Broken politics: from 9/11 to the present

Destruction of the once rebel-held Salaheddine neighborhood in the eastern Aleppo, Syria, January, 2017.
Hassan Ammar/Press Association. All rights reserved. The inauguration of President Trump, the separation
of the UK from the European Union, the rise of the populist right across the US
and Europe, and the political clamp down in Turkey imposed by President
Erdogan, are among countless signs that the postwar liberal order, established
after 1945, has begun to collapse.

The UN and EU were created to contain the
outward aggression and inward brutality of states and to establish an
overarching framework of international and regional law that made individual
states subject, in principle, to the standards and requirements of human
rights, responsible sovereignty and non-intervention. For nearly 70 years, these
institutions helped engender an open and relatively stable world order that
allowed the world economy to flourish, lifting many countries out of poverty,
changing the balance of world economic power and establishing a much more
plural and multipolar global system. 9/11 punctured the US sense of invulnerability, and unleashed
ill-thought-out violence across many parts of the world.

Yet, it also unleashed an untrammelled
globalization, new patterns of winners and losers, and new global challenges
that in the case of climate change pose existential threats. How did this
happen? What are the underlying trends? And where does this leave us today?
This essay reflects on these big questions. It begins by examining the legacy
of 9/11, which punctured the US sense of invulnerability, and unleashed
ill-thought-out violence across many parts of the world. 9/11 led to several
failed wars, enflaming an already disorganized Middle East and North Africa and
intensified huge global problems such as the spread of terrorism and forced
migration. The essay then moves to the consider globalization and its impact on
governance at many levels before it traces out the political pathways

9/11 and its aftermath

9/11 was both a crime against the United
States and a crime against humanity. Terrorism fuses the roles of judge, jury
and executioner in the merciless pursuit of self-proclaimed causes. Faced with
9/11, the US and its allies could have come together to defend what was under
outrageous attack: citizens from across the world, democracy, justice, and the
rule of law. But they did not. The war in Iraq in particular undermined international
law, weakened international institutions, and, along with the wars in
Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, eroded stability and peace throughout the Middle
East and elsewhere.

The post
9/11 wars were led by people that had no understanding of the countries they
were fighting in, no grasp of the culture or language, no sense of the politics
and the peoples, no account of local interests and divisions, and no plan for
once the fighting had stopped.

These wars
were led by men who, at best, were gripped by the belief they had the ability
to reshape and control other countries in their own image. In going to war in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda, in Iraq against
Saddam Hussein,  in Libya against Colonel
Gaddafi, and in Syria against Bashar al-Assad, the US and its allies entered
protracted conflicts, different as these have been, which disorganised states,
created vacuums, and opened up the spaces for armed groups and fanatical
extremists to thrive among the chaos. Despite each war failing, one after another,
the US and its allies appear to have learnt few lessons, and entered each war
as if nothing had been grasped about previous conflicts.

Of course, there was a great deal to deplore
about the autocratic regimes in these countries and the systematic abuse of
human rights that was all too typical in each one of them. This is well known
and amply documented. But outrage against these regimes is not enough to create
informed judgements about how to change such states and societies. The
transformation of countries is a very complex and difficult process. War is a
blunt and weak instrument to change regimes, and it rarely works. These wars
were led by men who, at best, were gripped by the belief they had the ability
to reshape and control other countries in their own image.

The exceptional conditions which shaped the
Second World War and after, which allowed the allies to occupy Germany and
Japan and begin a process of reform, enabled the long-term reconstruction of
these states and their democratic transformation. In contemporary
circumstances, where democratic societies are hesitant to commit troops and are
highly sensitive to the loss of national lives, on the one hand, and where
globalization links people across the world, highlighting the costs and
sacrifices involved in engagements of all kinds, on the other, these conditions
are simply absent.

The creation of democratic states is,
moreover, a long and arduous historical process, fraught with risk and uncertainty.
The history of the west alone highlights the difficulties of nation-building,
and of cultural change. Democracy took over three hundred years to reach its
modern form in Europe, and even then it was nearly derailed by the rise of fascism,
Nazism and Stalinism in the mid-twentieth century. The shift in people’s
identities from subjects to citizens, with equal rights and obligations in a
political community, and where victory or defeat at the polls are prospects
that have to be accepted, rests on intricate cultural processes.

