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"Beyond Conflicting Powers' Politics"
Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira, Economics, Getulio Vargas Foundation, Brazil

"Theorizing Islam"
Richard W. Bulliet, History, Columbia University

"Some Thoughts Subsequent to September 11th"
Bruce Cumings, History, University of Chicago

"After September 11th: Chances for a Left Foreign Policy"
Dick Howard, Philosophy, SUNY at Stonybrook

"Global Executioner: Scales of Terror"
Neil Smith, Anthropology and Geography, City University of New York

"The End of the Unipolar Moment: September 11 and the Future of World Order"
Steve Smith, Political Science, University of Wales, Aberystwyth

"Living with the Hegemon: European Dilemmas"
William Wallace, International Relations, London School of Economics

"The Attack on Humanity: Conflict and Management"
William Zartman, International Relations, Johns Hopkins University

see also...

"U.S. Foreign Economic Policy After September 11th"
Barry Eichengreen

"The Globalization of Informal Violence, Theories of World Politics, and 'the Liberalism of Fear'"
Robert O. Keohane

"On War and Peace-Building: Unfinished Legacy of the 1990s"
Susan Woodward




Terrorism and
Democratic Virtues

Competing Narratives

New War?

Building Peace


The End of the Unipolar Moment:
September 11 and the Future of World Order
Steve Smith, Professor and Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University, University of Wales, Aberystwyth

The events of September 11 mark the end of a period in international relations, a period known as the unipolar moment, when the US was the sole superpower, and debate raged over what kind of world order and power structure would characterise and then emerge from this moment. Contrary to many of the main interpretations, the likely effects of the September 11 terrorist bombings will be to usher in an era where US foreign policy is more multilateral than before, an era that indicates both the essential interconnectedness of world politics and the fact that the US can neither act as world policeman nor retreat into isolationism.

The end of the Cold War brought to an end a period of international bipolarity and since then academics, journalists and policy-makers have tried to work out exactly what kind of power structure would replace it. There were two main views: first that the United States would withdraw from international entanglements since there was no longer any great enemy, no global cause to structure US foreign policy, nor any clear reason for the US to continue to spend so much money acting as world policeman. Add to this the changing nature of US internal politics, and specifically the shifts within its ethnic mix, and one clear possibility was for the US to reduce its commitments to its old alliances, notably towards Europe where the development of the European Union implied to some the possibility of a united European defence and foreign policy effort that did not require US involvement. The second, and opposite, view was that the US would be able to influence world politics like never before: it was a unipolar moment, in which the US was the world's only remaining superpower. According to this view, no one power or group of powers could challenge US hegemony for the foreseeable future. And, of course, there were those who saw some kind of self-interested combination of these two positions being the likely outcome, with the US pulling back from international commitments that were not seen as central to its interests while aggressively pursuing other interests through its overwhelming economic, political, cultural and military power.

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These views found expression in a number of extremely influential articles and books, chief amongst them Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1993).  Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs McWorld (1996) and Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (1992). My concern in this brief paper is to look at how the events of September 11 affect these popular conceptions of future world order. Of the three views the one that has, since September 11, received the most attention is Huntington's notion of the clash of civilizations. At first it seems to have much to recommend, certainly over Fukuyama's more optimistic notion of the end of history, and a future world order dominated by a growing liberal zone of peace. Certainly Fukuyama seems to have been far too ethnocentric when he asked whether 'it makes sense for us once again to speak of a coherent and directional History of mankind that will eventually lead the greater part of humanity to liberal democracy? The answer I arrive at is yes' (1992, p xii). The motivations of those involved in the terrorist attacks on September 11 could hardly have been further from this liberal ideal. Fukuyama's reliance on the twin mechanisms of economic development and the struggle for personal recognition to push the world towards liberalism seem irrelevant to the concerns not just of those involved in the attacks but to a far more extensive part of humanity, which as I write is currently opposing military action against Afghanistan. They are not part of the liberal project; indeed, it is precisely this project that they oppose, not least because of the kinds of Islamic regimes that liberalism promotes and supports. In this light, attacking Bin Laden was exactly what he wanted since it would open up exactly this split between modernising and traditional Islam, thereby radicalising Muslim opinion and (hopefully in his view) leading to the overthrow of pro-Western, pro-modernising Islamic regimes. No amount of economic development and no amount of personal recognition under liberalism can alter this view since it is liberalism and modernisation themselves that are the enemies.

Click here for Barber's "Jihad vs. McWorld" in the Atlantic Monthly, 1992.

Click here for an interview with Huntington in The New York Times on October 20, 2001.

See also essays on this site by Luis Rubio, Tariq Modood, and Robert Hefner addressing the Huntington thesis.


