Monday, 17 June 2019

Armen Sarkissian*: ‘The moment you stop learning, you die’

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John Thornhill
 Having Lunch with the FT with the president of Armenia proves as diplomatically ticklish as it is gastronomically sensatio­nal. True to the traditions of lavish hospitality in his tiny Caucasian country, Armen Sarkissian refuses to accept that any visitor could ever treat him to lunch in his home city of Yerevan. But when I tell him of the FT’s rigid rules, he suggests a generous compromise: we should have a second lunch two days later which, he reluctantly concedes, the FT may be allowed to cover. So precedent is breached, but honour satisfied.

The first of our two girth-busting and brain-bursting lunches takes place in Ankyun, an Italian-Armenian fusion restaurant in the centre of Yerevan, a quirky urban hybrid of slab-faced Soviet architecture and grandiose Caucasian style. When Sarkissian arrives, preceded by a posse of leather-jacketed, earpiece-wearing bodyguards, we are soon drawn into a discussion of the drama of last year’s “velvet revolution” and the stand-off between the then prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, and mass opposition on the street. “It was very, very, very tense. There was no dialogue between those on the street and the government and we were heading towards a confrontation,” he says.

Sarkissian’s instinct, which his advisers thought “mad”, was simply to walk into the crowd of protesters gathered in Republic Square to meet the opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan and hear what he had to say. “I just had the feeling that was the right thing to do,” he says.

But our conversation rapidly sweeps over a broad range of subjects, from theoretical physics, Margaret Thatcher, Lord Byron and Kim Kardashian to Sarkissian’s theory of “quantum politics”, all sprinkled with a fair dose of Caucasian culture, cuisine and intrigue.

Sarkissian has, after all, lived many lives during his 65 years. “Life is always preparing you for something, you just never know for what,” says Sarkissian, whose broad face can switch from censorious frown to avuncular grin as fast as the clouds scud across Yerevan’s skyline towards Mount Ararat.

Determined to show off the wonders of the local cuisine, Sarkissian dispenses with the menu and orders a broad sample of the restaurant’s offerings. We start by sharing three salads, beetroot and cheese, broccoli, and an olive oil-drenched tarragon creation bursting with freshness and flavour. That is quickly followed by a tagliatelle with lemon and pine kernels that is deliciously zingy. I am keen to try some local wine, given that Armenia is renowned as one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world — as noted by Herodotus. So we taste some Koor Voskehat dry white that in its rich colour and resiny taste resembles, to my limited palate at least, a vin jaune from the Jura.

During our conversation, Sarkissian frequently harks back to Armenia’s rich and troubled past but has his eyes fixed firmly on the future. I ask him about the recent speech in which he said that if the 20th century had been the century of natural resources, then the 21st century would be that of human resources. He explains that we are living through a period of extraordinary technological change, which he describes as an era of rapid evolution, or “r-evolution”, as he has dubbed it. The ability to learn and adapt is what will differentiate the winners from losers in this century.

This explosion of knowledge is partly a numbers game. In Isaac Newton’s day, there were perhaps 1,000 people in the world studying advanced mechanics. In Albert Einstein’s day, there were perhaps 10,000 scientists worldwide researching quantum physics. But today, he estimates, there are hundreds of millions of people engaged in scientific research and technological development, not just in the famous universities and multinational companies but in thousands of innovative start-ups.

“If you can find Newton in 1,000 and Einstein in 10,000, imagine how many talented people can you find in hundreds of millions? This new world is a world of innovation and start-ups.”

Sarkissian is keen to seize the opportunities of this new revolution, and argues that the power of innovation does not only apply to science, technology and business but also to the way that countries run themselves. Governments must become a lot more agile and education systems need to be reimagined. “Armenia is one of the new start-ups of the 21st century,” he says.

The first of Sarkissian’s lives was as a theoretical physicist in the Soviet Union, winning the prestigious Lenin prize and the rare opportunity in 1984 to pursue research at the University of Cambridge alongside, among others, Stephen Hawking.