Separating individual identity as a member of
a group, tribe, ethnic unit, or religious order from the culture and demands of
citizenship involves an arduous and historically difficult set of
transformations. The values and requirements of citizenship in a democracy come
to trump those of other forms of social and cultural identification, such that
being a member of a tribe or ethnic group is secondary to the rule of law and
constitutional demands. These delicate processes of change cannot be
short-circuited if democratic public life is to develop and prosper. And, yet,
this is exactly what the post-9/11 wars sought to do, and failed to do. The
most elementary understanding of democratic history would have warned western
political leaders and foreign policy makers against taking such a stance.

May meeting Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, January 27,2017. Stefan Rousseau/Press Association. All rights reserved.Minimum wisdom has shaped the post-9/11 era
with all the consequences we live with today. Broken states across the Middle
East, mass migration from and through warzones, the constant threat of
terrorism, the rise of xenophobia and nationalism, and the mounting
socio-economic challenges facing western states constitute the current period.
The one thing that all this should not be considered is a surprise. These
difficult and challenging problems were the inevitable result of misconceived
wars, and they plot the complex ramifications that have followed. One of the
latter has been damage to the idea of democracy. How could democracy be a
universal political ideal if it was used as one of the principle justifications
of the disastrous post 9/11 wars? How much damage was done to democracy by the
violent efforts to depose the Middle East autocrats in the name of democracy,
and by all the death and destruction that followed? Even if it is true, of
course, that the actual motives for the post 9/11 wars were mixed, including
the pursuit of terrorists in Afghanistan, oil in Iraq and Libya and domestic
electoral advantage in Libya and Syria, the idea of democracy and the pursuit
of human rights became embroiled in the war makers’ rhetoric.

Separating individual identity as a member of
a group, tribe, ethnic unit, or religious order from the culture and demands of
citizenship involves an arduous and historically difficult set of

The short-lived Arab Spring

Some of the consequences of this can be
traced throughout the Arab Spring. The uprisings that swept across the Middle
East in 2011 promised a political transformation as significant as that of 1989
– the velvet revolution that brought down the Soviet Union and its satellite
states.  The economic stagnation of the region, the
failures of corrupt and repressive regimes, conjoined with a disenchanted
youthful population wired together as never before, triggered a political
struggle few anticipated.

Yet, almost
from the outset, there was a lack of a common vision for the transformation of the
political regimes and the wider Middle East. The initial peaceful
demonstrations in Tunis and Cairo quickly gave way to a messy and uncertain
pathway of transition. A few years on the contagious revolutionary fervour
faded as successor regimes failed to deliver quick or lasting improvements in
living standards, quality of life and governance. Moreover, the brutal civil
war in Syria, the radicalisation of militia groups in Libya, and discrediting
of the Muslim Brotherhood as a governing alternative in Egypt all strengthened
the forces resisting change throughout the region. The removal of Mohammed
Morsi from the Egyptian Presidency in July 2013 and consequent reinstatement of
military-led rule encapsulated the stunning reversion to the status quo ante
in the Arab world’s most populous nation.

In 1989 the
movements of Central and Eastern Europe by and large shared an ambition to
topple their governments and replace them with western European forms of
democracy, the entrenchment of human rights and the benefits of consumer-led
economic growth. As the direction of travel was in western interests,
governments in Europe and North America wholeheartedly welcomed them. By
contrast, the signifier ‘democracy’ carried much more complex meaning in the Arab
world in 2011. This was because the west had propped up most of the Arab
autocrats, seemed to switch sides to support the peoples seeking change only in
the cynical last minutes, led a war against terrorism largely in the Arab world,
which was perceived by young Arabs across the Middle East as imperialism in yet
another manifestation. Against this background, democracy appeared all too
readily as a veil masking the shifting tide of western geopolitical
interests, propping up authoritarian leaders in the name of ‘stability,’
commercial and oil concerns, and support for Israel’s security. Democracy appeared… as a veil masking the shifting tide of western geopolitical
interests, propping up authoritarian leaders in the name of ‘stability,’
commercial and oil concerns, and support for Israel’s security.

