Alliance of Civilisations or ‘Alliance of the Civilised’?

Alliance of Civilisations or ‘Alliance of the Civilised’?

Theme: Is the underlying problem of the Alliance of Civilisations the fact that it misunderstands the nature of the issue?

Summary: The successes of the Alliance of Civilisations have been largely presentational. While the need for a new focus in diplomacy in the 21st century is undeniable, the Alliance of Civilisations does not fill the gap. It suffers both theoretical and practical problems, above all in its focus on the conflicts and differences between civilisations and their values, which could even worsen the global climate. However, instead of abandoning it, the Alliance of Civilisations can be reformed, especially by focusing on concrete problems and giving a greater role to NGOs.

Analysis: The Alliance of Civilisations has achieved much since its proposal by Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in September 2004, although more in terms of presentation than content. Within three months it had been endorsed by the XIV Iberoamerican Summit in San José de Costa Rica and by the meeting of the Arab League in Cairo. The UN Secretary General has created a high-level group to take the project forward. The Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has agreed to be co-sponsor. Only two months ago, the Council of Ministers of the EU expressed its ‘strong support’ for the Alliance and invoked its assistance in the controversy of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

At the same time, it cannot be denied that a new focus is needed in diplomacy, capable of going much further than traditional diplomacy. A new international security agenda has emerged from an international system ever more interconnected and interdependent, and thus ever more sensitive to unforeseen shocks and crises. To name but a few of the items on this new security agenda, they include epidemic and pandemic disease, organised crime, environmental degradation, mass migration, poverty and, of course, terrorism. All these themes have certain points in common: no single country, or even region, can solve them alone; they are interdependent –they cannot be dealt with, let alone solved, in isolation–; not only are the solutions not obvious –it is not even obvious if there are solutions–; and their management requires a collaboration which extends beyond governments and political elites to civil society. Traditional diplomacy has neither the culture nor the skills to meet these challenges.

The problem is that neither does the Alliance of Civilisations work in this context. It has both theoretical and practical problems which could even make the global climate worse. To begin with the theoretical, to talk of an alliance of civilisations is already to concede Huntington’s thesis of the clash of civilisations. An Arab Foreign Minister once commented that the thesis of Huntington was rubbish, but that we could make it true. One way of doing this is precisely to launch an international project based on the recognition of a problem between civilisations. It gives credibility to the miserable arguments of Osama bin Laden about the inevitable conflict between Islam and the West. By talking of civilisations, it puts the emphasis on values, and the difference between the values of one ‘civilisation’ and another, in a way that can only end in conflict, imposition of values or ethical relativism.

Given the obsession with terrorism, and the recent crisis over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, the Alliance of Civilisations has inevitably become a solution to the conflict between the West and Islam, with the implication that they are two civilisations. In fact, in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2004, Rodríguez Zapatero was explicit: ‘I want to propose to this Assembly an Alliance of Civilisations between the Western world and the Arab and Muslim world’. The implication that the Western and Muslim worlds represent two civilisations is, historically speaking, dubious in the extreme. Apart from the fact that, in Islamic terms, Christians, Jews and Muslims are all ‘peoples of the book’, the shared history of cultural and scientific exchanges and the shared monotheism, which has conditioned the intellectual and ethical development of both Islam and the West, give the impression more of one civilisation with an internal conflict. This is certainly how it would look to a Chinese or an Indian, or to anyone from a genuinely different civilisation. Moreover, what does an alliance of civilisations between the Western and Muslim worlds say to the rest of the world? How will they react to their exclusion from this alliance, those who are neither Westerners nor Muslims and yet who represent half the world’s population and whose collaboration will be essential to resolving the global problems mentioned above?

This raises the linguistic problem with the project. Rodríguez Zapatero was unlucky in that the then President Khateimi of Iran had already proposed a dialogue of civilisations in 1998. The difference between ‘dialogue’ and ‘alliance’ is important. A dialogue is an open and inclusive process. By contrast, an alliance is by definition exclusive, an alliance of A and B against someone else. Thus against whom is this alliance of the western and Islamic worlds targeted? It is to be hoped that it is not targeted against other civilisations. In fact, the real target of the alliance is well known: Islamic fundamentalists. In the words of Máximo Cajal, advisor to the High Level Group of the UN Secretary General, ‘It is necessary to take on the extremists in their own territory… Democracy and respect for human rights should be imposed’ (El País, 4 July 2005). It is difficult to see how this differs, theoretically at least, from the vision of the American Neoconservatives. At the practical level perhaps the methods of the Alliance of Civilisations would be gentler than those of the Neocons. But, the underlying thinking, at least in the interpretation of Máximo Cajal, is the same: that the West can divide Muslims into goodies and baddies and form an alliance with the goodies against the baddies to promote the imposition of western values in Muslim countries. It is unclear how this would resolve the problem of Islamic terrorism, let alone the other issues on the international security agenda.

