Real Universalism Preserves the Best from all Worlds

As young children, my older sister and I were temporarily put up in a boarding school. At some stage my sister had set her sights on a new electronic gadget and was keen to buy it. She asked the lady in charge of my unit, whether she could have the money that I had as well, putting forward the argument that I “didn't need” it. The money was of course not given to her, and I was advised to spend my pocket money in time. Nowadays my sister and I get along nicely and I am able to safeguard my own interests quite well. But the lesson is clear: if you are not strong and mature and not able to use your abilities and resources to the full, somebody stronger is likely to be tempted to come along and take advantage of you. Trying to be equally strong or equally able or equally well-off than others not only keeps us on our toes and helps to keep the economy going, it is becoming more and more essential to survival. The planet earth is becoming a little crowded and resources are getting precious and much sought after.

The idea of ’equality’ has always had a huge appeal. What George Orwell so ideally laid out in his book “Animal Farm”, the law that ’all animals are equal’, soon turned out to be too optimistic in the course of organizing the animal society democratically. Character, talents and circumstances differ too greatly. The principle of the French revolution of 1789 was also that of equality before the law. They asserted that sovereignty of the people resided in themselves and their representatives – and not in the King. In spite of many failings, the French revolution brought about the civil code, which introduced equality before the law, the protection and the freedom of the individual and tolerance in religious matters. The Russian revolution was likewise egalitarian. There is a natural disposition of both the French and the Russians to regard all people and all nations as equals, at least in principle. The success of the first Arab empire can likewise be attributed to the egalitarian approach of Islam, but also to the military strength of its conquerors and the dissolution of both the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire of the Parthians. Of those empires that hugely failed, Germany’s National Socialist ’Third Reich’ must be mentioned foremost. Its radical emphasis on ethnical hierarchies prevented the conquered nationals from identifying themselves with the conquerors.

In his book called “Weltmacht USA – ein Nachruf “ (After the Empire – the Breakdown of the American Order) the French writer Emmanuel Todd, a political scientist and demographer, analyzes the reasons behind universalistic or differentiating approaches of empires. He maintains that family structures are one of the reasons why the present democratic world and the democracies of tomorrow will remain very varied.

(Cover page from
'The Economist', March 2003)

Political systems around the world cannot easily become ’aligned’, as family structures differ greatly. The Anglo-Saxon liberalism has as ideal the mutual independence between parents and children and the differential treatment of the children in English families. This, Emmanuel Todd maintains, is projected into politics. The French revolution transformed the liberal exchange between children and parents and the equality of the relations between brothers and sisters into the doctrine of freedom and equality of all people. The Russian peasants treated their sons likewise equally, but the difference is that a son – whether married or not - was always under the authority of his father, right up to his death. The Russian ideology was therefore not only egalitarian as the French ideology; it was also authoritarian, allowing communist dictatorships to thrive more easily. The same pattern was adopted in those countries where similar family structures existed: for instance China, Yugoslavia and Vietnam.

The Arab-Muslim family structure also has aspects of a special combination of egalitarianism with a communitarian approach. The horizontal line between the married brothers makes up the basic family relationship. Customs and traditions in some cases might even be more important than the will of the father. Perhaps not surprisingly, not too much attention is being paid to the state. The family structure is similar to the ones in many countries outside of the Arab world such as Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kirgistan, Azerbaijan and parts of Turkey, the author Emmanuel Todd maintains. Unlike for instance women in American families, who are frequently known to be dominant, women in Arab and the above-mentioned Asian countries are largely subordinated to men. The family and the community have a high priority. Fathers and their married sons are very close to each other and in that resemble the Russian model. But unlike in Russian families, there is a large preference for marriages between first-degree cousins. This means that in their family and their ideological structures, a very special relationship towards authorities is created.

Germany’s authoritarian and inegalitarian values of the traditional family were an important contributory factor to later political events. In the past, it had been the custom in Germany to determine only one descendent in each generation to inherit the family’s fortune, usually the eldest. This fact helped to bring about the rise of National Socialism which then culminated into one of the worst disasters in history: an authoritarian and inegalitarian ideology with a radical ethnical hierarchy. It finally resulted in the Holocaust, the Second World War and the destruction and division of Germany.