The once rebel-held Ansari neighborhood in the eastern Aleppo, Syria, January, 2017.Hassan Ammar/Press Association. All rights reserved.The factors
underpinning the weakening of the Arab Spring and its subsequent usurpation by
anti-revolutionary forces from within and outside the Middle East were complex
and various. But the tainting of democracy by the post 9/11 wars was certainly
one of the disorganizing and disorienting forces of the movements for change. Who
gets what, when and why are no longer questions confined to particular state
silos, democratic or otherwise. The era we live in today is one of both
colossal promise and uncertainty. Why?  One
of the primary reasons is globalization, which has unsettled established
political relations, altered labour market conditions, created dense webs of
global economic interconnectedness, shifted the costs and benefits of established
social and economic policy, and formed new patterns of winners and losers.

Globalization and global governance

is not a new phenomenon; various forms of globalization have developed over time
from the spread of world religions and the rise of empires to the rebuilding of
the world economy after the Second World War. 
The extent, density and velocity of global interconnections today,
however, were given an enormous impetus by the digital revolution and the
advent of satellite communication. The epiphenomenon of these global shifts is the
instantaneous movement of information, which has made social media a feature of
everyday life across the world.

But deeper
shifts have occurred in the very way the world economy is organized making
possible 24 hour trading in world financial markets, the stretching of the
economic division of labour across the world, and the rapid movements of goods
and services. In short, we have entered a world of overlapping communities of
fate, where the fate and fortunes of countries have become increasingly
intertwined in all aspects of life, from the economy to security and the

today creates a world of remarkable opportunity and risk. Opportunity because a
global division of labour, world trade patterns, global communication
infrastructures, a rule based institutional order and a growing sense that action
is needed now on global challenges creates unparalleled prospects for
prosperity, development and peaceful coexistence. Risk because never before
have human communities been so densely connected allowing a crisis in one
place, whether economic or security driven, to ricochet across the world in
seconds. Hence, the era is one of significant promise and colossal
challenges.  At the same time, the knowledge humankind has developed is no
longer just an elite privilege; diffused and available on the internet
(accessible to over a third of the world’s population), the cognitive resources
of science and culture can be explored and exploited by a diversity of actors,
with benign or regressive intent. Available on the internet
(accessible to over a third of the world’s population), the cognitive resources
of science and culture can be explored by a diversity of actors,
with benign or regressive intent.

global challenges we face today cross many sectors of human life. But by and
large they are indicative of three core types of problems – those concerned
with sharing our planet (climate change, biodiversity and ecosystem losses,
water deficits), sustaining our life chances (poverty, conflict prevention,
global infectious diseases) and managing our rulebooks (nuclear proliferation,
toxic waste disposal, intellectual property rights, genetic research rules,
trade rules, finance and tax rules). In our increasingly interconnected world,
these global problems cannot be solved by any one nation-state acting alone.
They call for collective and collaborative action – something that the nations
of the world have not been good at, and which they need to be better at if
these pressing issues are to be adequately tackled.

recently, the west has, by and large, determined the rules of the game on the
global stage. During the last century, western countries presided over a shift
in world power – from control via territory to control via the creation of
governance structures created in the post 1945 era. From the United Nations and
the formation of the Bretton-Woods institutions to the Rio Declaration on the
environment and the creation of the World Trade Organization, international
agreements have invariably served to entrench a well-established international
power structure. The division of the globe into powerful nation-states, with
distinctive sets of geopolitical interests, and reflecting the international
power structure as it was understood in 1945, is still embedded in the articles
and statutes of leading intergovernmental organizations, such as the UN, the
IMF and the World Bank. Voting rights are distributed largely in relation to
individual financial contributions, and geo-economic strength is embedded and
integrated into decision-making procedures.

result has been susceptibility of the major international governmental organizations
(IGOs) to the agendas of the most powerful states, partiality in the enforcement
of their operations (or lack of them altogether), their continued dependency on
financial support from a few major states, and weaknesses in the policing of
global collective action problems. This was dominance based on a ‘club’ model
of global governance and legitimacy. Policy at the international level was
decided by a core set of powerful countries, above all the G1, G5 and G7, with
the rest largely excluded from the decision-making process. In our increasingly interconnected world,
these global problems cannot be solved by any one nation-state acting alone.

