Celebrated with so much fanfare at the conclusion of the Cold War as “the end of history,” the beginning of “a clash of civilizations,” or the arrival of Nirvana, the new world order did not seem to have materialized in the US. It eventually faded from view, as do all media-generated non-events. Even in Western Europe where, after a flurry of long-overdue institutional house-cleaning, the contracted political spectrum grudgingly coalesced around old-fashioned social democracy as the most convenient option, things gradually went back to normal. The project of unifying Europe in order to create a third superpower to counterbalance the US and the USSR no longer seemed to make much sense. Thus, the very project of European unification soon degenerated into an administrative boondoggle, leaving the participating countries practically as they were, plus another layer of bureaucratic obstacles to the kind of development now necessary to compete effectively with the only remaining superpower.
The new world order did, however, have a major impact practically everywhere else in the world. In the former USSR, and to a significantly less extent in its East European satellites, the collapse of communist regimes has meant major socio-economic and political problems that remain largely unresolved after a decade of mostly failed attempts to introduce meaningful “reforms.” In most of the Third World, despite genocidal catastrophes and occasional misguided Western interventions, most of the regions’ sudden post-Cold War geopolitical irrelevance has paved the way for international “benign neglect” and gradual social disintegration. As for Latin America and Japan, their seemingly perennial economic crises indicate at least an inability to adjust to whatever new conditions now exist.
The US seemed to have been affected least of all. Life generally went on pretty much as before. Whatever was “new” did not seem to be related to any “new world order.” Even the wave of prosperity that characterized the 1990s had little to do with recent geopolitical developments. What was initially heralded as a huge “peace bonus” never really materialized, and the economic boom of the 1990s was the direct result of the cybernetic revolution precipitated by the widespread introduction of computer technology not only in industry, but in all facets of everyday life. Not surprisingly, during the past couple of years there has been hardly any talk of a “new world order.” The events of September 11 have changed all that. In addition to all the dead, the immense material damage, and the lingering economic consequences, there has also been a collective loss of innocence concerning international affairs. Suddenly, everyone seems to realize that there is indeed a new world order that defines every corner of the earth. Understanding its structure and dynamics in order to confront its new lethal challenges is now a matter of life and death.
Collective failure to come to terms with post-Cold War realities is already taking its toll as the unprecedented crisis unfolds. After all the dust will have settled, the smoke dissipated, and the rains of what was the World Trade Center removed — when the time comes to think about what the events of September 11 mean — the bankruptcy of Western political thought is likely to contribute to the general confusion, proving unable to make sense of the new predicament and to help navigate the uncharted waters of the 21st century. The failure to think through the implications of the new world order translates into a recycling of worn-out Cold War ideologies. The predominant theoretical vacuum generated by conformist, one-dimensional academic thought and by general political apathy concerning international affairs makes it possible for particular interests to instrumentalize the crisis to advance Left and Right political agendas, hitherto stalemated by traditional obstacles. To the extent that both sides of the political spectrum have long since collapsed into a flaccid center ultimately advocating New Class domination, the most likely outcome of all this is likely to be an acceleration of those same centralizing trends typical of the 20th century.
Already, in attempting to provide an explanation even before recovering fully from the shock of September 11, most Left ideologues are carefully reconfiguring, even if in poorly qualified euphemisms, the kind of analysis they have been articulating for years, i.e., that in pursuing a “new and improved” imperialist foreign policy and carelessly flexing its military muscles during the last few decades, the US has alienated most of the rest of the world — especially Third World countries, increasingly unable to modernize and participate as viable political actors in determining the direction globalization will take, thus at least temporarily buffering the disintegration of their particular cultures. Ergo, September 11 has to be seen as a misguided, but ultimately understandable response from desperate people trying to fight back in any way they can. Bottom line: the US finally got what it deserves. Deplorable as the death of thousands of innocent people may be, this is precisely the sort of cataclysmic mayhem the US has caused for years — most recently, with the Vietnam war, the Gulf War, Kosovo, etc. Thus, the initial horror gradually turns into yet another indictment of US policies, globalization, and, indirectly, into a coven apology for the anonymous terrorists, increasingly cast, in the most extreme cases, as yet another group of “freedom fighters” — even unselfish “saints” willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause.