On the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Sarkissian was asked to become independent Armenia’s first ambassador to London, a post he filled again on two later occasions — a record, he believes, at the Court of St James’s. For good measure, he also opened embassies and missions in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, the EU, Nato and the Vatican. “I dreamt that I could do both science and diplomacy. But being a research physicist is like being a concert pianist. Unless you practise every day, it is gone. It becomes a hobby,” he says, regretfully.

His third life began in 1996 when he became Armenia’s prime minister, a demanding job cut short the following year when he was diagnosed with cancer. On his recovery, he returned to London to pursue a lucrative career as a business adviser to some of the world’s biggest multinationals, interspersed with further ambassadorial spells.

But in 2018 he was once again lured back into Armenian politics after being elected by parliament to serve as president. Almost immediately, he walked into a raging political crisis. Sargsyan, who had been president for the previous 10 years, had tried to retain power by rewriting the constitution and assuming the newly beefed-up role of prime minister. But this had triggered mass protests and fears that the country might spiral into violent confrontation.

Putting his extensive diplomatic wiles to good use, Sarkissian shuttled between the two sides and consulted Russian, US and EU representatives to broker a settlement. He urged all parties to come together on the eve of the anniversary of the Armenian genocide of 1915, commemorated each year on April 24. Sargsyan’s dramatic resignation soon followed, paving the way for fresh elections. Mercifully, Armenia avoided the conflict that disfigured the so-called colour revolutions in several other former Soviet republics. Sarkissian is full of praise for the restraint shown by all sides, including Russian president Vladimir Putin. “I think everyone behaved properly,” he says.

Sarkissian is now basking in the afterglow, acting as a father figure to a young, reform-minded government led by the former opposition leader Pashinyan. Hope has finally broken out in a country more familiar with tragedy.

He notices that a song by Charles Aznavour, that late, great Armenian-French singer, is playing in the background. Sarkissian reminisces that when he was ambassador to the EU, he would invite Aznavour to Brussels twice a year, guaranteeing that pretty much the entire European Commission queued up to come to dinner.

As we fold thin slices of pancetta and pepperoni pizza and munch away, Sarkissian tells me about some of the leaders he has known best and most admired, including Israel’s Shimon Peres and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher.

In particular, he remembers a trip that Thatcher made to Armenia in 1990 following the devastating earthquake of 1988, which killed some 45,000 people. Thatcher had flown in from Moscow, where she had held important talks with the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. What struck Sarkissian was her “discipline and sharpness of her mind”, as well as her memory for detail. He was most impressed by her ability to listen and learn, human skills that Sarkissian ranks highly. “Those people who know how to listen are also people who learn,” he says. “The moment you stop learning, you die. Age is not the number of years that you have been living. Age is the condition of your soul.”

 While in Armenia, Thatcher opened a school in Gyumri, rebuilt with British aid money and named in honour of Lord Byron, whom I learn is something of a national hero in Armenia. Sarkissian explains that in 1816 Byron spent several months living with the Mekhitarist Order of the Armenian Catholic Church in Venice, where he learnt the language and wrote about Armenia’s struggle for liberation from Turkish pashas and Persian satraps. Armenian monks live in the same monastery on the beautiful Isla San Lazzaro to this day, serving up fine food and immersing themselves in a library of ancient manuscripts. “I would love to live there, it’s a fantastic life,” says Sarkissian a little wistfully.

I am certainly not grumbling about our own enclave of Italian-Armenian cuisine. Our pizza plates are whisked away and the main course arrives: steak for the president, and salmon for me. Afterwards, the owner insists that we try a pleasingly bitter hazelnut cake with our coffee. “If you ate like this every day, you would be 200 kilogrammes,” the president jokes.

Two days later, we meet again at Dolmama, an apartment block converted into an Armenian restaurant run by Jirair Avanian, a former New York art dealer and one of Sarkissian’s oldest friends. They both studied at School No 114 back in Soviet times. “He was always the brightest kid in school,” the debonair Avanian tells me. With dark wood furniture, deep red tablecloths and flowers on every table, Dolmama has the feel of a family dining room.

