Two Scenarios for the Future

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

September 21, 2001

President Bush has declared that the objective of the terrorists who perpetrated the September 11 attacks was “beyond comprehension.” In the United States as elsewhere, many are having difficulty understanding the reasons for an attack whose horrors exceed even the dreadful standards of international terrorism. We have heard diverse explanations of the possible motives, including: a struggle against a particular model of society or hegemony (two traditional pillars of anti-Americanism); the north-south conflict; hatred of capitalism; religious fanaticism; opposition to the American presence in the Persian Gulf; or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some of these motives may not have mattered for the terrorists, but they all, in different ways, constitute part of the problem in the eyes of those who support them, and in certain parts of Arab and Muslim public opinion.

What is certain is that the “Middle Kingdom”-the country at the heart of the current international system and the world’s only global power-is paying for much more than its foreign policy: it is paying for the current world order for which we are all a part, that which made the possible the age of globalization. The United States is the natural lightning rod for any action designed to radically upset this world order. The United States is paying the physical and symbolic price for regional frustrations, for historical developments that it was a part of but which go well beyond the scope of its power or responsibility. Make no mistake: the attack on the World Trade Center is nothing less than attempt to radically challenge the current world order.

The most plausible explanation of the terrorists’ motives seem to be that of a strategy designed to radicalize existing divisions and conflicts in the world: to force everyone to choose his camp, especially in Moslem communities within Western countries, and to weaken Arab moderates. In short, to bring about the world that cultural reactionaries dream about, that described by Samuel Huntington of a world in which the Cold War is replaced by the clash of civilizations (or at the least, a clash between Islam and the West). September 11 was a challenge to the notion of coexistence between different peoples and religions, to American multiculturalism and French republican integration, and to the ideals of tolerance and dialogue that underpin all of them. International and internal issues have never been more intertwined.

Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis can be criticized in many ways, but no one can deny that it is cherished by all the world’s reactionaries: Chinese and Hindu nationalists, Islamists, the European and Russian far right, etc. By their rhetoric and their violence, these actors give it life, often referring to each other-an idea that becomes widespread, however false, becomes a fact. Nor can it be denied that the notion of a clash of civilizations, for millions of people around the world, was given a real boost on September 11.

The question thus becomes how the United States, centerpiece of the international system, will react. Will America play the game of the terrorists and indirectly give them a second victory-what they want the most-or will it drive them to political defeat? At present, leaving aside for the moment any new factors that might intervene, two strategies seem possible.

The pessimistic scenario is that of the political victory of the terrorists, a vicious circle for the international system. Internally, the American people allow themselves to confuse Islam and terrorism, Arab-and Muslim-Americans are targeted, and public liberties are eroded as part of the war on terrorism. Fear of more attacks leads to an unprecedented increase in the defense budget and to a comprehensive anti-missile shield (whose prospects have been increased, and not diminished, by the attacks of September 11), and the United States starts to look like a sort of “gated community” within the international system, an island of security in a dangerous world.

Internationally, in this scenario, the Bush administration continues down the unilateralist path it had already started on: it refuses to accept the demands of a coalition (let alone the United Nations) to constrain it and launches a devastating and deadly attack backed by few others, which is easily transformed by its detractors into a war on Islam. It reinforces its support for the Sharon government in Israel and takes advantage to strike Iraq without bringing down Saddam Hussein, thereby weakening moderate Arab governments and bringing about more terrorist actions. In short, it accentuates all the contradictions from which the September 11 attacks emerged, and the international system falls into a vicious circle which leads to the regression of universal values.

The optimistic scenario is that of the terrorists’ political defeat, and many signs coming from the United States allow us to hope this scenario will be realized. Internally, George W. Bush and Robert Mueller (head of the FBI) maintain their vigorous warnings of the past few days against anti-Arab prejudice; the population, physically and psychologically stunned, finds its footing on the best of the American experience; the U.S. intelligence services are reinforced without curtailing public liberties, and forms of defense adapted to the new challenges are put in place.

Internationally, the most enlightened parts of the administration (Colin Powell’s State Department) take the upper hand, manage to put together a broad coalition-which started to happen as early as last Wednesday-and by the moderation of their retaliation manage to avoid causing problems for moderate Arab governments vis à vis their public opinions. The U.S. takes advantage of the events to get more involved in the Israel-Palestinian conflict and press the Sharon government-which we have also seen happen over the past few days. They even try to take advantage of the new dynamic to deal with other latent problems such as Kashmir and Iraq. Realizing that their security from terrorism, in an open world, depend on the cooperation of other countries, they regain a position of enlightened leadership, that is, founded on multilateralism.

Europe has, in this whole business, been given a lesson: force remains central to the international system. Threats exist, and Europe has too often minimized American warnings. A mature Europe, which plays a role in the world order, is also a militarily stronger Europe, one which is as worried about international security as about food security. But Europe also has a message to deliver-admittedly in a longer-term perspective: cooperation matters, dialogue is indispensable, and security, in an age of globalization, is indivisible. It is on these points that it can enter into a dialogue of solidarity with the United States, about the best tools (development, struggle against terrorist finances), the best responses (cooperation, dialogue, multilateralism) and the best policies (toward Israel, Iraq and elsewhere) to fight not only against the sources of terrorism, but also against the coming about of a paradigm that threatens our common ideals-and which would mean the ultimate victory for the terrorists.