Policymakers and analysts survey an increasingly volatile 2022 that seems to be characterized by two major trends. These are: first, the protracted decline of the post-Cold War consensus that elevated markets and globalization (often attaching democratization as an inevitable side-effect) as the prime ideological priority of governments; and second, rising nationalism accompanied by an ideological, seemingly irreconcilable bifurcation of the world between Chinese and American political interests. Both trends have been accelerated by a hyperconnected, online world of social media, leading to not just political but also epistemic splits characterized by declining trust in traditional institutions of authority and information.
These trends can be captured as a profound shift in values, nationhood and knowledge. The loss of faith in the ability of globalization to provide greater prosperity or sustain and spread democracy is a profound shift. This has led to analysis being framed (especially in the Global North) as an existential tussle between authoritarianism and democratic liberalism. It is perhaps easy to see why: Donald Trump and the American right, Marie LePen and European leaders sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping have often been assigned labels such as “dictator” or “far-right” by many Western outlets.
Yet, these figures are ideologically diverse and represent, at a more basic level, a challenge to an economically globalized world and the elevation of a specific new priority, “populist nationhood”, as a higher good. Even Joe Biden, whose tenure as US president (along with the Democrats’ grip on power) is looking increasingly imperilled by the right-wing resurgence that Trump supercharged, has operated to some degree on similar terms, with a discourse of economic self-interest invoked by his predecessor.
Finally, the realignment of national and cultural priorities, accompanied by a receding of confidence in democracy in both the Global North and the Global South, has led to fundamental disagreements about what can be called knowledge and what is worth pursuing as knowledge – an epistemic shift in what brings meaning to human existence and what outlets are the means with which to attain said meaning.
Asia’s philosophical traditions have been a bridge of “witnessing” to both the continent’s ancient heritage and its breakneck modernization and return to the center of world power and political priorities. Among these philosophical and spiritual continuities, few have been more ubiquitous and responsive to the challenges and opportunities of modernity than Buddhism. From the Industrial Revolution to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as coined by the inventor of Davos, Klaus Schwab, Buddhist leaders and institutions have influenced and been influenced by ancient history and recent modernization to the point of serving as vehicles of soft diplomacy since at least the mid-20th century.
In this article, I briefly address how Buddhist ideas might be relevant to understanding today’s world of geopolitics, conflict, and identity – and if a modern Buddhist perspective could make sense of the global shift in values, nationhood and knowledge. In the values rubric, I draw on the examination by political scientist William J Long of Georgia State University of radical interdependence, what he calls an “alternative, global IR [international relations] theory based on Buddhist philosophy”, while also putting forward some preliminary ideas that could reinforce and strengthen the application of radical interdependence: cognitive change and extraordinary empathy.
There are many examining the highlighted problems with methodologies that share similarities while also being distinct, such as economist Clair Brown of the University of California, Berkeley and Dasho Karma Ura, who heads the Centre of Bhutan Studies and Gross National Happiness Research. I find the three rubrics offer the clearest distinction separating Buddhist thought from conventional international relations and statecraft.
Radical interdependence and cognitive change
In his book A Buddhist Approach to International Relations, Long argues that Buddhism represents one of the most complete, non-Westphalian approaches that can transcend the limitations of present models. I would also argue that Buddhism is best positioned to offer a different pathway out of the two trends highlighted in my introduction. Buddhism has its philosophical roots in Asian thought, has sympathy and support in the Global South, and has a unique understanding of the nature of reality that Asian nationalists and Western thinkers alike have tried to articulate and apply as alternative frameworks for politics and economics.
In his book, Long deploys one ancient and one modern example of explicit Buddhist statecraft: Ashoka the Great’s Mauryan Empire and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan today. These are uniquely Buddhist political configurations, but just as Buddhism was able to adapt to the radically different societies in India and China, “it is reasonable to assume that its social teachings can be integrated into Western social theory and practice too.” Buddhism’s view of politics is pragmatic and flexible. Furthermore, its radically different set of assumptions about humanity, our relations with each other, and the world naturally leads to political and economic recommendations that are plausible, solid alternatives to policymakers’ current epistemic quandaries.
What is this alternative position? In short, “an ultimate ontological truth of radical interdependence and the ethical responsibilities a trainable mind entail.” The latter notion of a trainable mind is the basis for Buddhism’s position that leaders can transform the world by transforming themselves: cognitive change. For now, let us focus on radical interdependence. Long proposes: