Threats to One Humanity

Remarks to the U Thant Institute, UN, New York

December 1, 2006

Threats to One Humanity

It is a great privilege for me to address this topic under the banner of "one humanity" as envisioned by U Thant. I will address myself to certain factors that threaten that vision.

Last weekend I was visiting my elder son in New Mexico and was staying with him at a remote mountain inn overlooking Santa Fe. There were only two other guests, a couple from Texas with whom we fell into conversation. The man was a successful lawyer and rancher. He also had a strong religious and social conscience. This had led him to become involved with a charity that sends large numbers of American experts—doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers—to countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Millions of dollars of direct humanitarian aid are involved. Millions, I repeat, of privately raised dollars that flow directly and without bureaucratic hurdles into humanitarian projects like AIDS and malaria relief and clean water development.

The overlay of these charitable activities is that the experts bring with them an open and passionate commitment to spreading the Christian gospel. And in further conversation, this gentleman—who was neither an Evangelical nor a Republican—warned that Christianity and Islam are engaged in a war over Africa that he described as "inevitable." To hear this dire prediction from a man of such patently good instincts and good works was saddening—all the more so as I suspect many people agree with him.

We see reflections of these sentiments in the recent Dutch elections, in discussions in Britain about the wearing of the burqa, and in the enthusiasm with which the proposition that the United States is locked in a battle against something called "Islamofascism" has been greeted by many in this country. There has been an outpouring of books warning about the imminent "stan-ification" of Europe. From the other side, in the Islamic world, we see the mirror image of these views, whether in the tensions arising before the Pope's visit to Turkey or in the violent reaction in Pakistan to the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

This is the theme I would like to discuss today: namely, that we seem to have become much more expert at discovering and cataloguing what divides us rather than what unites us. This has become a branch of academic research under the brand names of the "Clash of Civilizations" or "Culture Matters." A recent book, The Central Liberal Truth, by Lawrence Harrison sets out a 25-point typology of how societies differ one from another in terms of their openness to progress. In cruder form, this approach of "cherchez la différence" has become a staple of cable news debates. In the political arena we see this appear through the use of "wedge" issues to remind one group of voters why it differs from another.

The argument I want to set out today is this: the Clash of Civilizations theory sets out on a serious task of seeking to understand the differences in the way the world works. It is not without foundation. However, if our objective is to mitigate the incidence of human conflict, I assert, the theory is profoundly unhelpful. It enjoys what credibility it does largely because of a selective and circular approach to the facts. This has, however, not limited its toxicity. It has, I regret to say, set down dangerously deep roots. In a real sense it has provided and continues to provide the intellectual template for much of contemporary Western foreign policy. It has made startling progress against the alternative paradigm of multiculturalism.

I am sure you will all be relieved to hear that I don't intend to set out a long academic deconstruction of the "Clash" thesis today. Instead, I would like to look at what I see as the under-examined origins of the theory at the end of the Cold War. My purpose is to consider why we remain so susceptible to these ideas. After all, at one stage in the 1990s it seemed about to die a mercifully quick death. But then the outrage of 9/11 boosted the "Clash" theory exponentially. This was so because the perpetrators were not just from the Islamic world but seemed to be acting in the name of Islam itself. The theories built up about the motivations of suicide bombers have given the theory a new religious twist by arguing that Islam is more "next worldly" than Christianity. More recently the difficulties being encountered in establishing a stable order in Iraq have prompted many in the West to assert that some cultures are simply not able to absorb democracy.

These recent events provide some of the explanation. But I would like to suggest that a deeper reason for the "Clash" theory's resurgence goes further back. I would trace it to the manner in which the Cold War ended and the lessons we drew from it. At that time, I want to suggest, we made a basic, fundamental mistake in assessing what happened in the immediate aftermath of the ending of the Cold War. We thought it carried the same meaning around the world, regardless of how the Cold War had actually been experienced in the individual geographies.

We asserted a unitary meaning, specifically the triumph of Western liberal democracy and market capitalism. We described the Cold War triumph to ourselves as a once-and-for-all triumph of our values rather than as the culmination of a political struggle that would no doubt reinvent itself in some way or other.

In many ways this was an understandable mistake. The sights of the Berlin Wall being broken through and of Soviet occupation forces marching out of Eastern Europe were intoxicating. We all cheered as petty tyrants such as Ceausescu disappeared from the scene. As a British diplomat I had given 20 years of my career largely to causes associated with undermining the Soviet Union: military issues in Germany, countering Soviet influence in Southern Africa, the Afghan wars of the 1980s and so on. So it may not be surprising that we greeted these scenes with self-congratulation. Western liberal democracy appeared to sweep all other interpretations of the human condition into the ash heap of history. I count myself as someone who joined in this euphoria.

This euphoria led us to tell ourselves a beguiling narrative. This was that the values of the winning side—the West—had become universal values. In the eyes of many Westerners, their values had become the new UN Declaration on Human Rights asserting global validity. This led us to believe that we had reached the end of the political and social debate about the ends and means of government. Truly we had reached the end of history. To quote Francis Fukuyama's famous assertion from 1989 just as the Wall was coming down: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

Understandable and beguiling? Indeed. But was it right? In retrospect, I think it is now clear that the end of the Cold War was understood very differently in various parts of the world. In Central America, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Russia itself and East Asia, people's experience of the Cold War had been very different. Even in countries as close as the UK and France, the Cold War had been experienced differently. So it is not surprising that they drew different conclusions. In East Asia, for example, residual suspicions of Japan reasserted themselves in place of anti-communism. In Eastern Europe economic "shock therapy" led many to question the alleged superiority of the capitalist market economy. In the Middle East, the conservative Arab states were suddenly anxious that their stability was at risk. Most tragically, in Yugoslavia the constituent elements of that state used the demise of the Cold War as a pretext to revive their historical animosities.

