Hans Köchler

World Public Forum "Dialogue of Civilizations"

Interview on the philosophy and politics of dialogue

Recorded at the office of the International Progress Organization in Vienna, Austria

19 February 2014


I.P.O. Online Publications

International Progress Organization, A-1010 Vienna, Kohlmarkt 4, Austria

 © International Progress Organization, 2014. All rights reserved.


The genesis of an idea

I have been teaching philosophy at universities in Europe and Asia for more than forty years, including at Innsbruck University in Austria. In 1972, together with friends from Asia, the Middle East and Europe, I founded the International Progress Organization (I.P.O.), an NGO in consultative status with the United Nations. In that period, in the middle of the so called “cold war” and amidst deep ideological tensions between East and West, our message was that a stable basis for a worldwide order of peace can only be established if one makes an effort at analyzing the other systems and worldviews through a better understanding of the cultural identity that underlies those systems. In order to study the issues we began to establish contacts around the globe. In the spring of 1974, I travelled to more than two-dozen countries on all continents to discuss with intellectuals, diplomats and political leaders what I called, at that time, the “dialogue between different civilizations.” In cooperation with UNESCO, we prepared an international symposium on the issue of cultural identity (“The Cultural Self-comprehension of Nations”). It was especially important for us to get away from the ideological rivalry as it then existed between communism on the one hand and capitalism on the other, and that one should try to reach a common level of understanding between the blocs. In our view, this was not possible on the exclusive basis of political ideologies, but only by way of developing one’s particular cultural identity. It has been my view that cultural self-realization is something that can only be achieved in relation to, and interaction with, other cultures. It cannot evolve in a secluded space. When we began to discuss this idea, as I said, at the beginning of 1970s, this was also the era of decolonization when many countries, particularly in Africa, became independent. For them, cultural identity was also very important in terms of nation-building. In the course of our discussions, I became more and more aware that, for instance, we in Europe, and generally in the Western world, were rather ignorant about other cultures and civilizations. In our classical education, we had been learning about the history of ancient civilizations – and in particular of Greece, but that was the historical and cultural tradition that anyway had shaped our European identity. We did not go beyond the confines of this civilizational framework. In the period of colonization, the European countries in particular had gotten used to export their own worldview and lifestyle. We Westerners had brought our particular way of thinking to many countries on other continents; so, when we did engage in meetings, conversations and exchanges with people on those continents, I felt that these meetings or discussions quite often were a kind of self-encounters – civilizational soliloquia, so to speak – because we did talk with people whose horizon of understanding had already been informed, or whose identity had been shaped, by our own perception of the world. That was the reason why I employed the notions of philosophical hermeneutics to analyze the formation of cultural identity. To describe this process, I used the term “dialectics of cultural self-comprehension.” It means that I only can fully understand myself if I am able to relate to another culture that is not totally dependent on my own. If I am not making this basic step, I will never be able to “define” who I am, and I shall remain on a level of cultural naïveté, which also means that I shall be less prepared to engage in cooperation at the global level. At the time when we spoke about these issues, cultural identity was not yet widely discussed because everyone was preoccupied with the East-West conflict, the threat of nuclear war, or with problems of North-South cooperation and development policies.

21st century: the politics of dialogue

In the meantime, the situation appears to have changed. “Dialogue of civilizations,” the term we used in those early years, has now become a buzzword, so to speak, of international relations. The big challenge, in my view, is how to give a concrete meaning to that term so that one does not remain on the level of generalities. It has been my effort in the framework of the International Progress Organization and later of the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations”, to make clear that dialogue is only meaningful if it is situated in a proper political, social and economic framework. What do I mean by that? For instance, if the aim of myself engaging in dialogue with other cultures is just to have a forum to propagate my worldview or to become a missionary of my way of life, the entire undertaking will lead nowhere, and the dialogue as such would not be credible. Equally, if, for instance, we are engaged in armed confrontation with other countries, we cannot claim to base our political strategy on the principle of dialogue. That is indeed one of the major challenges in this era we are living in, since the end of the cold war. It is a particular challenge also for the United Nations Organization. Let’s just recall that, at the beginning of the new millennium – several months before September 11, the United Nations declared 2001 as the “Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.” A few years later, in 2005, the UN created the “Alliance of Civilizations,” an intergovernmental structure, which by now enjoys the official support of almost 140 countries, that means by a large majority of UN member states. However, what happened since that time (in 2001), when the UN declared “dialogue of civilizations” as one of the main principles of its operation and of international relations in general? The world has witnessed new wars, we have seen the use of force in the name of civilizational values, and we have become aware of strategies to change or reshape the cultural and civilizational identity in specific regions of the world. In view of these developments, it is of utmost importance that one remembers, for instance, the philosophical approach that underlies the original Olympic idea, namely of the Olympic games in ancient Greece. When the nations of Hellas met to compete in the field of sports, it was felt that this kind of competition was only credible and meaningful in a peaceful environment, i.e. if there was no war going on at that time between the competing nations. So, in analogy, I would say, if the UN and UN member states are really convinced that one of the basic principles of the conduct of international relations is the dialogue among civilizations – or, as they now say, an alliance between civilizations, the states should first of all create the conditions for such a dialogue, and they should not engage in the use of force against each other.

