ABU DHABI // A just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and a welcome for Turkey within the European Union would give a significant boost to efforts to build bridges between the Islamic world and the West, Chris Patten, the EU's former external relations commissioner, said in a Ramadan lecture in the capital. Britain's former governor of Hong Kong, now Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of Britain's House of Lords also emphasised a need to counter perceptions of a "clash of civilisations".
In the second in a series of lectures convened by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Lord Patten said the concept of a "clash of civilisations", as propagated by such neoconservative thinkers as Samuel P Huntington, was based on "bogus history" and a misunderstanding of the contemporary world. An audience including government ministers and officials, business leaders, academics and students listened intently to Lord Patten's hour-long address in an event hosted by the Crown Prince in his Ramadan majlis.
Entitled Global Shifts in Power, the lecture focused on issues ranging from the re-emergence of China as a major economic force to climate change and the threat of nuclear proliferation. Lord Patten attached greatest importance to the promotion of friendly relations between the West and the Islamic world. "There are ways that Europe and America can help to build bridges between cultures and there are ways we can burn bridges down," he said.
He identified the two crucial challenges as applying the political will to facilitate both the establishment of a Palestinian state and a successful application by Turkey to join the EU. Lord Patten said that irrespective of whether John McCain or Barack Obama occupied the White House from November, the new US president must set his sights on achieving a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The protracted crisis, with the failure of all peace processes to date, had "poisoned" regional relations, he said.
There was no lack of understanding of what a final settlement should look like, but "a great lack of political will". "A Palestinian state must be contiguous, not like a Swiss cheese," Lord Patten said, referring to the Israeli settlements and military checkpoints that have carved up much of the West Bank, as well as the isolation of the Gaza Strip. "It is a story of terribly missed opportunities, and appalling bloodshed, and I hope that new US administration, with Europe's help, will set its sights on bringing peace to the Middle East."
On Turkey and the EU, he took encouragement from recent Turkish economic and political reforms. "I hope that if Turkey continues on the path it is on at the moment we can welcome Turkey as a member of the EU in the future, which would demonstrate very clearly that we in Europe don't believe there is some inevitable divide between Europe and the Islamic world," he said. Opponents of Turkish membership of the union fear the entry of an overwhelmingly Muslim nation could alter the character of Europe culturally, demographically and by moving the EU's border closer to a volatile region.
This, he said, simply fed the notion of fundamental incompatibility between the East and the West. Lord Patten, a former Conservative member of the British government, expressed reluctance to indulge in the "fool's game" of making too many predictions on what the future held. "Very often unpredictable events can send the world spinning in another direction," he said, citing in particular the impact of the September 11 attacks.
However, Lord Patten did outline five major challenges facing the world and especially four main power-brokers, China, India, the US and the EU. He listed these as encouraging free trade and resisting protectionism, combating global warming, preventing nuclear proliferation, as well as rejecting the notions of both "hegemonic struggle" between the US and China and a clash of civilisations. Lord Patten said talk of China's rise showed a lack of historic knowledge. "China has been the largest economy in the world for 18 out of the last 20 centuries."
The word he preferred was the "re-emergence" of China on the global stage, a subject on which he is better qualified than most to address as the governor of Hong Kong before the island was handed back to China in 1997. Although China and India continued to rise in the East, Lord Patten said, the US was still the only true superpower, through the sheer might of its armed forces, adding: "It is militarily invincible, but not invulnerable."
Lord Patten rejected the proposition of some commentators that "hegemonic struggle" between China and the US was inevitable in the 21st century. "I don't believe a strong China economically represents a threat to America or a threat to anyone else," he said. "I think for China's economic progress to flag or to stutter, would be much more of a threat to us all." But outlining serious environmental problems associated with China's growth, he acknowledged that finding a collective international effort to combat climate change posed a unique challenge.
"It is perhaps a depressing thought that if we weren't able to successfully complete the Doha trade liberalisation round, then its not going to be easy to complete a negotiation for a follow-up to Kyoto Protocol," he said. Lord Patten described the EU as a "civilian power" that had been born out of the horrors of two World Wars and had confronted threats of totalitarianism from both the far Left and the far Right, but whose member states - with the exception of Britain and France - did not now spend enough on their own security.
On concerns about nuclear proliferation, Lord Patten said he was an advocate of direct talks with Iran. "I very much hope that we can see a resolution to the present standoff between US and EU and Iran," he said. "Apart from the unthinkable one of military intervention in Iran, the worst of all worlds is for the Iranians to be developing civil and military power without any monitoring by the outside world."