Maybe the World Hasn’t Changed That Much

It is fashionable to say that the suicide bombing of New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11 has profoundly changed the world. All press comment has been based on this assumption, with appropriately “deep” analyses of its effects on international relations, the world economy, globalization and so on.

I want to introduce a skeptical note. The historian Alan Taylor, writing about the origins of World War I, denied that great events always have great causes. I want to amend this: Great events do not always have great consequences. Sept. 11 changes the international landscape, but not by as much as one might think.

Francis Fukuyama, in his now much-derided “End of History” thesis, in essence predicted that the 21st century would be more peaceful and less militarized than the 20th century had been because there were now no major causes of great-power conflict. This thesis still seems to be valid.

The 20th century was made warlike by two things. In the first half, Germany was dissatisfied with its place in the international system and had the muscle to attempt to overthrow that system on two occasions. We need not expect a third attempt from that quarter.

The period from 1945 to 1991 was dominated by the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. This was a world-wide struggle between two political and economic systems: capitalist democracy and communist totalitarianism. It ended in the defeat of the Soviet Union. The new Russia is too weak to be a threat; its dearest desire, on the contrary, is to join the West. China, too, is looking for its place in the post-communist order.

In other words, there are no dissatisfied great powers prowling around the international jungle. This situation was not changed by the events of Sept. 11. That is why the United States has found it relatively easy to construct a worldwide coalition against terrorism.

Attempts to refute Fukuyama’s optimism by positing Sept. 11 as the first shot in a global “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam seem to me to be wholly misplaced. They result from three unfortunate tendencies in human thought: the first being the belief that periods of peace are bound to be short interludes between wars; the second, identified by Karl Popper in his old age, being the unwillingness of our intellectual class to believe that things might go well for capitalist civilization; and the third being our tendency to construct monoliths out of pluralisms.

In a crude tit-for-tat, Osama bin Laden demonizes the West as the Great Satan, and we demonize Islam as the Great Enemy. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops that there is no single West and there is no single Islam. The main conflicts of the modern world are within civilizations, not between them. We remember the Islamic offensives against Europe in the 7th and 8th centuries, the crusades, the fall of Constantinople, the battle of Lepanto, the siege of Vienna, and forget the much longer periods of peaceful coexistence between the two civilizations, and the historical interpenetration of Islamic and Christian thought.

To be sure, something has changed. Put at its starkest, the bombings, by destroying the myth of the United States’ invulnerability, have destroyed the unilateralist basis of U.S. President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. The sole superpower can no longer do as it pleases. For the first time in its history, the United States needs its allies as much as its allies need it.

This is difficult for the United States, but it is good for the world. Little is being heard now of the Russian-Chinese doctrine of “multipolarity,” a response to U.S. unilateralism, which was really an attempt to construct a new balance of world power. Today, Russia and China are staking their claim, together with the European Union, to be partners in a negotiated world order.

Although it took Sept. 11 to make it clear, multilateralism is, in fact, the right and logical outcome to the end of the Cold War.

Russia and China will expect to be rewarded for their support. Russia’s price is obvious: less criticism of its Chechnya policies, eastward expansion of NATO to be conditional on Russia’s integration into a new European security system and rapid accession to the WTO. At a further remove, China’s price will be reduced U.S. support for Taiwan.

In theory, Sept. 11 should have given the European Union greater leverage in international affairs, but there is no entity able to take advantage of it. For Britain, Sept. 11 has reaffirmed the importance of its “special relationship” with the United States. But it is a strictly subordinate relationship. Many in the EU aspire to a more equal partnership, but are frustrated by the weakness of EU institutions. However, the net effect of Sept. 11 will probably be to accelerate the EU drive to a common foreign and security policy. This will be seen as the only way to keep Europe at the big table.

Islam’s price will be the hardest for the United States to pay. It is to end asymmetric U.S. support for Israel. One can be agnostic as to the precise connection between the terrorist attack on the United States and the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Let me put it this way: To Islamic fundamentalists, the United States is the great imperialist Satan, and Israel its agent in the Middle East. Bin Laden explicitly made this coupling in his recorded statement.

However, none of this is as important as the fact that the coalition against terrorism has to be global if the war against terrorism is to be won, and it will not stay global as long as Palestine continues to smolder. Syria’s President Hafez Assad made this plain to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Damascus. Terrorism has to be fought by political as well as military means – as has always been true.

The difficulty of keeping Arab support will become even greater if a link between the Sept. 11 bombing and Saddam Hussein is discovered, causing the coalition against terrorism to move on from Afghanistan to tackle Iraq. Before this happens, an Israeli-Palestine settlement must be well under way.

Between the Jewish fear of being thrown to the wolves as they were in the Nazi period, and the Palestinian hatred of Western colonialism in the occupied territories, international statesmanship has extraordinarily little room for maneuver. In fact, I doubt if any settlement will be possible unless the discussion is moved out of its present rut onto a higher plane. We need an act of political invention similar to that which brought to an end the succession of French-German wars.

To evolve a Middle Eastern equivalent of the European Union in which the warring nationalities and religions of the region could find a common home would be a supreme achievement. Perhaps Sept. 11 has provided just the right spur.

To conclude on a moderately cheerful note: Sept. 11 has not destroyed the long-term grounds for optimism about the post-Cold War world. What it has done is to alert us to the urgency of tackling problems that tended to be swept under the carpet in the first flush of optimism. Was it not Goethe who wrote that God had sent mankind the Devil in order to stir it out of its accustomed sloth? Perhaps we will look back on bin Laden as the devil from whose evil acts some good came.