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First Meeting of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) Group of Friends

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

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Mr. High Representative, Excellencies,


May I express my deep appreciation for the High Representative’s recognition of a volunteer group’s role in the Southern Philippines conducting training programs that address anti-Muslim biases.


Toynbee argued that civilizations live and thrive—or die by challenges: a challenge can inspire the challenged to rise above itself and be something more by interaction.


            Spengler had the opposite view. Civilizations are each sui generis and incommunicable. An encounter of civilizations is like ships with their lights out passing each other in the night, risking collision. Spengler’s vision inspired the First and Second World Wars.


Toynbee’s vision was of encounter and even clash, with threat of harm yet also the possibility of meeting on common ground for mutual enrichment.


After 9/11 Spengler’s vision returned with a vengeance as Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. And in as short a time that notion led to wars. The renewal of this dark vision encouraged by a willful incomprehension and a cultivated intolerance. Not peace and progress but war and devastation followed its publication. When you believe that differences can only interact with violence, any encounter must produce less than either side had before, if the encounter leaves anything behind at all.


            But 12 years ago, the Group of Friends of the UN Alliance of Civilizations combined to explore and encourage the fruitful possibilities of meeting and exchange.


            There are combinations inspired by the advantage of sheer number. But no combination is so strong as one born of a shared belief in a common humanity, so it rises to the level of a personal conviction that defending others is no different than defending the humanity in oneself. The strongest defense is self-defense. This is the vision of the friends of the UN ALLIANCE OF CIVILIZATIONS.


Today, the challenges are not of this or that time or place but of the entire planet. In an interdependent world, what happens anywhere produces consequences everywhere. It is increasingly clear that solutions to problems of every country, culture, or civilization are in part to be found outside itself in other countries, cultures and civilizations. An alliance of civilizations is only the plain logic of living or perishing in a world too small for war but quite commodious for the myriad promises of peace.




Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared 2017 the “Year of Peace” with more hope than realism I think. He also borrowed the word “surge” which is associated with a renewal of force. But he turned it on its head when he called “for a surge in diplomacy for peace.”


I do not know if history will remember this alliance for its role in the unfolding narratives of war and peace. But we are a part of a compelling story of hope and healing, and of such peace—in however short or long, wide or narrow a time and place—that we helped achieve.


Thank you.