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The coup in America

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Paul Rogers
9 February 2003

It is a year since I started writing these weekly columns for openDemocracy, just as the war in Afghanistan was starting. Since then, I have tried to analyse the changes in the international security situation, not least in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, seeking to gain a degree of detachment and to get beyond the immediate instant judgements to focus on the wider issues.

Fifty-two weeks is quite a time to keep doing this, so I hope you will not mind a slight change of tone to a more personal view, prompted by several events I have been involved with in the past fortnight. More than by accident than anything else, I have recently been able to listen and talk to a remarkable range of people from across the world, many of them from outside the US and western Europe and from what is sometimes termed ‘the majority world’.

One occasion was a large gathering on civil society and European–East Asian relations in Copenhagen two weeks ago, organised in part by the Transnational Institute; another was last weekend’s international conference in Nuremberg on human rights. These have given me an opportunity to meet people from across eastern and western Europe, as well as India, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Nicaragua and Brazil. In addition, we have just welcomed nearly two hundred new students from well over thirty countries into the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University, most of them postgraduates and many with an extraordinary range of experience.

Although I was already well aware of the radically different attitudes to the ‘war on terror’ that exist in most of the world, the sheer extent and intensity of the concern at these gatherings was very powerful indeed. Now it may be reasonable to say that the people I was meeting would be unrepresentative, in that it might be accurate to describe many of them as ‘progressives’. At the same time, on the issue of current US strategy there do seem to be an awful lot of progressives around! In any case, they included many people with decades of work in international relations including some very experienced United Nations (UN) officials and, right across the board, there was an attitude that was remarkably consistent.

There was a palpable sense of unease, sometimes extending almost to a fear of what the next few months will bring, and a recognition that the United States is embarked on a path that has few real parallels in recent decades. There was also a persistent sense of disbelief at the attitude of the British government – I have never faced so many people wanting to understand what is driving Tony Blair.

But it all went beyond these reactions and what struck me most was a sense of real dismay, sometimes almost bordering on depression, and this was particularly noticeable in some of the senior international civil servants. At the root of this was an uncomfortable recognition that the Bush administration has, in less than two years, undone most of the multilateral progress of well over a decade and, at the same time, has simply shattered the much deeper multilateral consensus that had taken even longer to develop.

One friend, with many years of international experience and close connections with several US administrations, simply commented that what had really happened was that there had been a coup. It was a very American coup; few people really appreciated that it had happened until a few months after the 11 September attacks. The key to it is that Bush’s election has brought into prominence a small group of neo-conservative security hawks that are somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan in their view of the world, yet have acquired effective control of the security posture of the world’s most powerful state.

They are not in any way representative of American thinking across the board. Indeed, when there is an opportunity to talk to experienced State Department staff, you sense that the disbelief at what has happened extends to many of the long-service professionals. Moreover, there is still a strong current in American academic and other circles that rejects this new paradigm.

The hawks in charge

In any other circumstances, George Bush would already be a lame-duck President in the wake of Enron, WorldCom and all the other financial scandals. Instead, what has actually happened has been an unholy coincidence between this ‘coup’ by the security hawks and the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks. Just as al-Qaida probably intended, the attacks have given the hawks the ability to enhance and spread US military power in a manner that would have been a source of astonishment to those unaware of their thinking even as late as August 2001.

This is all plain enough. What has struck me so forcibly is that such an analysis is immediately recognisable and accepted by people right across the majority world yet is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the neo-conservative paradigm in the United States with its compelling and unshakeable belief that it is creating the New American Century.

In Washington among the neo-conservatives, the views of the rest of the world do not seem to be of any relevance at all. In a sense, they might as well not exist. The United States has overwhelming military power; this readily assures the only appropriate system for the world and its security, namely a Western-controlled and globalised liberal market – end of story.

The only problem with this is that 96% of the world’s people are not American. This may not be too fair a point as so many Americans themselves reject the neo-conservative agenda, but the wider issue is that it is being comprehensively rejected in so many quarters around the world. For the moment, though, the hawks are in charge and are not prepared to accept any opposition. This is a daunting prospect and it is hardly surprising that the unease is so widespread among those experienced international civil servants who had hoped to be a part of a more cooperative international order.

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