A time to think hard

Anthony Barnett
18 November 2004

On 15 February 2003 millions of people around the world demonstrated in unprecedented numbers against the forthcoming invasion of Iraq. I was among those who welcomed this and argued that a “new superpower” was being born – the power of world public opinion. On 2 November 2004 the views and influence of this new power was narrowly but decisively rejected by a growing majority of the American electorate.

There are moments in modern history when anyone who wants to know realises they are living through a historic turning–point.

Sometimes these are moments of hope or profound uncertainty when a new direction will be taken, although how remains unclear. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the dismantling of the Berlin wall in 1989, the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001: these were just such points in time when nothing would be the same again but the way in which things would alter was open – indeed this was part of the drama of the moment.

There are other times when a course is set. The building of the wall across Berlin, for example, the invasions of Hungary and later Czechoslovakia by the then Soviet Union in 1956 and 1968. These were stomach–turning moments of fate being decided for years to come.

Often such moments are electoral ones: whether negative (Hitler winning in January 1933) or positive (Labour’s 1945 victory in Britain). The triumph of President Bush this year seems to be just such a definitive change. A course which had been signalled and started but was strongly contested has been confirmed. It will now be seen through.

What this may mean for the world and especially whether and how the cause of democracy will be advanced, and by whom, are huge questions. With your help and that of other readers and subscribers, we intend to address them and debate them in openDemocracy. We start in this edition with an assessment by two authors who look back at what has ended.

One is not a direct a response to the American election. Stephen Howe’s “The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation” argues that the worldwide national–liberation movements came to a final symbolic end with the coincidental death of Yassar Arafat. He provides a sweeping but detailed and strongly felt summary of the ambiguous and often wild character of the anti–colonial struggles that accompanied the cold war.

Those struggles often provided a vicarious cause for radicals and, yes, demonstrators, not least in the west.

Those worldwide demonstrations against the Iraq war were mostly called by organisers from what can be seen as the national–liberation tradition. On the one that I was on in London I was struck by the utterly different, or rather the completely “normal” character of the million–plus who took to the streets, often as families, in a demonstration that was between two and three times larger than any previously held in the United Kingdom.

At the same time, those who called it and ran the platform in a narrow and sectarian way seemed like a bizarre hangover: we can see them now as an Arafat generation unable to engage with the realities of the cause they initiated.

Is it too far a stretch to see “Nader for President 2004” as similar – not so much a lost cause as one locked in denial?

Fred Halliday, in “Bush’s triumph”, looks back directly on how three periods of transition reached their terminus on 2 November 2004. He is the first, I think, to identify a major change in trenchant terms: the continuation of communism in a new form.

The national–liberation movements Howe discusses were the underside of the cold war. The two superpowers frozen in mutual nuclear deterrence, often tested their strengths by proxy in the wars and political violence that were a constant across the “global south”.

The end of the cold war in 1989 marked the defeat of combative military communism. But Halliday sees that instead of it being “democracy defeating communism”, as was celebrated at the time, the west has incorporated communist forms of rule into the now truly global capitalist system, as a Russian oligarchy and a Chinese party machine ride the waves of economic growth.

As both the main organised forms of global opposition to American power disappear, has one of them transformed itself into a more efficient form of growth? Will authoritarian or democratic globalism prevail?

Hard international realities accompany the Bush victory and must now become part of the thinking of that “new global power”. Taking to the streets is clearly not enough, it is brainpower not walking and shouting that is called for now.

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