By the same token, as can be surmised by the first wave of “anti-war” demonstrations, the paucity of concrete radical alternatives automatically translates Left criticisms into the same pious proposals predicated on the kind of secularized Christian values the Left otherwise dismisses as terminally Eurocentric: calling for more centralization of a democratically legitimated power to contain the destructiveness of private capitalist interests running amuck throughout the world, more global equality (presumably modulated by the UN and other international bodies), and ultimately, an acceleration of all the disruptive modernizing and homogenizing trends responsible for the contradictions the new wave of terrorism is allegedly reacting against.
Not much better are the analyses flowing from an even more confused and fragmented Right united, at best, by vague attempts to hold on to a traditional political framework that probably never was and certainly will never be. The wave of spontaneous patriotism triggered by the September 11 attacks is immediately interpreted as an expression of the sort of 19th century irredentism that cultural and economic globalization has long since rendered obsolete and irrelevant. Thus, the first policies it targets are the permissiveness of current immigration policies, lax border controls, freedom of movement, and the general openness that economic globalization requires as one of its main preconditions. As in the case of Left responses, the Right is also likely to instrumentalize recent events to reiterate ever more forcefully its standard criticisms of the Left and of recent liberal government policies — especially those concerning civil rights, redistribution, privacy, etc. An impossible isolationism combines with a desire for revenge that immediately translates into a call for massive military intervention with undefined objectives against unidentified and therefore all the more elusive targets.
Surprising, however, is the extent to which the policies that the Right considers necessary to prevent further terrorist acts overlap with those proposed by the Left: a blank condemnation of a poorly understood economic globalization (while implicitly encouraging ever more cultural globalization), more centralization of power (especially in law enforcement), containment of US foreign policy (primarily along isolationist lines), and a substantial expansion and modernization of a military establishment still fantasizing about unnecessary missile shields and other costly weapon systems designed to fight yesterday’s wars, while struggling hopelessly to reconfigure itself into a global police force able to confront new threats it can neither understand nor identify. This explains, among other things, the Right’s obsession with desperately attempting to locate a country (or countries) against which to go to war. Traditional American ideals of freedom, democracy, equality, difference, compassion, etc. gradually fade in favor of a cynical Realpolitik unwilling to come to terms with an already globalized world. To a large extent, this ends up reinforcing the kind of picture of the US that anti-American propaganda has been painting for years: a smug, self-centered power with no real values, insensitive to its international obligations, and armed to the teeth in order to impose its imperialist agenda by force, whenever necessary.
Obviously, it is as utopian at this point to expect the widespread call for revenge throughout the US and much of the rest of the world, justified as it may be by the five thousand plus victims and all the yet-to-be understood collateral damage, to translate into compassion for Third World woes, as it is hysterical to call for a total mobilization threatening to alter irreversibly the very fiber of American society. This state of affairs creates a strategic vacuum that can be readily filled by opportunistic political interests to advance particular agendas impossible to impose in normal times. Thus, the US government’s official definition of the September 11 events not simply as “criminal acts,” but also as “an act of war,” is as misleading as the Left opposition’s attempt to downplay its importance to a mere misguided Third World response, or predominant interpretations by the Right as the end result of US international laxity ultimately traceable to national decadence and nihilism (as at least some spokesmen of the religious Right have not hesitated to claim). Yet, whether consciously orchestrated or, as is more likely to be the case, improvised simply as the first knee-jerk response by a government that has hitherto been attempting to distance itself from its international obligations, the Bush administration’s definition conveniently feeds into a strategy whose intended or unintended consequence is a significant enhancement of the power and prestige of the US executive branch of government, whose mandate, as a result of an unprecedented electoral pastiche, has been extraordinarily weak. Unless carefully handled, however, this unexpected silver lining in the dark cloud of terrorism may sow the seeds for even more destructive black clouds in the near future.