When Sarkissian arrives, dressed in a grey pinstriped suit and a black V-neck jumper, he says he is fighting off a cold and orders a little cherry-flavoured vodka and a Coca-Cola. We order a tantalising array of cold starters and salads, trout and cheese parcels, aubergine rolls stuffed with walnuts and fennel, and chicken liver salad, as well as the restaurant’s signature dolma, vine leaves filled with lamb and beef. They are all prepared and presented to perfection.

Quickly picking up on our previous conversation, Sarkissian delivers a spirited explanation of why small countries such as Armenia, Israel, Singapore and Ireland, often the victims of bigger powers in previous centuries, are well positioned to thrive in our own times because they are so adaptable.

Throughout its own 3,000-year history, Armenia has been at the crossroads of different civilisations, cultures and ideologies, European and Asian, Christian and Muslim, communist and capitalist. Over the past few centuries, that has resulted in several eruptions of violence between the world’s oldest Christian state and its Islamic neighbours, most recently Turkey and Azerbaijan. Armenia is still locked in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. “We are survivors,” Sarkissian says.

That tumultuous history caused millions of Armenians to flee abroad. Although the population of Armenia numbers only 3m, there are an estimated 8m diaspora Armenians scattered around the world: “Armenia is a small country, but a global nation,” Sarkissian says.

That global network of engaged Armenians, including the reality TV star Kim Kardashian with her 141m Instagram followers, will be an important asset in today’s interconnected world, he argues. Sarkissian is determined to deepen the diaspora’s involvement with its historic homeland. “They have to believe they are part of a bigger family,” he says. “We have to become a hub of new ideas and technologies and do business in many places.”

Sarkissian tucks his napkin into the top of his jumper as a giant pork steak arrives. I have ordered a trout from Armenia’s Lake Sevan, a place of legendary beauty — and fine fish. The enormous, delicate trout is meatier than any other I have tasted but still flakes off the bone at the slightest prodding.

One of the aspects of our modern world that most intrigues Sarkissian is how the latest technological revolution is changing the dynamics of politics. One of the very few heads of state who is a scientist, he argues that just as we moved from a world of classical to quantum mechanics, we are now moving from a world of classical to quantum politics. In the classical political world, what matters are organised forms of connectivity: tribes, nations, religions, ideologies, parties, political institutions. Change tends to be slow and relatively predictable. But the quantum political world moves in faster, unpredictable and seemingly random ways: every connected individual can produce an effect by expressing their opinion on social media.

“By the quantum, I mean the individual particle. The individual person becomes powerful because they have a tool of connectivity in the world wide web,” he says. “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle could be used to describe events that are happening in social life.”

Sarkissian says that many aspects of our contemporary world exhibit quantum behaviour: the spread of pandemics or the impact of terrorist acts. He saw its effects first-hand, too, during Armenia’s soft revolution, when the classical institutions of government and parliament were overwhelmed by mass mobilisation in the virtual world. Power seeped into the streets.

But did not something similar take place in the pre-internet era in October 1917 during the Russian Revolution? Yes, Sarkissian concedes. Such events used to happen once every 80 years; nowadays they can happen every year. He cites the example of Emmanuel Macron, who proved a master of quantum politics in winning the French presidency in 2017 by unconventional means, but is now its victim as the gilets jaunes have mobilised online and taken to the streets.

Despite the uncertainties created by this new world, Sarkissian is exhilarated by its possibilities. He suggests that we are living through a new renaissance as research boundaries dissolve, for example, between physics and biology, between DNA and data-processing. “I would love to come back in 50 years to see what has happened,” he says.

Affairs of state are pressing but I have time to ask him which of his many lives he has most enjoyed. Typically, he gives an answer that is both mathematical and diplomatic. “Each of them. They were all mine. When I was living life number n, I was not thinking about life number n+1,” he says. “I was just trying to live a full life when I was living it.”

