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Civilizational dialogue – Great Powers and the Portuguese Role in a changing world

by David Garrido e Cunha

Civilization is based on a concept of intellectual and cultural significance that we can date from classical antiquity. When we speak of Civilization, we immediately oppose it to the concept of barbaric or uncivilized – a term that designated in the western world, all those who, in the first instance were not Hellenic, in Ancient Greece, or not Romans during the Roman Empire. To the East there is also evidence of the same distinction, either in Persia or the Middle Empire. Later, in the Middle Ages, we observed a distinction of the concept of civilization in Europe, with the spirit of the crusade, ie, the distinction of a We as Western Christian and the Muslim Other, something that throughout history grew in complexity, and by War II World integrated the ideas of nationalism, race, ethnicity and values ​​of cultural, religious and political dimension. The Cold War period was one of the last great moments in which the distinction between Us and the Other was more evident, opposing the social, cultural and economic model of Soviet origin to the democratic and liberal North-American model.

Following a sociological and anthropological logic, creating a unity of identity – the We – inevitably passes through the creation of narratives, the creation of a collective memory and above all, the exaltation of our normative order and our social and cultural model. The construction of the We generates a problematic effect, since many times this creation is done as opposed to a different model, based on prejudice and in the differentiation towards the Other. It is this differentiation that provides distinctions between Us and Other, the “us versus them”, the Manichean distinction between good and evil, a political and social context. It is in this context that Edward Said asks the question: “Can one divide human reality into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions…and survive the consequences humanly?” (Said, 1978) It is through this question that we find the greatest obstacle to a true dialogue of civilizations. The construction of our own identity possesses always the risk of creating a clash, in the same logic of the theory of Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”. Criticism of a possible shock from various civilizations and normative orders in conflict is inextricably linked to modern political and intellectual experiences, to which Scott Thomas called “Westphalian presumption”, in which states with and affirmative attitude towards cultural or religious differences in the political sphere leads to instability, conflict and political violence, and that this civilizational distinction should therefore be removed from the political order, in imperative for the creation of a true international order (Thomas, 2005).

By using these arguments, I demonstrate my own view that, in the view of Amartya Sen leads to the conclusion that a system of thought based on the civilization criteria is extremely dangerous, not only when it is used in the theory of clash of civilizations but also as rhetoric the most well-intentioned attempts of dialogue. (Sen, 2006) This is why, in my opinion, the political dialogue between states in order to prevent conflict and promote cooperation must be separated effectively from the thematic of Civilization as a entity of religious, social and cultural dimensions. The effort of dialogue should be based more on the pragmatic point of view of multiple gains and equality. Only in this way, we can move away from the paternalistic rhetoric and the relations of superiority / inferiority that stimulate conflict and generate friction in the international order.

The Great Powers

Starting from the thesis of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”, however, and making a parallel with the five major emerging powers, we can see that the so-called BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, effectively belong to different civilizations. All of them are great powers and some regional leaders: Brazil in the Latin American civilization, Russia in the Orthodox civilization, India in the Hindu civilization, China in the Sinic civilization and South Africa in the African civilization. Joining these emerging powers there are extremely influential traditional powers in other civilizational and regional blocs, like the United States and Japan and others of great regional importance which is extremely relativized internationally as Thailand, Egypt, Iran and Turkey. I leave aside for now, the great importance played by the Member States of the European Union and even the European Union as a bloc – which adds itself, elements of two different civilizations, the Orthodox and Western – whose role is quite international relativized by Western U.S. leadership in all areas except the economic, when we consider the EU as a bloc.

Given the geographic diversity of all the states listed, we have to wonder if they all have claims in their foreign policy for, in the long run, become the dominant actors in international relations and the incontestable leaders. It is undeniable that the U.S. represent, and will represent in the next decades the quintessential super-power, both at the economic, military and even the level of influence and soft power. However, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which generated thesis as the “End of History”, the U.S. has shown some incapacity, or unwillingness, to maintain global leadership in all aspects. A State which intends to be a global superpower has to take into account that his power is not merely to moderate, it must be able to intervene and act, whether military, economic or technically.

