Aliens knocking at the door

Neighbors and Strangers
March 20, 1998

In an age of ethnic cleansing, civil wars and increased racist attacks on foreigners, a book analysing how people throughout the ages attempted to live in harmony with foreigners is welcome.

William R. Polk, a well- known expert on the Middle East, former professor of history at Chicago University and member of the Policy Planning Council during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, is uniquely qualified to deal with this challenging task. His overall conclusion is, however, sobering: "We find it very difficult to live with people who are different from us and in times of stress and chaos turn violently against them."

It is disheartening to realise that most of our attempts to deal with foreign influences have been tried before. Most peoples' responses to the foreigner can be summarised by the following strategies: isolationism, colonialism, trade, imperialism and slavery, accommodation through diplomacy, espionage, missionary activities, extermination.

Throughout this highly learned and very readable book the author shows clearly that foreign and domestic affairs cannot justifiably be regarded as separate but rather as interconnected.

Fortunately, the strict separation between domestic history and foreign affairs that largely stems from 19th-century diplomatic history has gradually been overcome by scholars in more recent years. For the general reader there may almost be too much information dealing with century after century, empire after empire, to make the book accessible.

Furthermore, the division into chapters dealing with defence, armies and warfare, non-governmental relations, intelligence and espionage, diplomacy, each covering the entire range of human experience from prehistory to the present, does not help to overcome the traditional separation of the many aspects of foreign affairs into neat compartments.

Admittedly, it is difficult to employ a structure that would do more justice to this interconnection without leading to confusion. While all of the book's chapters make worthwhile reading, the chapters on non-governmental relations, which highlight the development of the international trading system, and the section on espionage and counterintelligence, are particularly enjoyable. The latter contains many examples (and anecdotes) of both the usefulness and the utter futility of the work of the "second oldest profession".

The last chapter, "Getting rid of the alien", is also of particular interest. The author concludes that "assimilation has operated through history as a double-edged sword: often, the closer the feeling of brotherhood within a community, the stronger the animosity toward the stranger without" Polk, therefore, predicts not so much a clash of civilisations as promoted by Samuel Huntington a few years ago but an increasing tendency towards severe conflicts among "microcultures" for the realisation of their ethnic and nationalist ambitions.

Klaus Larres is reader in politics, Queen's University, Belfast.

Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs

Author - William R. Polk
ISBN - 0 226 67329 4
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 366

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