"Conflict With Terrorism Called War of Future," read the headline in Sunday's New York Times, and that's certainly the message that administration officials, from the president on down, were conveying this week.
But is it really terrorism with which we're in conflict? That's like saying the Cold War was a conflict the West waged against missiles, tanks and the threat of nuclear attack. Terrorism is a means, not an end, much less a full-blown "ism" in the sense that communism and fascism are "isms." The "war of the future" is more accurately a war between the modernity of liberal capitalism and the anti-modern, anti-liberal (but not necessarily anti-capitalist: Osama bin Laden is a businessman, remember) wing of pan-Islamic fundamentalism. It is primarily a cultural, economic and political conflict. At the margins, it is a conflict between terrorism and counter-terrorism.
But conflicts aren't decided at the margins, and terrorism tends to stop or wane only when the larger cultural and political questions have been resolved. The terrorist left in Europe stood down only when it could no longer sustain any left apocalyptic/utopian vision. The PLO renounced terror partly in response to an Israeli peace movement - and then to Labor governments - that slowly came to recognize the Palestinian claims for national self-determination. Just over the past week, in Northern Ireland, two terrorist Republican groups announced they were laying down their bombs in response to the mass condemnation of the Omagh bombing by Catholics as well as Protestants (and, most especially, by Gerry Adams of the nationalist Sinn Fein).
The U.S. is no stranger to cultural civil war, though if you relied on journalism for your knowledge of American history, you'd think domestic cultural conflict began in the '60s. In fact, our real cultural civil war peaked in the '20s, when the nativist, Protestant and rural backlash against immigrants, Catholics and cities was at its apogee, when radio and movies first undermined the authority of church and home, and when the Klan - the terrorist wing of anti-modernity - was so large and powerful that the 1924 Democratic National Convention could not bring itself to pass a motion repudiating it. The backlashers had one signal victory: the effective outlawing of immigration in 1924. Over the next decade, however, Protestants and Catholics were thrown together in the New Deal coalition, cities grew fat as farm families deserted the countryside, and radio and movies continued to erode tradition and promote modernity even in the hinterlands (hence the famous 1934 Variety headline "Sticks Nix Hick Pics"). The Klan, as a mass organization, did not outlive the '20s.
Does that mean that the only proper response for the West is to wait out the next several decades of terrorism until modernity finally engulfs such bastions of rural idiocy as Taliban Afghanistan? Not unless you think the proper response to the Klan would have been to shun attempts to bust it up in hopes that it would one day pass. The coalition funded by Osama bin Laden, after all, is something like a latter-day, high-tech transnational Klan - committed to restoring the purity of the homeland and driving out the infidels by forms of violence the Klan never had at its disposal. Like the Klan, it's a voluntary organization, not a nation in which the West can hope to woo the dissident moderates. Any group with a name like the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, the coalition that bin Laden's followers proclaimed this May in Pakistan, isn't likely to succumb to an attempt to split off the anti-Semites from the anti-Crusaders. Retaliatory attacks against such murderous kleagles - once we're damn sure the people we've targeted really are such murderous kleagles - and proactive attacks on their weapons are clearly justifiable.
And of no more than secondary importance to the outcome of this "war of the future."
At first glance, the cause for which bin Laden openly proselytizes - the restoration of absolutist, fundamentalist governments and societies to the nations of the Islamic world - would seem one with a limited appeal to its primary audience, the anti-American young people of the Middle East, sickened by the corruption of their governments and the poverty of their countrymen. The nations that come closest to bin Laden's notion of theocratic purity, after all, are the nations that gave him refuge - Afghanistan and the Sudan, the ultimate backwaters of Islam, the poorest nations in the Muslim world, the commanding heights of zilch.
And yet there were demonstrations throughout the cities of the Middle East in protest of the American air strikes, though the farthest thing from most demonstrators' minds was to call down a Taliban theocracy upon their own nation. On the contrary, the issue for many of the demonstrators is that they rightly see the U.S. as blocking the development of the very antithesis of a Taliban society - an Arab secular (and even somewhat pluralistic) democracy. The name of that fledgling and imperfect democracy is Palestine. And by refusing (until, possibly, very recently) to pressure the Netanyahu government to accept its last-ditch compromise to save the Oslo Accords - the hand-over of 13 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, a niggling offer the Palestinians nonetheless accepted - the Clinton administration has greatly diminished the prospects for secular moderation across the Middle East (not least in Israel itself). If there is no peace process, no tangible gain to be realized through negotiation and conciliation, the preachers of apocalyptic fantasy are the ones who gain credence. ("We fed the heart on fantasy," Yeats wrote of Ireland during its civil war. "The heart grew brutal on the fare.")
As it stands, our policy in the region seems to be to try to stamp out terrorism on the back end, and create on the front end an atmosphere where, at least for some - and it only takes one - terrorism seems as effectual an option as any.
When all is said and done, though, the battle between the liberal capitalist order and the fundamentalism of the Islamic world is a sideshow. American liberal capitalism is careening across the globe today, destabilizing nations and societies far more modern and democratic than bin Laden's theocracies, and in some instances, more modern and dem- ocratic than our own.
