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Vision for a New Silk Roads 

Processes of world transformation are deep at work in our time. Our task is to give these institutional definition, such as in the proposed New Silk Roads Forum, writes Anouar Abdel-Malek*


Major political and cultural projects often emerge during the formative stages of new historical periods. Examples of this abound, with the way in which Aufklaerung (enlightenment) led to the French Encyclopédie and the Age of Revolutions from the 16th to the 18th centuries in Europe being but the best known. However, there are other such projects, and these include the slow re-discovery or resurgence of major thought traditions in the Orient, such as neo-Taoism in China, populist Buddhism in South Asia, Islamic fundamentalism as modernism, as distinct from integrism, the ongoing return to Indian roots in Central and South (Latin) America, and endeavours towards revitalising the roots of black American traditions.

We are now entering the formative stage of the formation of a new world, which can be defined as a multi-polar, multi-centred and multi-cultural historical initiative that is moving from the Atlantic to Asia and the Pacific, and from the West towards the Orient(s). A series of new developments, initiatives and institutions is now emerging at different levels of structuration and degrees of efficacy, mainly so in the areas of economy and security, though a more recent wave of cultural-intellectual initiatives is also emerging.

Economy and security necessarily share the limelight, whether in the reform of the United Nations and Security Council, the reorientation of NATO and the African Union, or the growing crisis in the Organisation of American States (OAS). At the same time, hitherto influential international organisations, notably the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the International Red Cross, and UNESCO, are gradually being marginalised. This is taking place as the cosmopolitan World Economic Forum is making claims to occupying a central place, refereeing, as it were, the problems of the unipolar world system. However, this system is facing challenges, mainly in the wider Middle East, but also in Asia and Latin America.

From this situation comes the relevance of the various new initiatives that are taking shape in the wider world, including the cultural dimension of ASEAN, the new East Asian Forum, when coupled with the decline of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and the development of Mercosur, the Southern Common Market, in South America, which is pushing the OAS to the margins. Such initiatives also include the quest for a specifically European cultural identity and attempts to shape modernity (as distinct from modernism) in the civilisational circles of both Islam and Buddhism. Side by side with these developments has been the need to develop a new spiritual civilisation in China.

At the heart of these emerging processes lies the quest for meanings and values as guiding elements towards twin objectives: how to overcome the destructive pattern of Western hegemonic imperialism, now menacing the survival of humanity in the midst of a rapidly deteriorating environment? And how, and where, to seek the inspiration to forge new modes of societal survival and progress in peace and possible harmony, while fully recognising different national interests, competing projects, and the antagonistic policies that constitute the texture of social and historical dialects at all times, and particularly so in our globalising world?

Such is the ethos of the historical moment, and such is the field from which springs the civilisational quest -- the quest of humanity for new visions of our "futures-to-be" and for a way of combining competing weltanschaung (s). This is a quest that is now shaping the major orientations of thought and action, including the civilisational orientation that is asserting itself as a vitalising source deep in the hearts of the wider majority of our societies and cultures.

Where, and how, can we address this urgent task and accompany its new long march?

One perspective is provided in the foundation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which is charting a major new inter-continental, inter- civilisational path -- an "Axis of Good" in today's parlance -- that also signals the resurgence and renaissance of the Orient(s) half a century after Bandung. This inter-civilisational path encompasses nearly two- fifths of mankind, from the shores of the Pacific to the heart of Europe.

The SCO itinerary has a clear importance in the field of international relations, bringing together all major fields of activity, from strategy and security to culture and society, while also giving the economic dimension its due, though not allowing this to define the spirit or orientation of the organisation.

From the initial Shanghai Cooperation Initiative in 1996, bringing together the five founding member states -- China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- to the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2001, which also includes Uzbekistan, the personality of the new organisation has been defined in a realistic and creative manner, as expressed in the SCO Charter that was officially adopted at the St Petersburg Conference in 2002.

The SCO Charter opens the way towards a range of new developments. Obviously, political and economic dimensions occupy centre stage, with the extension of membership, or cooperation, with the ASEAN and the new East Asia Forum, as well as the incorporation of a southern dimension towards South Asia, which is part of the crucial South- Western circles and touches on the Mediterranean and East-Central Europe. Wider associations can also be envisaged in due course.

It is within this inter-continental, inter-civilisational space that the time has now come to set up a specific international institution, the New Silk Roads Forum (NSR Forum), which will take the SCO as its inspiration in the field of multi- and inter-cultural and civilisational creativity and convergence. This new institution would interest itself in the new world poles and centres in the Orient(s) and in China at a time when the latter is undergoing a peaceful rise towards a harmonious society.

The NSR Forum would be geared towards the future, but not in the form of "futurology". Rather, it would operate in the hope of creating a new world that would repudiate reductionism through hegemonism, let alone unipolar hegemonism, and that would recognise the processes of world transformation that are deep at work in our time, though not from any single methodological, theoretical or ideological standpoint.

Yet, this "future- to-be", defined as the making of a new multi-polar, multi-centred, multi-cultural world, is not the result of a merely structural process. Rather, its essence would lie in emerging visions of human civilisation(s), and it would recognise specificities as well as contradictions. At the same time, however, it would be geared towards deepening a mutual resolve to understand, accept and join hands -- "build bridges", as it were -- between the poles of tension and the sources of creativity in our one world.

From this would flow a vital concern to give voice to major alternative schools of thought and action in each major constituent civilisational, cultural and national circle. Reductionism in its many guises, such as in the form of Davos, which echoes a plethora of well-meaning Western international and proselytising NGOs, would be firmly avoided. However, the oft- marginalised voices that are deep at work among peoples of hitherto peripheral continents and countries would be encouraged to provide their contributions, buttressed by the nation states in the area concerned.

This area would be none other than that which was once crossed by the intersecting paths of the historic Silk Roads, which once provided a life-line for relations and exchanges -- economic, human, scientific, cultural and religious -- between the West (Europe until the rise of America) and the many circles of the Orient.

Surely this is a path to be preferred to that set out by the artificial boundaries of military and political coalitions, let alone the geo-political imperatives of nuclear arsenals and the militarisation of space, which use the new information technologies to control hearts and minds and to penetrate creative thinking and imagination to the detriment of billions of women and men, young and old, reducing them to subservience in the so-called "global village"?

The New Silk Roads Forum would be at the heart of a network of think tanks, and it would serve as the sounding board for innovative approaches and endogenous creativity. It would be open to cooperation with selected representatives of parallel endeavours. At all times it would be concerned to define its specificity and give its own tonality to its thinking, propositions and action plans, thus retaining a voice that would be acknowledged and recognised amidst diversity, especially so in times of crisis.

* The writer is a social scientist and the author of numerous books, including Social Dialectics: Civilizations and Social Theory (State University of New York Press) and Egypt: Military Society; the Army Regime, the Left, and Social Change under Nasser (Random House). 

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