Ever since the United States became a world power, just over a hundred years ago, American foreign policy has been hammered out between two great forces, each deeply rooted in the American historical experience. One way of defining them is to think of them as the immigrant tradition, and the tradition of the frontiersman.
Tim Garden writes:
In most counter-terrorist operations, the military are always subservient to the forces of law and order and the intelligence activities, even when it’s overseas. The international community now have started building up the most extraordinary coalition across the world, which means that intelligence can be shared in a way that was unthinkable even a fortnight ago. We’ve focused and personalized this around one individual which is always slightly difficult, - Osima bin Laden. There would perhaps be great satisfaction in bringing him to justice, and I would prefer that we captured him and took him to a court and tried him. But however it is done, the elimination of one man will not end terrorism. The campaign – and I don’t go much for the use of the word ‘war’ in all this – it is a long-drawn-out counter-terrrorist campaign that we are talking about – will have to continue even if we are successful in the very difficult task of finding one man in a remote region of the world. Nevertheless, the infrastructure that he has can be removed by military means, and I think we will see that done in the near term.
There is then the question of the support. Whenever you look at counter-terrorist operations, you look at ways to remove the support that comes from the community within which the terrorist organisation thrives. There are two aspects to that. If he is getting government support, you need to change the government or change its mind. The other is the local population, where you need to remove the causes of that support. If we see an operation designed to remove the Taliban government, it needs to be coupled at the same time with an operation to feed and return Afghanistan to a viable state. There is a humanitarian crisis emerging there – I would say it is already there - that is on a scale far exceeding that in Kosovo. Removal of the Taliban government has to be replaced by an infrastructure that can provide the UN and other NGO aid organizations with a way into Afghanistan.
So there is a way forward in all this, and it seems to me that so many disparate nations working together is a real opportunity. It is very difficult to keep them all together.
There is one other area which seems to me important, and that is what you and I do as individual citizens. The purpose of any terrorist organisation is to frighten the life out of you. It is to make your life impossible by the restrictions which are put on your freedom. It is to undermine the economy and the way of life that we have. We don’t need to give them that victory. We lived for fifty years against the background of a threat that was far worse: nuclear war. We lived through that. We raised families. We had happy lives. We can do that again, even with the increased risk from international terrorism. It is a wonderful war to fight because the way to do it is to go out to the shops, buy your new car early, go to the theatre this week-end, accepting that one of the penalties is that you will have a slightly increased risk from international terrorism, until we get it more under control.
Learning to hate each other
Mary Kaldor writes:
When Timothy Garden was talking about how the terrorists want to destroy our way of life and our economy, I wanted to say - actually, that isn’t what they want. If we think that the events were instrumental, that there was a politics behind it, then what was intended was to create a spiral of fear and hate because that is the way that you mobilise more people to your cause. What is intended is to create a kind of response from the United States of light bombing, in order that they can then say: ‘We told you so. Now more people should join al-Qaida’ – or whatever it is that is this extremist network. And that is exactly the logic that operated in Yugoslavia. People didn’t hate each other before the war in Bosnia. Indeed, I remember one of my friends saying to me: ‘The reason this war had to be so bloody is because we had to learn to hate each other….’
If the whole purpose of this is political mobilisation on the basis of fear and hate – maybe in technical terms, what you do have to do to catch terrorists includes removing the Taliban regime - but the point is that what has to be said publicly is a political alternative that aims at building a global political legitimacy - that is what is crucial. Why can’t, for example, the UN Security Council do what was done over Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and create an ad-hoc court for this purpose?
Who, exactly, is it who hates whom? Response to David Held.
Bobby Sayyid writes:
So soon afterwards, anything you say pales into insignificance compared to the human suffering that we saw, very clearly and very directly on television. But still: to reply to your call for international peace with justice…
History does not begin on September 11, and it didn’t end on September 11. That’s a commonplace observation, but important nevertheless. After the tragedy, we were offered an attempt to describe these events in a way that made sense: a very human instinct. If you were at all like me, you will remember a sense of unbelief. Is it really happening? What is the scale of all this? And it wasn’t just a personal experience on that day. The American government seemed paralysed. Nobody knew what was happening. Planes had gone missing. Air spaces were being closed. There was a huge sense of panic, and within that panic, the need to make sense of what had completely interrupted a normal day…
So what do we do when we attempt to recover from the unexpected and to normalise a turn of events? My general remark concerns this, the story we tell ourselves about who we are, and how we cope. We are all, if you like, our own personal film directors. We make a film of our own life, our being, who we are and our values. Of course, we tend to edit out the boring bits, the bad bits. These edited out bits get left behind. What happens quite often is that these bad bits left on the cutting floor end up being put into a movie about somebody else. Quite often who we are ends up being, ‘Well, actually, I’m quite nice and charming. It’s the other guy who’s boring.’
The challenge we face is how to prevent what is left on the cutting floor ending up turning into the killing fields. We demonise the other so that we can end up saying, ‘Well actually, these people aren’t really even people, and as such, we don’t have to worry about them.’ It was alarming and frightening how quickly this conflict suddenly became inexplicably about everything: it was about civilization, democracy, motherhood, apple pie. Whatever we were not, it was about. Because it was completely insane. Why would a sane person bring about so much damage, kill so many people, cause so much suffering? How could this happen?
The man behind it, we said, was Osama bin Laden. This was the Evil Genius who made all these things possible. After the war, we tried to make sense of Nazi Germany. The demonisation of Hitler allowed everyone to avoid admitting that this is actually quite a complicated process; that a lot of people were involved; that, perhaps, that kind of evil is possible within us at certain points. These questions can be dismissed if you think we were simply following this evil genius who tricked us into all this.
We can’t be so affected because the people dying here – as opposed to in Chechnya, Rwanda, Bosnia – were Americans. It can’t be just because it was on television. It is true that if you do have the pictures – we don’t get the pictures from Kashmir from example – you can’t pretend it didn’t happen. Part of it must be some sort of proximity. New York is a city that we all know, either directly or indirectly, even vicariously through the movies, and so on. So there is some sort of attachment there that needs to be explained.
Whatever it is, perhaps we require it to be an absolute evil which cannot be found. We give that evil the name of terror – terrorism. Somehow that explains everything. The difficulty is that the category is mobile. Most governments around the world have their own terrorists. Say ‘terrorist’ to Putin, and he will think of Chechens. Say it to the BJP Government in India, and they will think about Kashmiri liberation organizations. But whoever they are, they are outside the pale of global democracy, and world civilisation.
The difficulty, I would suggest, with this, is that democracy as we have known it has had two features. There is no democracy that I know of which doesn’t have the idea of a ‘foreigner’ who is not a citizen and therefore who is not allowed democratic rights. So when you have a globalised world where people move in such a way that the distinction between ‘citizen’ and ‘foreigner’ becomes quite blurred, it is hard for our notion of democracy to function. Secondly, in the form that we recognise it now, this liberal social democracy, although it has an ancient pedigree, is actually very young. Maybe fifty years old. Thirty years old in the United States. As such, it is also fragile, constructed by editing out certain elements we associated with the Soviet Union in the Cold War: it was totalitarian, mass society and so on.
Now, to some extent, that kind of editing out is being done in the face of ‘terrorism’/ Islam. Constant remarks from some government sectors that ‘this is not really about Islam’ do not sit well with the list of ‘global reach terrorist organisations’. They all happen to be Muslim organisations. The people killed in the wake of the events of September 11 are mainly Muslims or people who look like Muslims. A Sikh guy got shot in Arizona because he was wearing a turban. Somehow these people are outside the pale because others feel they harbour extremists and terrorists within them.
So how is it that Islam has come to play this kind of prominent role? Because in many ways, as Air Marshall Sir Timothy Garden said, it is not a comparable threat to that played by the Soviet Union. I suggest two reasons. Islam is actually transnational in the way that again blurs the divide between ‘citizen’ and ‘foreigner’. There are Muslims inside these countries who were born and bred inside Britain or America. But there are also Muslims outside. That confuses the notion of the nation-state. It raises the spectre of an alternative globalisation which is based around the world of Islam.
Secondly, we are at the turning-point an African-American philosopher describes as ‘the passing of the Age of Europe’. For the last fifty, thirty, twenty years, depending on how it is, you suddenly have the possibility of thinking of Europe as being a normal civilisation like any other, with known limits. The history of the world cannot simply be a replay of European history. Islam is implicated in this, because many Islamicists have started to say: ‘Well look, yes, there are these universal values, but they can be approached through many different kinds of tradition. There is no reason to follow that particular sequence of European events as a role model. We have our own resources, and they need to be recovered.’
