Four weeks on and it feels as though we are living in a black hole. The “new war on terrorism” has invaded our lives and sucked in all our usual activities. Even before the start of military action, television, newspapers, e-mail and everyday conversation had all been overwhelmed not just by grief and mourning but by the new global coalition, troop deployments, intelligence efforts, the Afghan crisis and on and on. Normal debates about issues like education and health, climate change and biodiversity, corporate responsibility and debt reduction, not to mention the Balkans or Central America, have been suspended–unless, that is, these issues can somehow be related to September 11. The crime against humanity that took place on September 11 was so horrific and so shocking that this reaction is perhaps understandable (although the world did not shut down after the genocide in Rwanda or the fall of Srebrenica). Nevertheless, it is the wrong reaction. Normal debate is exactly what is needed. If we are to confront what Michael Ignatieff has described as “apocalyptic nihilism” in a serious, sustained way, then we need politics, especially global politics. Not as a substitute for catching the perpetrators and bringing them to justice, but as a central part of the strategy for eliminating their activities.
In the past decade, since the end of the cold war, we have witnessed the emergence of something that could be called global politics. The cold war can be regarded as the last great global clash between states; it marked the end of an era when the ultimate threat of war between states determined international relations and when the idea of war disciplined and polarized domestic politics. Indeed, this may explain why we became conscious of the phenomenon known as globalization only after the end of the cold war. Nowadays, as September 11 demonstrated only too graphically, we live in an interdependent world, where we cannot maintain security merely through the protection of borders; where states no longer control what happens within their borders; and where old-fashioned war between states has become anachronistic. Today states are still important, but they function in a world shaped less by military power than by complex political processes involving international institutions, multinational corporations, citizens’ groups and, indeed, fundamentalists and terrorists–in short, global politics.
The end of old-fashioned war between states does not mean the end of violence. Instead, we are witnessing the rise of new types of violence, justified in the name of fundamentalism of one variety or another and perpetrated against civilians. President Bush is perhaps right to call what happened a “new kind of war.” But this is not the first “new war,” although it is more spectacular and more global than ever before and, for the first time, involves large-scale loss of American lives. Wars of this type have taken place in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Central Asia, especially in the past decade. And there are lessons to be learned that are relevant to the new “new war.”
These new wars have to be understood in the context of globalization. They involve transnational networks, based on political claims in the name of religion or ethnicity, through which ideas, money, arms and mercenaries are organized. These networks flourish in those areas of the world where states have imploded as a consequence of the impact of globalization on formerly closed, authoritarian systems, and they involve private groups and warlords as well as remnants of the state apparatus. In the new wars, the goal is not military victory; it is political mobilization. Whereas in old-fashioned wars, people were mobilized to participate in the war effort, in the new wars, mobilizing people is the aim of the war effort, to expand the networks of extremism. In the new wars, battles are rare and violence is directed against civilians. The strategy is to gain political power through sowing fear and hatred, to create a climate of terror, to eliminate moderate voices and to defeat tolerance. And the goal is to obtain economic power as well. These networks flourish in states where systems of taxation have collapsed, where little new wealth is being created. They raise money through looting and plunder, through illegal trading in drugs, illegal immigrants, cigarettes and alcohol, through “taxing” humanitarian assistance, through support from sympathetic states and through remittances from members of the networks.
These wars are very difficult to contain and very difficult to end. They spread through refugees and displaced persons, through criminal networks, through the extremist viruses they germinate. We can observe growing clusters of warfare in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus. They represent a defeat for democratic politics, and each bout of warfare strengthens those with a vested political and economic interest in continued violence. The areas where conflicts have lasted longest have generated cultures of violence, as in the jihad culture taught in religious schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan or among the Tamils of Sri Lanka, where young children are taught to be martyrs and where killing is understood as an offering to God. In the instructions found in the car of the hijackers in Boston’s Logan Airport, it is written: “If God grants any one of you a slaughter, you should perform it as an offering on behalf of your father and mother, for they are owed by you…. If you slaughter, you should plunder those you slaughter, for that is a sanctioned custom of the Prophet’s.”
What we have learned about this kind of war is that the only possible exit route is political. There has to be a strategy of winning hearts and minds to counter the strategy of fear and hate. There has to be an alternative politics based on tolerance and inclusiveness, which is capable of defeating the politics of intolerance and exclusion and capable of preserving the space for democratic politics. In the case of the current new war, what is needed is an appeal for global–not American–justice and legitimacy, aimed at establishing the rule of law in place of war and at fostering understanding between communities in place of terror. There needs to be a much stronger role for the United Nations and serious consideration paid to ways in which legitimate political authority can be re-established in Afghanistan. Thinking through how this should be done needs to be the responsibility of the new United Nations Special Representative to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, in consultation with neighboring states and a range of relevant political and civic actors. There also needs to be a clear demonstration of evenhandedness in places like the Middle East, and real support for democratic and moderate political groupings–in other words, an alternative network involving international institutions as well as civil society groups committed to similar goals. What this entails in concrete terms has to be discussed and debated. In this crisis, there has been much handwringing about the need for better human intelligence. An excellent source of human intelligence and guide to evenhanded policy-making are pro-democracy, human rights and liberal Islamic groups in the Middle East and among exile communities.
Political action has to be combined with serious attention to overcoming social injustice. Of particular importance is the creation of legitimate methods of making a living. In many of the areas where war takes place and where extreme networks pick up new recruits, becoming a criminal or joining a paramilitary group is literally the only available opportunity for unemployed young men lacking formal education. Where some progress has been made, as in Northern Ireland and the Balkans (and it is always slow and tortuous, since these wars are so much harder to end than to begin), what has made a difference has been the provision of security, including the capture of criminals, support for civil society and for democrats, and efforts at economic reconstruction.
