Whither Alliance of Civilizations?


Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon during his speech at the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) forum on 11 December 2011 asserted the much cherished ideal of alliance among ‘civilizations’ so that enemies of humanity such as, among others, extremism and terrorism can be fought and won over and the world can live in an ideal of shared humanity. This sentiment perhaps no nation-state in its declarations will disavow, rather one can come across national declarations preaching goals of democracy, human rights, secularism and a peaceful world in pompous words, but in reality in many cases the national actions betray those very goals. Simply put, the chasm between ‘what ought to be’ and ‘what actually is’ of national policies, and the predominance of the latter over the former have guided international affairs and have brought in its trail much suffering, and on occasions near paralysis in international organizations including the United Nations. Hence, when Ban Ki Moon asserted these high ideals to be guiding principles in conduct of international affairs, the past decade provides sufficient proof to the contrary and to the dictum Might is Right, and the inverse relationship between high sounding ideals and chauvinistic national policies.

One decade ago in 2001, the much acclaimed book titled ‘Crossing the Divide: Dialogue Among Civilizations,’ published under the auspices of the United Nations provided many novel ideas such as golden rule and global social contract so that nations whether big or small will have due share in shaping international relations. The golden rule has both positive and negative dimensions. In its positive dimension it embodies the principle: do unto others what you would want others to do unto you. In its negative dimension it embodies the principle: do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you. This crucial book endeavored to place international organizations like the United Nations at the centre of international politics as a crucial arbiter of justice among the nations. But the last decade has proved the contrary and become one of the most turbulent phases in international politics, which not only increasingly dent the high ideals preached by the United Nations but the organization itself. Whether it is the crisis in Iraq, or the Middle East turmoil, or the conflicts in South Asia including Afghanistan or the contested colour revolutions in the Arab world, the national interests, which at instances are parochial and in contrast to global norms, have often trumped over the global norms of equality, democracy and dignity.

The same dilemma is clearly visible in the case of extremism and terrorism. All the nations vouch in their policy declarations that these twin elements are threat to national sovereignty and integrity and international peace, but in reality there are often double standards in countering the menace. Hence, when Ban Ki Moon emphasizes dialogue or alliance among civilizations, which can be minimally interpreted as cooperation among nation-states towards addressing various global issues, it can be seen more of idealistic value than having practical implications. The last decade of global war against terrorism is fraught with grave short comings; neither could it evolve a global consensus to fight the menace nor could it eliminate the ‘plague of 21st century.’ The double dealings, the deliberate differences between overt and covert operations to tackle the menace, the difference in approaches in branding and targeting terrorists and their groups, have witnessed further strengthening of the resolve of terrorist groups and their designs. If one can make a cold blooded analysis of terrorist incidents in the past one decade, it comes to picture that the world has become more dangerous. There has been mushrooming of terrorist and extremist organizations worldwide. Whether it is the wider region of Eurasia, or the regions of Central Asia, South Asia, or other parts of the world, the terrorist groups have widened their tentacles. It gives rise to the surreal feeling that United Nations Secretary Generals will come and go and preach highly cherished ideals from various platforms, while the actual state of things grow much wearier and gorier.

The ongoing and contested debates about the Arab spring do not portray a bright picture either. One cannot disagree with Tawakkul Karman, the Yemeni activist who shared peace Nobel this time, when she said unless the Arab spring ushers in genuine freedom and democracy and unless the traces of dictatorship and authoritarianism are mitigated, the Arab world will witness the rise of extremism and terrorism. It is no surprise that many of the governing bodies’ members in this region have links with organizations like Al Qaeda, and some of them envisioning the dawn of ‘sixth caliphate’ in the region. One may not question the role of religion as an agent of social change, or its sobering impacts in the times of turmoil, but the developments so far are not very propitious on the count of secularism and democracy. The incidents of targeting minorities and the incidents of assertions of extremism in some cases do not portray bright future for the Arab world. The dominant nation state apparatus and its assertions are more clearly visible in the case of Israel Palestine conflict. Despite repeated UN efforts, despite the efforts of the Middle East Quartet, the prospects of a solution do not appear in sight. Who is to be blamed? Is it the design of certain powers to maintain their dominance in the region by taking partial positions, or the high intentions of the United Nations, which is criticized by some players in the region in vile terms?

The book Crossing the Divide, mentioned earlier, challenged the theories of Clash of Civilizations and End of History, and advocated for a global social contract in line propounded by noted philosophers like J. J.  Rousseau and John Rawls. It is a contract which accords all nations equal status. It is a contract, which leads to formation of a global body in the style of the United Nations in which the nations partake their power not in order to surrender their territorial integrity and sovereignty but to provide international body enough room to exercise power effectively and implement its decisions. But, since its inception the UN has seen floundering of its norms by individual nation-states at will, thus giving preponderance to the individual interests of a nation over collective or international interests and norms. Emery Reves rightly writes in his book ‘The Anatomy of Peace’ that ‘world government is not an ‘ultimate goal’ but an immediate necessity’ towards achieving the goal of international peace and security. It is but imaginable at this present stage how far this vehicle for international peace and security is capable to fulfill the objective set before it. At best it can be described as a working organization where nations deliberate but not towards any effective end.

While speaking before 2000 odd participants at the UNAOC forum, which has membership of 100 countries and some 20 international organizations and bodies, Moon stipulated these core values of the alliance of ‘civilizations’: ‘speaking out against extremism, advancing tolerance, standing for justice, dignity and mutual understanding,’ and argued, “everywhere, these values are being tested. We see in the daily news headlines: in Syria, North Africa, across the Middle East, and beyond.” He hoped that “The Alliance has a special role in speaking out when terrorists attack and kill innocent people, when politicians stir hatred and exploit stereotypes to win votes, when moderate voices struggle to be heard amid the politics of polarization.” The speech of Moon can be highly cherished but which does not have a ready ground for fructification. Unless big players come out of narrow nationalistic thinking, the world will suffer many conflict hot spots like Afghanistan, fragile colour revolutions, and incidents of terrorist violence, while chiefs of international bodies preaching ideals from high platforms.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, currently part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India. He specializes on areas of conflict, peace and terrorism, and strategic dimensions of Central Eurasian politics. 


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 Dec 2011.

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