Many have written over the years about the political risk arising from cultural values. Back in 1992, Benjamin Barber, in his popular book Jihad vs McWorld, visualized violent local politics (“jihad”) as a reaction to the cultural uniformity induced by globalization. Samuel Huntington took the idea to a widely-discredited extreme, when he argued that continental-scale cultural clashes will be the biggest source of political risk in the future.
Such broad culture-talk generates weak arguments because it takes politics out of the equation. Islamophobia is one instance. The conservative paranoia about the so-called “ground zero mosque” uses crass cultural imagery to not only deny constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms but also portray the act of building a community center as the “triumph” of a foreign culture. The real issue, however, is not culture, but politics: election-season politics, foreign policy politics, and political risk in provoking far right ideologues.
Similarly, Westernophobia is a trick that the Chinese government has been using to deny basic human rights to Chinese citizens. This came to the fore with the award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. China’s hostile reaction to that award is based on the premise that human rights are not universal, but culturally-defined, and represents Westernization. Here too, the real problem is not culture, but politics: Human rights and political freedom pose great political risk to the regime in power.
In globalization circles, broad culture-talk, i.e., East = X, West = Y, has been a useful ploy to mask the political sources of risk. Uninquisitive minds readily accept that Western Judeo-Christianic values are superior, are spread through globalization, and provoke primitive reactions in the form of “jihad” in the East because either “they envy us” or “they haven’t seen the light”.
Such talk perpetuates many historical inaccuracies. In a recent article in The Sunday Times, historian William Dalrymple points out some of them:
- The “earliest known experiment in formal inter-religious dialogue” was not in the West, but in India, led by the Emperor Akbar of the Muslim Mughal Empire.
- Akbar upheld freedom of religion at a time (16th century) when “in London, Jesuits were being hung, drawn and quartered outside Tyburn, in Spain and Portugal the Inquisition was torturing anyone who defied the dogmas of the Catholic church, and in Rome Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Campo de’Fiori.”
- “Judaism and Christianity are every bit as much eastern religions as Islam or Buddhism. So much that we today value – universities, paper, the book, printing – were transmitted from East to West via the Islamic world, in most cases entering western Europe in the Middle Ages via Islamic Spain.”
- The first ruler “to emphasise the importance of the equality of his subjects” was the Buddhist Indian Emperor Ashoka. This was in the third century BC.
- The huge upturn in violent conflict in the last hundred years was not in the East, but rooted in the West: the World Wars, the ideologies of Marxism-Leninism, Fascism, Nazism.
- Genocide began with “the worst excesses of western colonialism.”
- “The European slave trade forcibly abducted 15m Africans and killed as many more.”
The list goes on. The point is, it is not only crude but historically false to portray the West broadly as a freedom-loving culture that is using globalization to spread superior values, and the East as reactionary, backward, developing, and emerging, with hiccups, into enlightenment. And it’s even more false to then predict a giant collision between the two.
Political risk does not come from broad cultural clashes, but from politics, which is about power. As analysts of political risk, we should be aware of cultural trends, but we should ensure that we assess the significance such trends by asking: what does this mean for the competition for power?
We should not assume that risk to Western investment in “emerging” markets is automatic, or endemic, or sourced in cultural assumptions such as, “they don’t understand the value of investment,” or “they’re backward and don’t get what free market means.” There is no automatic jihad against McWorld. Risk arises because of the power politics that accompany such investment.