Here, the very definition of the nature of the war — the determination of who is really the enemy and who can be counted on as a friend — is crucial. Classifying the September 11 events uncritically as “an act of war” entails serious consequences. Unless one downgrades the concept of modern war (as developed by several centuries of European international law) to a mere metaphor, such as in “the war on drags,” “the war on poverty,” “the war on crime,” or even “a new kind of war,” it is not possible to wage war against private persons or groups, especially if hidden in several countries in far away continents. In the strict sense, a modern war could only be waged by a nation-state against another nation-state — or at least a nation-state in modus nascendi. Thus, the US government, and whatever coalition it will be able to put together, needs to find a particular country to wage war against. If Osama Bin Laden and his organization, al Qaeda, are actually the culprits — as it seems almost certain to be the case (no thanks to the information provided by the surprisingly incompetent US intelligence agencies, which obviously, despite countless warnings, either had no clue as to what must have taken years to plan, or had far too much high-tech data to be able to process it into a credible analysis) — there are both conceptual as well as strategic problems with the US government’s definition. This is why there is so much effort to pin the blame on convenient targets such as Afghanistan and the Taliban, notwithstanding the fact that their involvement was probably limited merely to hosting those responsible for the deed. Worse yet, it is not immediately obvious that trying to bomb them into submission will result in much more than the unrelated satisfaction, in the US and elsewhere in the West, of having annihilated a barbaric regime that, at any rate, deserves all the punishment it can get for spectacular past crimes. Such a psychological placebo, however, is unlikely to result in the arrest of Bin Laden, the annihilation of al Qaeda, or in the curtailment of future waves of terrorism — if indeed the terrorists were free-lancers pursuing their own fanatical agenda as the alleged vanguard of a global Islamic offensive.
There is an even more serious problem with the kind of objectives to be achieved by what CNN has already dubbed “America’s New War.” In traditional wars, there are tangible goals, besides simply defeating the enemy — usually territorial vindications, the elimination of international competitors, the maintenance of geopolitical stability, etc. Since the terrorists have chosen to remain anonymous and have made no demands, it is unclear what objectives the US government can achieve beyond the physical annihilation of a few of the presumed culprits and their allies (in addition to “massive collateral damage”), leaving the original motives untouched and ready to be articulated once again by new waves of fundamentalists unafraid to sacrifice themselves to their cause. If al Qaeda is only a fanatical organization or a group of related organizations tied to no particular state, but with broad popular support in the Muslim world, and their prima facie madness, as can be inferred from their sparse pronouncements, translates into grandiose but improbable projects, such as the annihilation of Western civilization — or at least the eradication of all Western traces from the Middle East — then no flurry of missiles can possibly blow the problem out of the political spectrum once and for all. Even if such a war waged against a phantom enemy can be won (a rather easy task, if there are no definite objectives), the social, cultural, and religious causes that seem to have precipitated it remain unaddressed. As in the case of WWI and the questionable Versailles Treaty that concluded it, victory is never enough, unless those vanquished are persuaded to willingly accept the winners’ terms.
If, however, in the age of declining nation-states, the US government acknowledges one of the more unpalatable consequences of the new world order, i.e., the privatization of terrorism, and defines what has happened as an “international criminal act,” it may become necessary to pose the question of justice within a geopolitical context regulated by some higher international institution able to eventually legitimate whatever punishment is to be inflicted on the culprits — as many seemingly neutral, but ultimately violently anti-American countries and groups have already demanded (including the Taliban). Unless the US disregards national sovereignty and chases after the terrorists in whichever country they may be hiding, thus creating an immense amount of future diplomatic and political problems, it will have to negotiate apprehension, extradition, etc. on the basis of treatises, statutes, or, if there are none, international institutions such as the UN. The long-term costs of empowering even more already too powerful global organizations such as the UN or international tribunals are unacceptable not only in the general interest of safeguarding cultural particularity, global diversity, and regional sovereignty, but also from the traditional viewpoint of a US government that has historically resisted any forfeiture of its own sovereignty by recognizing the primacy of any jurisdiction higher than its own. An essential component of US foreign policy ever since the deployment of the Monroe doctrine in the early 19th century, the right to intervene in international affairs without at the same time being accountable to any other authority, is not likely to be compromised in the interest of some abstract concept of international justice even if the building of global coalitions requires a great deal of diplomatic flexibility. No US government, whether Democrat or Republican, is likely to change this long-standing, unwritten policy, especially now that the US no longer has any comparable international competitors.