As it is said in America “with great power comes great responsibility” and therefore to be a leader has a high cost in many aspects. One dominant state can not exercise its power and influence without having the ability to provide counterpart. Thus, the U.S. has sought, with rare exceptions, to share responsibilities with other states, such as the European states, to deal with problematic issues of the international agenda. That’s why we can say that global leadership not only involves the willingness to play this role, but mainly the capacity. The rise of other states which relativize American power will not lead to a “power shift” the center of global power shifts from one state to another, but rather to a sharing of power and a subsequent sharing of responsibility. The U.S. should then adapt to a new international order, more pluralistic and decentralized, opening spaces for emerging powers to acquire power and responsibilities.

This sharing of power implies an effort of cooperation and dialogue between the various Member States are through open diplomacy, the various international forums, within the United Nations or by international law. The major problem which arises is that, given the crisis of multilateralism, international society can turn out to be dominated by a directory of powers, as in the past in the case of the Holy Alliance, seeking to achieve their own interests and the maintenance the status quo and not the common good. It demonstrates once again, the importance of the removal of political ideas of superiority / inferiority, We / They, etc, for the sake of pragmatism and multiple earnings.

The former Spanish Prime Minister, José Rodríguez Zapatero, while presenting in the UN General Assembly the Alliance of Civilizations said that the day-to-day life of modern societies involves the multi-civilizational acceptance, demonstrating that the culture of dialogue spread across all civilizations and states, as well as within the official bodies or civil society. Highlight, the good examples of dialogue, we may consider the European Union, which has been struggling in various aspects to conduct a dialogue for cooperation, manifested, first in the spirit of Barcelona and the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue, giving rise to the Three Cultures Foundation, the Euro-Asian dialogue, the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace, and the various conferences and initiatives to consultation and stabilization in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We depart from the principle that a global problem requires a global response.

Another notable example outside the European Union, in terms of dialogue, has been the Academy of Latinity, based in Rio de Janeiro that promotes dialogue between the peoples of Latin culture, and maintains the idea that it is also necessary dialogue with non-Latin peoples, having promoted and deepened contact with Muslim people.

The Portuguese Role

In 2005, due to the 60th General Assembly of the United Nations, it was established the Committee of Wise Men to promote the Alliance of Civilizations (AoC). The mission of this committee would be to form a report of recommendations in four key areas: 1) education and academia, 2) media; 3) youth; 4) migration and integration. One of its proposals was an appointment of a High Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for the PCA, being entrusted to this office and former Portuguese President, Jorge Sampaio, in April 2007.

In 2008, the Portuguese Government, engaged in the work of the AoC has established a National Plan for the promotion of the objectives of the AoC and appointed a “National Coordinator”. The Plan itself, biannual, establishes a series of actions such as education for peace, democracy and citizenship, a local and national level, the Euro-Mediterranean level, the level of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries and the overall level. Also designates a set of actions to be performed at the level of culture, public opinion and finally, the level of democracy, pluralism, tolerance, among immigrant communities and minorities (Alliance of Civilizations – National Action Plan, 2008).

We consider that, given the position assigned to Jorge Sampaio and the domestic efforts to promote the cause of AoC, demonstrates an undeniable commitment and recognition of Portugal as a link that may be important in building a dialogue civilizations.

Portugal, due to its historically pluralistic culture in religion and culture can and should focus its efforts to gain a decisive role as a center of dialogue between various cultures. The Portuguese geopolitical circumstance places it in a prominent position for the deepening of relations not only Euro-Mediterranean but also euro-Atlantic, due to the proximity of both the African continent and the North and South American Continent.