The idea that Europe bequeathed to the world the only royal road to wisdom is fading. These two developments explain some of the anxieties underpinning the details of what is happening after September 11. What I would like to suggest is that what we are seeing here is an attempt to rearticulate and redefine democracy after the Cold War. In any struggle between a liberation organisation or a terrorist organisation and the state, we should, it seems to me, always be very cautious of the way in which the power of the state to inflict harm has always been greater. In the end perhaps the real danger lies with the response of those states to this terrorism which will actually transform what we consider to be democratic, before we have even noticed it.
Where you draw the line.
David Held writes:
David Held: I’ve spent some time just recently asking LSE students who have worked on this area, and who have a lot of familiarity with these groups across the world – asking them how they thought the justification for these acts would run. I have also spent some time looking at Bin Laden’s own documents and some of the relevant documents of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
He would start with an extremely poignant point. He would start with his disillusionment with the effects of American foreign policy in the Middle East. He would go on to talk about the way the Americans have supported monarchical and despotic regimes in the Middle East. He would talk about way in which these regimes had distorted the message of Islam in the Middle East, and the impact of the Iraqi war on the Middle East. He would produce a lot of very good arguments. To the extent that he said this, he is not a fanatic.
Secondly, he would argue as others have gone on to say – the pursuit of America for theser injustices is dictated by God an we must unconditionally surrender to God in this struggle. To the extent that it is an unconditional surrender – that might begin to sound fanatical. Not necessarily though. Max Weber talked years ago about the ‘many warring Gods we all submit to’: not only Christian, Jewish, Islamic – but the gods of consumerism and so forth…
What makes it a fanaticism, and what cannot be justified by the first two points and that is a third element: the relentless pursuit of violence against innocent people. That in my view justifies the concept of fanaticism. The massacre of the innocents: of diverse people of all religions and nationalities. To the extent that he stuck to the first two points – we could have a rational dialogue. To the extent that he argues that the rest follows – that is where I think we draw lines.
Bobby Sayyid: I’m very troubled when people start talking about fanaticism. I don’t know many people who would call themselves fanatics, even though they have determined views about certain things. We don’t call people fanatics on the whole if we agree with them – ‘He’s fanatically a liberal’ or something like that…
Then, it’s true that innocent people have been killed. But we need to be slightly more knowing in the third Christian millennium about the expansion of war increasingly to include innocent people. Every time you raise a counter-example, you will get accused of condoning what happened – this is one of the difficulties. But we need to understand some of the things that happened in this history which did not begin or end on September 11. Without having some idea of these events which were never called ‘fanatical’, which were not dismissed in this way, it will be hard for us to grasp why it is problematic for us to use ‘fanatic’ in this way.
I’m referring, for example, to the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima in a time of war. Bin Laden would say, I think, that his country is occupied by American troops and an American-supported regime. Therefore he is fighting a ‘liberation struggle’ to get rid of them. His argument would be that the enemy he sees makes no distinction between innocents and non-civilians because the Saudi regime’s main oppression, for example, is against women – women who want to drive for example!
So, we may disagree with the political logic of these people, but it may be better to engage with it as a political logic, engage with it politically, rather than denounce the other as ‘fanatical’. It might make us feel good about ourselves, but it probably doesn’t help us in the long run.
Question from the floor: Looking at the concepts we’ve used – On the one hand, we try to criminalise and depoliticise this act. We talk about how this is a criminal, not a political act. But Mary Kaldor then asks how we frame a ‘political response’. So it seems to me that the cosmopolitan model that David Held is outlining is a normative desire that we have. But I’m not sure how useful a model it is here. At one and the same time, we are saying, ‘This is political, according to a process of rational discussion over human rights.’ But at the same time, the attempt to criminalise it takes it away from being an act within a wider movement in history. It stops it from being political. And that doesn’t help. As desirable as it may be, does criminalising it actually explain anything?
Legality requires two things. The first condition is that the law must be seen as legitimate. Without that belief, the law becomes just another instrument of oppression. Secondly, law without justice will always lead to violence. It seems to me in the absence of having that justice, recognising that something is political gives us more chance of transforming the situation. If we simply criminalise these acts, we have already given up on trying to change them. Let’s not wait for the emergence of a Utopian law. The political is what we have to hang onto. From that, everything flows.
The political by itself is just an empty space. It depends what kind of politics – what kind of conception of the person, what kind of notion of rights, responsibilities, obligations and so forth – you put in it. To call for politics is to call for an empty box. The question is what kind of politics.
Mary is right to call for political process. The three points I set out of our jointly agreed position, were precisely an attempt to set out what this political process could be like, something other than a military process, an alternative to war and interstate militarism which is the dominant rhetoric of our time.
To call for this doesn’t necessarily disempower us from making moral statements. You might say – and it would be a great danger – that to understand these acts sacrifices our capacity to make the most elementary moral judgment about this massive violation of the sanctity of human life. If we can’t agree on a moral judgment about that – I don’t know what we can ever agree on. Understanding something politically does not preclude our making a moral judgment.
I take many of your points on globalisation, of course. Most of my work is precisely rethinking globalisation around a tougher concept of social justice. The anti-globalisers – many of them students and my closest friends – make a lot of distinctive points. But they are a motley and diverse crew. And what I do know is that they are unclear about what this project of democratising and locking justice into the globalisation process actually means. To call for that is right and sound. For globalisation has been unlocked from fundamental principles, moral concerns and social justice. If we take that seriously, of course we must broaden the concerns that have been expressed here this evening around a specific set of events. Of course we have to place at the center of our attention, not just acts of violence like those on 11 September, but routine everyday acts which no-one pays attention to except those working at the front line. For instance, the 17 million children who die of diarrhoea each year. But that is beyond the scope of this discussion…
What are my certainties?
Dr Scilla Elworthy writes:
I would like to take the opportunity to address these issues in personal terms, because there is an opportunity here for us to strip down to the bone what we believe and who we are. We are faced with questions such as: do I believe in revenge ? How do I cope with this world turned upside down ? What are my certainties ?
Is there order in the world? What if it happens here ? We need to remind ourselves that though we whole-heartedly condemn the atrocities that took place in New York and Washington, the kind of questions I have been talking about are ones that hundreds of millions of refugees and those overwhelmed by natural disasters have to cope with daily.
The fundamental issue that underpins all these is fear and dealing with fear, an whether we want to continue with an international relations system based on fear. Now, everybody deals with fear in their own way. But it is essential to deal with it.
I want to run through some suggestions, and be very pragmatic here. I’m not talking with my weapons of mass destruction researcher hat on. I’m going to talk as a person. First of all, I think we need to be clear in our own minds what works. That’s why probably a lot of people are here. We will all feel better if we can throw our weight behind a plan that we think will work. If we can make up our minds.
My take on this is that the United States must proceed on the basis of international law. We must follow the United Nations Charter, and use extradition law to bring the perpetrators to law. A trial would achieve far more than a shoot out, because it would give far more opportunity to get to grips with the roots of what is going on here. The aim should be justice rather than revenge. Bombing will only exacerbate the classic spiral of violence. Atrocity produces initially terror and horror. It produces fear and pain, grief which hardens into anger. Anger, if nothing is done about it hardens into bitterness, which hardens into revenge and retaliation and another atrocity. We’ve seen this in the Balkans. We’ve seen it in Rwanda Burundi Israel and Palestine.
In the short term, the point is, what actions can we take to intervene in that cycle of violence so that it simply doesn’t go round and produce another one? In the longer term, we have to root out the support systems for fundamentalist violent groups. Here, we have to look at the incredible success of non-violent conflict resolution in this particular instance. If we look at the number of lives that were saved by the route that Nelson Mandela chose to take while he was in jail (It cost him dear, not only in producing that point of view and teaching it to others, but also in convincing his colleagues when he came out) – he could have saved five or six million lives simply by taking that route of nonviolence, reconciliation and dare we say it – utter forgiveness. Then there were Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi, Ghandi – all people we have given the Nobel Peace Prize to because they took a powerful, non-violent route in circumstances precisely like these.
Secondly we have to review our own core certainties. Do I believe in a principle of order in the universe? It is an excellent time to do this. Instead of leading our ‘normal lives’, it builds our strength to take this moment to look at our values. Thirdly to review our own politics and to act on them. What do I believe are the causes behind these events? How can they be addressed ? What are the roots of religious fanaticism ? Write down what you believe and then take action.
If we believe that the causes are poverty – write to Clare Short at Dfid. Copy the letter to Tony Blair. Insist that budgets like those of Dfid which are doing something about the security sector and excessive military spending in developing countries – are enlarged. Join movements like the World Development Movement.
If we believe that the cause is fanaticism. Go to a mosque. Engage Muslim clerics in a rigorous debate. Read the Koran. Find out the basis of these religious beliefs and other religious beliefs, and you will find that it no more furnishes a basis for these acts than many other systems of thinking.
