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America and the world: an abyss of perception

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 February 2002

As US military action continues in Afghanistan, the interim head of state, Mr Karzai, pleads with western states to extend the security assistance force to more of the country. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has the capabilities to help maintain order in Kabul and the immediately surrounding areas, but would need to be many times larger to bring any degree of stability to the country as a whole.

To be fair to the Blair government, the UK has been quite generous, both with its troop commitments to ISAF and its programme to aid civil reconstruction. But few other states are making substantial contributions. The United States, having ousted the Taliban regime, is conspicuous by its silence and lack of support.

Meanwhile, warlordism and banditry are rife. Last week saw a bitter fight claiming at least 50 lives, as rival warlords fought for control of the town of Gardez in Paktia Province, just 80 miles south of Kabul.

Refugee movements continue, mainly as a result of people trying to get away from crime and lawlessness and aid agencies are having continual difficulties in moving supplies out of the major towns, as local transport routes are subject to looting and delays.

The State of the Union, and of the world

In the longer term, the other notable recent development was the State of the Union Address by President Bush, and its extraordinary divergence from the attitudes in most of the rest of the world. The Address, widely supported across most sectors of opinion in the United States, was blunt in its message of an ongoing “war on terror”.

As US forces begin to operate in the Philippines, and bases are consolidated across Central Asia, so the message is clear: the United States will act wherever it thinks necessary, and has singled out Iraq, North Korea and Iran for particular attention.

While President Bush made clear his expectation that other allies would co-operate with the US, some of his most influential associates have confirmed that the US is fully prepared to act alone. At an international security conference in Germany over the weekend, Richard Perle said that the US had “never been more willing, if necessary, to act alone.”

Earlier, and at the same conference, the US Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, had made it clear that US military policy was likely to be to pre-empt the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by some states. He commented that since the 11 September attacks, “we have acquired a visceral understanding of what terrorists can do with commercial aircraft”. He added: “We cannot afford to wait until we have acquired a visceral understanding of what terrorists can do with weapons of mass destruction.”

Within the Middle East, reaction to this and similar sentiments is influenced, in part, by the knowledge that Israel has a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons, and may have chemical and biological weapons as well. While Israel is seen in the United States as a close and trusted ally, it is perceived in the region as having a government which is more hawkish and repressive than any since the State of Israel was established in May 1948. The consequence of this, and other regional factors, is that there is an abyss between US perceptions of its security interests and those on the Arab (and Persian) “street”.

Such a lack of understanding may be readily dismissed in Washington as of little or no account, given the overwhelming military strength of the United States and the continuing shock over the vulnerability demonstrated by 11 September. This, though, is a dangerous policy, not least because it is precisely the attitude that a group such as the al-Qaida network actively wants.

Given that the 11 September attacks were so well thought-out and planned, they demonstrated a sophisticated capability for developing a long-term strategy. A part of that strategy was almost certainly to induce in the US a fear of vulnerability that would ensure a very strong military counter-reaction. This, in turn, would lead to a further anti-American mood leading to more support for al-Qaida and allied groups.

For such groups, the State of the Union Address must have been like a dream come true. Not only is President Bush advocating a “war on terror” that seems to be unmistakably concentrating on the Islamic world, but the United States is actually re-enforcing its support for Israel, at a time when Israel’s actions against the Palestinians in the occupied territories become progressively more rigorous.

The mood of the majority

In the longer term, it may be even more significant to examine the attitudes of opinion formers beyond the Middle East, in the “majority world” of the South. Here, whether in the views of independent analysts or the private opinions of government officials, there is also a radically different approach to that in Washington.

It was expressed early on, in a perceptive comment on 11 September, written soon after the attacks by Walden Bello of the University of the Philippines. A paper on “The Never Ending War”, published by one of the most original and stimulating South NGOs, Focus on the Global South, condemned the attacks as horrific, despicable and unpardonable, but cautioned against an automatic “iron fist” response that ignored the underlying context.

Bello pointed to the frequent use of indiscriminate force by the US, not least in Vietnam, and to the bitter mood throughout much of the Middle East and South West Asia, directed partly at the United States because of its perceived dominance of the region but also against autocratic states dependent on continuing US support.

The analysis concluded:

'The only response that will really contribute to global security and peace is for Washington to address not the symptoms but the roots of terrorism. It is for the United States to re-examine and substantially change its policies in the Middle East and the Third World, supporting for a change arrangements that will not stand in the way of the achievement of equity, justice and genuine national sovereignty for currently marginalized peoples. Any other way leads to endless war.'

A more recent report from the South Centre in Geneva, sums up the mood among many Southern opinion formers. The “war against terror” is seen in the context of a widely perceived Northern dominance of the international financial institutions, the tardy and thoroughly limited progress on debt relief, the general decline in aid budgets and a resolute opposition to trade reforms geared specifically to encourage Southern development:

'Increasing numbers in the South perceive the evolving situation as no less than modern imperialism, using the full panoply of mechanisms to bend the will and shape the global order to suit the preference and need of the major advanced industrial nations. Moreover, this new imperialism is largely unhindered, in fact it is even aided and abetted, by the multilateral mechanisms developed over the past five decades.

'Growing resentment in the South at the sense of powerlessness in the face of Northern arrogance and impunity breeds frustration, which hardly provides fertile ground for development or peace or building the international community. Now, the fear of speaking up in defence of one’s own interests has been further exacerbated by the new dictum “You are either with us or against us”.'

These are two of many examples of attitudes across the majority world that could be drawn from newspaper editorials, magazine articles or radio and TV discussions, yet would go unrecognised in the current mood in Washington. The US sees the legitimacy of a “war on terror” born of the shock of its own vulnerability. Much of the rest of the world sees it as a further example of the control of the international system by an elite minority.

The contrast is fundamental and may lead to an international dynamic that is deeply unstable. In between lies some independent analysis in the United States, and a much stronger current of concern within Europe. That concern is expressed more openly in countries such as France and Italy rather than Britain.

Tony Blair sees Britain as playing a bridging role between the United States and Europe on this and other issues. This is a view that is hardly shared in Europe, where the UK is seen perhaps more as a Trojan Horse rather than a bridge, but, in any case, Britain is not hugely significant in the wider scheme of things.

A difference of outlook on international security between the US and Europe is a matter of concern, but it is far less important than the wholesale fracturing between current US attitudes and those of the majority world. Perhaps what is really important in the coming months is for Europe to play a bridging role between the United States and the rest of the world.

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