September 11 2008
Timothy Garton Ash
Series: The world reordered
We friends of liberal international order face a new global disorder
On the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, China, Russia and climate change all vie with al-Qaida for our attention
The seven years since 9/11 reveal an old truth: problems are usually not solved, they are just overtaken by other problems. Those of 8/8, for instance. On August 8 2008, two mighty nations announced their return to history. Russia, invading Georgia, did it with tanks. China, launching the Beijing Olympics, did it with acrobats. The message was the same: world, we're back.
Don't get me wrong. A grave threat from jihadist terrorists, potentially armed with atomic, biological or chemical weapons, hangs over us still. They have a faith-based ideology with proven appeal to a minority of disaffected Muslims, especially those living in the west, and the means to wreak cut-price mayhem are alarmingly easy to find. Even as you read this, another hard-to-detect groupuscule, working in a back room close to you, may have taken the occasion of the 9/11 anniversary to try again. They won't always be foiled. Protecting us from another 9/11, while not destroying our freedom in order to save it, remains a major challenge to political leadership in every free country.
What has proved false is the neoconservative claim that this single threat defines the whole pattern of world politics in our time; that, as Norman Podhoretz puts it, the struggle against Islamofascism is world war four. Returning to the United States after a year's absence, I'm struck by how relatively little even the American right is talking about the "war on terror".
Beyond terrorism, two giant changes define our world. Both can, to a large extent, be traced back to the worldwide spread of marketised economic development (or globalisation). The first is the "rise of the rest", made manifest on 8/8. Non-western powers challenge the economic dominance of the west. They are beating the west at the game it invented, and quietly changing the rules along the way. Analysts at Goldman Sachs predict that by 2040, China, India, Russia, Brazil and Mexico will have a larger combined economic output than today's G7. The date matters less than the trend. Even today, the shifts in economic power are translating into political and military power faster than many anticipated.
At the same time, worldwide economic development on the basis of the free movement of goods, capital, services and, to a lesser extent, people, is exacerbating transnational problems. CO2 emissions that accelerate climate change, mass migration, the risk of pandemics: all these cry out for international, cooperative responses. The need for liberal international order has never been greater. Yet, by contrast with the 1990s, when president George HW Bush hoped to replace the cold war with a "new world order", the prospects of achieving it no longer look so good. Power is diffused to too many competing states, many of them illiberal, as well as elusive networks like al-Qaida.
So we of the FLIO (friends of liberal international order) must now confront the prospect of a new world disorder. Or rather old-new, for disorder rather than order is the more natural condition of international society. International order, which may also be called peace, is a fragile achievement. It hardly needs repeating that in its response to the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration has, over these seven lean years, contributed to the erosion, rather than the building, of international order. The Russian invasion of Georgia was, among other things, payback for the US invasion of Iraq.
While order is threatened, liberty is no longer on the forward march. The French refer to their 30 years of economic growth after the second world war as the trente glorieuses. Future historians may regard the three decades from Portugal's revolution of the carnations in 1974 to Ukraine's Orange revolution in 2004 as trente glorieuses for the spread of liberty, in Europe but also in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia.
Russia and China are not just great powers challenging the west. They also represent alternative versions of authoritarian capitalism, or capitalist authoritarianism. Here's the biggest potential ideological competitor to liberal democratic capitalism since the end of communism. Radical Islamism may appeal to millions of Muslims, but it cannot reach beyond the umma of the faithful except by conversion. More important, it cannot plausibly claim to be associated with economic, technological and cultural modernity.
By contrast, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, like the skyscrapers of Shanghai, show us how authoritarian capitalism already stakes that claim. In the Bird's Nest stadium, the latest audiovisual hi-tech was placed at the service of a hyper-disciplined collectivist fantasy, made possible by financial resources no democracy would have dared devote to such a purpose. Zhang Yimou, the artistic director of the games ceremonies, said only North Korea could have matched such feats of mass synchronisation.
For close to 500 years, modernity has come from the west. The historian Theodore von Laue called this The World Revolution of Westernisation. In 20th-century Europe, liberal democracy faced two powerful versions of modernity that were western but illiberal: fascism and communism. Part of these systems' appeal was precisely that they were modern. ("I have seen the future and it works," said one enthusiast, returning from Moscow.) Liberal democracy finally saw them both off, though not without a world war, a cold war, and a lot of help from the US.
In China, we glimpse the prospect of a modernity which is both non-western and illiberal. But is authoritarian capitalism a stable, durable model? That, it seems to me, is among the greatest questions of our time, which is still a post-9/11 time, but also a post-8/8 time, and, ecologically, a five-minutes-to-midnight time.
As we of the FLIO think about how to respond to this multiple-front challenge, I have more sympathy than many Europeans do for the notion, canvassed by American policy intellectuals supporting both John McCain and Barack Obama, of a "concert of democracies". We should look first to those countries who share our values in the way they govern themselves - and there are more of them now, after these trente glorieuses for liberty. But only with several vital caveats.
First, we should not kid ourselves that we can have only liberal democracies as partners. Our values may pull us that way, but our interests will necessarily push us to relationships and even partnerships with currently illiberal states as well. So any institutionalised League of Democracies, arrayed against an Association of Autocrats (Robert Kagan's vivid term), is a seriously bad idea - even assuming you could agree who merits inclusion in the league. Bipolar disorder would be no improvement on multipolar.
It's also not the smartest idea to identify this vision of a concert of democracies too emphatically with the west, as in the former French prime minister Edouard Balladur's proposal for what he calls a Western Union. Historically, both modernity and liberalism have come from the west. But the future of freedom now depends on the possibility of new versions of modernity evolving - whether in India, China or the Muslim world, which are distinctly non-western yet also recognisably liberal, in the core sense of cherishing individual freedom. I wouldn't bet on this outcome, but working towards it is the best long-term chance we have. Pessimism of the intellect must be matched by optimism of the will.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008