Surprise. This is not the world we thought we’d leave our children as an inheritance.
After the Cold War ended around 1990, some historians and journalists boasted that capitalism had triumphed. The First World of America, Europe and Japan won the battle. The Second World of Socialism had evaporated. The Third World remained largely in poverty but some countries clawed their way up to middle-income status.
So why am I standing on line for an hour in crowded airports, exposing my armpits and crotch to X-ray screening?
Why is it that countries I visited decades ago such as Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Jordan are now too dangerous to visit without an armored SUV, hired guards and plenty of weapons?
Why is it that you could walk for days in the 1970s from village to village in the Hindu Kush Mountains without fearing a robbery or beheading but today they are no-go areas littered with the bones of innocent visitors of the wrong faith?
It turns out that 1990 did not mark the end of 4,000 years of war and conflict. Instead it was little more than a ripple in that ocean of blood we call history.
In Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began the resurrection of cultural war with suicide bombings and ethnic cleansing. On a shady, quiet, rural road in 1988, the Tigers stopped a double-decker red bus, released the Tamils but machine-gunned the majority Sinhalese. A few years earlier, Tamil shops in Colombo’s Pettah Bazaar were torched by Sinhalese mobs.
Ethnic or religious war such as the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict has replaced wars between nation states. Such conflict now simmers or explodes in Kashmir, Bosnia, Kosovo, Ukraine, Mozambique, Mali, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Yemen, Burma, Pakistan, Georgia, Chechnya, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Azerbaijan and China.
Such conflicts are based on killing off rival religions, ethnic groups, languages, colors, races, castes or classes.
What about that new religion that swept the world in recent years – globalization? It would transcend faith and race, we were told. Everyone will wear blue jeans and eat McDonalds, speak English and make money. We would all learn computers and use the Internet to unite with others in a universal future open to all.
It was a nice idea. But it clashes with history.
The worshipping of globalization in the op-ed pages of major U.S. newspapers, and the shipping of U.S. manufacturing jobs to Asia and Mexico, did little to avert the slaughter around the world or bring prosperity to America’s middle class.
Now we are experiencing what Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington called “the clash of civilizations.” Back in 1996, he wrote that “in the post Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political or economic. They are cultural.” He divided the planet into nine competing cultural groups that would sooner or later be at each other’s throats over resources, pride, water, living space and other issues. The cultural groups are: Western (Euro-American), Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, (Christian) Orthodox, Buddhist and Japanese.
I saw up close the revival of ethnic nationalism when I visited my father’s homeland Czechoslovakia in 1992 and asked people in Brno, Prague and Bratislava if separation was possible. A few months later came the velvet divorce. But all was not velvet in other regions of the planet.
East Timorese fought a bloody war to escape from Indonesia. South Sudan fought to leave Sudan. Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro all violently left the Serb rump of Yugoslavia.
Last September, after 300 years of union, some 45 percent of Scots voted to leave the United Kingdom. Catalonia wants to leave Spain. Separatists in Belgium and Italy want to carve out independent states.
We fought a bloody Civil War to prevent the South from seceding so it seems hypocritical to encourage other countries to give up pockets of ethnic and religious minorities.
Yet looking at the humanitarian, ethical point of view, we should support the good causes such as Tibetans, Kurds and South Sudan Christians.
But once ethnicity was supported as a cause for separation, Vladimir Putin used it to claim power over Slavs, Russian speakers and Orthodox Christians in Crimea, Ukraine and the Baltics.
The more the years slip by since the fall of the Cold War, the more globalization seems unable to quench the fires behind ISIS, Shia Islam, Russian over-reach, China’s grab of sea lanes and dozens of other conflicts disrupting world peace, security, travel and commerce.
Thus, when the UN reported in December it was dealing with the largest number of displaced and needy people since World War II – 78 million and rising – it raised barely a wave in the media. We’ve come to expect the worst in our increasingly crowded planet.
U.N. conventions declare – but rarely enforce – human rights and religious freedom.
The United States and other self-proclaimed progressive nations can show the world how to reduce ethnic and cultural tensions. But it’s a message that often falls on barren soil. The cultural habits and stereotypes we have of each other are deeply embedded and dangerous enough to provoke wars, especially the long war of terrorism we fight each day.
We are heading toward the splintering of the whole planet into mini sub-states based on the single formula that our group is better than the others. It time for world leaders to think deeply about ways to end ethnic and religious hatred.
Ben Barber has been a journalist for 35 years, having written for the Baltimore Sun, Newsday, USA Today, the Washington Times, the London Observer, and other publications His new photojournalism book, “GROUNDTRUTH: Work, Play and Conflict in the Third World,” can be ordered at benabarber.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.