If we believe that the incendiary spark for these events is armaments – then voice our opposition to the CIA arming violent militarist factions such as the Taliban and the KLA in Kosovo – which always backfires. (The KLA, for example, having been armed by the CIA, produced the NLA in Macedonia – which Nato then had to go in and try and sort out.) Tell Tony Blair that our support for the US should depend on them stopping the CIA from doing this. And that the UK itself should stop subsidizing our own arms sales.
At the Oxford Research Group, we have just done an in-depth study into the degree to which the British government subsidises arms exports, and it works out that we the taxpayer are actually spending £4,600 per annum per job in the defence industry to continue exporting jobs. Fourthly, a lot of people are very frightened about this happening here. So find out the difference between the various possible chemical, and biological attacks. Find out if there are preventative measures that can be taken: gas masks will not do. Support independent groups and there are quite a few of them, like ours, which continue to work without accepting any government money – to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, and to get this message across to countries like ours, which continue to have their own weapons of mass destruction. The US and other states which have these weapons have been busy undermining treaties which have taken a painful thirty or forty years to build up. Those treaties are coming apart now. They are the main fabric on which a world without weapons of mass destruction will one day be built. So, we must insist that our government sends a message to the world: do as we say, not as we do.
Recently I was looking at a faded photograph of some women standing beside a grubby poster which said, “We like you Yanks – we don’t like your bombs.” The place was Greenham Common, of course, twenty years ago. We weren’t anti-American, we just didn’t fancy the idea of immolation in a nuclear war confined to a “European theatre”.
But the movement which questioned the validity of nuclear weapons soon became popularly known as the ‘peace’ movement, an apparent broadening of aims to include the use of all force anywhere for any reason. This seemed to me a dangerously over-simplified view based on a refusal to recognise that any starting point for action is the world as it is, not the world of ideas. It weakened the movement for nuclear disarmament by cutting it off from the common-sense perceptions of the majority of the British public – that while nuclear weapons may not make us safer, we still do need armed forces.
It was a convenient standpoint, because there was no need to think or make discriminations about armed intervention by NATO or Britain: if it was men with guns, or planes and bombs, the peace movement was against it from the Falklands to Kosovo. Dealing out the simple doctrine that violence will always breed violence, it ignored the awkward problems of injustice, and invited us to stand by while entire peoples were massacred – which we did in Rwanda. A political position which assumes that we have no right to ‘meddle’ in the affairs of others ignores one of the biggest lessons of history: far from having intervened wrongly in Europe in 1939, we should have intervened sooner.
All people of conscience and commitment to humanitarian values have experienced a tremendous ethical dilemma since the atrocities of 11 September. This has been reflected in the arguments for and against military action in Afghanistan, which have been equally powerful, logical, and grounded, for the most part, in clear, intelligent analysis of the situation and its dangers.
People like myself, who are not ‘pro-’ or ‘anti-’ any race, nation, or religion – because we are neither stupid nor ignorant – are caught in a dilemma as to where our support should lie: with our own government, now so clearly committed not only to pursuit of Bin Laden but also to the downfall of the Taliban; or with those voices which, on practical as well as principled grounds, oppose the use of force in this situation.
Resolution or nightmare?
I will attempt a summary: we assume that Tony Blair is right about the proof of Bin Laden’s role in the terrorist attacks. What ‘proof’ is needed anyway for a person who advocates openly the slaughter of all non-Muslims, beginning with Americans? We assume the Al-Qa’ida network and training camps will, if allowed to remain, carry out further atrocities from those same bases – possibly on us too. We assume the news reports about the Taliban to be true: that it is odiously repressive of the Afghani people and particularly of the women. If so, getting rid of it should be welcomed by many in Afghanistan.
And if, as one commentator in openDemocracy has suggested, we may liken the inhabitants of Afghanistan to those of a concentration camp, then we have a moral imperative to act on their behalf, for we have power and they haven’t. Taking action will give a clear message to further would-be terrorists: that both Western and Muslim states will act together in a targeted, effective, way to pre-empt further attacks. It is a clear case of governments acting responsibly in defence of targeted populations.
Or, on the other hand – what is this ‘proof’ which we have to take on trust, and which apparently might not stand up in court? As soon as innocent Afghanis are killed, the slide towards polarization of attitudes will begin. The truth is that we have no idea of the likely scale of reaction in the Muslim world, but to put it mildly, the consequences if governments already shaky and propped up by America fall to Islamist groups, could be severe.
The grievances which fuel widespread, popular anti-Americanism have legitimacy, particularly with regard to America’s support for Israel. A cycle of atrocity and repression is unleashed. Once underway, and fuelled by powerful emotions of grief, anger and demands for vengeance, it becomes unstoppable.
The killing of Bin Laden appears to be merely a short-term effort to appease American feelings (despite the pleas of many of the actual bereaved that vengeance or summary justice is not what they want). Worse still, it is counter-productive, as numerous further Bin Ladens appear, armed with pen-knives, bottles of disease and suicidal intent. We have no idea who they are or when they will strike – because their potential numbers are huge – so we simply can’t stop them.
Bogged down in a war of attrition in Afghanistan and the Middle East, our own freedoms disappearing beneath patriotic imperatives, our societies torn apart by suspicion and racist-engendered conflict, we stumble along behind that old git, Nostradamus, into full-scale war, using every horrific device ever made. There are no winners, not even the animal kingdom – except perhaps the survivors of nuclear fallout, cockroaches.
‘Peace’ is as nasty as ‘war’
This ghastly but plausible prediction rests upon two assumptions: that public opinion in the West will allow it to happen, and that increasing numbers of Muslims will be happy to allow Islam to be identified as a religion of terrorist atrocity. Surely we can expect something better of our fellow human beings?
Of Muslim society, we have much to learn in the coming period. But the first assumption many of us made about America – that a swift, catastrophic and futile reaction would take place – was quite wrong. As Anthony Barnett and Susan Richards have pointed out here on openDemocracy, America has not so far played her expected part in the apocalyptist’s scenario. The days of unintelligent pronouncements about ‘crusades’ and cowboy boasts appear to be behind us. It is an irony not lost on many Americans that hugely expensive heavy weaponry is of little use against a generalised unpopularity, breeding small, highly organised groups, possibly acting autonomously, intent on creating mayhem in the pursuit of a hatred-inspired, death-loving creed. The need, not for superficial adjustments, but for a seismic change in America’s relations with the rest of the world, is becoming clearer.
Although much of this awareness in America is dismissed as mea culpa liberal hand-wringing, for a society dangerously cocooned in isolation to see itself as others see it is no bad thing. This could lead us out of our present nightmare into a genuinely new era of co-operation. At last America could stop confusing the common good with Communism.
There are many winners, beginning with Afghani women, if escalation is averted, if the infrastructure of Islamist terrorism is damaged, Israel is obliged to accept the validity of a Palestinian state, and a secular, democratic state or confederation is set up in Afghanistan. Military action may play a part in this, but it is already quite obvious that it may not even be the most major part. Saying “this is war, and we’re against it” doesn’t help much.
We should listen to what a group of exiled Afghani women, the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women are saying: all the warring groups of various bandits are funded from outside. Cut off their funding and supplies. All of them (including the Northern Alliance) have policies of extreme repression, of women in particular. In this situation, we can’t be all-or-nothing about force – it may be useful at some point, but on its own it will only be counter-productive.
One thing I do know: the days of scattering sunflower stickers around are over. The creed which would seek the subjugation and disappearance from public life of half the human race (my half) is every bit as evil and wrong as the Nazism which my father, a profoundly anti-militaristic man, volunteered to fight – because he believed there was no other way to defeat it. ‘Peace’ is not nice any more, it is every bit as nasty as ‘war’. And it is no longer our choice.
Running towards reality
What can we do? Lots. We can make sure, with our constant nagging and awkward squad questions, that the rhetoric about aid for refugees and minimising civilian casualties becomes an ongoing reality. The moral high ground may prove a practical obstacle, but its strategic importance outweighs such considerations. We can assume human goodness and intelligence is there, and discover it by talking and listening to American and Muslim strangers.
Dialogue is a weapon against ignorance. With renewed insistence, we can raise again the question of multilateral, policed and enforced, nuclear, chemical and biological disarmament. We can support our Afghani sisters, who say “Disarm all the warlords”. Though how you do that without having your own men-with-guns, I don’t know.
We can also dump our old prejudices – if we expect others to do likewise – and be prepared for a surprise attack by the forces of moderation, tolerance and good sense, coming from where we least expect it.
We have to defeat militant Islamic fundamentalism. And in the long run, the only force which can do that is militant moderation.
