In the Cold War era, the global confrontation was basically ideological. Two radically different socio-political blueprints were pitted against each other: democracy and capitalism on the one side, one-party-rule and communism on the other. The opponents, then, were two superpowers and their allies -- all sovereign states. Today, the nature of the global confrontation has altered dramatically.
Many conflicts have become religious and the nature of the combatants has changed. On the one side of the divide stand those governments that profess to fight for democratic and liberal values, the other side is taken up by religious fundamentalists. The "democrats" represent sovereign states, the religious fighters are organized in informal networks, movements and insurgency groups.
The new international order seems far less orderly than the one left behind a decade and a half ago. The premature, if not naive assumption that the collapse of the Soviet Union would herald "the end of history" is constantly and brutally refuted in many parts of the world. Compared with the state of world affairs today, the Cold War-era resembles a period of international tranquility.
One of the striking (and also disturbing) features of the new world "disorder" is that the US has not found a successful recipe to deal with Islamic extremism. On the contrary: Much of what Washington has been doing in the past two years has played into the hands of the extremists.
All along, those opposing the war in Iraq have argued that military aggression and occupation are counterproductive and strategically wrong. Interestingly, this contention is now seconded in a report by the US Defense Science Board, an advisory panel of the Pentagon that says the US is failing in its long-term strategic efforts: "In stark contrast to the Cold War, the US today is not seeking to contain a threatening state empire, but rather seeking to convert a broad movement within Islamic civilization to accept the value structure of Western modernity -- an agenda hidden within the official rubric of `War on Terrorism.'"
According to the report this is a strategic mistake. Unfortunately, the military confrontation in the Arabian deserts and the underlying clash of Western modernity versus fundamentalist rejection of this world view has had negative repercussions throughout the globe. These are felt everywhere Muslims and Christians live side by side.
With its large Muslim minorities from Northern Africa and Turkey, Western Europe is a case in point. Ironically, the Netherlands, arguably the most liberal of all countries, has become a battleground of what journalists term a "clash of cultures."
The brutal killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in early this month by a zealous Muslim immigrant has provoked a violent backlash in the form of bombings, fires and vandalism at numerous mosques. All this has occurred in a country thus far considered a haven of religious peace and tolerance.
During a recent trip to Europe I could sense the collective agitation. To say the Dutch are in a state of collective shock is no exaggeration. Some argue the relationship between Christian majorities and Muslim minorities may never be the same again.
"The future integration of its Muslim populations is the subtext to just everything Europe thinks and does these days," says a US commentator in the Netherlands. Most discussions in Europe related to the Muslim issue have two common denominators.