East, West and the Search for Universal Values

25 Aug 2020

Stephen Green poured decades of experience into his latest book, The Human Odyssey: East, West, and the Search for Universal Values. In this exclusive interview with STI, he distills its essence.

STI: You have written regularly about Europe, and in particular about two countries you know and love - Britain and Germany. Your most recent book, The Human Odyssey, has a broader canvas: it covers the growing urbanization and connectivity of the world’s major cultures, with all the challenges and opportunities that this represents in the twenty first century. What drove you to take on such an ambitious task?

SG: We live at a dangerous moment in history. China has arrived on the world stage, and America is not about to leave it. These two countries will dominate geopolitics for the rest of this century at least. Their rivalry will be a challenge for us all - as individuals, as societies and in any business.

When China passes America as the largest economy in the world - as it will do sometime in the next few years - that will just be a milestone. The best central forecast for China’s growth is that it will continue at a reasonable pace for the next generation. Sheer size therefore means that it will not just be the largest but a long way the largest economy in the world. Its influence - already expanding rapidly - will become ever greater. China is here to stay.

However, so is America. Some have depicted this great chess game as one that has already been lost and won. But they are wrong. It may look as though one of the players has a single mind looking several moves ahead all the time, while the other moves capriciously and without any apparent strategy. We shouldn’t be deceived by the dysfunctional short-termism of Washington politics. The system was set up to be gridlocked - and most of the time it is. Yet the incredible inventiveness and dynamism of American society will ensure that it is the counteracting force China has to reckon with for as far ahead as any of us can foresee. A long-standing principle of investment and geopolitical strategy is as valid as ever: never short America for very long. Most chess games result in a winner, but not all. This one is more likely to end in a stalemate.

And for the rest of us - for those of us who share the Eurasian landmass with China, for the Africans whose demographic trends will ensure that their weight will finally count for what it should in the next century, and even for the Latin Americans who are used to living in the American vortex - we will increasingly often find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being pressed to take sides.

We live on the threshold of an era that will see two different perspectives on the human self-understanding contest for legitimacy on the world stage. They are the worldviews, the deeply rooted instincts, of these two great powers as they rival each other economically, technologically, militarily - and ideologically.

STI: How would you characterize the difference between China and America? Is this essentially an ideological contest between a Communist state and a liberal market democracy?

SG: The American worldview has much in common with a European perspective; after all, it inherited much from the Europeans. Yet from the start, it was clearly distinctive. The American worldview sets the inalienable subjectivity of the self at its core. It is what is encapsulated in those great watchwords of the founders of America: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. By contrast, the great alternative on the world stage of this century - the Confucian-infused culture that is the bedrock of the Chinese worldview - is not primarily focused on the autonomy of the self. It sees the individual in a wider familial, social and even cosmic context; so it has less to say about rights but much to say about position, purposes and obligations in life.

Since China's evolving worldview and self-understanding is less familiar than that of America, we need first to look at the road China has been on in recent years, and which has brought it to where it is now. Thirty years ago, in the early stages of opening up, Deng Xiaoping famously said that China should hide its capacity internationally, that it should bide its time, that it should be good at maintaining a low profile and should never claim leadership. As time moved on, that position began to shift. China spoke of taking a more active role in international affairs and working to make the international order more just and equitable. Specifically, China spoke of recognizing a 'community of common destiny' in its regional neighborhood. In 2014, Xi Jinping took the next step forward when he spoke - not merely of recognizing China’s neighborhood as a community of common destiny - but of turning it into one. Then in 2017, he began to speak on the international stage of working together to build a ‘community of shared future’ for all humankind.

In other words, this was China’s foreign policy going global. It is certainly not a detailed blueprint for how China plans to act internationally over the coming decades. Yet it is, to use a business school cliché, a vision statement.

STI: A ‘community of shared future’? That sounds like a vision of hope - of a new and better approach to tackling the world’s great challenges. Is it?

SG: It is certainly a vision of the way countries should relate to each other. It is not a particularly new one, though. President Xi has talked of the need for countries to respect each other and discuss their issues as equals - and of the importance of recognizing and respecting the diversity of civilizations, with 'estrangement replaced by exchange, clashes by mutual learning, and superiority by coexistence'. It is worth savoring some of those words. The reference to diversity of civilizations and to clashes deliberately calls to mind Samuel Huntington's famous book 'The Clash of Civilizations,’ which first appeared in 1996. Yet though the implicit criticism of Huntington’s American-centered worldview is unmistakable, in fact the crucial point to notice here is that China's newly articulated vision is just as fundamentally nationalist - and in no way multilateral or supranational. So it is not as new as it might sound. The actors in their version of the drama are countries; the vision is not of strengthened multilateral institutions, still less a clarion call for a renewed and more effective United Nations.

