Can a $1 Million 'Idea Prize' Stop a Superpower Conflict?

A philosophy school with a $1 million dollar prize believes that knowledge truly is power.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the possibility that Western influence may be waning around the world, which is further crippled by the Western hubris that its values trump those of any other culture. In particular, it continues to ignore the rise of China, a nation that has emerged not only as an economic powerhouse, but also as a country poised to be the cultural juggernaut of the 21st century.

The main contention that prevents any meaningful dialogue is the fundamental difference at the West and East’s cultural cores — broadly speaking, the West values democracy and individualism, while the East values harmony and loyalty. Neither way of thinking is more correct than the other; nevertheless, the West’s disconnected understanding from Eastern values often prevents it from engaging in meaningful dialogue about globalization.

Confucius once said, “Real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance,” and it is certainly time for us to face our own.

Enter billionaire Nicolas Berggruen. The financier's eponymous institute has announced a $1 million philosophy prize intended to send scholars to top American, European, and Chinese universities to research the relationship between democracy and meritocracy. Berggruen told The New York Times that the prize is intended to force new ideas, not highlight differences: “We want to have an impact in a world that is becoming more and more fractured culturally and politically.”

[T]he West’s disconnected understanding from Eastern values often prevents it from engaging in meaningful dialogue about globalization.

For the U.S. and China, it is a conversation sorely overdue. While the U.S. may be the most powerful nation in the world, it is at a critical point in history with China, which has been described as “the fastest rising power in history.”  Perhaps the biggest and most threatening cultural difference between the two nations is not political, but intellectual. The United States is the developed world’s second most ignorant country (after Italy), and our cultural esteem for anti-intellectualism further undermines our capacity to engage. It certainly is no match for China’s so-called "cult of intelligence," which prizes learning and knowledge.

Our immense misunderstandings about Chinese culture — most devastatingly that it is monolith — will on impede our ability to accurately reflect upon our shifting influence on global values. Confucius once said, “Real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance,” and it is certainly time for us to face our own.

"The United States does not know what it stands for," explains political scientist Ian Bremmer.


Daphne Muller is a New York City-based writer who has written for Salon, Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and reviewed books for ELLE and Publishers Weekly. Most recently, she completed a novel and screenplay. You can follow her on Instagram @daphonay and on Twitter @DaphneEMuller.

Image courtesy of iStock

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