As the thick gray ash of the World Trade Center poured down on Manhattan, Americans were moved by messages of solidarity from every land. “We Are All New Yorkers”, we heard, and an American could be forgiven for imagining that new understandings might be pouring in, too. Here and there, yes. Along with straightforward, unqualified condemnation of terrorism came the passionate hope that the crimes of 11 Septembe 2001 crimes might elicit from Americans a stronger feeling for the whole of assaulted humanity.
As US forces (and US cruise missiles fired from British submarines) strike and sometimes miss targets in Afghanistan it is natural to think, ‘here we go again’. Natural, even comforting. But wrong.
The reaction shared and felt by millions around the world as we watched the Towers burn and collapse on 11 September was that the world had changed.
It is important to hold onto the complicated truth of that surprise. Especially for those, like us, who have been critics of the American exercise of power.
It was a surprise that a group of fundamentalists, especially Muslim ones who are anti-modernists and have done so badly in the modern world, should have co-ordinated such a successful attack. That they were able to fly planes so as to crash them was the easy part. It was the social discipline, the co-ordination involved in four simultaneous hijackings, the sustained training and secrecy, in short their capacity to operate as modern people just like us only better, which was unexpected.
So too was America’s decision not to lash back instantly with cruise missile assaults on civilian targets in the manner of Clinton, its decision to include Muslim faith and Islamic countries in its definition of the coalition, and the effort to prevent an Islamic scare campaign within the US.
Such common sense may now seem inevitable. But the initial omens looked bad - when Bush declared that this is ‘the first war of the 21st century’, as if the only difference between it and other conflicts is the century in which it is taking place.
The ‘dead or alive’ language has been replaced, at least for the present, by a more intelligent policy response. Yes, intelligent. Here is a further surprise. The general attitude towards Bush was an easy contempt for a man who seems unable to articulate his thoughts, if he had any. Nothing was more stupid than not to take Bush seriously because he is stupid.
The costs of indifference
Look at it this way: his father was head of the CIA and President. His brother is governor of Florida, which proved to be very handy. He himself was governor of Texas, and is now also President of the USA. This cannot be a stupid family. Bush genuinely represents interests even if he does not represent the majority of American voters. His character makes it improbable that he can rise above the forces that propelled him into office. With little ability to grasp other feelings and points of view, his is the essence of American presumption: power without further ado. However, he has the strengths of his weakness: he needs others to do his thinking for him. The result was a seven-hour cabinet meeting in Camp David (in stark contrast to Tony Blair who decided on his strategy with no Cabinet meetings at all).
Bush came into the office to lead the most systematically indifferent of American administrations: it reneged on Kyoto, it broke up the biological warfare convention, it pushed through National Missile Defence, it went for tax cuts that favoured the already over-rich. That this most unlikely group of captains should show signs of learning is evidence of the distance America is being forced to travel. The change needs to be welcomed, so as to be reinforced. It is a matter of global survival.
In an early and well-argued warning after 11 September, published in openDemocracy and elsewhere around the world, Tim Garton Ash urged America not to become a ‘Greater Israel’ but to respond with a UN-based coalition. He described US foreign policy as being hitherto relatively benign. Viewed from Europe, in whose politics he is expert, this is a defensible description. But viewed from the Middle East or Latin America, it is not. US foreign policy has a dual character which seems to be rooted in the origins of the United States itself, as Godfrey Hodgson argues in the coming update of openDemocracy: constitutional and law-driven for itself, it grew through genocide and lawlessness outside its borders.
Hence a self-satisfied policy of nihilism abroad: an apparent belief that the US could sow dictatorships and depend for its oil on Wahhabite kingdoms, without being touched by their outcomes or any need to reduce its rabid consumption of energy. George W Bush seemed to be the incarnation of this complacency. There will be no way out unless it, and America, is changed, and changed for good.
This means friends and critics alike must treat America as changeable. Merely to call for ‘peace’ at this moment, when justice clearly justifies the focused use of force, is in its own way to fall back on the anti-political, isolationist, even knee-jerk reactions many feared and expected from President Bush himself.
The logic of intervention
For not only bin Laden but also the Taliban are a legitimate target for coercion. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to liberate it from Pol Pot, there was widespread condemnation, not least from Washington but also from the left, at this violation of national sovereignty and international order. Those who supported the action were accused (at first) of being apologists for the Vietnamese. The government they installed was far from the best imaginable. But it ended genocide. They did not act out of humanitarian motives, but it had a welcome, humanitarian outcome.
The same will apply in Afghanistan. The Taliban and bin Laden have been called Islamic fascists. This is culturally confused, for fascism and nazism were European in origin. But is also revealing, for like fascism (and as Murat Belge and Malise Ruthven have argued in openDemocracy), they too are the product of a twisted encounter with modernity.
Bin Laden has called for Muslims to rise up against America. (Muslim men that is, for him women are the legion of the invisible). He at least seems to believe he has a mandate of sorts. The Taliban can have no such pretension. They are locked into a cycle of abuse – of women, history and belief. Four and a half million Afghanis have fled their rule, surely one of the greatest examples of voting with one’s feet.
As much as the Khmer Rouge, the Taliban deserve to be overthrown. But if the West does this it must be completed without triumphalism. The Taliban are in part the outcome of western cynicism, manipulation and indifference. The assault on them is, therefore, also in part, a practical and costly criticism of the West’s own policies, not a righteous crusade against an evil ‘other’.
Acting on memory
Just as essential as victory over the Taliban and bin Laden, therefore, is the need for atonement for the actions which allowed them to flourish. The successes which ended the Cold War were accompanied by a triumphalist hubris. Afghanistan is the price of all this. We must understand that the Top Gun scenario being played out now is both an end and a beginning. Even in the moment of its apparent effectiveness it must be seen for the failure it is. Just as essential as victory over the Taliban and bin Laden is the need for us to come to terms with our own past.
It is significant that the three most vigorous and confident members of the present coalition against terror are the three victors of the Second World War: the US, Britain and Russia. Of all the western powers, only Germany has put itself through a thorough reckoning with its past, encapsulated in the post-war word vergangenheitsbeweltigung. There, at least, a growing strength and influence is tempered by an understanding of what imperial overstretch means. Defeat was a teacher. Now, a decade after the end of the Cold War, it is time for the West as a whole to absorb Germany’s lesson as a matter of urgency. It took that country half a century. We do not have so long.
Influential individuals and institutions are likely to resist this. The odds point strongly to an attempt by the US to revert to type; to try to impose by military force the unilateral global order it sought to establish through economic hegemony alone after 1989.
Others in the USA, also with influence, can see that there is a rage against such American supremacy not unrelated to American policy. Shaken by the evidence that the unresolved consequences of unilateral dominance can lead to terrible punishment, Americans have started to ponder. They should be given every encouragement to do so.
There are three aspects that stand out following the start of the conflict against the Taliban regime and the bin Laden network.
The first is that the initial attacks were quite small scale, much smaller than the onset of the Gulf War. There will be detailed bomb damage assessment already underway, with further targets to be hit in the coming nights, and initial targets to be attacked again. There are likely to be significant casualties, but details may not be forthcoming from the Kabul regime, and certainly not from Washington.
Secondly, all the raids were staged from US or UK territory or from ships at sea. No bases in neighbouring countries were used and it is unlikely that any will be in the coming days. If they had been available, the air attacks would have been more intense and therefore over quicker.
Thirdly, this means a period of many days of air attack, with a developing reaction in the Middle East and South West Asia, especially Pakistan. The closure of the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia is also significant, as is rising tension in Indonesia.
Among the “unknowns” are reactions from the occupied territories and South Lebanon, and possible incitements from Iraq. The Saddam Hussein regime, in particular, may use the conflict to escalate tensions with the US, knowing that the Saudi authorities would be very reluctant to let the US use Saudi bases for counteraction against Iraq.
Overlying all of this is the continuing suspicion that the bin Laden network/coalition positively wants a strong US military response. From such a perspective, the greater the US presence in the Gulf and South West Asia, and the greater the military action, the better.
The terrible attack on the 11th September, in which thousands of civilians died, has forced US citizens to face up to the fact that their territory is also vulnerable to an attack from external powers, something that must have seemed unimaginable since the last such attack was over a century ago.
Possibly due to this belief in their immunity, US international policy (particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union), has manifested an arrogance towards their allies, and a tendency to make enemies. It has proved itself to be interested only in increasing its own power, even stretching the limits of international law in order to defend its own interests. Often the interests of the US become confused with the interests of certain political leaders having a popularity crisis, or with those of the most important businessmen.
The terrorist attack of the 11th September is a disproportionate consequence of this foreign policy, and no amount of military or police intelligence (even when the country is in a constant state of emergency powers) can guarantee that something similar will not happen in the future.
