Assertiveness without content – that’s the 9/11 decade in a nutshell
Assertiveness without content – that’s the 9/11 decade in a nutshell
Trump, Biden and the Future of U.S. Multilateralism
Trump, Biden and the Future of U.S. Multilateralism
Op-Ed / Global 4 minutes

Assertiveness without content – that’s the 9/11 decade in a nutshell

The first political decade of the new millennium began in the fall of 2001 on American soil and ended in the spring of 2011 in North Africa and the Middle East. In the course of that decade, the rich world became increasingly afraid – first of terrorism, then of financial insecurity – while the poor, countries and people, became increasingly assertive and hopeful.

This is, of course, a broad generalization. The people of Somalia are neither assertive nor hopeful. Neither is the government of Somalia, which doesn’t even exist. China continues to depict itself as either poor or powerful, as convenient, while the so-called emerging powers have yet to fully express the direction in which they will exert their economic and political might, individually and collectively.

This political decade already has a distinctive personality. If nothing else, it will have been a transitional decade. There has been, for a long time, a debilitating institutional fatigue. International organizations, from the United Nations to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, are receding in visibility and influence as regional and multinational organizations – whether the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Arab League or the G20 – emerge sporadically to occupy centre stage.

Bureaucracies are tired and uninspired, which is not surprising since the decade has also yielded a desert of personal leadership.

Presidential regimes, particularly in Africa but also in Afghanistan and in Venezuela, for example, favour the personalization of power and encourage personality cults and cronyism; the overall mediocrity of leadership is stunning. This was made strikingly apparent at the two extremes: The overwhelming repudiation of the likes of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Gadhafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh said a lot about them personally, just as the political glow of Barack Obama during his presidential campaign spoke as much about him as about his message.

But more than anything else, the millennium that started with Sept. 11 is, so far, one of assertiveness without content. Osama bin Laden never made clear what kind of caliphate he wished to install in Manhattan, let alone worldwide. Even the Arab Spring, perhaps the loudest political outcry of the decade, has yet to convey a coherent vision of its future.

It is as though ideas have been the unintended casualties of the receding relevance of political ideology. In democratic systems, policies are dictated by opinion polls and electoral prospects. In authoritarian ones, the survival techniques are different, but the objective is the same.

Ideas asserted as universal have come under unprecedented repudiation.

Not only have dictatorial regimes continued to violate blatantly fundamental human rights, but Western governments turned their back on the many civil and political rights they purported to champion. From extraordinary renditions to incommunicado detentions, universal norms themselves came under attack, shockingly so in the public debate questioning the absolute prohibition of torture.

Governments argued that in fighting terrorism, the old rules of war, particularly those regarding limiting civilian casualties, needed to be bent or even ignored. Those strategies of convenience were resorted to in many conflicts, as we saw in Sri Lanka for example, where indiscriminate shelling at the end of the civil war in 2009 led to tens of thousands of civilians killed.

Western liberalism was a Sept. 11 target; not all of it was mobilized in response. A decade later, its currency is diminished, even among those whose revolutions the West supports. Actually, even in the West itself, alongside the growth of fringe radical groups, an uncertain political centre struggles with the dictates of pluralism, of feminism, of economic liberalism and of the viability of its leadership in the world.

In international affairs, some new ideas have emerged, notably in the effort to address the tension between human and state security. Yet, even here, this is still a decade of transition. While the development of a clear framework for international intervention by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty – which coincidentally finished its work in September, 2001 – was welcomed by UN member states, the establishment of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine as an international norm will depend on its consistent application.

The Security Council was willfully blind to it when it turned its back on the slaughter on the beaches of Sri Lanka, viewed by many as a successful chapter in the “War on Terror.” It rushed to it in the case of Libya, authorizing outside military force to protect civilians, only to see some of its members crying foul as air support for the rebellion intensified, as though it had never occurred to them that civilian protection in the face of a murderous regime had to include regime change. Their misunderstanding could be forgiven, however, since those using their mandate to effect the overthrow of Colonel Gadhafi were denying to the end that they were doing so.

Nationally, regionally and internationally, this first decade of the new millennium leaves us on the cusp of change. Short on leaders and ideas, threatened by loud, radical but small fringe groups, organized religions as well as organized secular institutions must soon find their new modern face.

Outpaced by sophisticated technology, burdened by inequities and injustices, we have yet to invent a 21st century fit for all of us. We cannot eliminate conflict, large or small, domestic or international. But we can reduce, dramatically, deadly conflict by addressing its causes, anticipating its flare-ups, and intervening with alternatives to war.

We must accept the inevitability of some armed conflict. In those cases, we must continue to promote the framework of humanitarianism reflected in the Hague and Geneva conventions, and the promise of justice contained in the Treaty of Rome. Unless someone comes up with a better idea.

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