Nor is it a vision of an emerging global citizenship of individuals. China’s view is fundamentally societal and national, not individual. For the Chinese starting point is Confucius, not John Locke (and is also certainly more Confucius than Karl Marx). The contrast with the strong individualist instinct that underlies the American view of the world is unmistakable.

STI: This, then, is the great debate between America and China - or perhaps between East and West - regarding the individual and the collective?

SG: It is deeper than that: it is a fundamental question about human self-understanding. What matters to us all is how those two worldviews of the human self, each of which has a very long trail of history behind it, can be dovetailed into some kind of a synthesis as the human odyssey continues through this century. This question matters for the peace of nations; it matters for successful economic and social development; and it matters for the sustainability of life on our fragile planet.

STI: Your whole point is that neither of these two fundamentally different worldviews will be able to prevail over the other. So how do we make progress? How do we face up to the great common challenges of the coming century?

SG: I argue in my book that there is in fact a direction of travel, even if the journey ahead is long, just as the journey so far has been. There will be roadblocks and wrong turnings, just as there have always been. Yet the direction cannot be reversed, and it will not be possible to settle where we are. That’s why I called the book ‘The Human Odyssey’. We are all on a journey of individual and collective self-discovery.

The reason is that, ever since the cave art of forty millennia ago, human expression has always explored its actual experience of being - in all its life, its loves, its losses, its hurts, its transience. The creativity this has called forth is to be found all through the world’s cultures, west and east, and down the ages from very early times. There are many differences in specific contexts and perspective, of course. Yet some of the greatest such achievements have a strange universality and timelessness about them: A Tang Dynasty poet writing about his grief at the grave of his three-year-old daughter; or the Lady Murasaki writing her closely observed narrative of the lives and loves at the Japanese imperial court in the world’s oldest novel, The Tale of Genji;  or Cao Xueqin's equally poignant Dream of Red Mansions from a Qing dynasty Chinese context; - or Hafez and his effervescent love of life and living in medieval Iran; or Satyajit Ray’s great film Devi, about a girl who absorbs, and is then destroyed by, an identity given to her by others; or Austen, or Chekhov or Qian Zhongshu in modern China, or Soseki in modern Japan... All of these, and of course many others, deal with human experience in a way that reminds us perhaps of what we all share because we are all descended from those same human ancestors who painted the caves of forty thousand years ago.

STI: Why is this relevant today? What does it have to do with the geopolitics of this century?

SG: Because the whole thrust of that exploration of the human self is precisely that it is a (continuing) journey of discovery, both individually and collectively - which we cannot avoid in our urbanized and connected world. This journey of growing human self-knowledge through our connected and urbanized life experience necessarily means that all our cultures will be changed. In fact, this is a journey of human growth - of coming eventually to human maturity.

We know what the essentials for healthy human growth are. Indeed, they are the same at any level of identity - not just for individuals, but also for societies, for cultures, for nations. At all these levels, we need to come to terms with our pasts; we need to take responsibility for what we are and do; we need to look for the human in the other; and we need always to be ready to learn. Neither for individuals nor for whole cultures or nations is this odyssey over. In no case have we arrived. In many cases, the state - or the voice of the crowd - may seek to control or impede the journey. In fact, such controlling or blocking behavior is widespread in both west and east, as we know all too well. Yet resistance will not in the end succeed. The universal experience of urbanization means that connectivity will in the end overwhelm even the most carefully constructed dykes.

STI: So you are an optimist in the end?

SG: I don’t know whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the coming decades: but I do know we have to hope, and to act accordingly. The great Catholic philosopher Hans Küng once said to me, during a seminar series he was giving in Hong Kong about the faiths and cultures of the world: ‘We must learn to judge others by their best, and not just by their worst - as we would want them to judge us by our best and not just by our worst.’ This seems to me as important and relevant now as when he said it some years ago; it applies to each of us as individuals, it applies to each society, and it also applies to the major powers of the twenty first century - America and China - as they engage with each other in this interlocked and environmentally precarious world. Without such a readiness to learn and to seek the common good, the future we bequeath to our grandchildren will be grim.


Buy The Human Odyssey: East, West, and the Search for Universal Values here.