Only those who have absorbed hate, have lost all hope, and have little to lose are prepared to die in the murder of others. Extreme circumstances produce extremists, and a huge part of the world’s population lives in misery on the edge of the law, and with their basic human rights disrespected. In many cases, western governments are directly responsible for this.
The West, with the US at its head, has been supporting the so-called ‘moderate’ regimes in the Arab world; regimes that usually consist of dictatorships that are favourable towards the interests of our governments, and our businesses, and that deny their people the most basic attentions such as education or sanitary assistance. When, in these countries, people are ill or in need, they know that they cannot expect assistance from the State, but that in the mosque they will find education for their kids and some help for them to escape from their situation of need. When in these countries the people want the government to change they are met with the ferocious repression of an army trained, armed and supported by the West.
Muslims feel humiliated, and rightly so, by the prepotency with which we intervene in their matters, applying our own criteria in order to assess their rights and needs, and those of our allies. It is worth asking whether the attack of the 11th September would have happened if, at any time during the last 30 years the US had forced Israel to come to a fair and reasonable agreement with the Palestinians. I think that the answer is no.
Putting an end to international terrorism is a process that requires, together with police collaboration, configuring international society in such a way that human rights violations are punished, that injustices receive compensation, and an end is brought to the abandonment and helplessness that brings multitudes of people to a state of such desperation that they are prepared to die through the murder of others.
This statement might seem utopian, but it is a project that is possible, and indeed now is the best moment to try to carry it out, since realizing it requires public opinion in the US to understand and assume the need to transfer more power, efficiency and independence to international institutions, so that they do not only function according to the needs of the strongest powers, since this only leads to an increase in inequality, hate and violence- the consequences of which, as we have seen, can be terrible for everyone.
The UN should be reconfigured so that it is more democratic, more agile, with more power and executive strength. And it should be done in such a way that its functioning does not become so conditioned by the veto that the members of the Security Council wield, frequently used for the benefit of the strongest powers, and in detriment to human rights.
The functioning of UN should be distinct from the political interests of the different states, and should be based on the application of objective criteria in defence of human rights. In order for this to happen, we should create a council that is integrated by authorities of indisputable international prestige, that in some cases could adopt provisional executive decisions, and whose judgments over others should necessarily be the subject of debate by the General Assembly.
The only authority unanimously recognized by almost everyone is that which we confer upon winners of Nobel Peace prizes. The Nobel Institution has spent 100 years thoughtfully selecting inhabitants from throughout the world who have distinguished themselves for outstanding work and intellects, for being able to interpret reality from an advanced, and original perspective and for being able to offer the most effective solutions to the most complex problems. It seems to me that the Nobel prize winners represent one of the most important heritages of humanity.
Therefore, the UN council that I referred to earlier could consist exclusively of Nobel prize winners. Each winner would have the right to belong to this committee and to participate in the meetings unless the council was dissolved with the agreement of 51% of the UN.
This Council would be competent in four different areas of work: crisis prevention, humanitarian aid, promoting the intervention of peace forces when necessary, arbitrating in conflicts between nations, and initiating trials for crimes against humanity.
Crisis prevention, for example, is a complex and extremely important activity, to which the Nobel winners would have to dedicate all their brilliance in order to decide which are the most important channels that international society has to promote peace and save the enormous loss that each new war entails. It is as much a question of planning a general policy that considers how to improve education, equality of opportunities, sanitation and economic development in the Third World, as a question of avoiding concrete conflicts. In order to cover the costs of this activity, the Tobin tax could bring the UN an income of between 27 and 45 billion pesetas annually.
The Council would allow the UN to become more dynamic, compelling states to consider essential matters that, at the moment aren’t even talked about in the General Assembly of the UN. The moral authority of its members, on the other hand, would allow a number of initiatives to be carried out, that otherwise would be underestimated or vetoed according to narrow strategic interests. Lastly, the intellectual capacity and acute perception of the members of the Council would enable them to find more thoughtful and successful solutions to the serious problems that the international community is suffering.
An initiative like this would contribute to the creation of a more just and better world, where human rights are respected and hopelessness could be addressed.
In current circumstances it makes sense to expect an idea like this to gain the support of the American people. If Europe launched it with sufficient force, Bush would have no alternative but to listen carefully.
Gregorio Planchuelo is President of the Citizen Defense Association
The wealth of responses to the horrific events of 11 September in openDemocracy is only one index of their global impact. Among the contributors, Brendan O’Leary and Tom Nairn each underline the significance of the ‘silence’ that surrounded them, the absence of any expression of wider purpose from their perpetrators.
Brendan O’Leary suggests one explanation for this chilling silence. If those responsible considered their actions ‘self-evidently right’, the latter would be ‘value rational’ rather than ‘instrumentally rational’. A religious motive, rather than (for example) a political or territorial one, is a matter for true believers, beyond rational discussion; for them, it needs no wider justification.
But what if these acts were also instrumentally rational? This, I would suggest, is another, perhaps even more disturbing layer of meaning that might emerge from the wreckage. For in the awful collision between the actors and their targets (buildings, victims and ‘audience’) we can identify a world of relationships of power, both material and symbolic. After all, these were direct attacks on the most prominent symbols of American and Western supremacy, designed for the most powerful theatrical frame the world has ever known: the cameras of American and Western media, and through them a global and largely real-time community of spectators.
In this context, the actions of the attackers may also be understood as instrumentally rational from the perspective of those who see themselves as damaged by an unequal distribution of symbolic power (the power to define what the world is and where it is going). They can be seen as a direct challenge to a landscape of symbolic inequality.
And if this is so, an immediate priority must be to grasp the contours of the symbolic landscape within which these acts made such compelling sense. This cannot be separated from some analysis of the unevenness of the world’s media operations.
The global media landscape
There are two essential features of the world’s media landscape as it has developed over recent decades, and as it is likely to continue unless enormous efforts are made to change it.
First, it is so uneven (in terms of the distribution of staff, cameras, news clout, political connections) that any idea of the media presenting us with a neutral selection of the ‘world’s events’ is fanciful; things simply don’t work that way. How many wars or campaigns of systematic terror by states and others have we not seen, because no cameras were there? If America bombs Afghanistan, will we hear and read in such poignant detail the last words of those who die, or the rituals of those who mourn them? Have we seen the victims of America’s and Britain’s bombing raids in Iraq in recent years (and how many even know about these raids)?
The point is not a rhetorical one. For it is this unevenness in the global media landscape that gave the acts of 11 September much of their meaning; and that also makes it counter-productive to talk automatically as if those acts ‘changed the world’. They did not in one important respect; instead they just confirmed how uneven the world’s media landscape is, how high are the stakes it offers for those prepared to work with, rather than against, its gradients, and how unstable as a result the world’s politics are.
The unevenness of the global process through which events become ‘news’ for the rest of us is only one problematic aspect of this media landscape. Another aspect - whose long-term consequences are particularly difficult to assess – is the enormous inequality in which voices, and even which regions, contribute to the truly global flows of images and narratives. Decades of debate about cultural imperialism and the global media industry have run into stalemate on the details; but one point has rarely been challenged – that, as Armand and Michele Mattelart commented more than a decade ago, America remains the undisputed ‘horizon’ of the world.
Debates about globalisation (including the ‘free trade’ of cultural goods) often proceed as if the business flows underlying this unequal pattern had no cultural or political consequences. But, as Jeremy Rifkin recently pointed out in a very different context (Le Monde Diplomatique, July 2001), there is a serious question about whether ‘globalisation’ of cultural flows – that is, the entrenching of the West’s commercial dominance – is a process in equilibrium. Arguably, it is a process that is extremely unstable, indeed unsustainable, in the long term.
Yet in the West our privileged position in this process makes it hard for us to imagine it from other, less privileged positions. Perhaps this is why it has been difficult to see the acts of 11 September as the acts of communication that they surely were.
No exit from the endgame?
We do urgently need to move beyond immediate responses of shock and anger – from the rhetoric of anti-terrorism to different ceremonies of grief – and advance towards a deeper, more genuinely global understanding of what happened. And one way towards this is to see the events of 11 September as part of what I call the global endgame.
When such destruction is achievable and repeatable with limited financial and technical resources, its awful significance is apparent: it projects us into a global endgame with much lower entry costs than previous ones the world has contemplated, a game that is open to a potentially vast range of players. The stakes are already set close to maximum. And the reason the game is worth playing – for those who coordinated the acts of 11 September, and quite possibly for many others of different persuasions and origins – derives not from the low costs of major acts of destruction, but from the unremitting inequalities of the landscape in which those acts have resonance.
