WASHINGTON — AS the new year dawns, the world seems rife with old conflicts that have been lit anew. In the former Yugoslavia, Muslims and Serbs battle as they did centuries ago. On the edges of the old Soviet empire, Armenians and Azeris have resumed ancient hatreds.
Resurgent radical Islam threatens secular regimes in the Middle East. Meanwhile, economic competition between the West and the Far East has sharpened as authoritarian capitalism booms in China.
These and other clashes that characterize the post-cold-war world share a common attribute: They are not so much between nation-states as between distinct peoples, civilizations.
In fact, world politics is entering a new phase, and the principal source of conflict will be this clash of civilizations, according to a journal article by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington that is sparking much debate in United States foreign-policy circles.
During the cold war, international politics revolved around the standoff between two essentially Western nations: the United States and the Soviet Union. This could be considered a civil war within Western civilization; today, the centerpiece of geopolitics is the interaction between the West and everyone else.
For instance, ``The prognosis for relations between the West and Islamic countries, I fear, is not good,'' Dr. Huntington said recently.
Once, the most important global frontier was the Iron Curtain. Today, it might be the eastern boundary that Western Christianity reached in 1500.
This line starts in the north on the Russia-Finland border. It drops south through Ukraine and Romania, then jogs west through the Balkans. It separates peoples with a Roman Catholic or Protestant heritage and the culture of the Renaissance from those with Orthodox and Muslim backgrounds.
``The Velvet Curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology as the most significant dividing line in Europe. As the events in Yugoslavia show, it is not only a line of difference; it is also, at times, a line of bloody conflict,'' Huntington wrote in his article in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
Scholars and diplomats have long focused on nations and economies as primary actors in world affairs.
In emphasizing the importance of civilizations, Huntington is, in essence, trying to set out a new paradigm, or model, for the way world politics will work. He lists Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and ``possibly'' African civilizations as being distinct.
Important conflicts will occur on the lines between these cultures for a number of reasons, according to Huntington.
For one thing, differences between these cultures are real and basic, as they are based on such things as upbringing and religion.
Meanwhile, the world is becoming smaller, throwing civilizations into more abrasive contact. Economic and social change is separating people from long-standing local and national identities.
The West is at the peak of its power and intrusiveness. Partly in reaction to this, some other civilizations are returning to their own roots; hence, the rise of fundamental Islam in Egypt and other Middle East states.
Some countries have several civilizations living within their own borders, rendering them ``torn'' states, in Huntington's view. Russia and Mexico are primary examples of ``torn'' states. Both have Western-oriented, modern elites leading mass populations that have experienced an entirely different culture.
Thus, Huntington says, his paradigm explains the surprising strength of xenophobic nationalists in the recent Russian elections. Their vote represented the old Eastern-oriented, Orthodox culture that is opposed to Western ways.
``But, over the long term, Russia will very probably move closer to the West,'' Huntington said.
``Younger people tend to be supporters of [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin and democracy,'' he added.
Other current tensions that fit into the Huntington model, he says, include trade disputes between Japan and the rest of the world; human-rights arguments between China and Western nations; the abandonment of Bosnian Muslims by Western Europe; and the resistance of many Islamic states to US calls for more pressure on Iraq and Libya.
But since Huntington first laid out his theory in the pages of Foreign Affairs, critics have rallied to launch a lively debate on its merits.
A primary complaint is that nations, as political entities, remain more powerful than Huntington holds them to be.
Thus, Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, replied to Huntington in Foreign Affairs that states control civilizations, and not the other way around.
Huntington ``misses the slyness of states, the unsentimental and cold-blooded nature of so much of what they do,'' Mr. Ajami writes.
While traditionalists, such as radical Islamic leaders, have been making headlines lately, their power should not be overemphasized, critics say.
The nationalist vote in Russia was a blip. India will not become a Hindu state. Islam will not band together with Confucist countries in a large anti-Western alliance.
People everywhere long for economic improvement and freedom and human rights in the liberal Western tradition, Huntington's critics say.
``Men want Sony, not soil,'' Ajami writes.