*Physicist, computer scientist and currently serves as the incumbent President of Armania.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

It is wrong to conflate communitarianism with communalism

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 Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi

One word conspicuous by its absence not only from the election campaign but perhaps from the entire political discourse in recent times was secularism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought it back in his victory speech. Most political parties in the last 30 years had practised a naqli (fake) secularism, he said. His great achievement, he implied, was to have unmasked these fake secularists and single-handedly dismantled secularism. Until now, for Mr. Modi, fake secularism has been the handmaiden of minority appeasement. Next day, however, he spoke of winning back the trust of the minorities, who, he said, have been deceived and cheated by other parties. With this, fake secularism was given a different meaning; it does not pamper but cheats minorities. In other words, it does not satisfy their real needs, but only gives the illusion of doing so. Here, Mr. Modi acknowledges that Muslims are a deprived lot. So, what, according to Mr. Modi, is asli (genuine) secularism? The answer he gives is the inclusion of minorities in ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’, which is translated by his party as ‘justice to all, appeasement to none’. To this he added ‘sabka vishwas’, winning the trust of all.

Fears of minorities

On the treatment of minorities by other parties, the Prime Minister is partly right and partly wrong. Wrong, because the insecurity amongst minorities is created largely by Mr. Modi’s own political supporters. Lynchings in the past few years and the fear such random violence creates are only the tip of this gigantic iceberg. Right, because when in power, most non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parties have done little more than provide security. Now, the condition of feeling safe and secure must not be underestimated. Freedom from fear is important, and to live in the fear of being lynched only because you are a Muslim is a very real unfreedom indeed. Yet, political parties have not helped Muslims with their vikas. Some have even pampered the orthodoxy within their communities and have done little to bring them out of their ghettos. So, this secularism is partly fake because it has often meant tolerating minority communalism, and hobnobbing with the most selfish and conservative spokespersons of the multiple Muslim communities of India.

It is very sad indeed that in the election campaign, these ‘fake secularists’ failed miserably to speak up for Muslims. Perhaps they were terrified that if they spoke of the legitimate interests of Muslims, they would be immediately branded as pro-Pakistan, anti-national or anti-Hindu. Yes, ‘fake’ secularism has failed the minorities and the people of India, but the BJP and its supporters, particularly the so-called ‘fringe’, must take a lot of blame for that. This needs course correction and the nation would be grateful to the Prime Minister if he began that process.

But is the secularism propounded or implied by the Prime Minister genuine? At least in theory, ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’ gets one thing right: no individual citizen should face discrimination on grounds of religion. Basic amenities, good health, education, housing and employment should be available equally to all, regardless of their religion. If he succeeds in this endeavour, he would make great strides towards realising secularism.

However, secularism combats not just discrimination and other worse forms of inter-religious domination such as exclusion, oppression and humiliation. It is equally opposed to intra-religious domination, i.e. the domination (of women, Dalits, dissenters) within every religious community. For instance, the fight against the hierarchical caste system in India, quite like the struggle against the church in European history, is integral to the fight for secularism — a point noted by both Ambedkar and Nehru. Equally important for secularism is opposition to religious fanaticism and bigotry. Neither of these is explicitly captured by ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’.

Misunderstanding secularism

That Indian secularism is not anti-religious is widely understood — but not that it is simultaneously against both forms of institutionalised religious domination. How did this misunderstanding develop? First, the struggle against inter-religious domination (a defence of minority rights, opposition to majority and minority communalism) became separated from the fight against intra-religious domination (religion-related patriarchy and caste domination, fanaticism, bigotry and extremism). Then, this intra-religious dimension was jetttisoned from the meaning of secularism and, much to the detriment of its overall value, secularism began to be identified, by proponents and opponents alike, exclusively with the defence of minority rights.

This opened the door for viewing secularism first as a tool to protect the interests of Muslims and Christians, of no relevance to Hindus, and then for twisting it to appear as pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu. The strength of Indian secularism — its advocacy of minority cultural rights — was easily made to appear as its weakness and the burden of its defence, rather than be shared by all citizens, fell on the shoulders of minorities and ‘pro-minority’ secularists. This is unfair. Secularism is needed as much to protect Hindus from intra-religious domination, from their ‘fringe elements’, as well as from proponents of religion-based caste and gender hierarchies. And required equally to protect minorities from their own orthodoxies and extremisms. Asli secularism plays that role. Naqli secularism protects fanatics and legitimises gender and caste-based domination.