Shifting centre of economic gravity

however, that picture is changing. The trajectory of western dominance has come
to a clear halt with the shortcomings and failures of dominant elements of
western economic and security policy over the last three decades. The west can
no longer rule through power or example alone. 
At the same time, Asia is on the ascent. Over
the last half-century, East and Southeast Asia has more than doubled its share
of world GDP and increased per capita income at an average growth rate almost
2½ times that in the rest of the world. In the last two decades alone, emerging Asian
economies have experienced an average growth rate of almost eight per cent –
three times the rate in the rich world. In the 1980s, the Asian tigers – South
Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore – put themselves on the global economic
map; from the 1990s onwards, India and China, among others, began to grow at
unprecedented speed until, of course, China became the largest economy in the
world (measured by Purchasing Power Parity) and the second largest (in nominal

trend was given an enormous impetus by the financial crisis of 2008, which for
several years saw a collapse and subsequent stagnation of growth of much of the
west, while the Asian economies continue to grow at a rapid pace. These
developments have generated a significant shift in the centre of economic
gravity toward the East. In the nineteenth century, the world’s centre of
economic gravity lay somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. It is now shifting rapidly
eastwards, and by 2050 is predicted on current trends to fall between India and

trajectory of change is towards a multipolar world, where the west no longer
holds a premium on geopo­litical or economic power.  Moreover, different discourses and concepts
of governance have emerged to challenge the old western orthodoxy of
multilateralism and the post-war order. At the same time, complex global
processes, from the ecological to the financial, connect the fate of
communities to each other across the world in new ways, requiring effective,
accountable and inclusive problem-solving capacity. How this capacity can be
ensured is an altogether different matter.

large parts of the world were in ruins after the Second World War, the US and
its allies were able to create a new institutional architecture to help produce
a form of ‘governed globalization’. The UN system, the Bretton Woods
institutions, and many more agencies, despite being shaped by American
interests above all, put in place a rule-based international system that was
sufficiently peaceful, open, and liberal to allow the world economy to take off
once again.

What is
striking about this system is that, over time, it allowed new entrants to the
world economy, not just on liberal terms, but on their own. India and China,
along with other BRICS countries, are often understood to have been successful
because they adopted the liberal rule structures of the post-war international
economy. The mantra of the so-called Washington Consensus was that market
liberalization and global market integration are the key to prosperity, and
many economists have understood India and China’s success in these terms. But
the truth is that they managed their entrance into the world economy, only
liberalizing sectors once they were strong, only lowering tariffs selectively,
keeping hold of core investment decisions and maintaining managed currencies.

Of course,
the post-war liberal order was far from peaceful for everyone. The US and the
Soviet Union fought proxy wars across the world for nearly 50 years, and sought
to carve out their own distinctive spheres of political economic influence.
Nonetheless, the post-war institutional structures kept the Great Powers
talking to each other and, along with the threat of mutually-assured
destruction (MAD), created the conditions for a deepening of interdependence between
them and their allies. The nuclear stand-off of the Cold War paradoxically drew
world powers closer together as a way to mitigate the threat and ensure that
military posturing did not escalate into all-out nuclear confrontation. Thus,
despite all its complexities and risks, the post-Second World War era of
‘governed globalization’ contributed to relative peace and prosperity around
the world over several decades. While the economic record of the post-war
varies by countries and region, many experienced significant growth, and living
standards rose rapidly across several parts of the world. The
trajectory of change is towards a multipolar world.