For the truly historic event of the past couple of years is that the American model of social and economic relations has rolled over Eastern Asia and Western Europe, plunging one continent into crisis and forcing another to abandon systems of social solidarity that were the envy of the world. Corporate paternalism was an integral part of both the Japanese and Korean miracles, but global capital prefers nations where companies fire their workers with no compunction. Social-democratic innovations like health insurance, child-rearing subsidies and paid vacations were an integral part of the prosperity and social harmony of postwar Western Europe, but global (and even Western European) capital prefers to build its new factories in lands where workers come cheaper. What global capital preaches are the virtues of the American way - the post-New Deal, post-big government, de-unionized American way: Abolish regulations and worker protections, keep your costs and wages down, let the market take its course.
What infuriates the nations of East Asia is that they took our advice, and are now paying for it. After Korea and Taiwan and Singapore had exported their way to prosperity, Indonesia and Malaysia and Thailand tried to do the same - at our prompting, with our backing. There was a limit, though, to the number of new auto and steel and tire factories the world market could absorb, particularly since these nations had no internal markets of their own. They had kept wages down, as we suggested, so they could export cheaply. Only there weren't enough consumers in the developed world to buy all that stuff, and as a result of their wage policies, there weren't enough within their borders either.
America has also been the chief apostle of what we rather disarmingly call the "free trade in ideas" - which means the domination of the world's airwaves, movie screens and stereos by American images and American sounds. (As anyone who follows our politics or keeps up with our academic output can attest, this isn't really a peak moment for American ideas.) This unprecedented standardization of culture, with the Rupert Murdochs of the world setting the standard, is a matter of concern not just to Islamists, of course; it vexes Parisian intellectuals, Canadian filmmakers, avant-gardists, traditionalists, defenders of indigenous cultures, and unsuspecting parents alike. Apparently indifferent to the building backlash, the U.S. government routinely insists upon promoting and protecting this "intellectual property" in all our trade agreements - even as growing numbers of Americans voice their own displeasure with the cultural product we so avidly export.
If free trade in goods and ideas hasn't provided the salvation that our trading partners desire, free trade in currency now threatens to bring down the entire global economy. The currency-speculation industry has converted countries to commodities. Indonesia looks corrupt? Dump the currency, demand austerity. (Never mind that you've wiped out the middle class in the world's fourth largest nation.) Oil prices down? Sell Russia (dump your rubles), and while you're at it, Venezuela (your bolivars) and Mexico (your pesos). The past week alone has seen a run on these nations, and on sounder economies such as Brazil's and Hong Kong's and even Canada's, with speculators everywhere dumping these nations' currencies in favor of the dollar. There is a global flight to quality. We're quality.
This, then, is the American moment. No nation - not Japan, not Germany - can hold out, not only against our cultural domination, but also against the marketization of relations, the dollars-and-cents calculus we profess to prefer. And yet, if savings are wiped out everywhere but here, if stock prices plunge everywhere but on Wall Street, we cannot long remain an island of prosperity in a sea of recession. Not even America can afford the American model. Thus the Treasury Department has openly implored China - which uniquely does not have a convertible currency open to speculation - to resist the pressure to devalue. Free trade is the theory we espouse, right up until it threatens to topple everyone's else purchasing power - and, eventually, our own.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The war of the future, then, may not be confined to mopping up pockets of fundamentalist resistance. The ruined middle class of Southeast Asia is even now in the streets denouncing American economics. What rough beast is slouching toward Moscow this week is anybody's guess, but Russia's experience with market economics seems to have killed off any democratic impulses its people may once have entertained. If nations such as these fall under extreme nationalist control, they have means far more terrible than terrorism with which to register their discontent.
We did not have to remake the world in this deregulated capitalist image. In fact, we remade the world far more sturdily half a century ago. As World War II drew to a close, Roosevelt administration economists, negotiating with Britain's John Maynard Keynes, established the Bretton Woods accords, which set fixed exchange rates for currencies. With some infringement on the rights of speculators, they created a climate of postwar stability where nations could recover, and promote unions and decent wages and social insurance without fear of capital flight and runs on their currencies. Bretton Woods held sway from 1944 through 1971, during which time both the U.S. and the countries of Western Europe became the first majority middle-class nations in history. We have not attempted to re-regulate the global economy since, and today we cock an ear to the currency exchanges, listening for some distant crash, hoping it does not sound like it is coming closer.
The sense of social balance embodied in Bretton Woods is a dim memory now, and over the past half-decade, it has been a remarkably lopsided ideology that we've been commending to - and imposing on - the world. Liberal capitalism certainly promotes economic dynamism, though, as any Indonesian will tell you, this is not the same thing as prosperity. It also subverts social solidarity - not just the brutal traditionalism of the Taliban gunmen, but the democratic egalitarianism of the Swedish social dem-ocrats. Indeed, here at home, the moral hollowness at the core of contemporary American culture is widely decried by left, right and center, even as contemporary American culture insinuates itself onto every Web site and TV screen in the world.
The war of the future between America and fundamentalist terror, whatever it may become, is not the final conflict. A social order premised chiefly on market relations will create more fundamental conflicts of its own. Our real struggle does not lie at capitalism's periphery; it lies at capitalism's core.