Secularism today has other problems. One is its intellectual failure to distinguish communitarianism from communalism. Communitarianism simply notes that an individual is at least partly defined by his or her religious/philosophical commitments, community and traditions. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to claim that one is a Hindu/Muslim/Sikh/Christian/atheist etc, and to take legitimate pride in one’s community or be ashamed of it when there is good reason to be.

Communalism is different. Here one’s identity and the existence and interests of one’s community are viewed, even defined, as necessarily opposed to others. It is communal to believe or act in a way that presupposes that one can’t be a Hindu without being anti-Muslim, or vice-versa. Communalism is communitarianism gone sour. It is to see each other as enemies locked in a permanent war with one another. Every decent Indian national should be against communalism. But no one should decry legitimate forms of communitarianism. It is simply wrong to conflate communitarianism with communalism.

Attention must also be drawn to another problem of Indian secularism. Our education system often fails to distinguish religious instruction and religious education. No publicly funded school or college should have religious instruction, best done at home or in privately funded schools; but reasonable, decent education should include elementary knowledge of all religious traditions. A deeper understanding of these traditions is vital, for it would enable students to discern their strengths and weaknesses and identify what in them is worth preserving or discarding. But Indians come out of their education system without any critical understanding of their religio-philosophical traditions. As a result, a defence of our own religious traditions or critique of others is shallow and frequently mischievous. This too is fake secularism.

What is to be done?

What then must be expected from real, genuine secularism? Justice to all citizens, affirmation of all reasonable religious identities, rejection of majority communalism, careful defence of legitimate minority rights only when accompanied by a robust critique of minority extremism, and a critical appraisal of religions with a deeper, empathetic grasp of their traditions. The government’s primary business is to prevent religion-based violence, oppression and discrimination. Perhaps, those outside the government should attend to its other functions. Together, we may just rescue our genuine secularism.

Friday, 24 May 2019

The colonised mind in a multicultural setting

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Avani Lal is a student at St Hugh’s college, Oxford, and is studying for an MPhil in political theory

Last month, the 100-year anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Punjab, north India, reignited the bitter debate about Britain’s colonial legacy and its responsibility to apologise for past atrocities. Now that the centenary has been and gone, we must remember the struggle for adequate recognition for colonial atrocities is an ongoing and pressing concern.

On April 13 1919, Indian soldiers under the command of the British General Reginald Dyer shot and killed at least 379 colonial subjects who had gathered on the Sikh and Hindu religious festival of Vaisakhi. Britain has not apologised for this atrocity.

This issue dominated conversations around the centenary this year and was a prominent topic in a television documentary marking the anniversary of the massacre. In the documentary, one of Gen Dyer’s descendants showed admiration for their ancestor, angering many viewers. Since then, a letter has circulated on social media from another of the Dyer family to the journalist Sathnam Sanghera, who presented the programme, offering a private apology.

As a young British woman with Punjabi heritage, remembering the massacre and confronting the lack of an apology raised a conflict for me. It was Indian troops — my ancestors — shooting their own, but at the command of a nation that I now identify with. The centenary made me realise that this 100-year-old violence forces me, and other ethnic minority citizens of former colonial powers, into an identity conflict today.

While Mr Sanghera’s documentary managed to educate many British viewers on this significant historical event, some noted that the film was more of a journey of self-discovery than a historical piece, and some criticised the film for granting disproportionate airtime to Gen Dyer’s family. Critics also highlighted Mr Sanghera’s westernised pronunciation — even of his own name.

All this, they argued, was evidence of a colonised mind — an outlook where any feelings of cultural inferiority, a legacy of the Empire era, have been internalised.

