Despite great global change, a clash of civilisations continues

  • 5 July 2016

The Berlin Wall was a long-standing symbol of division and a barrier that separated the people of one nation as a result of enduring animosity between conflicting ideologies. When it fell on November 9, 1989, the bipolar system of control evident in international relations since the end of the Second World War fell with it. A new page was turned in the book of world history that had been riddled with struggles between communism and capitalism at the expense of citizens who suffered insecurity and destabilisation.

The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 by the East German government to serve the interests of the Soviet Union. It helped prevent the escape of the population from communist East Germany into capitalist West Germany. It was also a psychological barricade that separated the European continent and the world at large into two hostile and incompatible ideological camps.

Its collapse paved the way for the reunification of East and West Germany in October 1990, and led to the subsequent end of the bipolar global system following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

The fall of the wall undoubtedly served as the starting point of the new world order – an era in which a sole superpower, the United States, controls the military, economic, technological and political realms. Following this shift, the market-based economy and capitalist system have dominated economic conditions throughout the world.

Despite the problems facing the United States, I predict that its hegemony will continue for at least 50 years – depending on economic, technological, cultural, political, military and other indicators. This matter, as well as the characteristics, structures and patterns of power distribution following the Second World War are discussed at length in my book, Prospects for the American Age: Sovereignty and Influence in the New World Order (2014).

The implications of the destruction of the wall point to the inability of divisive ideological barriers based on sectarianism to succeed. Its fall tells the story of how East German youth pushed against the isolation imposed upon them. They challenged the notion of a nation divided because of conflicting ideologies and the will of superpowers.

The Germans set a wonderful example of how to achieve integration and form a unified state capable of becoming the largest economic power on the European continent. Berlin, the centre of the Cold War for nearly three decades, transformed into a symbol of unity that served as a glimmer of hope for the future of Europe as a whole.

This experience represents an important lesson for peoples plagued with sectarian, ethnic or ideological conflicts and divisions, and for those who seek to find ways forward that thrive on agreement, peace and stability. It also serves as an example for those who wish to build walls of separation and isolate themselves for religious, ethnic or sectarian reasons, because it proves that no matter how severe or intense these divisions are, they are surmountable if the will to agree and unite can be found.

On the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demolition, German chancellor Angela Merkel noted that it is also possible to demolish the “walls of dictatorship, violence, ideology and hostility".

The other important lesson is that no barrier, no matter how robust, can withstand in the face of culture or beliefs. Those who want to rebuild such barriers are ignorant of the lessons of history and from the logic of evolution. The last thing the world needs now is to build barriers between countries or societies – physical or cultural. This is paramount at a time when humankind is faced with existential challenges that can only be faced through global cooperation involving all communities, ideas and cultures. As Pope John Paul II said on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall: “We need bridges, not walls".

The Berlin Wall was an expression of a “brunt of ideology," as it divided people and became a source of hostility and infighting. The world, however, did not comprehend the lessons of its fall.

Francis Fukuyama first published his notion regarding the “ideology ego" in the same year as the fall of the wall. In his 1989 essay, The End of History, he attributed the ultimate victory of the capitalist model to its objective of standardising the world and placing it into one ideological, intellectual, cultural, economic and political mould – even though this objective is impossible to achieve.

In a challenge to Fukuyama’s argument, Samuel Huntington used an approach that avoided the notion that the various world cultures, civilisations and religions could not agree on one single model for life and development. Huntington also avoided the notion that diversity is both a source of integration and of wealth. He theorised that the root of conflict stemmed from the civilisations themselves.

In The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington wrote that the era of ideological clashes had ended and been replaced by another era based on the clash of civilisations, cultures, religions and sects.

Perhaps influenced by this hypothesis, some have directed their hostility towards Islam and Muslims as the adversaries of western civilisation to replace what communism had once been. As a result, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not lead to the end of the era of an ideological clash as some had hoped. Instead, the advocates and theorisers that western civilisation is superior and incompatible with other civilisations had created new reasons for the hostility and tension that exists among us.

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