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Fault-lines for the 21st century
Interview with Harlan Cleveland
by Monte Leach

An interview with former US Assistant Secretary of State Harlan Cleveland about what types of conflicts are most likely to occur in the years ahead, and what can be done to prevent them.  


San Francisco, California, USA
Harlan Cleveland, a political scientist and public executive, is president of the World Academy of Art and Science. A former US Assistant Secretary of State, US Ambassador to NATO, and university president, he has written a dozen books on executive leadership and international affairs.

Share International: You recently wrote a paper with futurist Mark Luyckx at the request of the European Commission which included some unexpected conclusions about the role of religion in the future. What were some of your conclusions?

Harlan Cleveland: If it’s true that in the 21st century religion will playh_clevel.jpg (24685 bytes) an increasingly important role in world affairs — that’s what André Malraux, author, and France’s Minister of Culture from 1960-1969, said just before he died in 1976, what kinds of conflicts are most likely to occur in the years ahead?

We think the fault-line is going to lie inside each of the great religions, essentially between what are called, in various ways, fundamentalists — people who take their tradition to be very important, and if other people don’t share that tradition, then they’re infidels, outside the system — and "transmoderns", those who believe that ancient traditions and current spiritual inquiry lead to a greater tolerance of everybody else’s search for God.

In fact, about one-quarter of the adult population in the United States are in the category that I call "unorganized spirituality". They feel a relationship with a higher power — God, Allah, or whatever it’s called in their language and traditions — but don’t feel a need for the mullah, rabbi or priest as the intermediary, which has been the basis for all the organized religions. People in this unorganized spirituality component of our population are more and more thinking about how to arrange the search for God in a way that doesn’t require trampling on everybody else’s search. One rule is, nobody gets to say: "Okay I’ve found the truth, the search can be called off now". It’s a way of thinking about how we can live in a peaceful way in a very pluralistic world.

SI: To say that one of the fault-lines of the future will be inside the religious traditions is a surprising conclusion. When you look at some of the conflicts occurring around the world, you see conflict between the secular and religious or between the religions. I’m thinking of Algeria, the Sudan, Israel, Northern Ireland.

HC: The point was brought home rather dramatically to me during a trip to Sri Lanka. I met an American Buddhist monk, a real contemplative person. And then I came back to Colombo, the capital, to get the newspaper, and I read about some people calling themselves Buddhists who just spread poisonous sarin gas in the Tokyo subway. They’re both calling themselves Buddhists. And the young man who murdered Rabin in Israel. Compare him to the people at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, for example. Then compare the militant Christian right wing of the Republican Party in the US with most of the other Christians in the United States, who don’t really appreciate the Reverend Pat Robertson being their spokesman.

The transmodern group is still a minority but a rapidly-growing one. What I’m calling the new fault-line, the fault-line for the 21st century, is that the fundamentalists and transmoderns are both against modernism, for very different reasons and in different ways. But they’re also at loggerheads. It’s important to think of the future that way rather than just assume that the clashes are going to be between Christianity and Islam, for example.

SI: Just to clarify, when you’re saying somebody is premodern, you refer to that as a fundamentalist viewpoint. The modern viewpoint would be more secular, based on scientific principles.

HC: Yes, supported by the pedestal of Reason, which has in this century been eroded by the experience that scientific discovery and technological innovation can lead not only to miracles and constructive change but also to unprecedented dirt, damage, and disease.

The transmoderns are beginning to try to pour some non-rational spirituality into the mix. And you see this happening in the scientific community. The chaos theorists are saying that they can’t get their thinking from here to there by rational means, and yet they know that’s where they need to go. Transmodern thinking is also increasingly questioning administrative pyramids and hierarchical ways of thinking about management. We increasingly have ‘nobody-in-charge’ systems, such as the Internet and the international monetary system. And part of our problem is to find ways of managing nobody-in-charge systems.

An important part of the transmodern trend is the change in the attitudes toward, and status of, women around the world. In the Iranian election, the Iranian Government didn’t have any idea that allowing women to vote would upset the whole apple cart.

SI: What can we do to try to resolve that premodern-transmodern conflict that you see happening?

HC: First, we are going to have to try not to draw political lines around groups that think alike, in the way that has been unsuccessfully done in Bosnia, for example. Developing a culture of wide tolerance becomes a very important security consideration, not just because it’s nice and warm and fuzzy, but because it really prevents conflict.

Dialogue among the nations

SI: You have spoken and written about opening a dialogue between the Western nations and the developing nations. Why do you see that as being important? And what would the dialogue be based upon?

HC: It is a way of understanding each other in a mode that doesn’t require them to think of us as different or non-human or infidels, nor require us to think of them as the second-class citizens of the world who don’t really matter because we Europeans and Americans are the big shots around here.