Gridlock and multilateral politics

The post-war institutions created conditions
under which a multitude of actors could benefit from forming corporations,
investing abroad, developing global production chains, and engaging with a
plethora of other social and economic processes associated with globalization.
This is not to say that they were the only cause of the dynamic form of
globalization experienced over the last few decades. Changes in the nature of
global capitalism, including breakthroughs in transportation and information
technology, are obviously critical drivers of interdependence. Nonetheless, all
of these changes were allowed to thrive and develop because they took place in
a relatively open, peaceful, liberal, institutionalized world order. By
preventing World War Three and another Great Depression, the multilateral order
arguably did just as much for interdependence as digital communication,
satellite technology, and email.

These developments, however, have now
progressed to the point where it has altered our ability to engage in further global
cooperation. That is, economic and political shifts in large part attributable
to the successes of the post-war rule-based order are now amongst the factors
grinding that system into gridlock. As a result of the remarkable success of
global cooperation in the post-war order, human interconnectedness weighs much
more heavily on politics than it did in 1945, and the need for international
cooperation is marked. Yet the “supply” side of the equation, institutionalized
multilateral cooperation, is stalling. 
In areas such as nuclear proliferation, the explosion of small arms
sales, terrorism, failed states, global economic imbalances, financial market
instability, global poverty and inequality, biodiversity losses, water deficits
and climate change, multilateral and transnational cooperation is now
increasingly ineffective or threadbare. 
Gridlock is not unique to one issue domain, but appears to be becoming a
general feature of global governance: cooperation seems to be increasingly
difficult and deficient at precisely the time when it is extremely urgent. Gridlock is not unique to one issue domain, but appears to be becoming a
general feature of global governance.

There are
four reasons for this blockage, or four pathways to gridlock as they are called:
rising multipolarity, institutional inertia, harder problems, and institutional
fragmentation. Each pathway can be thought of as a growing trend that embodies
a specific mix of causal mechanisms. First, reaching agreement in complex
international negotiations is hampered by the rise of
new powers like India, China and Brazil, which means that a more diverse array
of interests have to be hammered into agreement for any global deal to be made.
On the one hand, multipolarity is a positive sign of development; on the other
hand, it can easily bring both more voices and interests to the table that are
hard to weave into coherent outcomes. Second, the institutions created 70 years
ago have proven difficult to change as established interests cling to outmoded
decision-making rules that fail to reflect current conditions. Third, the problems we are facing on a global scale
have grown more complex, penetrating deep into domestic policies and are often
extremely difficult to resolve. Fourth, in many
areas international institutions have proliferated with overlapping and
contradictory mandates, creating a confusing fragmentation of authority.

These trends combine in many sectors to make
successful cooperation at the global level extremely difficult to achieve. The
risks that follow from this are all too obvious. To manage the global economy,
prevent runaway environmental destruction, reign in nuclear proliferation, or
confront other global challenges, we must cooperate. But many of our tools for
global policy making are breaking down or inadequate – chiefly, state-to-state
negotiations over treaties and international institutions – at a time when our
fate and fortunes are acutely interwoven.  Signs of this today are everywhere: climate
change is still threatening all life as we know it, conflicts such as Syria
continue to run out of control, small arms sales proliferate despite all
efforts to contain them, migration has increased rapidly and is destabilising
many societies, and inequality threatens the fabric of social life across the
world.  While it is far from gloom and
doom in all respects, these are dangerous trends stemming from governance
structures that are no longer fit for purpose.

Politics at a crossroads

We are at
a crossroads. One road points to the inexorable rise of authoritarianism, while
another opens up a more hopeful cosmopolitan future. The path to
authoritarianism can be created by the dangerous drift in the world order, and
a search for decisive solutions from ‘strong man’ leaders faced with a world
that is seemingly out of control and where a retreat to the familiar (and away
from the Other) offers a tempting way forward.

