Worlds together, worlds apart

It is a measure of how quickly things have been changing since September 11 that we have gone from judging America for its isolationism and unilateralism before the attacks, to lauding it for its restraint, to lamenting the decline of its power when it seemed the Taleban would not be shaken out of their control of Afghanistan, to being overawed by the spectacular success of the military campaign. We have now swung back to being suspicious of America’s isolationism and unilateralism – all in five months. Our wired world, our rush to judge and analyze (both in America and abroad), lead to our swinging from one mood to the other. Everyone judges America by his or her own standards, as well as, often, by America’s own standards (even if they themselves do not aspire to them). Every country, also, is judged by its response to the terrorist attacks and the American campaign. The feeling today is that America is at its apogee. It is the undisputed, single superpower, able to muster military force and electronic surveillance mechanisms that no one could have dreamed of a decade or two ago. It has come to the point where a pilot seated in a base in America can maneuver an unmanned plane a world away over Afghanistan to hit specific targets and then go home for dinner. America can do all this by itself. It does not need the help of any of its allies, let alone the smaller countries in NATO. The Afghan campaign has shown that the Americans are not only much stronger than their enemies but also far more mighty than their friends. And now that the immediate threat of more terrorist attacks seems to be fading (and though American officials go to pains to assure the world that the threat has not abated, they seem to be in continual celebration) the relationship between the Americans and their allies has become a central issue and one that will have to be reformed. Of course, for the Europeans, the disagreement is nothing but a return to the good old pre-September 11 days. That was when we could all express healthy outrage at President Bush’s decision to walk away from the Kyoto Agreement on limiting greenhouse gases, when America continued to oppose the establishment of a permanent court for war crimes, when it cared nothing about ratifying a ban on land mines, when it executed its own and others’ citizens. America, having shown that it can win wars on its own, is accused once again of doing what it wants, justifying itself to no one and demanding what it wants of its friends and enemies. Bush has done little to alleviate this. In his talk of capturing Osama bin Laden «dead or alive,» he conjures up a cowboy culture that might alienate other nations. His declarations that whoever is not with America is «with the terrorists,» and the «axis of evil» that he has devised to lump together the disparate states of Iran, Iraq and North Korea might be great for steeling Americans’ resolve, but they also raise fears elsewhere that Washington may rush in where angels fear to tread, upsetting delicate balances and causing a backlash that may lead to further trouble. French officials, for example, have been growing increasingly critical of what their foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, on Wednesday called America’s «simplistic approach that reduces all the problems in the world to the struggle against terrorism.» This came a week after Bush presented his budget, in which he cut some social programs and introduced a deficit in order to provide more funds for security at home and abroad. The greatest criticism will, no doubt, come from Americans themselves if they judge that Bush’s budget and policies have damaged the economy more than they have benefited the country’s security. That is their call. What affects the rest of us, though, is what effect America’s actions have on the world. The Americans are at war and they have no time for the carping, for example, of those who go on about the treatment of Taleban and Al Qaeda captives. Both sides know that the initial photographs of the captives that were released from Guantanamo (in which the men were manacled, gagged and blindfolded) depicted only a brief period during their arrival in Cuba. One wonders then whether the photographs weren’t released by the Pentagon to show the folks in the American heartland that the enemy had been beaten and humbled – and to hell with what others might think? The problem, though, is that this is an interconnected world, and if America loses the moral high ground once, it will leave its own citizens and soldiers open to worse reprisals somewhere, sometime. Hearing critics in Europe should ring alarm bells about what those whom we cannot hear in the dark corners of angry Third World cities might be saying. And this is the heart of the matter. No matter how powerful the United States of America may be today, in comparison with history and through the lack of any competition, the talk of victory is premature. Osama bin Laden’s fate is not known. Thousands of his trained disciples are believed to be spread out over the planet. What they might do cannot be predicted. All indications are that bin Laden has large numbers of sympathizers among Islam’s poor. America will need more than just its military force to help win the overall war, and it will need more than the help of its friends. It will need the criticism from those closer to the trouble spots (either through their geography or because they have been vulnerable to terrorism a lot longer than America has) who can offer experience in the fight against terror or express concern for rights and values that must be upheld for a clean victory. So even if America does not need military support, it needs its allies’ intelligence and it has to keep earning their friendship and their respect. Because that is what will win the war without jeopardizing peace. And if America does not lead a world of free and equal countries (even those expressing some harsh opinions) that want to emulate it, while at the same time contributing to it, then what world will it be leading?

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