The Convergence of Civilizations

By Kenny, Charles | Foreign Policy, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

The Convergence of Civilizations


Kenny, Charles, Foreign Policy


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FOR ALL THE TALK of the global "clash of civilizations"--the theory of inevitable conflict between cultures and religions, coined by a founder of this magazine, Samuel P. Huntington--the interesting thing about the decade after the 9/11 attacks, when so many prognosticators and pundits championed this argument, is just how wrong they got it.

The view that Islam in particular is on a collision course with the West thanks to a yawning cultural divide got a second look when the Arab Spring didn't instantly lead to deals for Cairo Disney and Hooters Tunis. But, if anything, shared values are converging across countries and time zones and, yes, across cultures and religions. Granted, not all this convergence is universal. We're not about to see the end of history in a world where everyone's a fan of Justin Bieber (inshallah ...), practices yoga, and understands the intricacies of feng shui. But there is a growing global cosmopolitanism that by and large reflects a vision of a better planet, despite the unfortunate fact that there are now a whole lot more Yankees fans.

Take global views on democracy, as reflected in the World Values surveys conducted throughout the 2000s. In Egypt, 98 percent of people thought that having a democratic political system was a good thing, an overwhelming figure echoed in other places we tend to think of as being less than democratic: 94 percent in China, 93 percent in Vietnam, 92 percent in Iran, and 88 percent in Iraq. (Oddly, in the United States, only 86 percent of the population voiced support for democratic systems.) In fact, in every country where the question was asked, considerable majorities backed democracy. Across the countries surveyed between 2004 and 2006, the average was 87 percent support for democracy as the best form of government.

Another value emerging worldwide is concern for the environment. Even in the United States, popular opinion has moved behind doing something about climate change. Americans are far from being completely sold on the issue: Sixty percent also support more offshore drilling, and (among those who have heard of it) two-thirds want to build the Keystone XL pipeline that will funnel sulfur-rich oil sands from Canada to refineries in the United States. Still, three-quarters of the public supports tax rebates for purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles or solar panels and regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and nearly 65 percent supports an international treaty requiring the United States to cut carbon dioxide emissions 90 percent by 2050, according to George Mason and Yale University polling. Ask people the world over whether they are willing to give up part of their income for the environment, and according to the World Values Survey, two-thirds say yes, including 82 percent in China and 68 percent in India.

What about attitudes toward people different from ourselves? On average, only 13 percent of respondents in countries surveyed suggested they did not want to live next to a person of a different race in the 2006 wave of the World Values Survey, down from 17 percent in 1993. Three-quarters of countries surveyed in both waves saw this measure of racism decline. Furthermore, the average percentage saying that they didn't want to live next to someone of a different religion fell from 44 percent to 33 percent--backed up by declining rates of religious intolerance in 91 percent of surveyed countries. Over the same time, the average percentage of people saying that homosexuality is "never justifiable" fell from 59 percent to 34 percent, with declines in 93 percent of countries surveyed both years. That still adds up to a world with billions of bigots, but almost everywhere intolerance is at least in the minority now.

These attitude changes reflect dramatic changes in actual behavior. Take schooling for girls. By no means was this a global norm 50 years ago. Today, however, parents the world over are sending their daughters to school in far greater numbers. …

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