A reminder of darker times

It has been said that those who lack the imagination of disaster are doomed to be surprised by the world. Many people have been so surprised by the awful happenings of this week, brought home to us – literally – with sickening violence by superb television coverage.

The surprise has been evident in the way many commentators have declared that these acts of terror mark the beginning of a new era in international affairs, that the world will never be the same again, that everything is changed utterly.

This is nonsense. Traumatic and terrible as events in New York and Washington have been, they were not only predictable but long predicted and warned against. Far from marking the end of the world in which we have been living for the last decade, that world has just delivered an event with which it is has long been pregnant.

Once the discipline imposed by the superpower rivalry of the Cold war ended; once the authority and control of nation states began to be seriously undermined by transnational and subnational forces; once movement became easy in an increasingly ‘borderless’ world – and all these things have happened in the last ten years – the opportunity for terrorism increased.

And as globalisation – and the Westernisation of the world – proceeded rapidly, producing powerful resentment in many quarters, the motive for terrorism also strengthened.

Terrorism is the weapon of the weak, the losers – in this case of the peoples who, on religious and cultural grounds, furiously reject the triumph of Western ideas, institutions, values and enterprise.

What has happened this week is not that the world has changed in some fundamental way, but that ideas and assumptions about the world that prevail among Western elites have been thrown into question. That has been the surprise for many commentators.

There is, for example, the assumption that the world is moving steadily but surely towards a benign economic interdependence, a positive sum game in which all would benefit and friction would be smoothed away.

There is the belief that traditional power politics is old hat and that economic wealth and ‘soft’ power are quickly replacing violence and coercion as the ultimate currency of international relations.

There is the assumption that conflict between peoples is the result of misunderstanding and ignorance, and that once these are removed in a multicultural world, harmony will prevail.

And last, with the triumph of the West in the Cold War, there has been the belief that liberal democracy is destined to triumph, rapidly and universally.

These ideas are not new, but they have enjoyed wide currency in the last decade. In the United States they go under the label ‘Wilsonianism’, after President Woodrow Wilson, who vigorously promoted them. American faith in them may be one of then victims of the terrorist attack, at least for the immediate future. (One has to be careful, for there is truth in the remark that a truly bad idea never really dies).

If that happens, what will replace them? Well, there is another tradition in American foreign policy, named after another president, Andrew Jackson. This is populist, not elitist, appealing more to Joe Sixpack than to college professors. It is patriotic rather than cosmopolitan. It regards honour as important and unforgiving toward those it considers have behaved dishonourably. It is reluctant to get involved abroad, but once it is involved is determined to prevail, and prepared to be ruthless in order to do so.

As Walter Russell Mead, the most brilliant delineator of this tradition puts it; ‘Jacksonians see war as a switch that is either “on” or “off”. They do not like the idea of violence or a dimmer switch’. And Jacksonians do not think in terms of exit strategies.

The Jacksonian tradition is well represented in the Bush administration. Indeed, given his background and what we know about his thinking, the President himself may be favourably disposed to many of its precepts. As well as that, as the enormity of the insult that the United States has suffered registers fully, a visceral and implacable demand – not only for retribution toward the particular terrorists responsible, but for destroying the will of international terrorists generally, may become irresistible.

In which case what we shall be in will be not so much a new era but an older and more realistic one.


About the Author:
Owen Harries is a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. He is a former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and editor of The National Interest in Washington (1985-2001).