Where does this leave us? First, there is no possible victory for anyone from this endgame; and the surest way to advance to its later stages is to raise the symbolic stakes of playing. (Hence the folly not only of Silvio Berlusconi’s recent remarks about the inferiority of Islamic societies, but also of those in the US government who would like to raise the military stakes, in part for symbolic reasons.) Opening up an ‘American Jihad’, as Paul Gilroy called it here in openDemocracy, would be a sure way of encouraging retaliation – retaliation in a game where the most powerful weapons are on ‘the other side’, since the targets whose destruction is guaranteed the greatest media impact are on ‘our side’. Hence the absurdity, and danger, of treating this as a game of two sides. The endgame has begun, and what we need is a way out, not a move up to the next stage.
I see no way out of this endgame (that, for sure, will be televised) without a rather different view of the ends and means of global politics from that prevailing now. I will leave the immense issues of security to others more qualified, but on any view the solution will require the widest international cooperation. A similar breadth of cooperation, across borders, alliances and historical divisions, is needed if we are ever to change the dangerously uneven symbolic landscape.
Three ways forward
This clearly will involve creative thinking in how we move beyond the current impasse. At its minimum, a view of the West’s global role as sustaining some sort of cultural hegemony is no longer sustainable; it is part of the problem, as it only fuels the endgame. Instead, we need to ask what alternative, sustainable view of the world is imaginatively possible. In addition to the eloquent analysis of David Held and Mary Kaldor, I would add a few points on its media dimensions.
Firstly, a precondition for changing the political landscape is a shift in the agendas of the world’s most powerful media organisations and – by association as it were – governments. A different, wider range of voices desperately needs to be heard.
Secondly, this major task will require a serious increase in investment – in news operations outside the main centres of media attention, and in the cross-subsidies for news programmes and news outlets. But also a change of priorities on a day-to-day basis over which sources are allowed to contribute to the images and information flows we receive as tokens of the world’s events.
Thirdly, we must think carefully about the long-term consequences (ethical and practical) of today’s image-saturated political environment. In the week of the attacks, I was struck by the difference between (for example) the Guardian’s and Le Monde’s respective use of images. Much as I admired the Guardian’s effort to provide a range of opinion from the outset, I was worried by its foregrounding (along with the rest of the British papers) of images for their own sake, compared with Le Monde’s more careful quarantining, almost, of images within a framework of print and comment. I am far from sure that ‘the rhetoric of the image’ helps us much right now. Compassion and emotion is not in short supply, but what we may need more is the distance from which to reflect, to make different comparisons and connections.
We need in other words a media process with an effective and long-term investment in the intensification of dialogue. This will be a rather different media from the one we have: one that is not only fully aware of the dangers that accompany its power to construct the realities we are forced to live inside – but which acts on that awareness.
Aeneas was praying and holding on the altar when the prophetess started to speak: “Blood relations of Gods, bel Trojan, son of Anchises, the way down to Avernus is easy.
Day and night black Pluto’s door stands open. But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air, this is the real task and the real undertaking.”
The Golden Bough, Seamus Heaney, from Virgil’s Aenead, in Opened Ground: Poems 1966-96.
Demons of yesteryear
In the immediate aftermath of these attacks, the focus of concern is Afghanistan, and the challenge to its Taleban regime. But it seems certain that the ‘war on terrorism’ will have implications for the wider region, where a number of strategic tensions are unresolved: among them, conflict over Iraq, the Israel-Palestine struggle, the uncertain stability of the post-Soviet central Asian republics, and the competing India-Pakistan claims over Kashmir. The militancy of radical Islamic groups and ideas is a factor in several of these developing conflicts.
Harold Macmillan famously compared Britain’s influence on the United States to that of the Greeks on the Romans: a more ancient, wise but declining power would civilise the rougher edges of the newly rising one as it dealt with a difficult world. This would be the essence of their special (if compliant, dependent and unequal) relationship. He made the comparison in 1956-7, after the Suez crisis: “We are the Greeks of the Hellenistic age: the power has passed from us to Rome’s equivalent, the United States of America, and we can at most aspire to civilise and occasionally to influence them”.
It was a conceit, historians agree. The British did not have the wherewithal to meet either their obligations or their aspirations. The Americans, refusing to accept the role, ruthlessly pursued US interests in the post-war world – not least with respect to Britain itself. Nevertheless, the image lived on in British consciousness, as between Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and George Bush or (perhaps) between Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and now George W. Bush.
Behind the classical façades
The fatal events of 11 September recall that imagery in the context of European-American relations. Before this, it had already been hinted at by Hubert Vedrine, who sees European integration as a means of civilising a capitalist globalisation originating in the US, together with its associated hyper-powerdom. Since then, there has been a huge surge of European solidarity with the US government and people - and a clear attempt to influence the US response to the crisis. Europe is combining practical commitments to take action against terrorist movements with calls for a patient, targeted, global and predominantly political approach.
All this comes after deteriorating relations in the first nine months of the Bush administration. A series of US disengagements from multilateral international treaties seemed to confirm an image of arrogant unilateralism - or “a la carte multilateralism”, in the polite phrase of Richard Haass from the State Department. In a speech in Washington on 9 August, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle listed the Kyoto Protocol, the Anti-Missile Ballistic Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Biological Weapons Protocol, and the planned global agreement limiting the small arms trade as having been abrogated by the Bush administration. In what was seen as an unusual departure from the convention that core foreign policy is not made a matter of partisan disagreement, he said that this pattern would reduce the US’s world leadership role. The utterly changed political circumstances following the atrocities were symbolised by Mr Daschle’s embrace of the president after his speech to Congress on 20 September.
Towards modern, and equalising, realities
After the attacks, the major question to be asked about European-US relations is whether they will fundamentally change the pattern that emerged in the first months of the Bush administration. Had the administration responded unilaterally and after minimal consultation or engagement with its European allies, the trend towards unilateralism would have been immediately confirmed. So far that has not happened. The US has not responded by lashing out blindly or indiscriminately at ill-chosen targets, as might have been expected in some European stereotyping of Mr Bush, summarised by one observer who said, “He’s a Texan - that means an American squared”. Rather, common democratic values and deep common interests with Europe have been affirmed.
So, the US response has thus far been slow and subtle, in cooperation with its friends and allies and with due regard for the necessity of a long-term approach. There are those in Europe tempted to see a Greek-Roman aspect to this: the moderation of an angry superpower’s behaviour and its direction to more rational ends. Not surprisingly, such condescension infuriates certain commentators, especially on the right of the political spectrum, who detect in it the European left’s abiding anti-Americanism. It coincides, they say, with suggestions that the US brought the attacks on itself by its insensitive and ill-founded Middle Eastern policies, and the serial arrogance of its quasi-imperial super-powerdom.
A lot of this ideological flailing misses the point of what is at stake in the relationship through this crisis. The Greek-Roman analogy is a conceit also at the European level. Not, ironically, because it takes too little account of the asymmetric power relations involved, but because it under-estimates the profound process of equalisation currently running through the transatlantic relationship. These days realism and irony often go hand in hand. The crisis will be a crucial test of that process in the months and years to come.
Eye to eye
The United States originally supported European integration as a means, along with NATO, of affirming its hegemony over the continent as the Cold War began in earnest. After intervening massively twice to prevent Europe from being dominated by a hostile power, it had an interest in avoiding an accumulation of tension or a reopening of competitive rearmament among the major west European powers. Integration served to contain Germany just as NATO contained the Soviet Union. This bargain worked from the mid-1950s onwards, even as closer integration threatened US economic access to the markets of the then-EEC.
During the 1970s and 1980s, integration matured in the economic domain, with the creation of the single market and successive enlargements. But the end of the Cold War transformed the geopolitical position. The single currency was France’s price for German unification. The Maastricht treaty, committing states to it, also began the process of preparing Europe for a continental enlargement. The Amsterdam and Nice treaties have gone a good deal of the way to making the necessary preparations to EU structures. But arguably the most dramatic steps will be taken in the 2004 inter-governmental conference, coinciding with the next US presidential election which will address the question of what a larger Europe’s political and constitutional status should be.
This process is necessarily slow, but nonetheless profoundly important and deep-seated, with huge implications for transatlantic relations as for Europe’s relations with other world regions. Across the span of economic, political, social, foreign policy and security affairs, it is making the EU a greater force in international affairs. The euro symbolises this economically, as does the huge single market, which will eventually be much larger than that of the US. Politically, the streamlining of the EU’s structures will make for a more effective role: while confronted with unregulated globalisation, the search for a distinctive European social model is a source of growing popular legitimacy. The same applies in foreign policy, where more distinctive values and interests are gradually being asserted, notably in the Middle East and on the world environment. The creation of the Rapid Reaction Force, and the growing EU/NATO role in Macedonia and the Balkans generally, indicate a determination to bring security to its wider region – by peace-enforcing measures if necessary.