Luckily for Germany, at this time other countries were going through a successful phase in their history. The period of positive imperialism is the time when America organized its sphere of influence after the Second World War, when Europe and Japan lay in ruins. The communist bloc had already established itself as a power factor. The USA now became the centre of a global, capitalist system. Step by step they introduced terms of trade of their own ideological preferences, with the aim of holding together the geographical zones which they controlled militarily and politically. When the USA maintained that its policies helped to secure prosperity in most parts of the planet, it is no exaggeration. The years from 1950 – 1975, a period of exceptional economic growth rates, are the best example. It was the period of Germany’s ‘Wirtschaftswunder’, the economic miracle, based on the Marshall fund which provided Europe with the necessary financial means for a reconstruction, and prevented the USA from experiencing another economic depression like the one in 1929. It was an act of political and economic intelligence, almost without parallel in history. Ever since, Germany has embraced democracy wholeheartedly.

The capacity to integrate – that is to extend the centre –was the decisive factor for America’s success: the establishment of an American empire. The population growth alone – 285 million in 2001 and an estimated 346 million in 2025 – shows how successful integration has been. Japanese and Jews for instance were successfully assimilated into the American society. Yet, according to Emmanuel Todd, throughout its history the United States can also be described with the opposite concept of discrimination and differentiation. There has always been a group of people that were different and not to be assimilated. They were damned to be separated or even annihilated. The Red Indians and the Blacks assumed this role for a long time. The role of the Red Indians is now taken up by the Hispanics. The role of the Blacks in the USA has remained almost the same. An American Black middle class has emerged, but they live in ghettos, beside the more numerous ghettos of the poor Blacks.

Throughout the Cold War, the USA had to keep in mind the rivalry from communist countries. In its external relations the Americans integrated its allies into its liberal economic world order. The decolonialization in the western hemisphere was pushed ahead. At home, the competition with communism led to the fight against the marginalization of the Black minority. When given the choice of one or the other political system, no country could opt for America if a part of its population was badly discriminated against.

Positive imperialism therefore means treating nations and peoples as equals with the aim of giving them peace and prosperity in return for exploiting some of their natural wealth. In history there are other examples of empires. The Athenian empire collected the ’phoros’, an annual tribute of the towns of the maritime alliance. To begin with, the phoros was given to Athens on a voluntary basis. Later on it was collected by force. Ancient Rome had pillaged the treasures of its subjugated nations, and emptied the granaries of Sicily and Egypt. It is said that Caesar once mentioned that he could not conquer the Teutonic world because its nomadic population there would not be in a position to feed the Roman legions.

Appreciating and protecting the best from all worlds is what characterizes true universalism. The power of the victor allows the blending of all cultures. The Romans recognized the superiority of the Greeks in philosophy, mathematics, literature and art. Roman aristocracy adopted the Greek life-style. Even a new religion from the eastern region of its empire was adopted.

The largest empire of all, the British Empire, was founded on the basis of an overwhelming technological superiority. It was never the aim of the British to integrate other nationals and perhaps turn Indians, Malaysians or Africans into Englishmen and Englishwomen. Over many centuries to this day the Welsh, Scots and Irish on the British Isles have preserved their special identity. In the traditional English family there is as much an uncertainty as there is in the ideological sphere. The brothers are neither equal nor unequal, they are different. In England the right to make a will is totally free: parents can divide their wealth and pass on to their individual children as much or as little of it as they wish. By contrast, in France, Russia, the Arab states and China children are treated on a basis of equality.

In their colonies the British favoured ’indirect rule’, and usually left local customs and traditions unchanged. To the Anglo Saxons, some foreigners seem to be like them, or equal. Others seem different and inferior. In other words, polarization is taking place about being similar or different, being of equal value or inferior. Discriminating and isolating the Red Indians and the Blacks in America allowed the Irish immigrants to treat Germans, Jews and Italians as equals. There is some place where you must draw the line, is the motto. This line that is being drawn between peoples is unstable and can change with time. But, considering the extension and the duration of the British colonial empire, the British succeeded in treating the different nations by and large with equality. Withdrawal from the colonies usually happened in a smooth and pragmatic manner.