At any rate, the September 11 events are no run-of-the-mill criminal acts simply involving the breaking of some written or unwritten law, if for no reason than that the perpetrators define their “enemy” beyond classical concepts, in a global civilizational context where traditional legal institutions, whether nation-states and even international bodies (seen by the terrorists and many de facto suzereined countries as US fronts) play only a marginal role. The terrorists’ main objective is not simply to instill fear in their intended victims, to demonstrate their power, or to achieve some immediately tangible objective to be eventually negotiated after recognition of the legitimacy of the terrorists-turned-freedom-fighters’ demands, but primarily to demonize the political opponent as a foe to annihilate no matter what — even at the cost of their own physical self-destruction (martyrdom). Physically annihilating those directly responsible for the deed, something unlikely since they have already died in the process, or their allies avoids altogether the question of the adequacy of the punishment of a few individuals or groups for an allegedly collective deed, and threatens to have counterproductive consequences. A crime in the name of a religion such as Islam (or at least some of its more extreme branches) cannot be atoned by exterminating a few of its agents, who automatically become martyrs in the eyes of the remaining believers, thus encouraging waves of new potential “martyrs” to follow the example of their predecessors. A dead Bin Laden may turn out to be an even more effective terrorist than a live one.
Since the culprits have made no public claims, what the terrorists regard as their foe has to be deduced by the targets they have chosen. Contrary to simplistic identification of the US as the enemy sic et nunc, the fact that it was the Pentagon, the WTC, and the international aggregation of people that usually transact business in the towers — the center of global capitalism, the heart of the American military establishment, and whatever people benefit from and make these systems run — immediately suggests that what was attacked was what many in the Third World have for years indicted as an oppressive monolithic Western system bent on destroying their local cultures, institutions, and ways of life. And here is what constitutes the first, unstated, yet most important ideological conflict: the very definition of new enmity lines. This is why, despite routine criticisms, both in the US and abroad, of the Bush administration as incompetent, unprepared, generally luckluster — or even opportunistic, in its potential manipulation of the events to enhance US world hegemony — it at least seems to have understood immediately what are the real political stakes.
By simultaneously reconfiguring the September 11 events as “criminal acts” by a private group of people representing no one but themselves (thus exculpating Islam as a whole, while identifying and isolating the enemy as a few fundamentalist fanatics), but branding these same events as “war acts” (thus leaving open all options concerning possible types of responses), the US government has already succeeded unexpectedly in achieving three main objectives that it could not have achieved under normal circumstances. Since it sees itself engaged in a war, it has a right and a duty to mobilize; but since the enemy is only a criminal enterprise rooted nowhere in particular, but operating anywhere, the US need not bother, at least in the short run, with whatever happens to pass as international law concerning normal wars. President Bush has said as much in his various statements prefiguring intervention anywhere with whatever means necessary. What this means is: a) internationally, greater US world hegemony; b) domestically, a massive centralization of power; and c) operationally, considerably more space within which to pursue whatever course of action the US eventually chooses.
Thus, in rejecting outright the definition of the conflict as a “clash of civilizations” in favor of its more ambiguous formulation, the Bush administration has set the stage for pursuing ever more forcefully its traditional American foreign policy, by reserving for itself the right of intervention into any country without having to respect national sovereignty, while at the same time remaining unaccountable to anyone but its own well-mediatized domestic constituency. This rejection of the terrorists’ definition of the new enmity lines in sharp civilizational terms checkmates the American conservatives’ rush to condemn all Muslims — thus indirectly accepting the terrorists’ definition of the conflict. In isolating the perpetrators as pathological expressions of an anti-modern fundamentalism preventing the kind of economic rationalization (globalization) essential for the development of the Third World (but also conducive to an ever greater US economic hegemony), it also isolates domestic isolationists calling for a US international disengagement, or at least for a substantially diminished presence abroad — the kind of presence necessary to pursue essential economic interests such as unhindered access to foreign energy sources. Such a definition, of course, also checkmates criticisms from the Left concerning the “racist” character (i.e., the repression of other non-Western cultures) of whatever war is likely to be pursued, in Afghanistan or anywhere else. Yet, while in the short run the US government’s clever definition of the conflict in conveniently ambiguous terms succeeds in more ways than one in responding effectively to the crisis in terms of satisfying popular calls for immediate action, while also pursuing its political agenda concerning centralizing and legitimating its own power, it also leaves unsolved problems that threaten to precipitate even greater crises. The threat of a global civil war predicated along religious lines becomes increasingly real.
Despite the fact that whatever war or wars will be waged are likely to be “no contests,” with the US and its allies smashing whatever they will define as the enemy, everyday life is unlikely to return to “normal,” i.e., what it was prior to September 11. The misleading characterization of recent events as “war acts” dilutes the traditional concept of war, already muddled in the second half of the 20th century with the spread of partisan wars (or wars of liberation) from the kind of civilized conflict among legitimate enemies retaining their respective dignity and humanity — what Carl Schmitt identified as one of the highest achievements of Western civilization — to a clash between foes, understood as unworthy opponents with no redeeming value, who cannot just be defeated (and subsequently rehabilitated as was the case with Germany, Italy and Japan after WWII), but must be exterminated. Worse yet, the battleground is no longer localized but becomes spread everywhere, while the weapons employed are rather different from the traditional missiles, war-planes and ammunition. In the age of high tech, they become readily available to everyone and include everything, from disruption of communication networks, to the pollution of water supplies, to bio-chemical contamination of food and supplies.
Already, both the US and its allies as well as Bin Laden and al Qaeda have redefined the new enmity as obtaining between foes, rather than enemies. While the Bush Administration has taken great pains to identify as its foe only a very limited number of “terrorists” — already marked for eventual extermination — the Islamic fundamentalists seem to have a much greater group in mind: all of Western civilization. Their most extreme interpretation of Islam, true to the traditional medieval understanding of relations between believers and non-believers, brands all non-believers as foes — and this carries the lethal implication, already voiced by Bin Laden himself, that it is the sacred duty of believers to exterminate infidels everywhere, at every possible occasion, by whatever means (including personal self-destruction or martyrdom). This state of affairs creates an extremely dangerous predicament. Even if only a minute number of Muslims accept such a cataclysmic interpretation of the Koran, it terminally poisons relations between non-believers and all Muslims. Since, at least in the West, it is not immediately clear which Muslims are moderate and which are extremists — and determined extremists can always pass themselves off as moderates, as apparently was the case with those who crashed the planes into the WTC and the Pentagon — all Muslims end up embroiled in a dark cloud of suspicion. One can only surmise the general panic that would ensue in the US if one or two anonymous terrorists were to wrap their bodies in explosives, dress well, and blow themselves up in a crowd, as has been happening in Israel for quite some time.
This extremist civilizational stand-off, of course, is nothing new. It has been around since the crusades, or at least since the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 20th century, and has not had anything close to the apocalyptic consequences that it prefigures. Globalization, however, has changed all that. Thus, the very existence of even a very minute number of fundamentalist fanatics fighting a kind of post-modem jihad as phantom warriors, potentially invisible in the hyper-mobile global new world order, automatically imposes the radical fundamentalists’ reading of the new enmity lines — no matter how forcefully the US administration attempts to defend its alternative definition of the new state of affairs.
The upshot is that, no matter how much everyone — including most Muslims the West — emphasize the marginality of the radical fundamentalists in their midst, all Muslims end up potentially at risk, and the conflict tends to deteriorate precisely into the kind of clash of civilizations that all those in the West, steeped in a culture of tolerance and pluralism, desperately wish to avoid. Having shed the territorial rootedness typical not only of old nation-states, but also of traditional partisans or freedom-fighters (whose irregular military character had already rendered obsolete traditional rules of war such as the safeguarding of civilians, the humane treatment of prisoners of war, limitations concerning acceptable weapons, etc.), the new terrorists have already won one major ideological battle. By privatizing terrorism beyond the scope of any particular country, they have managed to generalize war beyond any particular battlefield, everywhere in the world. No matter how powerful the new anti-terrorist military alliance may be, there is very little it can do to reverse this dangerous predicament. Unless Muslims themselves decide to eradicate or otherwise deactivate the radical fundamentalists in their midst — and there is very little indication so far that such is the case — the die has been cast. The character of the new world order is going to be conditioned significantly by the terrorists’ choice: it may very well become much more difficult for a culture such as Islam to co-exist peacefully with others, despite the wishes of the overwhelming majority of its adherents. This can only mean the marginalization or even the ostracism of otherwise moderate Muslins in the West, and the disengagement of the West from the Muslim parts of the Third World — precisely those most in need of Western engagement in order to escape poverty through modernization and all the economic benefits that globalization can bring.
