The trip had been on my calendar for months; the plane tickets were bought, interviews arranged, and books and winter clothing packed for the eight-hour flight to New York City. Then my visit to the Alliance of Civilizations (AOC), a United Nations initiative that is the subject of my Enhancing Life Project research, was delayed for two days. The culprit was “Snowzilla,” a gigantic snowstorm that pummeled the east coast of the United States in late January. My plans in disarray, when I arrived in New York I had no choice but to be flexible as I slogged to my rescheduled meetings and interviews in two feet of snow.
Flexibility, I discovered, is also crucial for the Alliance of Civilizations, whose task is to deal with the knotty problems of civilizational dialogue. I was keen to get to New York despite the bad weather because I needed to hear from past and present AOC staff members about their work. I was especially intrigued by how the organization strives to enhance life through improved inter-civilizational dialogue, and identification of common, normatively desirable, civilizational values. A senior Alliance interviewee told me during my visit that the Alliance is particularly interested in relations between the Muslim and Western worlds because of the deleterious effects of 9/11—no small task!
In the realm of the United Nations—and international relations more broadly—the AOC is unique for several reasons. Apart from being the only dedicated UN entity to work in this area, inter-civilizational dialogue is a novel international endeavor. The Alliance of Civilizations was established in 2005 by then-UN Secretary-General (SG), Kofi Annan. It began work in 2007, with a new SG in place, Ban Ki-moon. The Alliance has an office 500 yards from the UN building on the east side of Manhattan. Its business-like office suite is unadorned by the kind of posters one typically sees in NGOs, highlighting the desirability of ending child poverty, rolling back climate change and brushing your teeth regularly (OK, I made up the last one, but you get the idea).
The Alliance is small and flexible, with fewer than twenty employees. It generally eschews big headline-making events that require many staff and resources to organize. Instead, the Alliance’s philosophy is “small is beautiful.” It works mainly in small-scale contexts with representatives from business, civil society and government. The idea is to improve civilizational dialogue via a kind of snowball effect, which grows as people initially involved in activities with the Alliance go back to their home turf and begin to disseminate what they have learned. It has a leg up on NGOs who are concerned with inter-civilizational dialogue because its official position in the UN gives it both clout and authority that non-profits cannot hope to match. Being a UN entity and reporting to the UN Secretary-General makes the issue of inter-civilizational dialogue a global cause with very high-level backing.
During my few days in NYC, I talked at length with three current staff members of the Alliance, plus several others who used to work for the Alliance or who engage with the Alliance in their capacity as officials of other UN agencies. They agreed that in these days of heightening inter-cultural tensions, reflected in the grotesque phenomenon of Daesh/Islamic State and the expanding European refugee crisis in the wake of the Syrian civil war, the need for the Alliance—and for dialogue between the Western and Muslim world—is clear and continuing.
But what does the Alliance do? How does it make a difference in the context of inter-civilizational dialogue? As one of my Alliance interviewees pointed out, the organization is a “soft” power tool, different from the “hard” power of military and economic clout. (The US-led invasion of Afghanistan to target al-Qaeda is an example of a “hard” power response to terrorism following 9/11.) The Alliance, on the other hand, works to find common civilizational ground against extremism and terrorism. (For example, The Alliance holds an annual competition to select and support what they see as the most innovative grassroots projects encouraging intercultural dialogue and cooperation around the world.) Here, the flexibility of “soft” power is key, because its emphasis on persuasion means that consensual action on an issue is possible, which would be much less likely once “hard” power is brought to bear.
This is not to suggest that there is a kind of warm-and-fuzzy middle ground where all civilizations agree on everything and no doubt prevails. The Alliance is trying to pull off a difficult trick: its mission is to establish, develop, and consolidate a shared set of values as a basis for shared understandings of the world. Their foundational document for these values is the UN Charter of Human Rights, serving as a template for what is appropriate and what is simply wrong.
The aim of the Alliance – to enhance the lives of those on the sharp end of civilizational enmity – will hopefully be achieved if it can continue to work closely and flexibly with significant stakeholders in pursuit of consensual goals to enhance life. In this case, the stakeholders include governments, significant non-state actors such as the European Union, and civil society. The ability of the Alliance to reach out to these stakeholders and hold their attention in the years to come will be a good test of the capacity of “soft” power to succeed where “hard” power fails.
Read a Q&A with Jeffrey Haynes about his research here.