If we can’t learn better ways of dealing with the outside world even after September 11, then the outside world will once again come to us. By Anne Applebaum.
Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the straightforward set of rules that had governed American foreign policy since the 1940s no longer applied. Our “friends” were no longer defined by their anticommunism, and our “enemies” were no longer defined by their affiliation with the Soviet Union. Many of the institutions created during the Cold War—NATO among them—suddenly seemed irrelevant.
During what will now be remembered as the post–Cold War era—the long decade that stretched from November 1989 to September 2001—there was no real organizing American diplomatic principle to speak of. True, George H. W. Bush invented the phrase the “New World Order.” But he had no policy to go with it. Once the Gulf War ended, the coalition he had built to fight it quickly fell apart. Bill Clinton had plenty of policies but no philosophy with which to link them. “Nation-building” was the phrase sometimes used to talk about American policy in the Balkans and in Haiti. “Democracy-promotion” is perhaps more accurate. In practice, this meant that all around the world—in China, in Russia, in Malaysia, all over Africa, and above all in Serbia—the United States lectured and scolded and promoted its system, complaining about the closure of opposition newspapers, protesting the incarceration of opposition leaders. The State Department issued annual assessments of other countries’ human rights records. NATO spent some of its time debating the pros and cons of enlargement and even more of its time organizing peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. At the same time, more tasks were shifted onto the backs of multilateral institutions, the United Nations in particular, which were not prepared to shoulder the burdens of managing the world.
Some of these policies were not new. The United States had been promoting human rights abroad at least since the era of Jimmy Carter. In the past, however, democracy-promotion was part of the Cold War and could be justified at home and abroad on those grounds. Promoting democracy for its own sake turned out to be politically more difficult than might have been expected. Professional diplomats hated it. One told me recently of the relief he feels knowing he will no longer have to spend his days pushing American values down other people’s unwilling throats. Members of Congress hated it too since they could never explain to their constituents where the American national interest lay in Kosovo. The business community couldn’t understand why the oppression of Tibet need disrupt their trade with China. Ordinary Americans could never follow the intricacies of democracy-promotion and have, as a result, consistently refused to read, think, or even speak about foreign affairs for the past decade.
But even human rights activists hated the inconsistencies of U.S. foreign policy. Everyone knew that the United States complained far more about the antidemocratic policies of indebted Kenya than it did about the far nastier antidemocratic policies of oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Everyone knew that the United States placed sanctions on India and Pakistan for possessing nuclear weapons but not on Israel. Democracy-promotion pleased no one, not even those who spent all their time promoting it.
Democracy, it turned out, was too vague and ill-defined for diplomats and politicians to promote: It was like trying to promote “niceness” or “peace.” All of which explains, in part, the breathtaking speed with which democracy-promotion is now being dismantled and the mind-boggling rapidity with which the new paradigm, the war on terrorism—the New New World Order—is now falling into place. Clearly, the administration has had other concerns—the war in Afghanistan, the international investigation of terrorist financing—but these will pale, in the long term, beside the foreign policy revolution that has only just begun.
The Beginnings of a Long War
To be fair, not all the diplomatic changes that occurred in the autumn of 2001 were the direct result of the events of September 11. From the time of his election, George W. Bush’s administration had a very different foreign policy agenda from that of its predecessors. More interested in self-defense, less interested in self-promotion, the new government had, by the autumn of 2001, already begun to prepare the American public and the rest of the world for a long debate about missile defense. In effect, the administration was already thinking about fighting terrorism, albeit a very specific, missile-guided sort of terrorism. This was not enough to prepare the United States for the attacks on New York and Washington, but it did mean that, when the attacks occurred, the Bush administration was able to turn American foreign policy around very quickly. But the situation itself also made the government’s task easier. Suddenly, the war on terrorism, like the Cold War, provided the administration with both a practical and a philosophical guide to foreign policy of a kind that the United States had not had since 1989.
