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Beware the civilisational war over the ideological war

NATURALLY, global attention is fixed on the trade war which has broken out between the United States and China. However, it would be a naive mistake to forget that terrorism and religious extremism pose an accompanying and, indeed, greater challenge to the future of the world.

The trade war could destroy the world that we have known since the end of the Cold War. The decoupling of the world's two most powerful economies would signal a broader strategic showdown in which other countries would have to choose sides. The world would move back to the days of the Cold War, when precisely this choice was imposed by the United States and the Soviet Union on other nations.

Of course, there also was a group of non-aligned nations - but while they were non-aligned, they were not non-aligned equally. Some went along with Washington while pretending to be friendly to Moscow, others did the opposite. So great was the rivalry between the two nuclear superpowers that both allowed non-aligned countries to survive in the frozen strategic space between them. The alternative would have been an all-out global contest between the nuclear-armed superpowers that would have posed a final test of wills between them in the Third World. It was not worth the effort. Superpower rivalry was able to accommodate dissent up to a point.

Today, it is not impossible that the Sino-US contest for supremacy will play out comparably. Each global power will seek to draw other countries into its exclusive orbit. Some will gravitate there, others will be non-aligned, and the international system will continue. Short of an unthinkable nuclear war between the United States and China, global citizens will survive.

That is so because, in spite of their rivalry, Washington and Beijing are not engaged in a civilisational war. Certainly, America would prefer a democratic China to the current one because democracies are not likely to go to war with other democracies (although democracies do go to war with autocracies, which are likely to fight both democracies and autocracies). A democratic China would make the world safer for America.

Equally, China would prefer an America which does not seek to change the Chinese political system, just as the Chinese do not wish to change the American one. China asks for ideological co-existence as the basis of its great-power relations with the United States.

That is the point: The tussle for supremacy between Washington and Beijing is an ideological one. But it is not a civilisational war.

The war with terror is civilisational. Global citizens forget this reality at their peril.

Terror hurls civilisations into an extrapolated future that extends beyond space and time. No matter what the religious identity of terrorism, no matter what its material basis, no matter how weak it is compared to the firepower of the status quo, the existentialism revisionism of terror is willing to burn down all homes, including its own, to clear global space here and now for the eternal institution of the promised laws of a seamless hereafter.

Nothing of the sort vitiates relations between America and China. A nation of 330 million Americans would not dream of ruling 1.3 billion Chinese in a demographic eternity. Chinese, peaceful by nature if not by compulsion, would be most unwilling to share eternity with fractious Americans, who cannot agree except on their right to disagree. The cultural heritage of Americans and Chinese insulates them from each other's imagined hegemony.

Not so the religiously charged social imagination of terrorists and extremists. Their war is not with what as they see as being wrong with the world. Those wrongs can be redressed by secular means. Their war is with those secular means themselves. They will not be content before the diversity of secular thought is destroyed at the single altar of religious determinism - theirs.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) embodied that pernicious sense of destiny. The ostensible caliphate that it established had little to do with the lucid beauty of classical Islam, which had sought to establish peace through the institution of a just order. Instead, ISIS mandated to itself the responsibility to establish the peace of the graveyard - where the journey to the hereafter begins - as the cornerstone of an eternal order. It succeeded rather well before it was overthrown by secular forces determined to preserve the here in the now.

In the aftermath of the ISIS retreat, Saudi Arabia and Iran are continuing their efforts to reconcile the here and the hereafter along religious lines draped around their national contours. Even in Israel, a democratic survivor in the Middle East, the recent nationality law could foreclose the participation of minorities in the prospects of a state that has been defined till now by its Jewishnesss in name but its secularism in nature.

In these circumstances, both the United States and China need to place their ideological rivalry in civilisational perspective. A decisive break in their relations would hurt both of them and embolden regressive movements to a jealously exclusive future.

There are those who wish both Americans and Chinese ill forever. Those enemies must not win today.

  • The writer is founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political consultancy. He is also a member of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.