Help PMA grow | Petition forms | Site map | PMA main page
Aftershocks That Will Eventually Shake Us All
25 November 2001
A new international order may not have emerged from the cauldron of 11 September, but it is not too early to discern the outlines of the emerging world.
September did not change everything: the map of the world, the global pattern of economic and military power, the relative distribution of democratic, semi-authoritarian and tyrannical states remains much the same. Many of the problems which are least susceptible to traditional forms of state control (the environment, migration, the drugs trade, Aids) long predated 11 September.
Yet this recognition of continuity downplays the degree to which the attacks on the US 'homeland' have reshaped, or promise to reshape, our world. First, there has been a marked increase in the focus and assertion of United States power. The US was, prior to 11 September, the dominant world power in every significant index. Yet it was uncertain as to how to exert this, wavering between a multilateral approach, tenaciously pursued by the Clinton administration, and the unilateral - which is not the same as the isolationist - policy favored by Bush. The signs of that unilateralism were evident enough in the first few months: rejection of Kyoto, stalling on OECD regulation of tax havens, sliding out of chemical warfare conventions, NMD, sneering at the UN, to name a few.
The events of 11 September have forced the Bush administration to reverse some of these policies and stall on others. But in two important ways there has been major change. Within the US, the crisis has produced a radical strengthening of the power of the President: no leader in US history, with the possible exception of Roosevelt in wartime, has had the control over Congress, his own party, the military establishment, and public opinion that Bush enjoys. Inept on his feet he may be, but the US President does know how to build a coalition and that is what he has done at executive and political levels.
At the same time the crisis has led much of the rest of the world to work more closely with the US. When the call for co-operation from Washington comes, it has proven hard to refuse. Here lies the second of the great changes brought about by 11 September: some US allies, notably Saudi Arabia, have moved further away, but the overall diplomatic balance sheet has been to America's advantage.
Russia has, with its own benefits in mind, consolidated a strategic and political collaboration with Washington: it has given the green light to a temporary stationing of US forces in Central Asia, and is offering itself as a long-term partner in the energy market, an alternative to the unreliable Persian Gulf. China, too, to the alarm of some in the Middle East, who look to it as the only permanent member of the Security Council not to have a colonial past, joined the counter-terrorist campaign. Germany and Japan have, in some measure, sloughed off their post-1945 pacifism.
Against this, however, lies the third of the outcomes of 11 September, the consolidation, to a degree latent but not present before that date, of a global coalition of anti-US sentiment. Just as US liberal writers have talked in the 1990s of the importance for US dominance of 'soft' power - in media, language, lifestyle, technology - so the opposition to US power is forming above all in this domain.
This has highlighted a change in the nature of power in the modern world. The basis of much orthodox international relations theory is the concept 'balance of power': this means not an equal distribution of power, but a self-correcting mechanism, whereby, if one state becomes too strong, others form a countervailing alliance.
This version of balance of power did not work in the period since the end of the Cold War: there was no countervailing bloc. Rather, everyone seemed to 'bandwagon', to join the US bloc and its associated international institutions like NATO and the WTO.
However, if states bandwagon, popular opinion does not necessarily follow. At the level of popular feeling, and not just in the Muslim world, a countervailing balance is taking shape. Hence the opposition of much of Latin America to support for the US campaign, widespread objections in East Asia and in, normally anti-Muslim, India.
These shifts in the distribution and character of power are compounded by changes in the management of the global economy; 11 September has depressed certain important sectors of the market - airlines, tourism, oil, insurance. It has diffused a wider lack of confidence on the part of investors and consumers, accentuating the trend towards recession. It has pushed down global demand for oil - there is now surplus capacity. This has precipitated not only a fall in oil prices, but also led to a price war between OPEC and the main non-OPEC producers.
There is renewed concern to reduce dependence on oil from the Gulf - the site of two thirds of the world's reserves, but now felt to be a region of enduring instability. Non-Gulf producers, notably Russia, the Caspian states and Venezuela, are pressing their case.
The most important economic shift is that, above all, 11 September has brought the state - and not least the US state - back into the management of the world economy: neo-liberal faith in the market, already frayed, has now been further eroded as governments promise to subsidize ailing sectors, use fiscal adjustment and lower interest rates to offset the crisis.
One open question is how all this will affect the euro changeover next January: the stability pact is already under pressure, and George Bush is not likely to worry about what happens to this rival to the dollar.
Some of the changes that have become evident since 11 September were already incipient: the assertion of US power by Bush, the rhetoric of cultural conflict, a resiling from a commitment to universal standards on human rights, intervention by OECD states to offset an anticipated recession. Yet that date marks a rupture in modern history. It takes years to assess the consequences of major earthquakes: 11 September will be no exception. The broader seismic impact can, however, be discerned.