No matter how successful the current military operations against the alleged terrorists and their hosts may be, they can only result in phyrric victories if these contradictions of the new world order are not confronted, not only by Muslims themselves, but by the West as well, for which they present themselves in a different guise. Even if defeated in Afghanistan and everywhere in the Middle East, violent pre-modem reactions are likely to explode again elsewhere at any time, unless its causes are eradicated to the satisfaction of all, rather than just the winners. This is why, even if all of the chastising of fundamentalist Muslims will have had the desired results, it is still essential to understand the real sources of the new conflicts — no matter how successful the US will have been in fine-tuning its own definition of enmity and vanquishing its designated foes.
Despite all the postmodern mystifications written about “Orientalism,” the impenetrability of other cultures, or the difficulties involved in safegarding the “otherness” of the other, the problem with Islam turns out to be of a much more pedestrian nature. It is exactly the same one that Europe confronted a few centuries ago, when the bloody religious wars resulted in a stalemate prefiguring interminable conflicts. The eventual solution, unpalatable to practically all of the participants, but ultimately unavoidable, was the acknowledgment of the legitimacy of religious views other than one’s own, and the deployment of tolerance as a fundamental political principle. While it took a long time before it was accepted by all warring factions as a fundamental constitutive principle of modem society, rather than as merely a tactical maneuver to gain time until the balance of forces shifted in one’s favor, such a seemingly innocuous procedural move, in addition to its obvious positive impact, has also had devastating consequences for all the religions involved.
To the extent that all religions require belief in the absolute truth of their doctrines, they cannot accept the validity of other faiths without at the same time undermining their very foundations. The inevitable outcome of this state of affairs is secularization and the eventual delegitimation of all religions — or their degeneration into various voluntary associations with no binding norms and requiring only the most feeble of commitments. This is why Islamic fundamentalists, along with the fundamentalist branches of all other religions, consider modem society (especially the US) as lacking real values, superficial, and really committed only to consumerism and capitalist profit — despite the much higher rates of church attendance in the US as compared to most other countries, and the high percentage of people acknowledging adherence to various institutionalized religions. The absolutist character of religion allows for no competitors. When there is no alternative to accepting the legitimacy of all others in order to guarantee tolerance of one’s own, the absolutist aura is lost and all religions are forced to take a back seat to compulsory secular institutions.
So the stark choices confronting fundamentalists is either a pre-modern purity guaranteeing moral integrity, absolute values and a solid personal identity, or the acceptance of the validity of the other, the weakening of its doctrines, and eventual secularization. Tertium non datur. The second option is only possible if secular institutions are either already established or in the process of being established. Lacking such a framework — especially in places such as Afghanistan, where decades of war have destroyed practically all institutions — it becomes much easier for fundamentalism to pose as the only meaningful alternative and to take on the most extreme forms. If the secular path leads to a weakening of binding norms, the fading of traditions, and the eventual dissolution of strong pre-modern personality structures, the fundamentalist option exacts an even greater toll: the rejection of modernization, disengagement with the West, and perennial poverty.
Instrumentalized throughout the Cold War as pawns in a conflict in which most Third World countries — especially Afghanistan — had little or nothing at stake, the sudden collapse of the USSR not only left them in a state of strategic irrelevance but forced them to rely on the only cultural resources at their disposal. Under pathological geopolitical conditions, as have developed in the last few decades with the failure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem (largely because of the fundamentalists’ skill in manipulating both sides), the inability to conclude the Gulf War, and most of all the failure to reform the internal political framework of Arab countries, it is understandable how the Taliban and Bin Laden could take advantage of the general disintegration and cynicism to impose their own agendas. Bombing them out of existence, if at all possible by means of conventional warfare, solves nothing beyond satisfying the all-too-justifiable demand for justice by all those who have been directly or indirectly victimized.