Huntington's argument has been referred to constantly since September 11, and of course there is a sort of common-sense reason for this. At first sight the current crisis can seem as if it is one between civilizations, and of course in his book he discussed at length the conflict between the Western and Muslim worlds as being a main fault lines for future war. Huntington sees two possible future world orders. The first is a major inter-civilizational war 'most likely involving Muslims on one side and non-Muslims on the other' (1996, p 312); the second, which he prefers, is for the US (and other core civilizational states) to abstain from involvement in conflicts in other civilizations, and to negotiate amongst each other so as to contain wars at the fault lines between civilizations. My overwhelming worry about Huntington's argument follows from my view that the social world is something that we constitute by our theories, and it is that Huntington's language is self-fulfilling since the analysis creates exactly the kinds of identities and ultimately the very foreign policy mindsets that bring such world orders into existence. Thankfully, neither of Huntington's alternatives seems to have guided US policy since September 11. On the one hand, the US has found out that it is unavoidably involved in the Muslim world, and that staying out of the politics of far-away places is not an option. On the other hand, the Bush administration has said loudly and repeatedly that this is not a clash between the West and Islam, that it is not a clash of civilizations; indeed the main weakness in Huntington's thesis is that neither states nor civilizations are anything like as united and monolithic as his account logically requires. The current conflict pits members of the same civilization against one another, in both the Muslim and the non-Muslim worlds.

Barber's portrayal of the future world order seems most in accord with the world order that is most likely to emerge from the current crisis. Barber sees a world in which two forms of international order coexist: the first 'rooted in race holds out the grim prospect of a retribalization of large swaths of humankind …in which culture is pitted against culture…a Jihad…against modernity itself'. The second is 'a busy portrait of onrushing economic, technological, and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity…one McWorld tied together by communications, information, entertainment, and commerce' (1996, p 4). It is exactly this duality that has characterised the response to the events of September 11. Take as one example the question of proving Bin Laden's guilt: most Western observers believe that the evidence leads to Bin Laden and to Al Qaeda, yet large parts of the world's populations do not accept the evidence, and critically, there may be no information that would lead them to accept his guilt. Thus just as there are clear globalizing trends in world politics and economics, so there remain (and may even be strengthening) sets of cultural lenses that undermine and literally prevent the emergence of common global norms.

What, then, are likely to be the main implications of the events of September 11 for future world order? There are three main ones; first, the United States has abruptly ended its brief experiment with unilateralism. For the initial eight months of the new Bush administration, observers in many parts of the world worried that the US was simply not interested in developing multilateral responses to world problems, with the US withdrawal from the Kyoto agreement the most high profile example of this trend. After September 11, the United States has spent considerable time building exactly the kind of multilateral response that it had previously eschewed. The terrorist attacks brought home in the most awful way the fact that although the US may not be interested in what happens in far away places, those far away places are interested in it. This indicates that the future world order will be marked by a far more active US foreign policy than seemed likely on September 10. Not only that, but the clear interconnectedness between the security of citizens in the US and events in areas such as the Middle East mean that the US leadership is more likely to see a need to try and solve some of the most intractable problems in the world. The key test will be the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and as I write this US-Israeli relations are said to be at their lowest ebb for many years. In other words, the current crisis will increase the political will of the US leadership to act to resolve exactly the same problems that only a few weeks ago it seemed content to ignore.

The second implication is related to the first, and it is that the US will emerge stronger, and will thus be in more of a position to influence world events. This is not just because the US will considerably increase its military and intelligence expenditure, but also because of the ability of the US to impose leadership on allies under the theme of a war on terrorism. In that sense, fighting terrorism becomes the new 'grand cause' underlying US foreign policy, and such a cause assists in the creation and unification of alliances. In other words the US will be in a stronger position to provide leadership in world politics.

The third implication is that the events of September 11 shatter the key assumption of many proponents of globalization that the conveyor belt of economic development and the spread of liberal democracy were in some way inevitable, irreversible and universal.

The main political problem facing US leaders is how to steer a path between these three features of the current and future world order. The danger is that the impulse to eradicate terrorism, and thereby make the US safer from attack, could run counter to the need for the US to develop multinational coalitions. Specifically, if the views expressed by Donald Rumsfeld concerning widening the war to deal with other terrorist groups (for example in Iraq) win the day, then it is impossible to think of the coalition holding together. According to Richard Perle (in a television interview on BBC on 8 October) the US did not need any coalition to win the war against terrorism, and he said that he would rather the US act alone than be held back by the requirement to hold the coalition together. In this sense the military task may be far easier to achieve than the political one. If it transpires that the war has either led to significant civilian casualties and/or is extended to countries other than Afghanistan, then it is difficult to see the coalition surviving. Similarly, it is imperative that the US can present this war as one against a specific terrorist group. It must do all it can to prevent it being characterised as a war against Islam, which could usher in exactly the kind of clash of civilizations that Bin Laden explicitly said he wanted in his video released on the day the attacks commenced. Failure on either of these two grounds would significantly undermine US security and would lead to the construction of a world order that would make the achievement of US foreign policy goals more difficult.

Finally, I want to return to the literature of my academic specialisation, International Relations. I have spent a lot of the last twenty years working on the nature of agency and social action, both in its philosophy of social science context, and in terms of its policy implications. Contrary to the dominant tendency in the US International Relations, which remains committed to treating international (and all social) structures in such a way as to downplay agency, I remain convinced of the role of human agency. I think the ways in which the international coalition has been so carefully constructed reaffirms the importance of diplomacy. States are not actors, humans are; interests clearly influence behavior but they have to be mediated through identity; and discourse and language are crucially important in constructing identity and framing interests. That is why the future of world order depends on the choices our leaders make and the values we think they should promote. World orders always reflect dominant values, are always partial and may well hinder the search for global justice and peace. They are not given, they are not natural - they reflect our conscious or unconscious choices. That is how domestic and international debates interact, and is why an informed, questioning and diverse civil society is essential to the debate now more than ever.

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