THE Alliance of Civilisations between the West and Muslim countries has come under criticism since it was first proposed by the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in a speech at the United Nations in September 2004. It is an easy target for critics; it sounds like an impractical dream which will, however, give gainful employment to academics and international civil servants as they meet from time to time in attractive locations to discuss how such an Alliance could heal the wounds of our troubled world. A meeting in Palma last year of some of those involved in the project may have seemed to fit the preconceptions of the cynics, but anyone who had the chance to talk to the participants would have discovered that they were very hard–headed about what needs to be done and the tangible benefits that such an Alliance could bring. Confirmation that the Alliance can serve a useful purpose came this week from an unexpected quarter. According to press reports, the Spanish Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, has received a letter from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in which she expresses explicit support for the Alliance of Civilisations and describes it as an initiative that “promises to facilitate greater understanding and promote democratic reform, peace and stability in the Middle East.” The Spanish government and others may want to look at the apparent harnessing of the proposed Alliance to America's agenda for “democratic reform” but elsewhere in the letter Ms Rice refers to potential US involvement in “greater cultural understanding in schools, links between academic and civil society, interactions between experts of different cultures, and use of the Internet to reach out to young people in the Muslim world.” And to young people in the Western world, one might add! There could be a mismatch between US objectives and the ideas of Senor Zapatero and those of the United Nations which is backing the development of the Alliance. But, for the moment, it is encouraging to find Dr Rice holding out a hand of co–operation. Events of the past few weeks have shown only too clearly how little the West and the Muslim world understand one another and how desperately such understanding is needed.