popularised on the global stage on 9 November 2001, by Iranian leader Mohammad Khatami. UNESCO Member States consequently adopted the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and the UN General Assembly presented its Global Agenda for Dialogue among Civilisations.
However, new concepts require institutional platforms in order to be expressed, developed, and implemented.
The Dialogue of Civilisations framework is still a concept without a platform. The One Belt, One Road (OBOR initiative could fulfil this need.
OBOR needs a theoretical framework through which it can be established. The Dialogue concept and OBOR could be the perfect match, not simply coexisting but serving to realise one another’s potential.
The chief reason behind OBOR’s popularity is its promise of economic prosperity. This is undoubtedly valid, but we should hope for more besides material gains.
Economics, trade, infrastructure, policy, and culture are the major building blocks of the OBOR initiative. But the biggest challenge for OBOR is not the financing of the major investments required across its six economic corridors, but rather the question of how to empower people and communities to develop the flourishing multiple modernities which together would constitute a global community of a common destiny, cultivating a new humanity.
Optimising culture and economic development
Ideally, economics should enhance cultural development, while culture boosts economic development, forming a positive cycle of sustainable development.
Diverging from other theorists like Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim, in his famous thesis, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber employed a cultural perspective to explore the reason capitalism could only have developed in a Western country.
I believe culture and values are the essential drivers behind economic development.
However, not all values act as a backbone for inclusive and sustainable development. Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington’s Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress revealed to me just how differently people – even ‘experts’ – can interpret the meaning of things like culture and human values.
We all agree that values have shaped human progress but deeper inquiry is needed into which values are best able to contribute to truly sustainable and inclusive progress. As Max Weber argued, ever since the Enlightenment instrumental values have failed to achieve human progress, being short-sighted and fragmented, and therefore naturally ill-equipped for the pursuit of sustainable and holistic development.
Humanity urgently needs true values which are generated from our innate ethical origins! Such values are non-instrumental and eternal. They are not specific to particular cultural or religious contexts but can be found as common threads among humanity’s various cultures, religions, and traditions.
In searching for these truly humane values, we will discover rich inter-civilisational spiritual resources through dialogue.
Multiple modernities and a new humanity
The goal of both the Dialogue of Civilisations framework and the OBOR initiative should be to encourage new multiple modernities within a global community of common destiny, cultivating a new humanity.
The numerous civilisations along the Silk Road route illustrate the need to respect cultural values and norms, which obviously vary greatly.
The predominant neoliberal paradigm looks at culture pessimistically, as a divisive force. We need to move away from this concept. While we must be cognizant of potential challenges, cultural difference should be viewed as an opportunity to achieve economic progress in a sustainable and holistic way.
The recognition that different cultural and civilisational traditions should be able to develop their own paths of modernity opens up the possibility of developing multiple new economic models, in contrast to the universalising singularity of neoliberalism.
Within OBOR, an appreciation of the initiative’s normative and subjective dimensions could mean the enhanced cross-border connections it provokes result in the recognition of ‚civilisational identities‘. Together, these can be integrated within a broader transnational community, a collection of communities of common destiny.
From the first Axial Age to a new era
A Dialogue of Civilisations approach can be a visionary means towards uncovering the root causes of contemporary crises and finding solutions. This is the mission of our time.
Given the danger of a clash of civilisations, the promotion of inter-civilisational dialogue is an urgent task for us all. What is possible through the OBOR initiative is a cultivation of humanity that will benefit the whole world.
Looking back to Karl Jaspers’ formulation of the Axial Age, a renewed sense of our shared humanity could lead us into a new axial age. This demands collective effort, leveraging our shared spiritual resources for sake of sustainable and inclusive development.
This article formed the basis of a speech at the Crans Montana annual forum’s panel, The Silk Road Cooperation and its potential for the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East.