Within days, the first building blocks of the New New World Order fell into place. Immediately, we had new allies, selected not for the quality of their free press but for the degree of cooperation they seemed likely to provide for the duration of what is going to be a long struggle against a new kind of enemy. Notably, they include Russia and China, two states with which we had previously been at odds. They also include Russia’s Central Asian satrapies, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, both of which have allowed us to use their territory for military purposes, something that was once unthinkable.
We also have new, more intense, and sometimes more complicated relationships with some of our older friends. Most obviously these include Western Europe and Israel, but there are others as well. Our relationships with India and Pakistan, for example, are suddenly both warmer and more difficult. Pakistan has already received huge injections of aid and support. During the war in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials worked far closer with their U.S. counterparts than they ever had in the past. At the same time, because there are strong links between Al Qaeda and Muslim separatists in Kashmir, after September 11 the Indian government immediately offered its bases to the United States. As a result, the rising tensions—and the real possibility of nuclear conflict—between our two new allies put the United States in an unfamiliar position. On the one hand, we are prisoners of our own rhetoric, bound to sympathize with the Indian victims of terror. On the other hand, we are in the unfamiliar position of dependence upon Pakistani troops, whose help we still need to patrol the Afghan-Pakistani border. In the past, we would have stayed as far away as possible from such a conflict. Now we are drawn in, by both sides, by our own interests. It isn’t impossible to imagine such a thing happening again, in North Africa, say, or the Middle East.
Our institutions are changing too. The purely theoretical and rather dull military debates of the past decade—along the lines of “should we be prepared to fight one large war or two small wars?”—have suddenly given way to very concrete, very practical discussions about how to best defend Americans at home and how to track down terrorists abroad. NATO has ceased to be a comfort club for Eastern European countries waiting to get into the European Union. Dusty, forgotten bits of the State Department—the nuclear nonproliferation bureaucracy, for example—have already begun to receive more attention, more money, more influence, while others will be downgraded.
The role and relative importance of multilateral institutions have already changed too. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the American government instinctively looked not to the EU and the United Nations but to Prime Minister Blair in Britain; President Chirac and former prime minister Jospin in France, and Chancellor Schroeder in Germany. No one wanted to talk to Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy spokesman. The U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, was hardly a major player in the first stages of the Afghan conflict either. When a real war needs to be fought, U.N. troops can’t do it, and the EU’s nonexistent army wasn’t much help either. More broadly, all talk of a “postpatriotic” or a “postnationalist” world—in which transnational institutions would gradually take over the management of the world’s affairs—now seems outdated as well. In the wake of September 11, the nation-state suddenly looks like the only political institution capable of waging the long war against the terrorist threat.
These changes are permanent—although not everybody knows it yet. In the wake of the Taliban’s collapse, many Americans began to relax, to hanker after a return to “normality” and the old days of “the economy, stupid.” But it is too early to relax. The Taliban was toppled, but terrorism did not disappear along with it. Terrorism will not disappear, not in this generation or even in the lifetime of anyone old enough to read this sentence. It has become clear, to begin with, that Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda is no small group of plotters but rather a network of tens of thousands of trained fanatics, “spread throughout the world like time bombs, set to go off without warning,” in the words of President Bush.
Nor is Al Qaeda likely to prove the last organization of its sort. The peculiar attributes of Western capitalism—its tendency to disrupt traditional ways of life, its materialism, its cosmopolitan nature—have produced enemies in the past. Parallels have been drawn between the Nazi cult of heroic sacrifice, Japanese kamikaze pilots, and the Afghan who told a British newspaper in the early days of the war that “Americans love Pepsi-Cola, but we love death.” Capitalism, of which America has become the symbol, will also continue to produce enemies in the future, and they will not necessarily live in distant parts. Among the Al Qaeda prisoners whom the American military has been holding captive in Guantanamo Bay are men from the Arab world, from Africa, from South Asia—and from Western Europe.
