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America and the world after 9/11

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

Three years ago the world changed. The meaning and nature of the change starts with the carnage wrought by fundamentalist terrorism in the heartland of America.

But what happened afterwards – the response it unleashed – is more important.

For example, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by a member of the Serbian Black Hand, could have remained a limited event: a blow to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, followed by the destruction of a terrorist network. Instead, the imperial government decided to teach Serbia a lesson and show who was boss in the region. This drew Russia and then Germany into a widening confrontation. The terrorist outrage became the trigger for the first world war. Millions died.

Have Washington’s leaders repeated the same pattern? What are the global consequences of the United States’s response to the disaster of 11 September 2001?

These two questions, of understanding and assessment, become the real starting-point of openDemocracy. We had launched less than three months before 9/11. But the need for a global debate of the kind we sought to develop become evident to a wider public only with the dreadful events of that day, when we immediately posed the question in our then debate space, “Is terror the new Cold War?”

In its wake Paul Rogers and Todd Gitlin became regular contributors. For subscribers who can access our archive we have put together the article Todd Gitlin wrote for us from New York on the evening of 9/11, calling through his grief and patriotism for a focused response to terror, and our first article by Paul Rogers, which calmly sets out al-Qaida’s desire for an expanded US reaction including, best of all, an invasion of Iraq.

We continue to confront the two questions. In this edition, Anatol Lieven argues that the shaping force behind American policy is nationalism – a nationalism he sees as two-fronted and dangerously indifferent to the realities of the world, as other great nationalisms have been.

It takes much further an argument set out in openDemocracy by Tom Nairn in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq. Nairn claims that the main driver of Washington’s policy is neither a desire for control over oil (handy though that might be), nor the imperial impulse of a small group who seized control through a constitutional coup d’état (even if they did). The force that the Bush administration drew upon and appeals to, he suggests, was a nationalism which refused to accept that the United States is now a country in a world of countries all shaped by the globalisation which the US may have initiated but can no longer run.

There was an unexpected edge to Nairn’s argument which makes it hard to assimilate in the current climate. It is optimistic. America cannot reverse, let alone control globalisation. In attempting to, it is engaged in a fools’ game. The Bush doctrine, from this perspective, is the last throw-up of the old world not the determining agency of the new. It is bound to fail.

Lieven paints a darker picture.

Another transatlantic analyst, Timothy Garton Ash, has addressed the meaning of 9/11 from a different angle altogether. He insists that the crucial date remains another 9/11 – which in European style stands for the ninth of November, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

We all inhabit a single political world now, he argues in his new book Free World. It is this that should determine policy and we should not allow any response to terrorism to divide the world. Responding to its arguments for us, the Bulgarian Ivan Krastev salutes the book and lays out a surprising case for saying that everyone and all countries are interconnected and should conduct themselves accordingly.

But what if they don’t? Charles Peña of Washington’s Cato Institute offers a third view, that the United States is failing even to conduct an efficient counter-terrorism policy of the most basic kind.

When I read the passion and reason displayed by Timothy Garton Ash, Ivan Krastov, and Anatol Lieven I found myself haunted by John Maynard Keynes’s book The Economic Consequences of the Peace. He wrote it in 1919 after participating in the Versailles conference that drew up the peace treaty after the 1914-18 war.

The treaty imposed draconian terms on Germany and can be seen as having ensured the survival of a blockaded pariah Russia and led to the rise of Hitler. Keynes described the short-sightedness of the world leaders, spelt out the futility of their decisions and even foresaw the rise of a reactionary regime in Germany “drawing to itself… all those who regret emperors and hate democracy… a new Napoleonic domination, rising, as a phoenix, from the ashes of cosmopolitan militarism.”

I recalled my shock when I first read these words. They had known, all along! An influential figure had written a compelling bestseller which spelt out the insanity of the course the world leaders had adopted – and it had no influence whatever.

Keynes himself was hardly optimistic at the time. He reckoned the forces set in motion were already beyond control. He concluded: “In one way only can we influence these hidden currents – by setting in motion those forces of instruction and imagination which change opinion. The assertion of truth, the unveiling of illusion, the dissipation of hate, the enlargement and instruction of men’s hearts and minds, must be the means”.

This is what openDemocracy has set out to do.


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