Many of the tensions that surfaced in the first part of the year expressed not only irritations with the thrust of Mr Bush’s policies and style of government but a deeper working out of this process of equalisation in various fields. Obviously equalisation is more developed in some spheres than in others. In particular, the US is not challenged as a military superpower. But it would be foolish to expect even a crisis of this magnitude to arrest or deflect such powerful trends. Rather the challenge will be to harness them constructively.
Greek gifts, American realities – transatlantic rewards
Unilateralism and multilateralism have become the accepted terms to describe the contrasting policies of the US and the EU – but also of the two main contending groups in the Bush administration. So far after September 11th the multilateralists, led by the Secretary of State, Colin Powell have had their way. Multilateralism has seemed the most effective way to construct a broad-based coalition against terrorism, capable of bringing along not only the Europeans but also moderate and reactionary Arab states.
European leaders have displayed their own subtlety in demonstrating that their multilateralism and soft diplomacy works in the US interest, after their emphatic and unambiguous expression of political and military solidarity within days of the attacks. “Fin, delicat et suggestif” is how one prominent European figure has described the EU approach – quintessentially Greek gifts. This is also an expression of satisfaction with the developing EU policy towards the Middle East, which leaders see as a central part of the jigsaw and one where their own interests and values will come into greater play. They seek to show such coalitions cannot be sustained without a more equal transatlantic relationship.
No country can go it alone, not even the US – that summarises the European position. It was put very well by Tony Blair in his Labour Party conference speech on October 2:
‘We can’t do it all. Neither can the Americans. But the power of the international community could, together, if it chose to…The critics will say: but how can the world be a community ? Nations act in their own self-interest. Of course they do. But what is the lesson of the financial markets, climate change, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation or world trade ? It is that our self-interest and our mutual interests are today inextricably woven together. That is the politics of globalisation.’
Blair captured both the enormity of these events and the possibility of using them to change the world – and to strengthen the European Union – using multilateral tools.
The Europeans have been rewarded by Powell’s sharp exchanges with the Pentagon’s unilateralists, who canvass a broader war against states that harbour terrorist groups and argue the necessity to target Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Given the commitment to a long-term two-phased campaign, and the unilateralists’ political strength within the administration, it is too soon to say Powell has definitely won the argument. But there can be no doubting the preference of EU leaders.
Nor should the strength of their case be underestimated on either side of the Atlantic. Europeans have sympathetically watched the construction of Powell’s coalition, including more positive attitudes towards the United Nations. They hope the evolution of policy will modify US plans for anti-missile defence and attitudes towards global warming. They will work with Russia and China to encourage this.
They will also encourage a new world trade round as recession looms, more conscious of the need to address the alienation shown up in protests about globalisation. The social democrats among them are intrigued to see big government, federal subsidies and pump-priming expenditure – which were previously rejected on ideological grounds – returning as major themes of the Bush administration after 11 September.
Europe enjoys some competitive advantages at regional and global levels as transatlantic equalisation proceeds. The EU operates necessarily in a multilateral fashion based on the rule of law. Its chosen methods of governance are more in harmony with a changing world – where security threats are simultaneously sub- and supra-national – than hard-nosed military unilateralism, which is more appropriate for inter-state conflicts. European leaders will be more assertive about these methods and interests should the US be tempted to insist on a hegemonic multilateralism. Increasingly, it is also clear that this is a political struggle within the US as well as across the Atlantic.
The modern world, almost to a pathological extent, seems entranced by appearances, especially the spectacle. When the Suez Canal was opened nearly 150 years ago, the Khedive of Egypt invited the cream of European royalty to enjoy the performance of Aida with real elephants trodding on the stage. In present-day Hollywood productions, film after film offers up yet another possible contemporary “catastrophe”, with all the fire, blood - and, yes, terror - needed to satisfy our tender, callous souls.
The shattering events in New York and Washington on 11 September have opened a new field of crisis and uncertainty in international politics. Some of its many aspects have been addressed already in openDemocracy: the search for a just response to terrorism, questions of international law and geopolitics, the challenge of radical Islam, tensions within western multiculturalism. And from the epicentre of devastation, there have been the moving testimonies of our New York-based media co-editor, Todd Gitlin.
But it has also been clear – from, as it were, the first, terrible moments – that these events belong to the world of the media as much as to that of politics, war or diplomacy. The assaults against two of the media capitals of the world instantaneously became a global information story with endless layers of meaning. From the quintessentially symbolic nature of the targets, to the worldwide and blanket coverage they immediately generated; from the transformations they wrought in the TV schedules (including the cancellation of advertisements) to their longer-term likely impact on the kinds of films and narratives available to Hollywood and allied image-factories; from questions of impartiality and selectivity in news coverage (including the heavily coded language often used to report and discuss issues of terrorism and the middle east) to wider cultural themes like the media’s role in the ‘orchestration of emotion’ and the management of ‘shared national experiences’ – in all these areas, the media impact of 11 September was and will be enormous.
openDemocracy intends to publish arguments and host debates on these issues in the weeks and months to come. We will track the unfolding themes and draw in material from around the world to reflect the truly global nature of the effects of 11 September. For if the heart of the story was the United States, the way it was processed around the world posed a revealing challenge to the powers, responsibilities and values of the media in many different countries. (Hazhir Teimourian’s mordant comments on the Arabic-language press are just one indication of this diversity). We will also seek therefore to frame the American media experience in a comparative context.
How will this coverage affect our existing schedule of debates in openDemocracy’s media strand? The short answer is that we intend to follow a ‘twin track’ approach, creatively adapting to the world after 11 September without being swept away by the torrent of media analyses it must generate – one of which, by Nick Couldry, appears in the current issue. The debate we had planned on the power of media corporations – to succeed the inaugural debate on public service broadcasting – will now be launched (in our featured issue on globalisation) on 17 October with Robert McChesney’s and Benjamin Compaine’s contrasting perspectives. It will continue with contributions from Europe and south Asia as well as the Americas. Some of these may of course register the influence of the terrorist attacks, where these are thought to be directly relevant. In other cases, writers may in time come to view the world after 11 September as not so different in its fundamentals (just as crises like the Gulf or Kosovo wars – epic events at the time, which dominated media coverage for months – were gradually assimilated into a broader media pattern). Either way, we are committed to sustaining the principle of high-quality, purposive and global debate that has been central to openDemocracy’s vision from the outset.
As always, we warmly welcome your contributions, comments, criticisms, and suggestions. They, like openDemocracy itself, are part of the global public dialogue that is surely one of democracy’s healthiest defences against the annihilating instinct in thought, word or deed.
Before the US terror attacks, the burgeoning movement against corporate globalisation was on the verge of changing the world. Or so it looked to those of us involved.
Consistently underplayed in the Western media, sneered at by politicians and opinion formers, it has been variously dismissed. Some see it as a bunch of rabid anarchists smashing windows for a laugh. Others as middle-class do-gooders denying the poor the benefits of trade. Others still as NGOs buoying up their bank accounts by twisting the facts about the realities of globalisation.
It is none of these things. It is, in fact, the biggest social movement in decades; a truly global, if at times frail, unity of peoples, experiences and world views bound together by an awareness that the corporate infiltration of every area of life is a process of exclusion, homogenisation, environmental destruction and, for many, death.
It is now clear that the path to our Brave New World will be much longer than it seemed. The world we are waking up to will be characterised by repression, hardened minds and an acceleration of the very process that conjured this movement into existence in the first place: corporate-driven trade.
Who destroyed those American buildings, and lives? Certainly none of us. Yet you don’t get much more anti-capitalist than destroying the World Trade Centre. It would be dangerous to pretend that it won’t somehow affect attitudes towards a movement in which anti-capitalism, however ill-defined, is a strong thread.
So where will this movement go, now that the Western world is embarking on a war with no enemy? During the last week, it has become clear to me how exceptionally powerful we are. I have been in Bolivia, attending a conference of Peoples’ Global Action (PGA), a network of grassroots activists from five continents committed to opposing the further expansion of neo-liberalism. If ever there were proof that there really is a global movement, this is it.
Over two hundred delegates attended the meeting: activists from Bangladesh, Maoris from New Zealand, ecologists from Russia, anti-privatisation campaigners from South Africa, tribespeople from Papua New Guinea, coca farmers from Bolivia, human rights activists from Chile and many more. The list is a long, remarkable and insistent piece of evidence pointing towards the real story behind this movement: that its energy comes from the Global South, the developing world where global capitalism’s sharp blade falls, far beyond the horizons of its beneficiaries in the West.
