If it is true, as so many pundits rushed to tell us after the events of September 11, 2001, that everything is different, all is changed, and nothing will ever again be the same, then it follows that the study of history is unlikely to provide any guidance as we navigate our suddenly more uncertain future. But, of course, it is not true. The essential structure of contemporary international politics has not changed, and neither has human nature. That said, there are more and less intelligent ways to engage historical knowledge in service to the present.
The historical analogy most commonly heard after September 1--between the attacks of that sad day and the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor--is worse than useless. It is not just superficial but misleading. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise first blow in what the Japanese government knew would be a conventional war about power and territory. It was informed not at all by the strategy of terrorism, a strategy in which the weak attempt to goad their target into counterproductive reaction. The only thing that the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have in common is that both were directed against the United States.
There is another historical analogy, however, of far greater utility, as long as in using it we know the history cited well and, even more important, that we value differences as well as similarities between past and present circumstances. After all, knowledge of history can never tell us exactly what to think or do in a given situation, it only offers a richer reservoir of possibilities to think about. That more useful analogy is to the events of June-July 1914, the beginning of the Great War.
Three lessons emerge from reasoning by historical analogy from the early summer of 1914 to the late summer of 2001. The first is that a great power must avoid giving terrorists the war they want, but that the great power does not want. The second is that a great power must reckon the effects of its actions not only on its immediate circumstances, but with regard to the larger structure of international politics in which it clearly has a significant stake. The third is that a great power must beware the risks of victory as well as the dangers of defeat. If it is not careful and wise, the United States could find itself enmeshed even deeper in the Middle East and Southwest Asia than it is today, and risk generating greater prospective dangers in the process of containing smaller near-term ones.
After sketching the logic of the analogy between July 1914 and September 2001, I will pass lightly over the first two of these lessons but dwell more on the third. Let me say only before pressing on that the analysis presented here is (by temperament, not ideological formulae) a conservative one, and yet it is most likely to challenge--and perhaps even to annoy--those who think of themselves as conservatives. That this is so may bear another kind of lesson for us to ponder.
The easiest way to present the analogy between what happened in June-July 1914 to the events of September 11, 2001 is simply to describe what happened roughly 88 years ago in language germane to what happened about three months ago.
The 1914 crisis and war resulted directly and immediately from a terrorist action: the assassination in Sarajevo, Bosnia (then part of Austria-Hungary) of the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a group of terrorists, mostly Bosnian students, led by Gavrilo Princip. A widespread network of organizations, agencies and governments was connected directly or indirectly to this conspiracy. In varying degrees of involvement and complicity, these included: secret revolutionary organizations both within the Habsburg Monarchy and in Serbia; the Serbian military intelligence apparatus led by Col. Dragutin Dimitrijevic, which trained, supported, and armed these terrorists; the Serbian government headed by Nikola Pasic, who knew something about all this but chose to remain officially ignorant; the nationalist organization in Serbia promoting pan-Serbism and its goal of Greater Serbia, now aimed principally at the destruction of the Habsburg Monarchy and at the Serbian annexation of large tracts of its territories; the Serbian press, parliament, and political public that supported this radical ideology; and the Russian government, which supported Serbia as part of a policy of isolating and paralyzing Austria-Hungary, and whose minister to Serbia actively encouraged anti-Austrian irredentism and subversive-revolutionary activity until his death just before the assassination.
The Austro-Hungarian government knew a good deal about this, though not all the details. It considered the assassination the final outrage in a series of Serbian provocations and attacks directed against the monarchy; believed that the heart of the conspiracy lay in Belgrade; was convinced by experience that combating Serbian state-sponsored terrorism and subversion by means other than military force would prove useless because the Serbian government never kept its promises; and therefore concluded that Austria-Hungary's existence as a great power required a direct attack that would, as the phrase went, eliminate Serbia as a political factor in the Balkans.
Yet one cannot simply link the whole terrorist-subversive conspiracy directly to Austria's action and thus to the war. For though several organizations and individuals were complicit to some degree in this terrorist act, the only ones directly responsible for deciding on it and carrying it out were Gavrilo Princip and his small group of co-terrorists. None of the others ordered it, knew precisely about it, or wanted it to happen. Indeed, though others complicit in the act also hated the Habsburg Monarchy, they opposed making war against it at that particular time. Many anticipated the monarchy's downfall with approval, but a gradual downfall caused by internal dissolution was what most had in mind and were working to promote. Some argued and hoped that such a process would not promote an international war but help prevent one. Princip and his fellow conspirators, however, consciously intended to promote an international war through their deed. Princip said during his wartime imprisonment that he had wanted a war because if Serbia won, then Greater Serbia would be achieved; and if it lost, then Austria-Hungary would annex the Kingdom of Serbia--in which case all the Serbs would be united, even though under hated foreign rule. Princip's act was therefore directed also against his own fellow revolutionaries and sympathizers; it was intended to force them to do what they were as yet unwilling to do--"follow the ideology of pan-Serbism and the slogan of "Union or Death"--to its logical, mad conclusion.