Some Punjabi friends accuse me of the same thing: I pronounce my name “A-var-née”, they argue it should be “Uhv-uh-nee”. In identifying with this “colonised” pronunciation, I sometimes feel like a traitor to my heritage, to my own British Asian community and to the ongoing process of decolonising our intellectual, social and political worlds. While a reasonable discussion about language should be welcomed, (perhaps Mr Sanghera should have said “Gurdwara” not “Sikh Temple”, for example), making individuals feel like outsiders to their own community should not. My heritage is Punjabi and I am proud of this. Yet, because of how I say my name, some claim that I am not Punjabi enough.

For others, I am not British enough either — whatever that means. While at school, I vividly remember being instructed by teachers to explain the Hindu festival of Diwali to my majority-white classmates. This well-intentioned but clumsy move forced me to confront my “otherness” before I was even aware of it. Recently, on a bus, I was told to “go back to where I came from”.

Remembering the massacre has forced me to recognise this struggle between the different aspects of my identity.

Something must change. Britain must own its past, good and bad, and understand how that shapes its present and future. Perhaps an apology would be a step towards this. An apology is not about holding British people today literally responsible for the acts of some in the past. When Britain is having to redefine itself, an apology would signal that the British government takes its history, and its moral responsibility to prevent similar future atrocities, seriously.

Rather than glorifying Empire, British schools need to talk about it openly, truthfully and with genuine remorse for events like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. According to YouGov’s 2016 poll, about 44 per cent of UK citizens are proud of Britain’s colonial history. But we all need to understand this period of global history better — such an education might help millions of ethnic minority Brits more peacefully reconcile different aspects of their identities.

Finally, the many and varied British Asian communities in the UK, like many other ethnic minority communities, need to accept that individuals will interact with our shared heritage differently and to view this without judgment. Embracing diverse points of view will continue to strengthen our already strong and warm communities.

These changes will not miraculously put an end to the internal conflict I find myself in. However, they may help me peacefully attempt to reconcile the different parts of my identity, and to feel that my value to the British Asian community and to broader British society does not depend on me immediately resolving this in one direction or the other.

In the meantime, please call me “A-var-née” because that feels right for this British Asian.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

How talk of a clash of civilisations with China serves America’s (and the West's) purpose

  
Vasilis Trigkas is an Onassis Scholar and research fellow in the Belt & Road Strategy Centre at Tsinghua University

 During my early graduate years at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, a Chinese professor castigated America as having the memory of a goldfish which, consequently, handicapped its strategic community with historic myopia. The professor argued that Chinese strategists, drawing on five millennia of civilisational continuity, see international politics in the longue durée., or long term.

An astute American student objected, arguing that the US, as the natural heir to Greece and Rome, also enjoys a multi-millennial history. He insisted that walking down Washington DC’s National Mall and reading the Federalist papers would provide sufficient evidence to back his thesis. Seemingly, two civilisations clashed in the classroom.

Steve Bannon, the leader of the US alt-right, has long seconded the new clash-of-civilisations approach and taken it to new strategic heights. When in the White House, he held study sessions where the administration’s senior officers discussed Graham Allison’s book on the Thucydides trap, which argued for the inevitability of war between China and America.

“We are Athens and the Chinese are Sparta,” Bannon often declared, adding that the US would have to compete with a civilisation which holds very different values than its own and has an equally competitive strategic culture, as evidenced in classics like Sun Tze’s The Art of War, where the acme of strategy is to win without fighting.

Bannon’s view has found strong support in the State Department, with its director of policy planning, Dr Kiron Skinner, recently declaring that the US must prepare for an unprecedented clash of civilisations with China. “This is a fight with a really different civilisation and a different ideology and the United States hasn't had that before,” she said.

Civilisational fault lines are, however, porous and strategically elastic and have often been arbitrarily defined in such a way as to mobilise domestic support against a rising geopolitical rival.

When the Spartans declared war against Athens, they proclaimed that they did so to liberate the Greeks from Athenian oppression, and in the process of fighting the Athenians, the Spartans willingly and without a second thought allied with a foreign civilisation and arch-enemy of the Greeks: the Achaemenid Persians. Eventually, when the Spartans defeated Athens, they just replaced Athenian imperialism with their own extractive rule.