The forces ranged against us
Theirs are the stories that explain the rage against the machine currently flooding across the world. That rage is the reason why this movement is not going away. Where is it going instead? Two forces are at work in the wake of the Manhattan murders which will make it much harder for our voice to be heard.
One is the repression of dissent. For example, it took less than a week after the bombings for George Bush to announce that NGOs, could be front groups for terrorism. Governments in the West are already discussing measures which may come to prove Benjamin Franklin’s maxim: those who are willing to forfeit liberty for security will have neither. Meanwhile, here in Bolivia, activists have been searched by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, detained by Interpol and threatened with deportation for daring to attend the PGA conference, while the local governor has announced to the press that we are a gathering of terrorists.
These are the first shots being fired in a war not against terrorism, but against dissent. Can we expect to see terrorism used as Joe McCarthy used communism – a catch-all term to round up all and any who oppose the interests of the powerful, and particularly the interests of the US? It seems a real possibility. And since this movement has demonstrated, at Seattle, Prague, Genoa and all over the developing world, that it has the power to disturb the rulers and connect with the people, it will surely be one of the first targets in the witch-finders’ sights.
The second force at work is one which, far from silencing the movement, will likely increase both its determination and its numbers. You can see it in the pages of the Western, and particularly the US, press over the last few weeks. The driving forces behind the expansion of corporate globalisation have decreed that what the world now needs is more of it.
The argument goes like this: global trade is an engine not only of material improvement for the people, but of freedom itself. The US attacks appear to have come, we are told, from countries with both closed markets and undemocratic political systems. The best way, then, to combat terrorism in the future is to break open further markets; to expand the Western free trade model, and thus the Western concept of democracy, into every country on Earth even faster than is already happening.
This is breathtaking talk. A global movement against exactly this process has crystallised and grown at astonishing speed in just a few years, driven by the majority of the world’s people, who are excluded from the dubious gifts of the market when they are not actively destroyed by them. The idea that more of the same, and faster, will lead to peace rather than an even bigger, and potentially far more violent, backlash demonstrates just how out of touch the world’s political and economic leaders have become with the real results of their policies on the ground.
The US corporate global counter-offensive
Perhaps the best example of this comes from an article published in the Washington Post on 20 September, written by Robert B. Zoellick, the US’s senior trade representative. America’s might and light, he writes, emanate from our political, military and economic vitality. Our counter-offensive must advance US leadership across all these fronts.
Zoellick explains himself. Because private enterprise and open markets spur liberty around the world, US leadership is vital in promoting the international economic and trading system. He gives specific examples of how this is to be done: complete the US free trade pact with Jordan, and move on, by implication, to the rest of the Arab world. Do the same to the putative US-Vietnamese trade pact. Aggressively head up a new trade round when the World Trade Organisation meets in November. Push for Russia’s accession to the WTO. Promote more trade in Indonesia to emphasize our support for the success of democracy there. The list goes on.
This glib association of trade with freedom is not new, but it would have many of the delegates at the PGA conference spitting with rage as they compare the realities of America’s vicious pursuit of its economic interests with Zoellick’s lofty rhetoric. The fact is that US-driven corporate globalisation has been the biggest engine of repression, death and destruction in the last five decades. That is why this movement was born; it is symbiotic with the expansion of trade, which leads not to more peace and democracy but to more of the unrest that comes when people fight back against what is, in effect, imperialism.
Uncle Sam’s free market stick gets bigger
Examine some of Zoellick’s words. Take that sentence about how private enterprise spurs liberty around the world. The people of Cochabamba, the Bolivian city in which the PGA met, could tell you exactly how private enterprise has spurred their liberty. Last year, under pressure from the World Bank, the city’s water system was sold to an American company. Within a month, bills jumped by up to three hundred per cent. The resulting city-wide riots led to the first reversal of such a privatisation anywhere in the world, but it was not without costs. The US, having first spurred the Cochabambans’ liberty by pricing the water they drank beyond their reach, contributed further when a seventeen year-old protester was shot dead by a sharpshooter trained at the School of the Americas.
There are plenty of them in Latin America. Half way through the conference, the Colombian delegation learned that one of their number back home had been murdered by US-backed paramilitaries. In Mexico, where I was last month, Zapatista rebels who rose up in 1994 against the death sentence imposed on them by NAFTA are hemmed in by army and paramilitary groups. These groups have been trained by the CIA in the kind of low-intensity warfare the Americans specialised in when they were busy spurring liberty in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Bolivian coca farmers here have told us how the US war on drugs is a war on their traditional livelihoods, in which thousands of innocents have already died in the interests of consolidating America’s economic grip on this continent; a grip to be tightened further by the coming Free Trade Area of the Americas, if vast planned protests in more than fifteen countries don’t derail it first.
Meanwhile, South African poet and veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Dennis Brutus told me how private enterprise has been promoting freedom in South Africa. The new World Bank-designed economic programme, which calls for the privatisation of everything that isn’t nailed down, is sparking a revolt in the townships amongst the very impoverished black people the ANC was supposed to liberate. You have to understand, says Brutus, that many of the people who now run the government in South Africa were trained at Harvard Business School and the World Bank.
In virtually every country in the developing world, the expansion of trade and open markets has meant rich pickings for Western and often American companies, accompanied by mass increases in landlessness, poverty, market exclusion, disease and environmental degradation. If this is what we are supposed to want more of, it’s not hard to see why people are rising up almost everywhere you care to look.
Promoting positive change now
We live in dangerous times. Bush’s new war, and accompanying aggressive expansion of trade, will beat many more such people even harder with Uncle Sam’s Big Free Market Stick. But it won’t work: there are too many, who are left outside the loop, more every week, and many more who never want to be in it. The question now is whether the world’s political and economic elites are going to take heed and make changes, or whether they will have one or more revolution on their hands. This is not overstating the case.
As for the movement itself, it has its own questions to answer. It is difficult to see, for example, how big street protests around major summits, with their inevitable accompanying violence, will be tolerated any longer by newly-vigilant states. Genoa saw over ninety people hospitalised and one dead. Next time – if there is a next time – it could be a lot worse.
But the big street fights are only the tip of this movement. The real work comes at a much lower level. Two tasks face us now. Firstly, making links at a grassroots level with others who share our concerns – as PGA, for example, is already doing. We need to reach out to a wider public, who, if the opinion polls are to be believed, also know there is something wrong, but may not yet know what can be done about it.
The other task is to promote and develop real, workable solutions for reinventing democracy and economics. This is not as daunting as it sounds; much of the work is already in progress. The question now is whether we can make the world listen in time to prevent an explosion of fury that could make what happened on 11 September look like just the beginning.
The United States and its allies are planning a military assault against those it deems responsible for the attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington. Before it does so, a number of points deserve to be made:
- the group responsible has engaged in detailed planning over many months and has substantial numbers of supporters with total dedication to its aims
- the group should be assumed to be operating in the context of a long-term strategy, and it should be assumed to have the near-term capability for further attacks, either using hijacking or some other method(s) with equivalent or greater effect
- the aims of the attacks were to have an immediate and lasting effect on US financial military and political centres, and to deliberately incite a massive US military response
- the group will have prepared for the latter and will have dispersed its assets and key personnel. From its perspective, the most desirable US response would be widespread military action against training, logistical and other anti-US paramilitary facilities in several countries, together with direct attacks against the Kabul regime and possibly Iraq
- if the US takes any such action it will be precisely what the group wants - indeed the stronger the action the better. In its view, such action will serve to:
a) weaken the strong pro-US international coalition
b) weaken the position of the more moderate elements of the Kabul regime
c) above all, enable the group to recruit more support.
- the group should also be expected to respond to such action with further paramilitary attacks in the US or against transnational US interests or its allies. It should be anticipated that such a response would be at least as devastating as the recent attacks. It is less likely to stage immediate attacks in the absence of such a major US military response, as these would further isolate it
- thus, vigorous military action by the US, on its own or in coalition, will be counterproductive, whatever the intense and understandable domestic pressures for such action.
- the extent of the devastation and human suffering inflicted in the attacks means that support for the United States among its allies is far-reaching, and extends to a remarkable range of states
- in this light, the immediate response should be to:
a) develop, extend and cement this coalition
b) base all actions on the rule of law
c) put every effort into bringing the perpetrators to justice.
- the longer-term response should be to:
a) greatly improve intelligence and cooperation
b) substantially strengthen international anti-terrorism agreements
c) analyse, understand and then seek to reduce the bitter and deep- seated antagonism to the United States in southwest Asia and the middle east from which these actions and groups have arisen.
- the group responsible welcomes and seeks military confrontation. It is far more fearful of being brought to trial, a process that is likely to weaken it, both in the near and long term, than direct military action.
This week's editor
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50