The terrorist attacks of September 11 did without a doubt change the world forever, but they failed to change the ideological viewpoint of either the left or the right in any significant way. The warriors and unilateralists of the right still insist war conducted by an ever-sovereign America is the only appropriate response to terrorism, while the left continues to talk about the need for internationalism, interdependency and an approach to global markets that redresses economic imbalances and thereby reduces the appeal of extremism–if, in the climate of war patriotism, it talks a little more quietly than heretofore. The internationalist lobby has a right to grow more vociferous, however, for what has changed in the wake of September 11 is the relationship between these arguments and political realism (and its contrary, political idealism). Prior to September 11, realpolitik (though it could speak with progressive accents, as it did with Ronald Steel and E.H. Carr before him) belonged primarily to the right–which spurned talk of human rights and democracy as hopelessly utopian, the blather of romantic left-wing idealists who preferred to see the world as they wished it to be rather than as it actually was.
Following September 11, however, the realist tiger changed its stripes: “Idealistic” internationalism has become the new realism. We face not a paradigm shift but the occupation of an old paradigm by new tenants. Democratic globalists are quite abruptly the new realists while the old realism–especially in its embrace of markets–looks increasingly like a dangerous and utterly unrealistic dogma opaque to our new realities as brutally inscribed on the national consciousness by the demonic architects of September 11. The issue is not whether to pursue a military or a civic strategy, for both are clearly needed; the issue is how to pursue either one.
The historical realist doctrine was firmly grounded in an international politics of sovereign states pursuing their interests in a setting of shifting alliances where principles could only obstruct the achievement of sovereign ends that interests alone defined and served. Its mantras–the clichés of Lord Acton, Henry Morgenthau, George Kennan or, for that matter, Henry Kissinger–had it that nations have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies but only permanent interests; that the enemies of our enemies are always our friends; that the pursuit of democratic ideals or human rights can often obfuscate our true interests; that coalitions and alliances in war or peace are tolerable only to the degree that we retain our sovereign independence in all critical decisions and policies; and that international institutions are to be embraced, ignored or discarded exclusively on the basis of how well they serve our sovereign national interests, which are entirely separable from the objectives of such institutions.
However appealing these mantras may seem, and though upon occasion they served to counter the hypocritical use of democratic arguments to disguise interests (as when true democrats attacked Woodrow Wilson’s war to make the world “safe for democracy”), they can no longer be said to represent even a plausible, let alone a realistic, strategy in our current circumstances. To understand why, we need to understand how September 11 put a period once and for all at the end of the old story of American independence.
Many would say the two great world wars of the past century, even as they proved American power and resilience, were already distinct if unheeded harbingers of the passing of our sovereignty; for, though fought on foreign soil, they represented conflicts from which America could not be protected by its two oceans, struggles whose outcomes would affect an America linked to the then-nascent global system. Did anyone imagine that America could be indifferent to the victory of fascism in Europe or Japanese imperialism in Asia (or, later, of Soviet Communism in Eurasia) as it might once have been indifferent to the triumph of the British or Belgian or French empires in Africa? By the end of the twentieth century, irresistible interdependence was a leitmotif of every ecological, technological and economic event. It could hardly escape even casual observers that global warming recognizes no sovereign territory, that AIDS carries no passport, that technology renders national boundaries increasingly meaningless, that the Internet defies national regulation, that oil and cocaine addiction circle the planet like twin plagues and that financial capital and labor resources, like their anarchic cousins crime and terror, move from country to country with “wilding” abandon without regard for formal or legal arrangements–acting informally and illegally whenever traditional institutions stand in their way.