However, the End of History thesis leveled these different experiences out. It excluded the exceptions. In fact, the thesis went further. It encouraged an approach that regarded any non-acceptance of the ultimate desirability of Western norms as somehow a deviation from a Gold Standard. It invalidated alternatives. In the economic sphere, the so-called Washington Consensus arose to assert that there was only one authorized way to development and that states that deviated from it would be penalized. Curiously, the globalization of ideas led not to a free competition but to a fairly rigid orthodoxy to which all right-thinking people adhered.

The "Clash" theory was deeply embedded in this thinking. It took the idea of deviation and turned it into challenge. We started to think that if you were different from me, then it was my duty to show you the error of your ways. And it did so at a time when the immense military superiority of the Western alliance was becoming evident. Putting these ideological and military factors together, what was produced was a fusion between a self-validating conviction of superior values and the capability to enforce that view before all-comers. The result was a new doctrine of international intervention based on Western values, now interpreted as universal. The "axis of evil" was one of the rhetorical outcomes.

One of the most articulate exponents of this doctrine is British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In his speech entitled the "Doctrine of the International Community" delivered in Chicago in April 1999 he said: "No longer is our existence as states under threat. Now our actions are guided by a subtler blend of mutual self interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish. In the end values and interests merge. If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interests too."

In his second inaugural address President Bush spoke in similar vein: "We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul."

These are eloquent statements but I want to suggest that they are beset by the same flaw: namely that they exclude what U Thant once rightly described as the "infinite variety and vitality of the individual." People can and do interpret concepts like "freedom" differently. For some, freedom is the ability to publish a newspaper or own a television station; for others, freedom consists of having enough to eat, access to clean water, as Aye Aye Thant [U Thant's daughter] mentioned, or absence from fear in old age. The mistake is to regard these differences as a blameworthy deviation from a Gold Standard. From which it is but a short step to the Clash of Civilizations.

What this shows is that we need a more supple and less judgmental understanding of human needs. The concept of civilizations or cultures based in defined geographies only works if one allows rigidity of definition. I suggest that we should try to get away from this. This also makes me rather reluctant to be enthusiastic about the concept of an "alliance of civilizations" launched by the leaders of Spain and Turkey. While this concept is clearly superior to the "Clash" theory, it does run the same risk of assigning people to the same rather arbitrary categories. It also elevates the position of values in international intercourse to a point where, I fear, it is only going to cause strain. Ancient and recent history has shown that one man's values are another's anathema.

Where do we go from here? How do we accommodate diversity in the world while maintaining a certain cohesiveness and stability? The model that appeals to me finds few enthusiasts today. It is the European Union. Here is a region shot through with historical fault lines, ideological feuds and religious animosities. Yet it is now stable and at peace. Moreover it can accommodate diversity. The United Kingdom is in the process of devolving into the smaller elements of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with their own identities and Parliaments. Today more than 75% of the inhabitants of Scotland identify themselves as Scottish rather than British.

And somehow it works, partly I think because the EU provides an overarching structure in which relatively small identities can thrive without challenging the stability of the whole. The same is true of the Basque territories and the language cantons inside Belgium. To be sure, as I have mentioned earlier, not all is rosy inside the EU. The old and new waves of immigration from North Africa, Turkey and Pakistan are dangerously alienated. But the overall model of a relatively homogenous whole containing highly diverse parts is not without its merits.

Now the world is clearly in a dangerously tumultuous state. Is there a better alternative to the paradigm of conflict represented by the Clash of Civilizations? Now I don't think there is a magic codeword out there that will unlock the secrets of international politics. Indeed I often think that the search for single, all-encompassing explanations is part of the problem. Such explanations usually obfuscate rather than enlighten.

A better alternative is to keep our cool and to concentrate our focus. It is patently obvious that the issues facing the United States and the wider international community over Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia are discrete one from the other. To lump them and others of today's global problems together under the "civilization" banner is deeply misleading. We need to understand them one by one. Only then can we connect any dots that may lie between them. That means having the language skills and the in-country personnel who can really come to grips with the local dynamics.

Furthermore, we need to remind ourselves of our vast experience in conflict mediation and dispute resolution. One of the great, unsung triumphs of recent American diplomacy was the Cold War endgame that brought about the reunification of Germany. There was plenty of "civilization" ideology floating around at that time. By transcending these terms, the American team (which included a number of the leading lights of the present Administration) brought off a brilliant success. Again, one of the keys was to seek overlaps, not obsess about differences. This is the classic element of diplomacy: understanding how to isolate hard-liners and work with those with whom it is possible to do business.

This is surely the more promising approach for American strategy: to rediscover the regional and issue expertise without which successful diplomacy cannot be undertaken. Yet this is the precise area in which American skills are lagging. During the Cold War, the funding of Russian studies was substantial. Today, practically the only way for a student to obtain financial support for Arabic or Farsi study is to commit to a career in one of the national security agencies. This risks confirming stereotypes rather than challenging them. If we do that, we condemn ourselves to work off faulty data.

None of the above is to suggest that culture or civilization do not play an important role in international relations. They do. But allowing it to dominate our analysis in the form of life-and-death identity struggles leads to Armageddon. Make no mistake. If we want a clash of civilizations, there are those who are—literally—dying to give it to us. And the conflict will have all the ghastly characteristics of a civil war. For I would argue that Clash of Civilizations is far more akin to a civil war inside the three Abrahamic religions that has been going on for two millennia. The theory can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The challenge for statecraft is to squeeze adherents of this approach to the fringe, not empower them by abetting their war-hungry vision of divided humanity with one of our own.

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