The multitude of cultural identities: challenges to co-existence

Of course, another big issue and an enormous challenge at the present time is how people assert their cultural identity at the national level. In different parts of the world, including in Europe, cultural identity has become one of the major issues of domestic electoral politics. For instance, in many European countries the debate is about how to place, or how to assert, the cultural identity of our Christian heritage vis-à-vis other cultural identities that are becoming more and visible due to the socio-economic change triggered by globalization. This process has meant labor migration on a large scale, it is about to bring substantial demographical change in many countries, and in almost all industrialized countries of the West it already has created new “multicultural realities.” Here, I would say, a careful analysis of the principles that underlie cultural identity would be of help in order to get away from an attitude of confrontation or from this perception of an existential threat. At that point, one should also make clear that those who use the notion of “dialogue of civilizations” as a tool in a political legitimation strategy should be aware that the assertion of cultural identity does not necessarily imply that one antagonizes another culture. To relate to another social and cultural life-world is the very condition for shaping one’s own identity, and if this is the case, the presence of other cultures, namely of people with other cultural identities, in our midst cannot be perceived as a threat. This cultural presence is indeed one of the conditions, or an opportunity for us to develop a more mature and richer understanding of our own civilization – through constant interaction with other civilizations. In earlier centuries, we did live apart and the geographic distance meant that we were not under the pressure to decide how to relate to the other. That is not the case anymore. Now, in the era of globalization, even civilizations that are continents apart will have an impact on our daily life if one takes, for instance, the trade relations or the ever-increasing flow of information and communication. In addition to that, labor migration has brought the multicultural reality also to the public eye at the domestic level. That should make us more sensitive about the complexities of conflicts in countries that traditionally are composed in a multicultural and multi-ethnic sense. What is really worrisome nowadays is how the world is dealing with conflict situations that are evolving along cultural lines in the region of the Middle East. The developments in Syria, for instance, have become a test case for the doctrine of the dialogue of civilizations. What we witness is a kind of civil war in that country that has more and more evolved as a confrontation along cultural lines. Distinct religious and ethnic communities find themselves embroiled in an ever more intense struggle, and they are encouraged in their confrontational attitude by support from outside actors, whether those are religiously motivated groups or states. A country, however, can only claim to be a “Friend,” to follow official UN terminology, of the United Nations “Alliance of Civilizations” if it does not further add fuel to the fire by interfering with arms or other means on the side of one of the parties of the dispute. A country is only credible in its professed commitment to dialogue if it undertakes to promote diplomatic negotiations between the different groups and rival factions, but not if it takes sides in a vicious conflict over cultural or religious issues.

Human rights in the dialogical context vs. humanitarian interventionism

The commitment to human rights is another important test of the credibility of those who use the paradigm of dialogue, but one has to be very cautious in one particular respect. Whether we raise issues of civil and political or social and economic rights, we should do so in a way that is compatible with the respect for other cultural and civilizational traditions and identities. It would neither be fair nor credible to conduct a discourse on fundamental rights from a position of cultural supremacy. One has to be prepared to critically reflect one’s own notions of human rights, and one has to acknowledge that there are different cultural traditions and socio-cultural environments where people may interpret general human rights principles in a specific or distinct way. We simply cannot force other people in other cultural environments to live exactly by the standards, which we have set for ourselves in the secular environment of the Western industrialized world. This would not be fair, it would intellectually not be credible, and it would ultimately prove counterproductive because it means that people in other regions of the world will feel that they are being reeducated or, to use a more drastic word, brainwashed by us. That, of course, also relates to the discourse on basic notions of the political system such as democracy. The role of the individual in society and how a person defines himself or herself as a citizen in the state depends also, and substantially so, on the cultural environment. We cannot, just to give a topical example, impose certain Western notions of gender policies on the rest of the world. As far as relations between states are concerned, one should avoid intervening in other countries militarily without a clear humanitarian justification. First of all, one must not intervene just on the basis, so to speak, of ideological issues, namely of how we see democracy or human rights; and every such action must be proportional. That is why I have great suspicions and am very cautious as far as the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” is concerned. The examples so far are not very encouraging. There is the further risk that such interventions may produce “failed states.” (This new term is frequently used in the political circles of the West.) Whatever its other merits, in its actual practice humanitarian intervention is not compatible with the idea of dialogue because it means that countries decide from the outside who the good people are in a particular country. They arrogate to themselves the right to “save” that country according to their understanding of the rule of law and basic human rights. In almost all cases, however, the consequences are quite negative – if we take, for instance, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which somehow was justified with humanitarian motives. These interventions have often caused great suffering among the civilian population and have resulted in the death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people. It certainly makes sense that such uses of force in the name of noble principles should be strictly controlled in the collective framework of the United Nations Organization. Unilateral action by individual states or an alliance of states is always risky. In most cases, it has turned out to be just an action under the pretext of humanitarian motives while in actual fact the driving force is economic interests or considerations of power politics. If we have a closer look at the region of Europe, one will also see that humanitarian interventions have not been able to produce a sustainable order of peaceful coexistence among different population groups, for instance in the Balkans.

