This is the first of a series of articles with the same title. They will start with the – obviously contentious – assumption that in the foreseeable future the War on Terror will fade away. Except for this introductory article, they will deal with the new types of world order we might encounter and the role that Europe can play in shaping such a future.
It has been a refreshingly old-fashioned week in international relations: a military coup in some far-off semi-democracy, good old mudslinging at the United Nations, and heated discussions about a decade-old genocide which show maximum compassion without actual commitments. It is almost as if 9/11 never occurred. For all the predictions of doom and gloom, perhaps the 21 st Century will not be one of good vs. evil and perhaps the Second Coming will not be in our lifetime. ( Please note that this article is pure speculation without any inside information, so please, evangelicals, don’t give up hope yet).
If this week’s theatrics in New York – with Ahmadinejad and Chávez playing the naughty schoolboys ruining the headmaster’s lawn party – is anything to go by, the world is slowly returning to its natural state of affairs and – contrary to appearances – the War on Terror (WoT) is dying a slow death. After all, what could be more traditional than nations quibbling about the role of superpowers, arms races, humanitarian inaction and the true meaning of freedom, all without a fear of being crushed by the hammer of democratization?
The WoT is not an easily definable concept, and in its narrow form nothing more than a White House marketing tool. On the other hand, the current domination of terrorism in global affairs and the sentiments it causes at every level of society seem to indicate that most of the West feels under attack, regardless of whether they subscribe to the Bush and Cheney doctrines. This preoccupation – or obsession – with Al Qaeda et al. in both European nations as well as the United States does not seem to be disappearing any time soon. Nonetheless, with the International Day of Peace just this week, some speculation about if and how the WoT (in its broader meaning) might end could actually be useful. Not only does it allow us a better understanding of the current and future state of the world, it is also likely to reduce some of the more absurd aspects of our current terrorist-phobia. It is becoming tiresome to argue over and over again that the true threat of terrorism is in our reaction, rather than in the specific attacks; that statistically terrorism does not even reach the top-ten of “unnatural” causes of death in Western societies; or that the idea of keeping bottled water out of airplanes is defying all common sense. If we force ourselves to envision a world free of the WoT, we might actually turn our attention to the more productive, long-term challenges ahead and regain a sense of proportionality.
All of this is obviously not to say that international terrorism and its underlying dynamics are completely fictional: they clearly are not, as demonstrated by thousands of victims worldwide. The point is that the WoT and similar obsessive-compulsive tendencies are moving the world into a seemingly deterministic, yet eventually unsustainable, path which can actually be halted.
However, before getting carried away about a world without a WoT – not to be confused with a world without “terror”, something which would in fact require the fulfilment of the Messianic Prophecy – it is only sensible to distinguish between some of the possible endings of the WoT. In no particular order:
1) Victory (Bush-Standard). All terrorists have been killed. The world happily embraces capitalism, democracy and everything else that is good and proper.
2) Victory (Chirac-Standard). Terrorists are weakened enough for Middle-East governments to honour their oil and nuclear contracts without too much hassle.
3) Isolationism by the Coalition of the Willing . Realizing the futility of their foreign policies, democratic nations limit their foreign involvement to an absolute minimum while updating their own civil liberties to Orwellian standards to provide territorial security and overall happiness (the “Winston Smith-Standard”).
4) Defeat (of the Coalition of the Willing by the Coalition of the Willing). Western nations collapse, economic turmoil and rapid social decay. Chinese peacekeepers try to avoid genocide in the US and Europe.
5) Defeat (of the Coalition of the Willing by Al Qaeda). See Scenario 3. Muslim societies worldwide are dominated and controlled by Islamic fanaticism. Tony Blair converts to Islam.
6) Divine intervention. See either scenario 1 or 5 (The jury is still out on this one).
8) It doesn’t end or fade away (Case 1). It becomes a part of every day life and a slow societal decay sets in. Dystopian fiction rapidly gains popularity.
7) It doesn’t end or fade away (Case 2). Most of us are designated terrorist at some point in time and will be busy overcrowding Guantanamo Bay. All others continue the process of democratization until the end (of time).
8) The WoT fades away. O ne day a U.S. presidential candidate declares that terrorism is no longer a priority on her agenda. It then joins the list of unfinished yet irrelevant Conceptual Wars (on Poverty, on Drugs, etc.), and the next generation will wonder what all the fuss was about. This seems to be the most likely scenario; there are various reasons to become a believer of this possibility:
First of all, politicians need to appear to be on the winning-side of things, especially when it comes to security. This war is practically unwinnable. Unless the WoT causes many more Orwellian changes within society, fighting terrorism cannot remain a formula for electoral success. In the long-term it makes sense, therefore, to add terrorism to the many “bad” things that cannot be solved – although perhaps prevented on a case-by-case basis – and to get on with those policies that actually lead to political success. Obviously a leader could still claim victory, but only at the end of a long winding down of related activities. ( Historical illustration: conservative republicans claiming victory in the Vietnam War… during the late 1980s).
Secondly, constituents will start to demand more security bang for fewer bucks, as terrorist attacks continue but at a pace slow enough to start prioritizing other issues such as economic stability, employment and – whisper it – civil liberties. At some point it will become clear that the emperor has no clothes, or, in other words, that terrorism is no existential threat to Europe or the US. Fear would then make way for fatigue: even anecdotal evidence has its limits as a mass motivator, and without statistical evidence time will catch-up eventually and people will turn their attention to more pressing needs. ( Historical illustrations: BSE and Avian Flu obsessions; McCarthyism).
Thirdly, new threats – environmental, for example – will undoubtedly arise and “crowd-out” the current ones. ( Historical illustration: the comparison of national priorities between any two dates in the 19 th or 20 th Century with at least a fifty-year gap).
In this light, the events mentioned in the first paragraph of this article can be viewed – however prematurely – as indicators of a return to a certain kind of normality. The coup in Thailand shows how little has actually changed: military coups still happen in the Age of Terror and we – in the rest of the world – are still mildly interested yet hardly concerned. The bickering at the United Nations indicates a return to interstate relations with various countries competing for influence and power while mostly respecting each other’s sovereignty (if not their leaders). And Darfur reminds us that the WoT has little to do with true terror: Sudan has been witnessing it for years without the international community breaking a sweat.
Finally, if the WoT is indeed dying a slow death, it might be useful to envisage a world without it. It might seem like too much a leap of faith to simply discard the current obsession with terrorism, but it is one worth making. Although international terrorism is likely to continue for a long time to come, it is not so farfetched to believe that in the future the world will deal with the issue in more intelligent ways. This belief could pull us out of the current tunnel-vision analysis of world affairs and stimulate the development of long-term strategies based on something else than the return of the Son of God. After all, we wouldn’t want to offend Allah, now would we?.