Times have changed. The emergence of the USA as the only superpower that is left is the one factor that most influences international politics today. Yet economic dependence on others and the loss of a universalist approach nowadays prevents the USA from viewing the world from an angle of equality, justice and responsibility. Universalism is the basic prerequisite for any state which wishes to dominate a nation with several different ethnical groups, with the aim of imposing its own rules on them. America fails to treat its most important allies, Europe and Japan, as equal in rank. It does not consult them sufficiently, sometimes even humiliates them. Without these two major economic powers, America could not be in a position to dominate the world. Through its unconditional support of Israel it extends its conflict with the Palestinians onto the entire Islamic world. Its lack of resources compels America to keep the world on its toes and in fear with a theatrical way of dealing with second-rate conflicts.

The position of the USA as the central ruler has also become precarious because nobody is obliged by some authority to pay tribute to the world’s dominant power. It is done on a voluntary and subtle basis and depends largely on the dominant classes of other countries. Frauds and scandals may be a part of everyday life at Wall Street, but nobody is actually forcing people to invest their money and thereby possibly to lose it.

Emmanuel Todd maintains in his book that America’s little respect for the Arab world is based on anthropological differences. The American family is centred on its nucleus. Individualism is rated high and the woman has an elevated position. Several generations and family lines make up the Arab family. Its laws of inheritance are patrilinear and the woman lives in maximum dependency. Marriages between cousins are taboo in the Anglo-Saxon world, whereas it is rather popular in the Arab world. The feminist movement in the USA – as well as in Europe – has, in the course of many years, become almost a dogma and sometimes shows aggressive traits towards other cultures and customs. This movement was destined to come into conflict with the Arab world and with those cultures in the Islamic world which resemble the Arab family structure. It excludes Indonesia, Malaysia and the Islamic nations on the east coast of Africa, where the woman has a higher position in the family and in society. The tensions between America and the Arab-Muslim world are the climax of an anthropological conflict, an irrational confrontation between values.

America’s loyalty to Israel is a puzzle to specialists of a strategical analysis. Whether siding with Israel is useful or sensible, is difficult to say. Is it because Israel is the only military power the USA can rely on in the Middle East? But pointing to the necessity of cooperating with democratic powers is not enough. The injustice done by Israel to Palestinians through its occupation and illegal use of their territory is a clear violation of principles of equality and democracy. Other democratic states, especially the European ones, do not support Israel in such a biased, indiscriminate way. Maybe the USA is developing a new love for inequality, which is becoming very characteristic of present-day America. For anyone who has fallen off the path of righteousness, of failing to recognize and practise the principle of universalism, that is to say of equality, it can be soothing to see that others, too, are failing to behave within a generally accepted code of justice. Even while Israel today violates international law, the world’s leading power fails to respond. It has lost its ideological resource which is an indispensable prerequisite for an empire, according to Emmanuel Todd. The knowledge of right and wrong is an instrument of power, and America has either lost it, or no longer acts accordingly.

The power game continues in a slow pace. All world powers today, not only America, have serious weaknesses. Europe is handicapped by its difficulty of speaking with one voice, as well as by its demographic situation. Russia has economic difficulties as well as a demographic weakness. Japan also has a large ageing population and is likewise handicapped by its geographical isolation. The power game may well not end with check mate, but rather with a stalemate, where no power has a dominant role. Europe, Russia and Japan are together far stronger than America. America’s military actionism causes these three powers to converge.

Nations like to side with other nations according to their interests, their likes and dislikes. Individuals too have their preferences. Perhaps it’s easier to define ourselves by what we are not, than by what we are. Drawing our own lines somewhere between us and them. There are several definitions of the essence of thinking in clichés. One is that having an image of an enemy helps to stabilize our own ego, rather than having to recognize reality as it is. Our very own weaknesses are most easily seen and detested in others. It’s not very pleasant to have to hate oneself. Projecting our faults onto others and trying to activate them to alter their behaviour is a lot easier. In Islam there is the saying: the evil that befalls you, comes from within yourself. As far as our most basic motives and desires in life are concerned, we are not really that different from others. But there is a limited amount of material available in our surroundings. Getting there first, getting the most of it, is a driving force - and it all begins in the family. So, if you want to change national or even international policies: starting at home is not a bad way!

veröffentlicht im 'Defence Journal' im Dezember 2004