Finally, the crowning irony in this ghastly scenario is this: though Princip deliberately tried to start a great war, his terrorist action, which succeeded only by luck, could not in itself produce that war. Only Austria-Hungary could do that by its response, and it did. Yet of all the participants great and small in the 1914 crisis, none more deeply and genuinely feared a great war than the government of Austria-Hungary, or had better reasons to do so. Time and again previously (1904-05, 1908-09, 1912-13) it had considered the war option and rejected it, even when the chances for military victory looked good. One can show that in July 1914, too, though it undoubtedly wanted and aimed for a local war against Serbia, its larger aim was general peace. Its forlorn hope was that Russia would accept a punishment of Serbia for the sake of ending the terrorist-revolutionary threat to all thrones, including Russia's, and that then Austria and Russia could settle their other differences (above all the Ruthenian question) and restore both good relations and the old Dreikaiserbund (the "Three Emperors' League") as well.
In other words, the terrorists whose action triggered the great war wanted a war but could not start it by themselves; those who helped them prepare the action did not want the war but were to varying degrees dragged into it; and the terrorists' worst enemy, which had the greatest reasons to avoid war, supplied the war the terrorists wanted.
Anyone can see the parallels suggested here, however imperfect they may be. Bin Laden is Princip, and the countries that abet Al-Qaeda's terrorism compose the conspiracy. Only bin Laden and his chief lieutenants plotted and knew about the attacks of September 11 in advance, not the Taliban leadership or the leadership of any other state or sympathetic Muslim group, particularly Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Only bin Laden wanted to touch off a war involving the United States; other fundamentalist groups, the Taliban, the Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, Sudanese and Libyan governments surely did not. The U.S. government knew plenty about bin Laden and the network of state support for his activities; it had been attacked by bin Laden before, the World Trade Center had been a target, it knew of the existence of Al-Qaeda cells in the United States, and airline hijackings have long been part of the terrorist repertoire--and yet it did little to prevent the terrorist act, which led it in turn to fight a war that it would otherwise not have sought.
But if the analogy is easy to follow, at least in its broad stripes, anyone can also see that it is nonsense to imply that the two situations are exactly alike and that the present one could lead to World War III. 1914 and 2001 are entirely different. Austria-Hungary was weak, almost isolated, surrounded by enemies and opponents, internally divided, and therefore prone to commit a suicidal blunder. Europe was then a tinderbox, locked in hostile alliances and bitter rivalries and caught in a spiraling arms race. The United States today is extremely powerful, surrounded by allies and friends, internally united, and in an ideal position to take strong rational action in its own and the worldâ€™s long-range interests. The world is relatively calm, with no hostile alliances or serious great power crises and enmities. Almost every other important government agrees with the American stand against terrorism and wants to support it. They recognize that international terrorism menaces all decent states and societies, and that the current sophisticated, far-flung, fanatical variety is to the crude, primitive organizations and actions of 1914 what atomic warfare is to tribal banditry. Thus, any notion that the United States might provoke another world conflict by declaring war on terrorismâ€"or rather, by recognizing a war that certain terrorists have declared on it and othersâ€"is silly.
Do Not Help Your Enemy
But that is not the point. The point is, if one grants the analogy for the sake of widening our intellectual framework, that there is much to learn about our choice of tactics. Some reflection on this analogy may enable us to see what has happened and what we have done and are doing in response to it in a different light.
So then grant, for argument's sake, that Al-Qaeda planned and organized the September 11 attack independently of the wishes and control of the organizations, movements, and governments, including the Taliban and the isi, which were in some ways complicit with them, and that this terrorist action was intended among other things to drag them into bin Laden's fanatical campaign. Grant that he wanted a war against the United States while they did not, and also that the actions he took, terrible though they were, could not by themselves achieve his goal of war with the United States, because his organization not only could not declare war as a regular state could, but at first dared not even openly acknowledge the deed. Grant then that he could thus only hope to gain his goal of a great war between the United States and the Muslim world, overthrowing in the process those corrupt governments that supposedly had betrayed Islam by collaborating with the West, if the U.S. government helped by declaring war on him and his cause in response. Grant finally, in the spirit of "know thine enemy", a certain consistency and rationale to this line of reasoning and course of action.
Could this not suggest some questions about the tactics, if not the basic strategy, of the American government's response to this attack from the first moment? That response was to declare immediately that these acts of terrorism were acts of war against the United States, and to answer with a public, solemn, dramatic declaration of war on terrorism, a mobilization for it, a commitment to total victory as the only thinkable outcome, and the demand for total support for this "crusade" (a remarkable, if subsequently retracted, choice of words by President Bush) from every ally, friend, neutral, and even opponent, at the risk of facing the "full wrath" of the United States (Vice President Cheney's phrase) if they declined.
