The Culture Club

Future geopolitical fault lines could be between civilizations, such as Western Judeo-Christian, Orthodox, Muslim, etc.
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When the news is breaking fast, it becomes difficult to keep up. The difficulty is not with the news itself -- in a 2.5G age of mobile Web browsers, you can get the headlines pretty much anywhere, anytime. But to comprehend the

meaning

of the news, in its context and its implications, is an ever steeper challenge.

Fast-breaking is defined differently by daytraders and historians. Last week's headlines came at a sprightly pace even for those whose characteristic cycles are short. But in historical time, last week showed gap change at warp speed. It has been so ever since Sept. 11.

Pakistani army closes its border to Afghan escapees as Taliban collapses. Putin becomes an honorary Texan. OPEC ministers bring forth a mouse. WTO negotiations break through, not down. Peres uses

Palestinian

and

state

in the same sentence. GOP and Dems compromise on airport security.

Those of you who, through the nature of your responsibilities, have become habituated to following the breaking news know that it is not easy to step back for perspective. It takes discipline even to try. Something about last week's news, as with much of what has happened since Sept. 11, dredged from my memory a glint of Samuel Huntington's hypothesis,

The Clash of Civilizations

. I believe it appeared first in the summer 1993 issue of

Foreign Affairs

, but a rereading makes it seem like yesterday. If you, too, struggle for footing in these interesting times, I recommend it as useful

grist for your mill. The Huntington hypothesis is that the critical geopolitical fault lines of the future will be those between civilizations, such as Western Judeo-Christian, Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Confucian, etc. Nation states will not fade away, but nationalism will decline in importance as a flash point for conflict while the essentially

cultural

distinctions of "civilization" will rise as risk factors. Recent headlines give substantial credence to Huntington's speculation.

But it is no simple matter to see clearly in the murk of these changing times. Two months ago we had to wonder whether the pledges of support offered by nations such as Russia and Pakistan would be redeemed in any significant way. Last week, we got news that the Pakistani army was deployed to prevent leakage across the border as the Taliban was mopped up within Afghanistan. Russia has offered air space and intelligence support, and helped to facilitate U.S. usage of former Soviet bases in Central Asia. In a Huntington framework, these might be styled as cross-civilization cooperative efforts.

The Bush-Putin summit was warm and fuzzy. It concluded with "differences of opinion, which will not divide us." I'm no Kremlinologist, but the argument is persuasive to me that Putin has seized the opportunity of Sept. 11 to lead, or if necessary drag, his country into the West. Globalization 1, Civilizations 0?

OPEC tried, and immediately failed, to co-opt Russian oil supply into a functional partnership with its cartel. If Russian reserves are toted up in the column of the West, the leverage of Persian Gulf reserves is much diminished.

The World Trade Organization agreed to initiate another round of trade-expanding negotiations. At a time of global slowdown, in the context of a cross-civilization war on terrorism, and after failure in Seattle, the Doha, Qatar, meeting did not have -- and should not have had -- high expectations. The result, however, was that the 144 nations agreed to put some of the most difficult questions -- including Western protection of farm, steel and textile industries -- into play. The mood of the poorer nations at the close of this conference was less disgruntled than in the past. Globalization 2, Civilizations 0?

Much has happened since Sept. 11. In the case of an often trivial level of conflict, congressional Republicans and Democrats have been able to cooperate, for the most part, much better than in prior years, specifically including last week's compromise on airport security. At a much more profound level, the Israeli-Palestinian standoff seems to be coming in for some reconceptualization as President Bush has raised Palestinian statehood to a U.S. policy position and as Shimon Peres manages to mouth similar, if not quite the same, words. It may be a

post hoc

fallacy to reason that such movement flows from Sept. 11, but I don't think so. "Nothing so wonderfully focuses the mind," observed Samuel Johnson, "as the sure knowledge that one is to be hanged in the morning."

On the subject of hanging, Ben Franklin quipped, at the birth of a nation, that the parties to that birth could hang together or hang separately. That may be the realization that has permitted a loose cross-civilization coalition to hang together. Two months ago, in the shock and horror of Sept. 11, it seemed that globalization had been dealt a massive, perhaps a mortal, blow. It struck me, though, perhaps in more hope than reason, that the atrocities might result in an

E Pluribus Unum

effect, that a "greater unity may be developed from an even broader diversity."

Impetuous, maybe, but it's tracking pretty well. Samuel Huntington cites a study by Arnold Toynbee that identified 21 separate civilizations, but he says that only six of them exist today. If 21 can merge into six, is it not possible that six can merge into one?

The

S&P 500

is up 17.9% since the Sept. 21 trough, and the

Nasdaq Composite

has rallied 33.4%. The economy is fragile and earnings are terrible. Some think the market is levitating, that it's all smoke and mirrors. But in a longer-term perspective, in historical time, there may be some real substance to support it.

Jim Griffin is the chief strategist at Hartford, Conn.-based Aeltus Investment Management, which manages institutional investment accounts and acts as adviser to the Aetna Mutual Funds. His commentary on the financial markets is based upon information thought to be reliable and is not meant as investment advice. While Griffin cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites you to send comments on his column to

Jim Griffin.