Indeed, the very existence of these Europeans (three Britons and up to seven Frenchmen) disproves the thesis that lay at the heart of democracy-promotion, the traditional thesis of benign global liberalism: that the more people of different cultures come into contact with one another, the more they will find common economic and other interests and the more likely it is that they will remain at peace. These 10 European terrorists were not just similar to us: they were us. Just like the Al Qaeda activists who started dreaming of destroying the World Trade Center from their universities in Hamburg, the 10 Europeans in U.S. captivity chose to fight the West not because they were ignorant of the West but because they knew it all too well.
If, in the future, others of their ilk choose to keep up that fight, the technology is already available. By this, I don’t mean that Al Qaeda’s plans to make chemical weapons were probably already well advanced or that nuclear technology is now readily available, although all of that is true. I mean, rather, that the attacks of September 11 were not the result of recent advances in fiber optics or information technology; it has been possible to use an airplane to hit a large building for the better part of a century. The explosives that suicide bombers are using to terrorize West Jerusalem aren’t exactly of recent invention either. Although suicide bombers don’t necessarily kill vast numbers of people, they’ve seriously damaged the Israeli economy, not to mention the Israeli psyche, shaping Israeli politics and security policy for years to come. Any group of ideologically driven people could, with sufficient numbers, achieve the same in New York City—starting tomorrow.
Much of the general public is likely to approve of the new foreign policy. Like the Cold War, the war on terrorism appeases the idealism of Americans: We are, after all, fighting to rid the world of an evil. But it also appeals to our realism. No intellectual contortions are required to explain why the fight against Osama bin Laden is well within the sphere of America’s national interest. At least for the moment, the “body-bag syndrome”—America’s inclination to retreat rapidly from any conflict that might actually kill an American—has vanished.
But although the logic of the war on terrorism is straightforward, the events of September 11 have not suddenly made the world into a simple place. One of the dangers of the New New World Order is that it appears, like the Cold War, to make the world appear less complicated than it actually is. They may seem straightforward, but all of our new policies, our new friendships, and our new enemies bring with them new dangers. To counter them, we will need to think very creatively indeed. After a decade in which foreign policy was considered virtually irrelevant—a decade in which the CIA hired virtually no Arabic speakers—there is no guarantee that our foreign policy establishment will rise to the task.
One problem we must contend with is confusion over the definition of the enemy itself. We are fighting terrorists—but which ones? George W. Bush has spoken of a war against “terrorism with a global reach.” I assume that means “terrorism that can reach the territory of the United States.” He has mentioned Hezbollah and Hamas, although not yet the Basque separatists, the Tamil Tigers, or the IRA. But why the distinction? And what if it turns out (as it has already) that the terrorists we are fighting have made common cause with some of the terrorists we are not fighting? Al Qaeda has certainly funded indigenous terrorist groups in Kashmir, which has already led us into involvement in some tricky negotiations in South Asia. Al Qaeda has also funded indigenous terrorist groups in China; down the line, that may put us in the very strange position of aiding the Chinese government as well.
Confusion will also result from the difficulty of isolating terrorism from other international scourges. We are fighting terrorists—but how do we fight an enemy that has no army? In the case of Afghanistan, a military option was available—thanks to the Northern Alliance’s eagerness to co-operate. The same could prove true in the nations President Bush has
identified as the “axis of evil”: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. When planes and bombs can be used against such countries, they should be used, not only because they work but because they will deter others.
Completely different, however, and far more difficult, will be the war against terrorists who live and operate in countries we cannot bomb, such as Britain and France. In the modern world, terrorism has the same organic relationship with organized crime that communism had with the secret police. Terrorists make use of the same shell companies, the same offshore accounts, and the same money-laundering operations as the Colombian drug kings and the Italian mafia, surviving not within states but on their fringes. Unraveling all that will also involve us in the financial affairs of many other nations, as it already has done.