Less than a century after the Peloponnesian war, Demosthenes, antiquity’s most celebrated orator, issued his philippics in the Athenian agora, trying to mobilise the Athenians against the rise of Philip of Macedon. “Do not allow the barbaric Kingdom of Macedonia to hegemonise the Greeks,” he declared in oratorical perfection celebrated to this day, strategically neglecting that the Macedonians spoke Greek, worshipped Greek gods, bore Greek names, and participated in the Greeks-only Olympic games.

Fast forward to AD1536, and the king of France, Francis I, allied with the Ottoman sultan Suleiman I to fight the Italians, France’s fellow Europeans. Shared culture – even shared Catholicism – did not dislodge the European warring states’ geopolitical priorities. The Franco-Ottoman alliance shook European intellectuals to their core. Swiss diplomat and historian Carl Jacob Burckhardt famously called it "the sacrilegious union of the lily and the crescent”.

Caught in the Mediterranean’s new geopolitical balance was Crete, the source of the Minoan civilisation. The Cretan heirs to Europe’s first advanced civilisation, going back to the third millennium BC, were eventually annexed by the Ottomans and remained under Ottoman domination for 300 years.

From classical antiquity to modernity, definitions about what constitutes a civilisation are strategically elastic, and civilisational unity has often been subordinated in nation-states’ relentless pursuit of security. The clash-of-civilisations thesis established in Harvard University’s Samuel Huntington’s seminal book has indeed become a popular catchphrase, but lacks scientific attestation.

The ongoing effort in the US State Department to issue a new “Letter X” and frame Sino-US rivalry as a clash of civilisations should be seen not as a scientific retort but, rather, as an effort to mobilise US domestic support and most importantly unify the Occident at a time of intensifying hegemonic competition between Washington and Beijing. It is not a Huntington’s world; it’s Mearsheimer’s.

Dr Skinner’s argument that Russia is part of the “West” – a case which Huntington clearly dismissed in his book – is hence not surprising, given the realpolitik imperative of a reverse Nixon; that is, of a Washington-Moscow axis to contain China. Definitions about the boundaries of a civilisation are thus morphed at the will of shrewd strategists and easily manipulated for other means.

In the Indo-Pacific region, for instance, Japan and India are part of the American security system, the civilisational basis for for their inclusion in America’s alliance deriving from their shared democratic polity. In the case of a strategic overture to authoritarian Russia, civilisational amity could be based on shared traits in literature, fine arts and religion.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in April. Japan and India are part of the American security system in the Indo-Pacific region, the civilisational basis for their inclusion in America’s alliance deriving from their shared democratic polity.

China is also playing the civilisational geopolitical game. While it rebukes US efforts to divide the world based on civilisational fault lines or race, it is using its own racial definition of “Chineseness” to attract ethnic Chinese across the globe and promote the Chinese Communist Party’s goals, as evidenced in the campaigns spearheaded by the United Front.

This week, the Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos will be the only European head of state invited to address the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations in Beijing, organised under the personal aegis of Chinese President Xi Jinping. As Greece’s classical texts have repeatedly incubated humanistic renaissance and scientific enlightenment in the West, Pavlopoulos will have a prime opportunity to frame the debate about what constitutes a civilisation, drawing on the original contributions of Hellenism: the West’s cradle.

Huntington’s pseudo-theory had expelled Greece from the West. Pavlopoulos – a proven intellectual, and one of Europe’s most renowned legal theorists – can reassert Greece’s Western identity, and in the spirit of cosmopolitanism speak to Asians as a cultural interpreter of the Occident.

To be sure, however inspiring and symbolically relevant, a speech will not suffice to neutralise the structural conditions that urge systemic rivals into a cutthroat Mearsheimerian competition.

However, it can at least provide a lucid framework for a strategic discussion about the common origin and ultimate destiny of human civilisation beyond the dangerous rhetoric of a conflict of civilisations. Most importantly, it could stress the long-held belief in Hellenism that culture is not based on nature but on nurture; not on genes but on ethics.