SI: You have written in your report that we might begin this dialogue with something like the following philosophy: "We are products of a secular, industrial society, but we realize we can no longer discuss political futures without also discussing questions of meaning, spirituality, and cultural identity. We are therefore asking you to join us in a serious effort to project mutually-advantageous futures for our societies. In order to do this, we will all have to set aside our superiority complexes, our intolerances whether based on scientific rationalism or spiritual tradition, and our dreams of having our views prevail worldwide." How would this approach be helpful as the basis for global dialogue?

HC: It is a way of thinking about how Europeans and Americans ought to be talking to the Arab Middle East, Indonesians, Indians, Chinese and others who are outside their regions. If in a European foreign policy they could approach the world with that attitude, it would be a striking change. Because actually what a lot of the fundamentalists, at least the thinkers, are complaining about doesn’t have a religious basis. They’re really complaining about modernity, the effects of industrialization. We can tone down that conversation a lot with this kind of approach. But it requires some deep swallowing to admit that we’ve got a superiority complex and that we’d better knock it off.

SI: What specific topics would you be talking about?

HC: For the Europeans, I think, in particular it applies to their immigration policies, because they’ve been tightening up recently. The Germans have been sending the Turks home. The French, as a matter of political doctrine, used to regard Algeria as a department, as if it were a state within the country. They have a lot of Algerians in Paris who are French citizens, and now they’re trying to figure out some way to declare them off-limits, which makes them the enemy.

Fairness revolution

SI: How do you see the transmodern element and the premodern element getting along? How will either of them accept the modern culture they’ve rejected for various reasons?

HC: That’s the important thing in itself — the fact that they’re both tending to reject more and more overtly and rationally the modern worldview, which has been essentially a product of the industrial age. The information revolution is making for all sorts of opportunities for compatibility between those two opponents of modernity. One of the things the information revolution can do for the world is make it a much fairer world, because once people get educated they’re able to use the world’s dominant resource, information. But the world’s dominant resource is not like other resources. It’s not scarce, you don’t run out of it, it expands as it’s used. It doesn’t give rise to exchange transactions; it gives rise to sharing transactions.

SI: When I think of the information revolution, I can’t see the mullahs in Iran taking part on their laptop computers.

HC: I think they’re going to find that they have to, in order to keep up with the rest of the world, or even with the children of their own constituents. People who think they’re in charge will always try to control a phenomenon like the Internet, but it’s essentially uncontrollable. And that’s the good news about it.

SI: In addition to the information revolution, could you talk about other important trends that you see occurring in the coming time?

HC: In the next century we’re going to have to solve the problem of two-thirds of the world being so much poorer than the other third that they get "antsy" and even revolutionary about it. The means of solving that problem are becoming available, as a byproduct of the information revolution.

In South Korea, for example, primarily by getting the entire population educated, they’ve come from being a very poor, underdeveloped country to being the newest member of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), the club of rich countries. And this was the result of applying information to a whole society in a big way. The generals who were in charge when the Korean War broke out in 1950 figured they had a technological war to fight, and they’d better get their people educated so the country could participate well in this technological war. So the generals decreed universal education.

Then the war tapered off, and the generals who were still in charge said: "We’d better knock off this universal education stuff, it’s getting too expensive." But every parent in South Korea had gotten clearly in their mind that "all my kids are going to go to college". There was just no way they could turn it off. And this happened just as what we now call the information revolution was beginning to break out. So they built a very strong economy, which consists of bringing stuff in and adding value to it and shipping it out again.

If that can be done there, it can be done anywhere, and it has been done in parts of a lot of countries, and in entire countries like Singapore.

What I call "the global fairness revolution" is going to be the big story of the 21st century. We’ll find other ways to be inequitable, I suppose, but I think the economic bases for poverty are going to disappear over the next few decades. So many people’s leaders don’t let the people participate, don’t want them to be educated, but it’s going to be harder and harder for them to control.

SI: Many countries are experiencing economic upheaval — South Korea is one, all of Asia really, Brazil, Russia. Do you see this economic upheaval being a catalyst for a global fairness revolution?

HC: It’s not really an economic crisis. It’s really a financial crisis. The lack of money is making a lot of people go bankrupt, or feel poor. But it’s the result of some very stupid financial thinking.

Money is really a symbolic resource. If, for example, you own a lot of Proctor and Gamble stock and the stock price suddenly goes down, you don’t have that wealth any more; it has disappeared. Or you thought you were wealthy, but the exchange rate changed between your currency and somebody else’s currency. But it doesn’t affect how much wheat there is in the world.

The shortage is no longer of resources. The main shortage is of human imagination and our capacity to organize ourselves to handle the problems we face. It’s not an absence of things. It’s an absence of curiosity and imagination.

I have an upbeat attitude about the future. But it’s often hard for us to do what obviously needs to be done until all the other alternatives have been exhausted.

From the June 1999 issue of Share International


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005