The nature of our new opponents means we need to start thinking—now—about new ways to fight them. By itself, unilateral military activity will not be enough, although I realize that some believe otherwise. By acting decisively in Afghanistan, the argument goes, President Bush has made unilateralism work for the United States. If our allies don’t like it, we don’t care. If our opponents don’t like it, let them fight harder.
In fact, this argument draws the wrong lessons from our military success in Afghanistan. That war was won thanks in part—but only in part—to the overwhelming military might of the United States. Without the cooperation of other countries, notably Russia and Pakistan, we would not have been able to exercise that military might to such good effect. Without allies among the Afghan Northern Alliance and some Pashtun groups, we would at the very least have faced much higher U.S. casualties. In fact, the war was a diplomatic and intelligence success as much as it was a military success.
Over the coming decades, we need to develop the same mix of policies to deal with the wide mix of threats we now face. What we need is not arrogant unilateralism, in other words, but intelligent unilateralism. Intelligent unilateralism means that we do not deliberately antagonize friends or start unnecessary conflicts. Intelligent unilateralism also means that we relearn the importance of selling ourselves abroad, both to our allies and to our enemies. Our long-term security now depends directly not just on our ability to develop and pay for better weapons but on our ability to organize our friends and manipulate our enemies, on our diplomacy, and on our judicious rather than our overwhelming use of military force.
Intelligent unilateralism will also require us to become interested in a whole host of issues that we have hitherto ignored. Over time, I predict we will ourselves be interested not only in other people’s nuclear programs but in their immigration and asylum policies; in their police forces; and above all in their education systems. The Taliban, after all, was the product of the Pakistani madrassahs. If we want postwar Afghanistan to be a moderate Islamic state, we may have to interest ourselves in what children learn in Afghan schools. Our failure to interest ourselves in what was taught in Saudi schools may well help explain the growth of Al Qaeda itself.
Of course, by “interesting ourselves in others’ policies” I do not mean that we should simply continue our old methods of democracy-promotion, with added bells and whistles. American involvement abroad can no longer be perceived as a form of do-goodism or charity, which everyone in the United States feels to be unnecessary and everyone outside the United States finds to be hypocritical. In the new era, we are no longer selling democracy for its own sake but exporting security, both for our sake and for the sake of other potential victims. We aren’t counting independent newspapers; we are—or should be—trying to ensure that Saudi children do not grow up believing that the United States is solely responsible for their economic failure and intellectual frustration. The president himself has called for a “new effort to encourage development and education and opportunity in the Islamic world,” and the administration has quietly pledged millions of dollars to fund education in Afghanistan.
To carry out an intelligent unilateralist policy, what we also need is not merely better weapons but better intelligence operatives, ones who are capable of working with local people. We also need better ways of speaking to foreigners. The old, outmoded, or defunct institutions—Radio Free Europe, the United States Information Agency—would be insufficient in a world where the most influential medium is satellite television, even if they still functioned as they once did. During the Afghan war, U.S. officials initially refused to appear on Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite television station. A few weeks after the bombardment began, however, they changed their policy, and rightly so; the appearance of American diplomats, speaking fluent, classical Arabic, apparently marked a turning point in Arab perceptions of the war.
Still, a few Arabic-speaking officials are unlikely to change the hearts and minds of a generation. If the launch of the Soviet Union’s first satellite convinced the American government to begin promoting the teaching of science and math, the events of September 11 should now convince the American government of the need to promote the teaching of languages and history, especially those of the “exotic” peoples and nations of which we know little. And not just the government: The education of Americans for the new era is a matter for individuals, for universities, and above all for our provincial and insular media.
The choice is a stark one: If we do not learn better ways of dealing with the outside world, then the outside world will, once again, come to us.
Anne Applebaum is a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Washington Post.
A longer version of this essay appears in the new Hoover Press book, Our Brave New World: Essays on the Impact of September 11, edited by Wladyslaw Pleszczynski.
Our Brave New World: Essays on the Impact of September 11 has just been published by the Hoover Press. To order, call 800-935-2882.