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The clash within civilizations

Anthony H. Cordesmam
Anthony H. Cordesmam

A visiting US expert tells Jeremy Hall that terrorism is possible in New Zealand but it is important to keep perspective.

In 1993, Samuel Huntington published an article titled ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ which said that in future years the battle lines between nations would be increasingly drawn along cultural rather than ideological lines. His thesis gained renewed force following 9/11, with the attacks of that day fitting neatly into his prophecies of escalating tension between the secular West and militant Islam.

Visiting US international relations expert Professor Anthony H. Cordesman puts a slightly different twist on the current international climate. 

“It's not a clash between civilizations, it’s a struggle within one to bring about secular modernization and to transform Islam. It spills across national lines in the Middle East, and over into the West.”

According to Cordesman, New Zealand cannot easily stand aloof from the terrorism which sometimes marks this clash.

“You exist in a global economy and terrorism is the kind of thing that can push oil to $100 or $120 a barrel, at least temporarily. You are no more decoupled from the global economy than anyone else. If anything, as a trading state and an energy importer you’re even more sensitive.”

The possibility of an attack on our soil cannot be completely discounted either.
“As far as I know, New Zealand has never pursued an isolationist policy, and in the current era you can’t take part in normal diplomacy -  including things like the deployment of peacekeepers - without raising the potential risk that you will become a target.”

Cordesman currently holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and is also a national security analyst for ABC news. His numerous US government postings have included time as national security assistant to Republican Senator John McCain.

As someone who has observed the formulation and implementation of US foreign policy from close quarters he is clearly someone who sees most things in shades of grey.

The issue of terrorism, however, is not entirely abstract for Cordesman. He would have been at the Pentagon at the time of September 11 attacks if a scheduled meeting had not been cancelled earlier in the day. 

“I could smell the electrical fires [at the Pentagon] in my backyard for three days.” he remembers.

Cordesman says that the increasing availability of weapons technology is bringing the possibility that terrorist groups will one day wield weapons of mass destruction closer.

“Virtually every piece of technology for developing biological weapons which was a state secret during the Cold War is now openly available – most of it is on ebay.”

Although he acknowledges the heightened dangers of modern terrorism, he is also critical of the way it is portrayed in the media.

He describes New Zealand media coverage of the 9/11 anniversary he has observed over the past few days as “bordering on the absurd”, saying it paints a false picture of the situation in the US.

“The idea that we sit around traumatized, that you have people suffering from post-traumatic stress in massive numbers, borders on being yellow journalism. It grabs headlines, it just doesn’t have any factual base.”

Cordesman wants greater circumspection in the media. 

“Can we disregard [terrorist attacks]? No. Can they impact on individuals? Yes. Is it possible to attack critical links in the global economy? Yes. Is it possible these movements will one day get weapons of mass destruction? Yes. But to put it in perspective: the total casualties, in the United States at the time of 9/11 were roughly equivalent to two bad holiday weekends in terms of traffic accidents.” 

Although he confesses to have only been “48 per cent” convinced on the need to invade Iraq in 2003, he says concerns over Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were valid:

“It wasn’t an American or a British judgement. Virtually everyone at the International Atomic Energy Agency saw the risk, although they disagreed on the nature or urgency of the situation.”

He says that the chaos which has now enveloped Iraq is mostly a result of the deep and pre-existing fractures the country’s social makeup.

“You have to understand that this is a tribal, clan-based society. Identity is not a matter of position or wealth it is a matter of who you are, who your parents are... That doesn’t mean that there’s immediately antipathy among the different groups. There are a lot of mixed areas and mixed cities. There has been intermarriage, and there are many people who have a nationalist outlook.”

When it comes to another bete noire of US foreign policy, Iran, Cordesman firmly believes that the nuclear threat is real, and says that the failure of the two countries to achieve a rapprochement cannot be blamed solely on Washington.  

“Iran would work with us visibly when it had a strong common interest in a local issue, but when you tried to extend that to the US Secretary of State sitting down with a senior Iranian official – in a pre-arranged meeting – the Iranian official often just wouldn’t show up.”

Nevertheless, he shakes his head with what seems like resignation when asked about the President Bush’s 2002 speech assigning Iran to the ‘Axis of Evil’. 

“I spent an awful lot of time when I was on the hill editing things like that out of speeches, but at that time I happened to be a strategic analyst, not a political speechwriter.”

The views expressed in this article are those of Professor Anthony H. Cordesman, not the US government.

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