Despite its detrimental implications, modernization is unavoidable. The real problem is how to avoid or minimize the kind of disruptions it precipitates, thus leaving as little space as possible for fundamentalist reactions to wreak havoc not only on an already devastated Third World, but as the September 11 events indicate, on the rest of the West as well, now inextricably embroiled within a new world order. Neither the initial Western “benign neglect” nor, after its failure, the military “massive retaliation” that follows it, help much here. A new approach is needed which, however, is going to be difficult to develop before the West comes to terms with how the paradox of modernization manifests itself within the a postmodern world that smugly assumes it has long since solved these problems.
Regardless of how misguided, ethnocentric, and dogmatic is the terrorists’ rejection of what the West celebrates as a neutral and universally-valid “modernity,” it betrays a weakness that Western liberal ideology, unable to break with the old Cold War Realpolitik, refuses to acknowledge. Consequently, it tends to occlude a viable understanding of the new political realities. It is the same weakness that Silvio Berlusconi carelessly exposed when he asserted what practically everyone in the West believes, but dares not say, i.e., the “superiority” of Western civilization. Regardless of the redundant character of the claim (after all, practically every culture regards itself as superior to all others), what this implies is the particularity of Western civilization in general and of modernity in particular — a particularity which, lacking any transcendental universal validity, has no normative import for other cultures and can only be extended through persuasion. The predominant modernist ideology pretends to pay lip service to this problem by advocating “multiculturalism,” but in fact all too often imposes its universalistic norms as inviolable absolutes on whichever culture seems to violate them. It is the same contradiction within Western culture that takes the form of “political correctness,” i.e., the transformation of seemingly procedural rules into binding substantial norms, which ultimately subvert any pluralistic order.
In the pretended universality they uncritically assume, modernity, liberalism and Western civilization in general, especially as exemplified by their most successful expression, American culture, present a lethal threat to all non-Western cultures, whose particularity is guaranteed while at the same time automatically demeaned as pre-modem and ipso facto inferior. Worse yet, in the case of American liberalism, which most forcefully seeks to guarantee the legitimacy of all particular cultures, turns out to be part and parcel of one particular culture, thus unable to stand above all others as a kind of universalistic umbrella. It is ultimately the product of a particular historical experience of a particular people: a secularized variant of the kind of Protestantism predominant at the time of the founding of the US. All of its main tenets, first and foremost “tolerance,” “diversity,” “heterogeneity,” “the primacy of written law,” “individualism,” “human rights,” etc., no matter how desirable they may seem, have no universal validity, are not binding on anyone other than those who explicitly subscribe to them, and can only be spread by persuasion, never imposed on those from other cultures whose practices seem to violate them. It so happens, however, that this particular culture, in articulating its particular values, provides the preconditions for a new pluralistic world order where conflicts are reconfigured as peaceful competition, and persuasion displaces coercion — even if all too often it turns out to be incapable of sustaining such a program and relapses into the kind of ethnocentrism typical of all fundamentalisms (its intransigence toward discrimination of any kind, the demonization of smokers, insistence of the primacy of the individual, etc.).
Obviously, there are no easy answers, and exactly how “brave” the new world order will remain depends on far too many variables, not all of which are within reach of the anti-terrorist alliance, redefined by the terrorists as the West sic et nunc. Beyond the tightening of security measures throughout the Western world, the unavoidable heightened suspicion of all Muslims as potential terrorists, the further centralization of power by all governments, and, worst of all, the increasing marginalization of a Third World in desperate need of Western assistance, it may be possible to displace Western universalism — its own variation on fundamentalism — with equally effective, but less coercive alternatives such as contractualism, federalism, skepticism, and above all, a great deal of more responsibility by those whose power seemingly exonerates them from having to come to terms with consequences of their earlier geopolitical strategies. The September 11 events have driven home the fact that, while the Cold War is really over, managing the new peace will require even more engagement to make sure that globalization does not deteriorate into more Western opportunism, cultural homogenization, and the instrumentalization of most of the world’s population to the imperatives of a capitalist accumulation that, as Marx foresaw, has long since ceased to make much sense. The alternative is collective paranoia, social hyper-militarization and a refragmentation of the world which is ultimately in no one’s interest.
[Telos; Summer 2001 Issue 120, p174, 12p]