The risks of military alliances

Alliances between states can play a constructive role if they are predominantly aimed at intra-regional development. Institutionalized structures of regional cooperation may indeed be an important element in protecting the sovereignty of the member countries so that they do not fall victim to the old-fashioned policy of “divide et impera” (divide and rule). It is certainly true that structures of regional cooperation may be a source, or an element, of political stability in the wider sense. But we also have to be aware of one thing: if we understand by alliance a military structure – such as NATO or its earlier rival organization, the Warsaw Pact, such groupings of states cannot be credible enforcers of the rule of law internationally. I would not leave the enforcement of human rights to a group of countries that are organized under the umbrella of a military alliance. Of course, at the moment there exists only one military alliance with global outreach: NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. During the cold war, there were two such groupings; and what I said before would also have applied to the Warsaw Pact countries. A recent negative example, in my assessment, was how the Western group of states, namely NATO as a military alliance, intervened in Libya in the year 2011. There was a rather vague general authorization by the United Nations Security Council to take measures for the protection of the civilian population, but not to intervene on the ground, and not to interfere into the political process. What has actually happened, however, was that the NATO member countries undertook an air campaign the main goal of which was, as we know by now, régime change. It is undeniable that, as a result of this intervention, the political order of that country has been profoundly destabilized. Under the circumstances, it cannot be taken for granted that Libya can preserve its territorial integrity. What we see is an almost total absence of the rule of law, that a number of territories are ruled by rival tribal leaders, and that the country’s vast space is again being used by fringe terror groups who are out to destabilize the entire region. The international community has had to witness what that means in the recent events in Mali. The devastating consequences of this situation of anarchy, which the NATO intervention has created in Libya, one can now also see in Syria. Many of the most intransigent fighters, with their arms and ammunition, have come from eastern Libya where the government has absolutely no control over these groups. Getting back to the issue of dialogue and peaceful coexistence: this is definitely not a situation where a military alliance has been successful in promoting a dialogue between the groups, or in integrating a country into the community of nations on the basis of the rule of law and human rights.

The future: depoliticization of dialogue

It is of crucial importance that in all initiatives that are based on the principle of dialogue between cultures, religions or – in a more general way – civilizations, one always distinguishes very clearly between (a) political and economic interests and (b) what I have characterized as effort at developing and asserting one’s cultural identity, in trying to reach out to other nations and to better comprehend their specific worldview and value system. If there is to be any hope for the project of dialogue among civilizations, one has to avoid using the paradigm of civilization just as a cover to promote a hidden political, economic or military agenda. If a country (or group of countries) is determined to strengthen its influence in another part of the world, it should do so transparently, and it should clearly indicate the underlying motives. I am well aware that this may be wishful thinking. However, in the conduct of international power politics, states should not intrude into the space of culture and civilization; they should respect the integrity of this domain. Should the instrumentalization of issues of civilizational identity become common state practice, it would totally discredit the peace project of the United Nations Organization. Frankly speaking, many of the UN member states that have officially declared themselves to be “Friends” of the “Alliance of Civilizations” should think twice about whether it is really meaningful and credible on their part to continue in that group of states as long as they use dialogue mainly in the context of their own strategic interests. Finally, the noble goal of intercultural dialogue should not be exclusively entrusted to, and pursued by, a political organization of which the Security Council is the most influential body. It would be much more appropriate to place questions of civilizational and cultural identity – and how to broaden a nation’s “civilizational horizon” – within the responsibility of the specialized organization that was created for this very purpose, namely the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.