Erdogan shakes hands with May in Ankara, Turkey, January 28, 2017.Depo Photos/ABACA/Press Association. All rights reserved. We see
such trends across many different kinds of countries, from Brexit Britain to
Trump’s America, Duarte’s Philippines, Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India, and
Erdogan’s Turkey. Of course,
we have been here before. The 1930s saw the rise of xenophobia and nationalism
in the context of prolonged and protracted economic strife, the lingering
impact of World War I, weak international institutions and a desperate search
for scapegoats. The 2010s has notable parallels: the protracted fallout of the
global financial crisis, ineffective regional and international institutions,
and a growing xenophobic discourse that places virtually all blame for every
problem on some form of Other.

But there
are alternative routes. To begin with, we have the option of recalling where
the pursuit of authoritarianism leads. The routes chosen in the 1930s all led
to calamity and destruction, and the rediscovery in the 1940s onwards of the
dangers of simply putting up the shutters, pursuing protectionism and denying
the equal dignity of each and all. The architects of the post-war era, who put
in place a re-invigorated law of war and the human rights regime, set down
elements of a universal constitutional order in which the principles of the
equal moral standing of each and every person, and the equal rights and duties
of each and all, became the bedrock of peace and stability.

Moreover, a
cosmopolitan model of politics and regulation can be found in some of the most
important achievements of law and institution building in the twentieth century. 
These developments set down a conception of rightful authority tied to human
rights and democratic values which can be entrenched in wide-ranging
settings.  In this perspective, political power is legitimate, if and only
if, it is democratic and upholds human rights.  In addition, the link
between territory, sovereignty and rightful authority is, in principle, broken
since rightful authority can be exercised in many spheres and at many levels,
local, subnational, national and supranational.  Accordingly, citizenship
can be envisaged, as it is already in the European Union, as equal membership
in the diverse, overlapping political communities which uphold common civic and
political values and standards.  Citizenship, thus conceived, is not built
on an exclusive membership of a single community but on a set of principles and
legal arrangements which link people together in the diverse communities which
significantly affect them. Accordingly, patriotism would be misunderstood
if it meant, as it all too often has done, ‘my country right or wrong’. 
Rather, it comes to mean loyalty to the standards and values of rightful
authority – to common civic and political principles, appropriately embedded. Patriotism… comes to mean loyalty to the standards and values of rightful
authority – to common civic and political principles, appropriately embedded.

developed, this conception of global politics envisages a multilayered and
multilevel polity, from cities to global associations, bound by common
framework of law, a framework of law anchored in democratic principles and
human rights. The state does not wither away in this conception; rather, it
becomes one element in the protection and maintenance of political authority,
democracy and human rights in the dense web of global forces and processes that
already shape our lives.  Perhaps more importantly still, it points to a
political order no longer exclusively anchored in raison d’état and
hegemonic state projects but in principles of global cooperation and cosmopolitan

The European Union in crisis

The European
Union today articulates some of these complex and contradictory trends. At its
core the EU can be characterized as a Kantian project: an attempt to create a
peaceful union of European states from the wreckage of the Second World War and
the orgy of violence that left Europe broken and exhausted, cooperating on all
transregional issues. This ideal remains fundamental to the European project
even though the reality is fraught with the compromises of geopolitics. The EU
has been through turbulent cycles of deepening and broadening – first the core
states, then Spain, Portugal, Greece, then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall,
membership was extended to central and eastern European states. But behind all
the turbulent transitions, European leaders like Chancellor Kohl were eager to
move forward the European ideal through the policy and practice of extending
and entrenching the Union as a multilevel polity combining elements of
supranational, national, regional and local governance.  

this ideal is increasingly compromised by a series of regional and global
challenges. The lingering impact of the global financial crisis on European
economic growth, the collapse of the Greek economy and its aftermath, the
unsettling impact of mass migration across Europe’s southern and eastern borders,
and terrorism which has struck in Paris, Nice and Brussels, are, among other
problems, testing the governance capacities of the Union itself.  The governance capacity of the Union has typically
been well adapted to a world of rising prosperity, which could accommodate key
interests and allow all boats to rise together.  Moreover, the European Union was strongly bound
together in the post-war years because of two crucial social and symbolic
experiences. The first of these was the Second World War and its legacy. The
second was the Cold War which gave Europe a marked sense of negative
integration. But when the Cold War came to an end and the threat of the Soviet
Union was over, the question arose: what would bind Europe in the future? In
the 1990s and early 2000s, faced with mounting economic and social
difficulties, the EU needed positive ideals and norms of integration, such as
commitments to social justice, sustainability and well-being, which were too
often either latent or absent. Perhaps the British decision to support Brexit
is the most obvious expression of this set of profound weaknesses and
difficulties. Perhaps the British decision to support Brexit
is the most obvious expression of this set of profound weaknesses and