Portugal was historically a place where lived the three great Abrahamic religions, a land of conquest and reconquest assigning the portuguese with a rich genetic diversity. It is in that spirit that Gilberto Freyre, affirms that, due the proximity of Portugal to Africa, due the hot weather and the genetic diversity origin Muslim, Visigothic, Roman, Germanic and Berbere origin – adding to a wide variety of other pre-modern people – the Portuguese culture has become a culture more humane, tolerant and able to adapt to other climates and to integrate other cultures, not possessing the various myths of racial superiority that integrate many other European cultures. In this perspective, the portuguese legacy of tolerance and pluralism thickened even more with the colonial period beginning in the Discoveries Period and lasting for over than 500 years, based largely in the spirit of Racial Democracy, pro-miscegenation and composed by its civilizing and messianic mission. This fact allowed close ties between Portugal and the East, either through colonial possessions slightly throughout Asia, as through diplomatic ties with several Asian states. In terms of the colonial past, we talk eventually Macau – which brings Portugal closer to China, which is of great importance – and Timor-Leste, and links with the communities of Goa, Daman and Diu into the Indian Union, also of utmost importance. In the diplomatic sphere, we highlight the Luso-Thai relations which in 2012 celebrated its 500th anniversary

In Africa, the Portuguese influence in the sixteenth century allowed the king of Congo converts to Christianity, adopting even the Portuguese name of King John, a custom that remained in the following generations, also Christians, and that would be designated by several Portuguese monarchs as cousins ​​or brothers, until the time when the Empire of Congo fell victim to European colonial ambitions. Until 1975, Portugal held many overseas possessions in Africa, and the group of countries designated as PALOP (African Countries of Portuguese Official Language) still maintain close relations with Portugal, and in which the former metropolis still has considerable importance, both in terms investment and culturally, through, for example, the public broadcaster RTP-Africa, and the CPLP.

Beyond the PALOPs, Portugal can also pretend to work on a North-South dialogue in a Euro-Mediterranean sphere through its proximity both physical and historical to Morocco. In fact, it should never be forgotten but that is often overlooked is the fact that Rabat is the second nearest capital to Lisbon, after Madrid. In fact, it is the Ambassador of the King of Morocco in Portugal which states that “The ties that bind our two countries are in fact based on a shared history, under a tradition of openness and dialogue, diversity and complementarity that characterize our two societies “(Benyaich, 2013).

However, one of the most important advantages that enhance the ability of Portugal to grow as an important link in the intercivilizational dialogue lies in the largest country in Latin America and one of the most important emerging powers, Brazil. Luso-Brazilian relations, even requiring a greater commitment and depth are already today a key importance to boost Portugal’s role in international affairs. As the largest and most successful portuguese speaking country, with an important position both Regional and Global, Brazil should be undeniably the key for Portugal placement as an important link in the North-South and civilizational dialogue. Such deepening relationships can go through triangulation and cooperation, what Adriano Moreira calls “Mar Moreno” and is more commonly known as the South Atlantic.

Finally, we can refer that strengthening intercivilizational dialogue through the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries, can provide its Member States located on four continents greater international notoriety. We can also verify that the chances of Portugal to consist as a center of intercivilizational dialogue for cooperation, development and peace are well on its reach, leaving only hope that there is, in fact, political and economic will on the part of National Elites to achieve all these goals.


Alliance of Civilizations – National Action Plan, 2008/2009, available online at: “http://www.unaoc.org/docs/Portugal-NatStrat.pdf,” last accessed April 25, 2013;
Benyaich, Karima; Words of Ambassador, 2013, available online at: “http://www.emb-marrocos.pt/textos/a-embaixada/a-embaixadora_63.html” Last time accessed April 25, 2013;
Freyre, Gilberto, (1933). Casa Grande & Slaves: Brazilian family formation under the regime of patriarchal economy. Rio de Janeiro: Maia & Schmidt
Said (1978). Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin Books;
Scott Thomas (2005). The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations. New York: Palgrave;
Sen, Amartya, (2006). Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. New York: W. W. Norton & Company;
Zakaria, Fareed, (2011). The Post-American World: Release 2.0. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.


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