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Beyond Jihad Vs. McWorld | The Nation

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Beyond Jihad Vs. McWorld

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The American myth of independence is not the only casualty of September 11. Traditional realist paradigms fail us today also because our adversaries are no longer motivated by "interest" in any relevant sense, and this makes the appeal to interest in the fashion of realpolitik and rational-choice theory seem merely foolish. Markets may be transnational instruments of interests, and even bin Laden has a kind of "list of demands" (American troops out of Saudi Arabia, Palestine liberated from Israeli "occupation," down with the infidel empire), but terrorists are not stubborn negotiators pursuing rational agendas. Their souls yearn for other days when certainty was unencumbered, for other worlds where paradise offered other rewards. Their fanaticism has causes and their zeal has its reasons, but market conceptions of interest will not succeed in fathoming them. Bombing Hanoi never brought the Vietcong to their knees, and they were only passionate nationalists, not messianic fundamentalists; do we think we can bomb into submission the millions who resent, fear and sometimes detest what they think America means?

About the Author

Benjamin R. Barber
Benjamin R. Barber is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and president of its CivWorld initiative.

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Or take the realist epigram about nations having neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies. It actually turns out that America's friends, defined not by interests but by principles, are its best allies and most reliable coalition partners in the war on terrorism. Even conservative realists have acknowledged that Israel--whatever one thinks of Sharon's policies--is a formidable ally in part because it is the sole democracy in the Middle East. By the same token, we have been consistently betrayed by an odd assortment of allies born of shifting alliances that have been forged and broken in pursuit of "friendship" with the enemies of our enemies: Iraq, Iran and those onetime allies of convenience in the war against the Soviets, the Taliban. Then there are the countless Islamic tyrannies that are on our side only because their enemies have in turn been the enemies of American economic interests or threats to the flow of oil. I will leave it to others to determine how prudent our realist logic is in embracing Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen or Pakistan, whose official media and state-sponsored schools often promulgate the very propaganda and lies we have joined with them to combat.

On the other hand, the key principles at stake--democracy and pluralism, a space for religion safe from state and commercial interference, and a space for government safe from sectarianism and the ambitions of theocrats--actually turn out to be prudent and useful benchmarks for collecting allies who will stand with us in the war on terrorism. In the new post-September 11 realism, it is apparent that the only true friends we have are the democracies, and they are friends because they are democracies and share our values even when they contest our interests and are made anxious by our power. In the war against terror or the war for freedom, what true realist would trade a cantankerous, preternaturally anti-American France for a diplomatic and ostentatiously pro-American Saudi Arabia?

Yet the pursuit of democracy has been a sideline in an American realist foreign policy organized around oil and trade with despots pretending to be on our side--not just in Republican but in Democratic administrations as well, where democracy was proclaimed but (remember Larry Summers) market democracy construed as market fundamentalism was practiced. In the old paradigm, democratic norms were very nice as emblems of abstract belief and utopian aspiration, or as rationalizations of conspicuous interests, but they were poor guides for a country seeking status and safety in the world. Not anymore. The cute cliché about democracies not making war on one another is suddenly a hard realist foundational principle for national security policy.

Except the truth today is not only that democracies do not make war on one another, but that democracies alone are secure from collective forms of violence and reactionary fundamentalism, whether religious or ethnic. Those Islamic nations (or nations with large Islamic populations) that have made progress toward democracy--Bangladesh, India or Turkey, for example--have been relatively free of systematic terrorism and reactionary fundamentalism as well as the export of terrorism. They may still persecute minorities, harbor racists and reflect democratic aspirations only partially, but they do not teach hate in their schools or pipe propaganda through an official press or fund terrorist training camps. Like India recently, they are the victims rather than the perpetrators of international terrorism. Making allies of the enemies of democracy because they share putative interests with us is, in other words, not realism but foolish self-deception. We have learned from the military campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda how, when push comes to shove (push has come to shove!), the Egyptians and the Saudis can be unreliable in sharing intelligence, interdicting the funding of terrorism or standing firm against the terrorists at their own door. Pakistan still allows thousands of fundamentalist madrassahs to operate as holy-war training schools. Yet how can these "allies" possibly be tough when, in defense of their despotic regimes, they think that coddling the terrorists outside their doors may be the price they have to pay for keeping at bay the terrorists already in their front parlors? The issue is not religion, not even fundamentalism; the issue is democracy.

Unilateralism rooted in a keen sense of the integrity of sovereign autonomy has been another keynote of realism's American trajectory and is likely to become another casualty of September 11. From the Monroe Doctrine to our refusal to join the League of Nations, from the isolationism that preceded World War II, and from which we were jarred only by Pearl Harbor, to the isolationism that followed the war and that yielded only partially to the cold war and the arms race, and from our reluctance to pay our UN dues or sign on to international treaties to our refusal to place American troops under the command of friendly NATO foreigners, the United States has persisted in reducing foreign policy to a singular formula that preaches going it alone. Despite the humiliations of the 1970s, when oil shortages, emerging ecological movements and the Iranian hostage crisis should have warned us of the limitations of unilateralism, we went on playing the Lone Ranger, the banner of sovereign independence raised high.

We often seem nearly comatose when it comes to the many small injuries and larger incursions to which American sovereignty is subjected on a daily basis by those creeping forms of interdependence that characterize modernity--technology, ecology, trade, pop culture and consumer markets. Only the blunt assault of the suicide bombers awoke the nation to the new realities and the new demands on policy imposed by interdependence. Which is why, since September 11, there has been at least a wan feint in the direction of multilateralism and coalition-building. The long-unpaid UN bills were finally closed out, the Security Council was consulted and some Republican officials even whispered the dreaded Clinton-tainted name of nation-building as a possible requirement in a postwar strategy in Afghanistan.

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