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Bridging East and West requires continual global dialogue

Life is journey of different cycles. Traveling last month with old university friends, an Indian from Zambia, two Americans, a Spaniard and two from France made me realize that communication between East and West remains a gulf to be bridged, despite our common use of the English language and English education.

Do East and West think differently? The answer must be yes, if you define the East as the Asian continent and the West as Europe plus America. Globalization has integrated thinking and promoted universal standards because many Asian intellectuals are Western educated. Many social objectives, such as the pursuit of wealth, power, justice, global peace and happiness are universal. But the reality is that the concepts of justice, faith, liberty, social status and values are very different, even within one country, let alone a region, which give rise to need for continual dialogue for social harmony.

The late French historian and philosopher, Fernand Braudel, writing in the mid-1960s, classified the world into four contemporary civilizations: Western, Muslim, Far Eastern and African. To Braudel, civilization, rather than culture, is defined by geography, society, economies and ways of thought. Within the Western world, there were three sub-groups Europe, America and Soviet. He identified four civilizations outside Europe: China, India, Japan and the Maritime Far East that includes ASEAN and Korea.

The study of civilizations is both timely and important, because in 1993, the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington argued in his famous essay and later book, “The Clash of Civilizations,” that there is a shifting balance of power between civilizations, particularly between Western universalism, Muslim militancy and Chinese assertion. Huntington believed that the “clashes of civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace, and an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war.”

The irony is that even as Europe struggles with its debt crisis, the whole world was uniformly cheering Spain and Italy in their soccer final simultaneously broadcast world wide in HDTV. Technology today has transcended cultures and civilizations, but deep national, ethnic and religious divisions lie under the surface.

It is always controversial to debate what is different between East and West, especially since Western intellectuals are beginning to question whether the West is in decline. Princeton political scientist Professor Robert Keohane, in his recent review of the debate on American declinism in the magazine Foreign Affairs, correctly asked: “Will the instabilities in the global economy exposed by the 2008 financial crisis be corrected or merely papered over and thus left to cause potential havoc down the road?”

My recent attendance of various conferences analyzing the aftermath of the current financial crisis suggests to me that there is a gradual but perceptible re-appraisal of the whole basis of current mainstream Western economic thinking. What went wrong in the whole analytical framework that has failed the economics profession, regulators and policymakers in predicting and managing the current crisis?

The current analytical framework stems from the French mathematician Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who pioneered modern scientific thinking that the behavior of the whole can be understood entirely from the study of its parts. This led to the specialization of scientific disciplines, centered on rational, reductionist and linear analysis that broke down most problems into manageable parts to identify statistical relationships that have predictive power.

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