Such a political strategy is not an alternative to military action. Indeed, military action may be needed in support of alternative politics. But in these wars there is no such thing as military victory; the task of military action is to create conditions for an alternative politics. Thus military action is needed to catch war criminals and protect civilians–to establish areas where individuals and families feel safe and do not depend on extremist networks for protection and livelihood. Devices like safe havens or humanitarian corridors, effectively defended, help protect and support civilians and establish an international presence on the ground.
Tolerant politics cannot survive in conditions of violence–this is the point of the new wars. Military action may be needed to provide not national security but individual security. In old-fashioned wars, the aim of military action was to take territory and to destroy the enemy, defined not as individuals or networks but as entire states and military machines. Thus military action typically maximized enemy casualties and minimized its own casualties. This new type of military action is more like policing; it must involve minimizing casualties on all sides even at the risk of its own casualties. Moreover, to be legitimate, such action must take place within the framework of international law. Both jus ad bellum, the goal of war, and jus in bello, the methods of war, need scrupulously to respect both the laws of war and human rights law.
It’s this new kind of war that characterizes the twenty-first-century globalized world; indeed, some aspects of these wars have already been experienced in the United States itself–for example, in the Oklahoma City bombing. But until now, America has assumed that it is more or less immune and that wars happen elsewhere. In effect, the United States has acted as though it were the last nation-state, in which the priorities are domestic politics and what happens elsewhere doesn’t matter. It has been able to maintain the myth, so important to the American psyche, that there are still wars on the model of World War II, in which virtuous states triumph over evil states, and the United States can act as leader of the virtuous states at a distance. National missile defense is part of this myth; it would allow the United States to bomb evil states at a distance, safe in the knowledge that its territory is protected.
The events of September 11 exposed the vulnerability of the United States and, to that extent, may have prevented the immediate knee-jerk reaction of misdirected airstrikes, which Clinton undertook after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. This time, the situation was much more serious, and the US administration apparently needed time to think through its response. The emphasis, we are told, is on targeted strikes, and the aim is to capture Osama bin Laden and restore legitimate political authority in Afghanistan. Great stress has been placed on America’s multilateral approach and the forging of a global coalition, as well as on the fact that this is a war against terrorism and not Islam. So does this imply a conversion to a global political approach?
As yet, it is difficult to judge. The diplomacy and the military action have not so far been undertaken within an international institutional framework. It is not yet clear whether the airstrikes will be followed up with sufficient ground troops to provide security through such means as safe havens. Although the politicians insist that the strikes are not directed against civilians, the problem is not just “collateral damage” but the psychological trauma of daily bombing; whatever the rhetoric, it is hard for ordinary Afghans to believe that airstrikes are not directed against them. The first strikes against Afghanistan seem to have handed bin Laden a propaganda victory. His picture appears beside Bush’s on the backdrop to news broadcasts. He is becoming America’s enemy and the hero of all those who believe, mainly as a result of their leaders’ propaganda, that America is responsible for their desperate plight. There is talk of extending the strikes to Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Moreover, Bush’s polarizing language, demanding that everyone is either “with us or with the terrorists,” leaves no room for antiterrorist critics of the United States. Is there a serious plan, consistent with international law, to contain the terrorist network? Or have the military strikes been undertaken in response to American public opinion, a desperate attempt to show that something is being done? Did the four weeks’ respite occur because of restraint and reflection, or rather because time was needed to assemble military forces and identify targets? If what is happening is a classic cold war-type approach, devised in order to respond to domestic political imperatives, then there is a real risk of a dangerous global “new war.”
The danger is not just the escalation of violence. The campaign is going to be long and sustained, we are told, more like the cold war than World War II. And therein lies a grim prospect. The United States still seems to be thinking in terms of a world of states led by America, not a genuine new form of multilateralism. In the new war against terrorism, America is still putting the emphasis on military action and on alliances with states. It is becoming a new hot and cold war of America and its allies against fundamentalist Islam. The new global coalition is in some ways reminiscent of American support for military dictatorships in Latin America in the 1970s, under the guise of hunting down Communists and Marxists. States that are ready to support the United States are part of the alliance, no matter what their domestic behavior. Russia is in, despite its war crimes against Chechens; Pakistan, so recently an outcast because of its military coup and development of nuclear weapons, is a good guy again. And then there are Saudi Arabia, Israel and Uzbekistan, to name the most notorious. I am told by human rights groups in the Caucasus that Russia is threatening Georgia for harboring terrorists (among the Chechen refugees) and that human rights activists in Azerbaijan are being dubbed terrorists. There has to be a global coalition, of course, but it should be linked to the UN and be responsive to the concerns of democrats and civic activists in the countries involved.
So-called antiglobalization protests were just beginning to be taken seriously before September 11, but now we are at risk of shutting down the global conversation that began after the end of the cold war. We do live in a globalized world, and the frustrations in repressive societies cannot any longer be confined to particular territories. Those frustrations will not always be expressed as democratic demands, as was the case in Latin America. They will be expressed in the language of extremes and in the acts of nihilism that characterize the new wars. The current approach might work for a few years by pouring money into repressive states and by killing known terrorists. But if the United States continues to act as a nation-state, wielding its military might to satisfy public demands for quick responses to acts of nihilism, the danger is that we will see a “new war” on a global scale–a sort of global Israel/Palestine conflict with no equivalent to the international community to put pressure on the warring parties.
In his Labour Party conference speech, British Prime Minister Tony Blair talked about the need for global justice, for creating peace in the new wars and social justice. If this is more than rhetoric, then it requires discussion about how these goals are to be achieved. Such an effort must engage all levels of society all over the world. Global politics is not just desirable in itself; it is the only way we can even begin to tackle the new “new war.”