In the history of institutionalized relations between states, the preservation of peace and stability has always been a predominant concern--an ideal that is also enunciated in the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations. The gap between the idea of peace and the reality of tension and conflict, however, has proven to be a major challenge to the world organization ever since its foundation after World War II--and that challenge was not only due to conflicting political and economic interests. Situations of conflict often arise in a complex setting of historical, social, cultural and political interaction between communities; accordingly, they must be dealt with in a multifaceted and integrative manner. In order to "practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours", as the peoples of the United Nations proclaim in the Preamble to the Charter, we first have to understand each other, or appreciate each other's way of life and socio-cultural identity. This is only possible if we are knowledgeable about our distinct cultures, traditions and value systems. This truth is also reflected in the Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) according to which "ignorance of each other's ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind", of suspicion and mistrust through which their differences have "all too often broken into war".
As an important element of a durable order of peace among nations and peoples, cultural relations have rightly become a preoccupation of modern foreign policy. However, under the conditions of today's global village, with the simultaneity and constant interaction among distant and distinct traditions, social identities and value systems, cultural foreign policy in the conventional diplomatic sense is not enough anymore. With the geopolitical changes that unfolded after the end of the Cold War, and in particular since the fateful events at the beginning of the new millennium, the promotion of intercultural understanding has become more than just an ingredient, as important as it may be, of "peaceful coexistence" among nations. After the end of the bipolar world order, which had divided the world along ideological lines, dialogue among cultures and civilizations has indeed become an existential issue for the international community, a goal which the United Nations General Assembly has identified as such in its resolution in 2001 as the "United Nations Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations"--a decision notably adopted before the events of 11 September of that year.
The new orientation suggested here requires a systemic approach that takes into account the interdependence between the realms of culture, politics and the economy, and makes intercultural relations a defining element of foreign policy, something which the International Progress Organization has been advocating since 1974 in its first international conference on "The Cultural Self-comprehension of Nations". Our concerns were echoed, at the time, in the words of UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, who, in a special message to the conference, emphasized that there is "no future for mankind unless tolerance and understanding between cultures and nations ... become the rule rather than the exception".
In our era of global interconnectedness, the assertion of cultural identity can only be envisioned on the basis of mutual respect and the acceptance of diversity. The conventional, often patronizing and propaganda-like approach in the domain of cultural cooperation, a legacy of the colonial era with its unilateral mindset, has essentially failed in the increasingly multi-polar framework of globalization. A culture can only realize itself and reach a state of maturity if it is able to relate to other cultures and life-worlds in a comprehensive and interactive sense, a process one might also characterize by reference to what we have termed the "dialectics of cultural self-comprehension". …