Perhaps the 21st century really began on 11 September, a date that ushered in a new age of conflict along different lines. Thomas Friedman, the American political analyst who epitomises the thinking of US financial and decision-making circles, wrote that 11 September marked the beginning of World War III. The declaration of war, he said, took the form of suicide airplane crashes targeting the symbols of US military and economic might: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He observed that, although this was the first battle in the war, it might well prove the last to use conventional weapons. It will be a long war at any rate, fluctuating between “cold” and “hot,” pitting slyness against the enemy’s wiles and advanced US technology against a new ad hoc counter- technology.
The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, in the very heart of the world’s largest superpower, certainly cast into relief the distortions in international relations and the global balance of power that has prevailed since the US assumed the helm of the world order in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. This is the core of the problem. Being the world’s supreme military and political commander is an enormous responsibility that constantly puts the US’s leadership abilities to the test. It is not sufficient simply to hold the steering wheel; the driver must also know when to put on the brakes and how to manoeuvre around hairpin turns or over rugged terrain. Navigating this unfamiliar landscape safely requires a broad, long-range vision that recognises the interests and aspirations of all peoples of the world. The reckless race to reach one’s immediate military- economic destination and the arrogant imposition of one’s will can lead only to disaster, as was the case in the conference against racism in Durban.
The course that the next part of the 21st century follows, therefore, will depend greatly on the wisdom, or folly, of the current US administration in handling the complexities of the world today. To reduce all the world’s problems to the very loose notion of terrorism and to punitive actions against “rogue” states will only propel the world into further turmoil. More comprehensive and realistic solutions are needed: solutions that earnestly aim to address the gross disparities in the global distribution of wealth and thereby eliminate the breeding grounds for violence.
What the US must do, therefore, is engage its brain and not just its brawn. During the Korean War, the US administration was faced with many difficult choices, one of which was to invade communist China in order to eliminate the major source of arms supplies and training for the North Koreans. Although top-ranking Pentagon staff advised this course, the US president was wise enough to decide against it. Detached intellect won out over zealous recourse to force; the president did not want his country, recently victorious in World War II, to dissipate its energies and resources along an extensive front as Napoleon and Hitler alike had done in Russia, leading to their eventual demise.
Political and military analysts everywhere have cautioned that military force alone will not enable the US to control world affairs. Some have even predicted that within a few years America’s economic and technological hegemony will begin to dwindle under the pressure of economic stagnation at home and the growing competitivity of European and Japanese economic and technological prowess.
If the US hopes to stimulate and sustain economic growth, it can no longer afford to act as it did throughout the 1990s. It must revise its policies to ensure a more equitable balance in international relations and the process of globalisation. A “big stick” will not generate the international peace and security that are essential for prosperity. On the contrary, it will set off so many more fires that the blaze will be impossible to extinguish.
The writer is professor of economics at Cairo University.