“Terrorism” and the US-led global order

“Terrorism” has become a formulaic term in political discourse, often deployed as a device sustaining a US informal empire. Time to unpack it—and develop a more secure multilateral order.

Baisali Mohanty
20 July 2014
Protest sculpture in metal against Guantanamo, with stylised camp guards and helpless detainee

Terrorising the terrorists? "Guantanamo" by José Antonio Elvira, erected near the camp in Cuba. Zósimo / Wikimedia. Creative Commons.

A decade ago the spring of 2004 brought forth monsters. The Madrid bombings, assassinations in Gaza, killings in Kosovo, massacres in Uganda and persecutions in Sudan reminded the world, according to the late international-relations professor Fred Halliday—and if such reminder were needed—that the defining issue of the 21st century was political violence and its causes. Its manifestations are often connoted as “terrorism”, a multi-layered yet indispensable term.

To Halliday, terrorism was a distinct political and moral phenomenon, even if interlinked with revolt and opposition to oppression. Terrorism refers to tactics which are part of military and political struggle, designed to force the enemy to submit by some combination of violence and intimidation while publics and/or government are demoralised.

The first delineated use of “terror” was by the French revolutionaries, in a reverse of the contemporary association—denoting violence against citizens by the state. But since time immemorial, states have manufactured violence against their domestic population to achieve political goals.

This aspect of terrorism must not be forgotten and needs to be distinguished from two other complex phenomena: first, state-sponsored terrorism, wherein a state supports terrorist activity in another state against its officials and population, and, secondly, the responsibility of opposition groups in revolt against dictatorial states themselves to respect the norms of war—and not to use state terrorism to distract attention from the crimes of their own side.

Who does it?

The agents of terrorist acts and campaigns can thus be individuals, groups or other collectivities like state apparatuses. The US State Department’s definition of terrorism however excludes the state as agent: “Pre-mediated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”

The 2004 report of the United Nations secretary general’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change has this definition:

Any action, in addition to actions already specified by the existing conventions on aspects of terrorism, the Geneva Conventions and UN Security Council Resolution 1566(2004), that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.

This definition hints towards the state as possibly being the culprit in some situations. But by insisting that intention is paramount it tends to draw a convenient line: states invariably assert that their real intention is never to harm civilians—and, should this unfortunately eventuate, it is described as unintended “collateral damage”.

Terrorism is about political violence; it is not an ideology. So it requires some kind of ideological cover as self-justification and its perpetrators resort to all kinds—from religious belief systems to secular banners. One oft-used garb has been the “global war on terror” (hereafter GWOT) employed by the US government, deploying one form of terrorism to combat another.


GWOT justifies behaviour aimed at establishing an informal US global empire. While the left denies support to this project, the right and much of the centre in the US, Europe and Japan are supportive, for reasons of “hegemonic stability”. The “realist” American international-relations figure Robert Gilpin has argued that US hegemony facilitates politics at the global level and is inevitable if order is to be maintained.

Since the end of the cold war, GWOT has been accompanied by five other ideological banners providing an envelope for the US imperial project: “humanitarian intervention”, “weapons of mass destruction”, “regime change in the name of democracy”, “failed states” and the “war on narcotics”. Hegemony requires the winning of a degree of consent of those over whom it is exercised; “manufactured consent” nevertheless describes how the US establishes such an empire.

Empire-builders persuade themselves that imperial expansion is a public good, not mere grubby self-interest. A sustained imperial project requires an equally long-term self-deception, which “exporting democracy” via “humanitarian intervention” and “regime change” provides.

And GWOT is never over—indeed, its longevity is a political asset. It helps divert popular frustration arising from neoliberal economics into channels which better suit the imperial project and legitimises repressive US laws like the Patriot Act.

International fissures

Whatever GWOT’s domestic advantages, such unilateralist US ambitions clash with multilateral goals. Severe abrogations of human rights have followed, from Guantanamo to Abu Graib, compounded (as we now know) by illegal surveillance of the citizens, and leaders, of allied states, creating international fissures over the legitimacy of the model which the country presents to the world.

To retain its legitimacy, GWOT takes shelter in the demonisation of Islam, justifying thereby the focus of US politico-military attention on this “hotbed” of “global terrorism”. The term “Islamic terrorism” falsely recruits a whole population of believers as inherent supporters of intimidating violence.

The late US political scientist Kenneth Waltz pointed to three immutable facts of international politics: gross imbalance in the distribution of world power, the presence of nuclear warheads and the punctuation of our times by crisis. With emerging Asian nuclear challengers and the various Middle East eruptions testament to the rise of regional powers, the US finds itself seeking to control an increasingly tumultuous world, in which “terrorism” is presented as the antonym of global security.

The world order dominated by the US will, without doubt, be put to the test—and its failure could lead to catastrophe. A more stable, polycentric system of peace and security, developed through international fora, is thus urgently needed. Only that can address the roots from which all forms of terrorism spring.

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