The underlying problem of the Alliance of Civilisations results from a misunderstanding of the nature of the issue. Far from a clash, or problem, between civilisations, the true issue is the clash or conflict within civilisations; in other words, the conflict between secular liberalism and religious fundamentalism, whether Christian, Islamic or Jewish. Although the form of the conflict, and the level of violence, can vary between religions, the fundamental structures are the same. The secularism which thought it had vanquished religious superstition in the 20th century finds itself at the beginning of the 21st century everywhere under attack. The Christian fundamentalist who tries to reintroduce creationism into American colleges has more in common within an Iranian Mullah than with the Spanish Prime Minister making his proposal to the UN. Neither can clashes or conflicts between civilisations explain why four British lads decided to commit suicide on London’s public transport killing 50 of their fellow citizens. A rejection of modernity, especially globalised modernity, by a significant percentage of the population, combined with cynicism about traditional political methods, and, for some, a feeling of impotence against what they see as the Pax Americana, has been experienced in both Western and Muslim societies. The consequence is different forms of asymmetric resistance, whether anti-globalisation demonstrations, Islamic terrorism or a return to literalist interpretations of monotheistic religions. Yet these are generalised phenomena which have more to do with reactions to globalisation and its political, economic and social consequences than with differences or conflicts between civilisations. To give but one example, it is striking how both in the US and the UK young people, especially young males, show their rejection of modernity through conversion to Islam. It is this type of phenomenon which has to be explained and understood.

It is not only that the concept of an Alliance of Civilisations has theoretical problems. It also runs serious practical risks. To some extent these practical risks are the flip side of the theoretical problems. Thus, by focusing on the civilisational level, the Alliance runs the risk of becoming no more than an international talking shop in which the ‘experts’ exchange interminable views on the differences between civilisations and their values. This not only gets nowhere, but also runs the additional risk of emphasising the differences between civilisations and their values rather than what they have in common. The consequences of this focus on values have already been seen in the February meeting in Doha about the Danish Mohammed cartoons. As noted above, if the focus is solely on values, any discussion can only end in conflict or ethical relativism. This is what happened in Doha. Both Spanish Foreign Minister Moratinos and Mr CFSP Solana, instead of defending vigorously freedom of speech, apologised to the Muslim community and implied that the right to free expression was not absolute. Although it is obvious, for many reasons (Voltaire: ‘I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it’), that this was unacceptable, it was an almost inevitable consequence of the focus of the Alliance of Civilisations on values as a problem.

Moratinos and Solana´s interlocutors in Doha illustrate another aspect of the practical risks. Until now, the Alliance of Civilisations has developed as a governmental instrument between Western countries and moderate Islamic regimes, whether Morocco, Turkey, Egypt or the Gulf States. However, these are precisely the regimes which are an important part of any confrontation which exists between the West and Islam. The Islamic fundamentalists define themselves not only in opposition to the West, but also in opposition to these pro-western governments, not because they are pro-western but because they are corrupt, authoritarian and abuse human rights. In as far as the Alliance of Civilisations is seen as an alliance with these governments, it loses all credibility in the Arab street, that is, it loses all credibility where it most needs it.

The credibility of the Alliance is also affected by its western participation, although this is more controversial. However, it has to be questioned whether the participation of the British or American governments, in the short term at least, strengthens the Alliance or undermines it. Again, the problem is the perceptions in the Arab street (or the Muslim streets in European countries), where Bush and Blair are seen as leaders of a new crusade against Islam. It does not matter if these perceptions are justified, only that they exist and affect the credibility, and thus the usefulness, of the Alliance. This dilemma also results from the, up to now, governmental nature of the project. Although the Alliance includes (or aspires to include) NGOs and other civic groups, the leadership has remained in the hands of governments, whether Spain or Turkey, or international governmental organisations, whether the UN or EU. Thus the ability of the Alliance to fulfil its objectives depends on the credibility of those governments or governmental organisations with the Islamic community. Whereas British or American NGOs could play a positive and credible role in the reconstruction of relations with the Islamic world, their governments, because of the war in Iraq and their almost unconditional support for Israel, have lost this ability. Their presence can only damage the effectiveness of the Alliance.

Above all there is the risk that the Alliance of Civilisations becomes an ‘Alliance of the Civilised’ against the ‘barbarians’. This tendency is already apparent. Given that the real conflict is within rather than between civilisations –that is, as noted above, between secularists and fundamentalists, between modernists and traditionalists–, it is perhaps inevitable that the Alliance become a club of self-proclaimed reasonable and wise modernists against Muslim fundamentalists (akin to the group of scientists created by Nobel Prize physicist Gell Mann to fight against creationists). The problem with this type of club of moderate Christians and Muslims is that it consists of precisely the type of people who will have no problems with each other in any situation. It excludes, almost by definition, those who are not already friends of the West and to whom any useful alliance ought to reach out. Their exclusion in this way can only reinforce any clash or conflict.

Conclusion: It has to be decided whether the Alliance of Civilisations should be abandoned before it strengthens the conflicts in international relations in the 21st Century, or whether it can be rescued by changing its focus. It has already been noted that traditional diplomacy is not adequate for the challenges of the 21st Century and that new paradigms and techniques need to be found. Conceptual and practical reforms of the Alliance might allow it to play this role. First, it must change its focus from the conflict between civilisations and their values to the problems and challenges of the new international security agenda. A focus on seeking agreement on what are the problems offers more possibility of success with a broad range of allies and collaborators, far beyond only governments and their political elites. Once the problems are identified, an open dialogue about solutions could open the path to a broad collaboration. Above all, a focus on the concrete problems, which threaten the economic and social welfare of all, allows avoidance of the problems of conflict of values. Secondly, not only must NGOs be more involved, but they must be given the leadership, making it clear that the alliance, and the dialogue that is its aim, is between civil societies, not governments. The NGOs and other civic organisations have more credibility where it is needed, and their leadership would avoid the problems of Arab or Western participation in the alliance noted above. Thirdly, the alliance must be broadened to include all ‘civilisations’, not just the West and Islam. Reforming it in this way could rescue the initiative, offer new possibilities of collaboration in the 21st Century and strengthen the international reputation of Spain and of the Spanish Government.

Shaun Riordan
Former British Diplomat, Director of ZEIA SL