Robert Skidelsky
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The Consequences of 11 September: A Sceptical View
Robert Skidelsky
Centre for the Study of Global Governance | Thursday, November 29, 2001

It’s fashionable to say that the suicide bombing of New York’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September has profoundly changed the world. All the 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 don’t want to deny that great events have great consequences; but these must be distinguished from events which whose greatness is mainly dramatic. The 11 September bombings were tragic for the innocent who died, but they weren’t comparable in scale or import to, say, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 28 June 1914, or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. We should be willing to modify the optimistic scripts which followed the collapse of Communism, not to burn them.
Let me go back to Francis Fukuyama and his now much derided ‘End of History’ thesis. In essence, Fukuyama predicted that the 21st century would be more peaceful, less militarised, than the 20th century had been, because there were now no major causes of great power conflict. This thesis still seems to hold.
The 20th century was made warlike by two things. In the first half of it, 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 post 1945 period till 1991 was dominated by the Cold War between the USA and Soviet Union. This was a world wide struggle between two political and economic systems: capitalism and communism. It ended in the collapse 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 round the international jungle. This situation was not changed by the events of 11 September. That is why the United States has found it relatively easy to construct a world-wide coalition against terrorism.
Pessimists like Samuel Huntington and Patrick Moynihan suggested that the Cold War would be replaced by the ‘clash of civilisations’. Some people see 11 September as the opening shot in this new struggle. Whatever the validity of the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, I can’t see that 11 September offers any confirmation. It was a terrorist outrage, which has shocked complacency, but has certainly not rocked western civilisation to its foundations. It is absurd to believe that it has changed any of the fundamental assumption on which we based our hopes for the future.
Apart from 11 September, the ‘clash of civilisations’ argument was always wildly exaggerated. It made the mistake of erecting Islam into a monolith –a mirror image of bin Laden’s view of the West as the Great Satan. Secondly, the West may be decadent, but, unlike the decadent civilisation of the past, it has hugely superior firepower –much more so than when Islam was a serious challenger to Christianity up to the 17th century.
So what has changed? I think it’s probably right to say that 11 September has destroyed the unilateralist basis of President Bush’s foreign policy. The sole superpower realises it needs to draw partners and allies from a wider pool than before.
Let me qualify this a bit. When I first started thinking about the consequences of 11 September, I thought that America had been weakened internationally. Its vulnerability had given the rest of the world an opportunity to extract concessions from it. Bin Laden certainly made his point. But a much more significant demonstration in my view is the ease and speed with which the United States destroyed the Taliban in Afghanistan. Contrast this with the seven unavailing years the Russians spent in that country. . By any historical standards, this was a devastating demonstration of power.
In trying to configure the future pattern of international relations, we have to be careful to distinguish between four different concepts: isolationism, unilateralism, multilateralism, and balance of power. The buzz word today is multilateralism. But so far all it means is that the US has assigned its partners various bit roles in a scenario it has written and directed. Multilateralism may come to mean something different or it may develop into more of a balance of power as Russia and China and India strengthen. But this is some way off. Now the US, literally, calls the shots, and other takes their appointed places in the expectation of favours.
Let me turn to two area of particular interest, Europe and the Middle East. In theory 11 September should have given the EU a greater leverage in international affairs, but there is no entity able to take advantage of it. In practice, it is Europe’s most powerful nation-states, especially Britain, which are the active members of the coalition against terrorism, not Europe. What this shows is that the EU is just about up to the ‘soft’ tasks of international relations, but not to the hard tasks.
Blair’s logic has been the same as British Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain’s at Locarno in 1925.Challenged in the House of Commons with not getting prior assent for the Treaty from the Dominions, Chamberlain replied: ‘The affairs of the world do not stand still… I could not go to conference after conference with the representatives of foreign countries and say ‘Great Britain is without a policy. We have not yet been able to meet all the governments of the Empire, and we can do nothing'. In short, some degree of unilateralism is inevitable, if the power to act rapidly is to be retained. Unilateralism does not exclude alliances, but it presupposes that high political decisions are made by national governments, which alone have the authority to make them De Gaulle understood this, and so does Blair.
Blair understood something else. At the recent Lord Mayor’s banquet he said that the war against terrorism needs to ‘remove the conditions under which such acts of evil can flourish…The dragons’ teeth are firmly planted in the fertile soil of wrongs unrighted’. What 11 September gave was a new urgency to lance long festering boils –nowhere more so than in the Middle East.
I am not an optimist about Middle East peace prospects. ‘Windows of opportunity’ stay open only for a short time, until we settle down to the usual drift. But this does not absolve us from trying. In dealing with this problem we should take to heart Gramsci’s credo: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.
I have left myself too little time to discuss the economic impact of 11 September. On the wilder shore of the reaction is the view that it has put globalization into reverse. A militarised world, it is argued, is the antithesis of a cosmopolitan world. So far, at least not so: 11 September has accelerated the globalising momentum. There was more will to succeed in the trade talks at Doha, Qatar a fortnight ago than there would have been without 11 September.
More reasonably, it may be claimed that the shock to confidence of 11 September will deepen the world recession. The data are already confirming this. But we need to remember that this is a short-run effect. And the 11 September shock needs to be set in context. Before 11 September there was already a protracted decline in Japan, a pronounced slowdown in the United States, and a lagged slowdown in Europe, especially in Germany. Since September 11, the US has started to experience negative growth. To offset this there has been a coordinated aggressive loosening of monetary policy, and Congress is poised to give the US economy its biggest fiscal stimulus since 1975 – though some of the initial enthusiasm for this Keynesian revival may be flagging.
So the hope is that we will bump along the bottom for the next six months, with an upturn starting about the middle of next year. The deeper question is whether the US’s long-term underlying growth potential is less than it seemed. Was not the technologically-led ‘productivity miracle’ of the late 1990s more mirage than miracle? This may be so, but it has little to do with 11 September.
Over the longer run the problems remain the same as before –poverty, disease, environmental degradation, and so on. The anti-globalization protesters will continue to protest, and their valid concerns will have to be addressed. But none of this is linked to 11 September. Over an even longer term, the clash of civilisations may come true, but if so this will be due to differential birth rates between rich and poor nations, not because of the incompatibility of religions or races.
To conclude on a moderately cheerful note: 11 September 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 which 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 good was able to come.
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