MELBOURNE—Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, the Taleban and radical Islamism more generally represent ideological challenges to Western liberal democracy that are, in certain ways, sharper than those offered by communism. But, in the long run, it is hard to see that Islamism offers much of a realistic alternative as a governing ideology for real world societies.
Not only does it have limited appeal to non-Muslims, but it also does not meet the aspirations of the vast majority of Muslims themselves. In the countries that have had recent experience of living under an actual Muslim theocracy—Iran and Afghanistan—there is every evidence that it has become extremely unpopular.
While fanatical Islamists armed with weapons of mass destruction pose a severe threat in the short run, the longer-term challenge in the battle of ideas is not going to come from this quarter.
The Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the United States represent a serious detour but, in the end, modernisation and globalisation will remain the central structuring principles of world politics.
But another important issue has been raised—namely, whether
the West is really a coherent concept, and whether the US and
its foreign policy might themselves become the central issues in
There was a large, spontaneous outpouring of support for the US and
for Americans around the world after Sept 11, with European
governments lining up immediately to help prosecute its
But with the demonstration of total American military dominance that came with the successful rousting of Al-Qaeda and the Taleban from Afghanistan, new expressions of anti-Americanism began to pour forth.
After the denunciation of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an
evil by American President George W. Bush in his State of the
Union address in January, it was not just European intellectuals but
also politicians, and the public more generally, who began to
criticise the US on a wide variety of fronts.
WHAT is going on here? The end of history was supposed to be about the victory of Western, not simply American, values and institutions, making liberal democracy and market-oriented economics the only viable choices.
The Cold War was fought by alliances based on shared values of freedom and democracy. Yet, an enormous gulf has opened up in American and European perceptions about the world, and the sense of shared values is increasingly frayed.
Does the concept of
the West still make sense in the first
decade of the 21st century? Is the fracture line over globalisation
actually a division, not between the West and the Rest, but between
the US and the Rest?
The ostensible issues raised in the US-European disputes since the axis-of-evil speech revolve for the most part around alleged American unilateralism and international law. There is now a familiar list of European complaints about American policy, including, most recently, its opposition to the International Criminal Court.
But the most serious act of US unilateralism in European eyes concerns the Bush administration's announced intention to bring about a change of regime in Iraq—if necessary, through a go-it-alone invasion.
The axis-of-evil speech did, indeed, mark a very important change in
American foreign policy, from deterrence to a policy of active
pre-emption of terrorism. This doctrine was further amplified in Mr
Bush's West Point speech in June, in which he declared that
war on terror will not be won on the defensive.
The European view is that Europe seeks to create a genuine rule-based international order suitable to the circumstances of the post-Cold War world. That world, free of sharp ideological conflicts and large-scale military competition, is one that gives substantially more room for consensus, dialogue and negotiation as ways of settling disputes.
Europeans are horrified by the announcement of a virtually open-ended doctrine of pre-emption against terrorists or states that sponsor terrorists, in which the US alone decides when and where to use force.
THERE is a deep issue of principle involved which will ensure that trans-atlantic relations remain neuralgic in the years to come. The disagreement is not over the principles of liberal democracy but over where the ultimate source of liberal democratic legitimacy lies.
Americans tend not to see any source of democratic legitimacy higher than the constitutional democratic nation-state.
To the extent that any international organisation has legitimacy, it is because duly constituted democratic majorities have handed that legitimacy up to it in a negotiated, contractual process. Such legitimacy can be withdrawn at any time by the contracting parties.
Europeans, by contrast, tend to believe that democratic legitimacy flows from the will of an international community much larger than any individual nation-state. This international community is not embodied concretely in a single, global democratic constitutional order. Yet, it hands down legitimacy to existing international institutions, which are seen as partially embodying it.
Thus, peacekeeping forces in the former Yugoslavia are not merely ad hoc inter-governmental arrangements but, rather, moral expressions of the will and norms of the larger international community.
The pattern of US unilateralism and European multilateralism applies primarily to security/foreign-policy issues, and secondarily to environmental concerns. In the economic sphere, America is enmeshed in multilateral institutions despite its dominance of the global economy.
The European Union (EU) collectively encompasses a population of 375 million people and has a gross domestic product (GDP) of nearly US$10 trillion (S$17.6 trillion), compared with a US population of 280 million and a GDP of US$7 trillion.
Europe could certainly spend money on defence at a level that would put it on par with the US, but it chooses not to. It spends barely US$130 billion collectively on defence, a sum that has been falling steadily, compared with US defence spending of US$300 billion, which is due to rise sharply. The post-Sept 11 increment in US defence spending requested by Mr Bush is larger than the entire defence budget of Britain.
Europe's ability to deploy the power it possesses is also, of course, greatly weakened by the collective action problems posed by the current system of EU decision-making. But the failure to create more usable military power is clearly a political issue.
Whether in regard to welfare, crime, regulation, education or foreign policy, there are constant differences separating America from everyone else. It is consistently more anti-statist, individualistic, laissez-faire and egalitarian than other democracies.
Europeans regard the violent history of the first half of the 20th century as the direct outcome of the unbridled exercise of national sovereignty. The EU house that they have been building for themselves since the 1950s was deliberately intended to embed those sovereignties in multiple layers of rules, norms and regulations, to prevent those sovereignties from ever spinning out of control again.
While the EU could become a mechanism for aggregating and projecting power beyond Europe' borders, most Europeans see its purpose as one rather of transcending power politics.
MANY Americans think that the world has become fundamentally a more dangerous place since Sept 11. They believe that once a leader like Mr Saddam Hussein possesses nuclear weapons, he will pass them on to terrorists. They believe this is a threat to Western civilisation as a whole.
The acuteness of this threat is what then drives the new doctrine of pre-emption and the greater willingness of America to use force unilaterally around the world.
Many Europeans, by contrast, believe that the attacks of Sept 11 were a one-off kind of event where Osama bin Laden got lucky and scored big. But the likelihood that Al-Qaeda will achieve similar successes in the future is small, given the heightened state of alert and the defensive and preventive measures put in place since Sept 11.
Europeans also believe that the likelihood that Mr Saddam will pass nuclear weapons to terrorists is small, and that he can be deterred. An invasion of Iraq is, therefore, not necessary; containment will work as it has since the Gulf War.
And finally, they tend to believe that Muslim terrorists do not represent a general threat to the West, but are focused on the US as a result of its policy in the Middle East and the Gulf region.
The US-European rift that has emerged this year is not just a transitory problem reflecting the style of the Bush administration or the world situation in the wake of Sept 11. It is a reflection of differing views of the locus of democratic legitimacy within a broader Western civilisation.