Drone shots of Vagiohori refugee camp, Greece, January 11, 2017 in subzero temperatures.NurPhoto SIPA USA/Press Association. All rights reserved.Under these circumstances,
identity and distributional struggles typically intensify; mutual gain gives
way to zero-sum, and the social order risks fragmentation and sectional
struggle. It is not a surprise, accordingly, that the rise of the far right is a
sustained and troubling trend. From Nigel Farage and UKIP in the United
Kingdom, to Le Pen and the National Front in France, to Golden Dawn in Greece,
to Norbert Hofer in Austria, and to the Danish People’s Party in Denmark, this trend
is manifest across Europe. The retreat to nationalism and militant identity
politics is counter to the process of national accommodation that has
underpinned European peace since the end of the Second World War. It is as if all that was learnt in the wake
of Second World War and the Holocaust and Gulag risks being undone.
And yet, it would be false to assign all responsibility for the erosion of
accommodation to right wing politics. Exclusionary politics can, and does, come
from all sides of the political spectrum and has clear manifestations on the
far-left in Britain, France and Germany to name a few.

A future worth struggling for

The years
since 9/11 have cast a dark shadow over global politics in many respects. The
wars and crises of this period have put at risk the wisdom and achievements of
the architects of the post Second World War era: of the founders of the UN and
EU, of those who established and advanced the human rights regime, of the many
actors and agencies that have tried to mitigate climate change and other
environmental threats, and of those who have struggled to address poverty and
inequality across the world, among many other pressing issues. This remains a future worth struggling for.

But while these
wars and crises have put this all at risk, the achievements of the post-1945
era have not yet been undermined or damaged to the point of no return. The
future is still in our hands. Our forebears created stepping stones to a
universal constitutional order, and we can still walk across them and build on
them further. This remains a future worth struggling for.

At the same
time, we have to remember at all stages the lessons of the post-9/11 years,
lessons which are as pragmatic as they are normative. The approach to politics
and social transformation must, in all respects, be the opposite of the era of
minimum wisdom, minimum understanding of history and development, and the shoot
from the hip attempts to impose single models of government on different
peoples and cultures. 

It is still
important to be ambitious for change, yet it is equally important to be modest
in the means deployed. The use of force must always and everywhere be a last
resort and can only be a means to protect people if embedded in a
transformative plan that builds on the needs and aspirations of those who have
been subjected to brutal regimes, and who will have to live with the
consequences of intervention, soft or hard. We need to learn the languages of
others, by not simply grasping their words, but by understanding the deep
structure of meaning that is rooted in their traditions and ways of living. And
we need to be informed by an understanding of what is possible; that is, by an
understanding that culture changes according to its own rhythm and typically very
slowly, and that people’s identities are embedded in long traditions of
cultural development and only shift with the passage of time. The use of force must always and everywhere be a last

The other
side of the cosmopolitan commitment to the equal moral worth of every human
being, and to the equal freedom of each and all, is an acceptance of the plurality
of ways of living and a tolerance of this diversity in all its richness, with
one qualification – that pluralism does not undermine the boundaries of moral
and political equality. With this understanding, we can begin to move out of
the dark shadow of 9/11 and its aftermath and seek to establish a global order
that serves the many, and not the few. But it will not be easy. Every element
of this project needs rearticulation, renewed defense and a new generation of
activists and champions.


This essay examines some of the themes explored more fully in
David Held’s recent EBook, Global Politics after 9/11, published by
Global Policy and Wiley.

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