Now, granted that the terrorist action was unquestionably an attack upon the United States as a nation, rather than merely on certain individuals or particular authorities; granted that the deed and its perpetrators deserve the execration universally heaped on them; granted that the American government, for fully understandable and justifiable reasons of domestic politics, international policy and normal human sensibilities, had to respond quickly and strongly to the attack; granted that any appropriate response had to include the use of military force. Yet even granting all this, one should also recognize that this response, even if forced upon us by circumstances, may have given the terrorists just what they wanted but could not achieve on their own: an international stature as a formidable enemy of the United States and the Western world that their actual deeds and power do not deserve, and the open wider war they want. If, as seems clear, they are fanatical ideologues and criminals but not fools or madmen in any clinical sense, and show a high degree of purposive rationality in pursuit of their goal, the safest assumption is that they anticipated and desired this reaction from the United States. Their willingness to make martyrs of themselves for their cause should tell us that they also are ready to make unwilling martyrs of many thousands of their fellow believers and countrymen as well by getting the United States and its allies to come after them with military force. This is a standard tactic for terrorist and guerrilla fighters: provoke an enemy into bloody reprisals so as to destroy the vital center and force everyone to choose between them and the national or religious enemy. It was Gavrilo Princip's calculation, and he was far less clever than these terrorists.
The first reflection to be gained from this parallel and from general historical experience is this: "Try not to give your worst enemies what they want but cannot achieve without your help; or, if you cannot help doing so, at least be aware of the danger and try to limit it." In retrospect, it might have been wiser to treat the attack from the outset as a horrible criminal action (which it also was) that had to be answered by a major international police action against the criminals (which the current operation also is), but without declaring war on terrorism and thereby giving an inflated importance to both the threat and the perpetrators. Many countries have had to combat long-term terrorist threats and campaigns more dangerous to their security than this one is to ours without declaring a general war on terrorism as a phenomenon and on all terrorists in general. This latter, more limited tactic may work better, in any case, on behalf of the goal of separating terrorists from whatever base they may enjoy among the general populace.
To be sure, as the first wave of shock and anger has subsided, so has--somewhat at least--the "all-out war for a total victory over international terrorism" rhetoric. The administration now seems clearly aware of this danger and is working to narrow the target of its operations to specific terrorist organizations, or at least to put its targets in a sober sequential order for a methodical and protracted campaign. Its consistent effort not to make the conflict a war against Islam or against the Arab world is also very commendable, but given the nature of Middle Eastern cultures it may also be futile. In any event, the big questions are, can this narrower and more patient strategy be effectively pursued without expanding inadvertently into a wider war and, even if it can, will the American public understand and accept the limits this must place on both the kinds of operations undertaken and the kind of victory possible? Not everyone will agree with this point of view, but few among us will argue that it is not worth thinking about.
Mind the Structural Impact
A question that has long puzzled historians is why the Austro-Hungarian government in 1914 made the apparently irrational choice it did (as is often said) of committing suicide out of fear of death, trying to survive by risking a war almost certain to kill it. The answer is simple: the monarchy did not commit suicide out of fear of death but out of fear of the hangman.
Throughout its long existence as a great power the Habsburg Monarchy had never been strong and secure enough to meet the many threats confronting it on its own. It had always relied on the support of allies and, increasingly in the 19th century, on the international system. That system was composed of the rules, practices, institutions and procedures developed over centuries and culminating in the great power Concert of Europe, and the Habsburg Monarchy used it to help protect its interests and to manage the crises and threats it faced through joint international legal, diplomatic, and military-political measures short of war. By 1914, however, and before the assassination at Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary's leaders had concluded that for purposes of protecting the monarchy's vital interests and existence as a great power, this system was worse than useless--that it was no longer part of the solution but part of the problem. No matter what the monarchy did, the system and its procedures were being used effectively by its many opponents to paralyze and isolate it until it succumbed--so, anyway, the Habsburg elite believed. Hence Austria-Hungary's only option, with the support of its ally Germany, was to break with this system and to act decisively and unilaterally in order to restore its great power position and independence, even at the high risk of a general war. Its hope was that after the monarchy had proved its ability to act decisively, and had regained the respect of Europe, the old system might be restored. This analysis of its situation was, in my view, essentially correct, though it does not necessarily justify the policy Vienna chose in reaction to it.
Obviously, America's situation at the beginning of the terrorist crisis was vastly different in almost every respect. The United States entered the month of September 2001 as easily the most powerful country in the world, united, enjoying unmatched prestige, boasting a vast array of allies and friends, and facing no major threat either internationally or internally except (putatively) that of terrorism--in every way the reverse of Austria-Hungary's position. Nevertheless, in one vital aspect the American government's response to the September 11 attack was like the Austro-Hungarian government's response to Sarajevo--a decision for war that ran against the grain of the expected rules and procedures of the international system.
Austria-Hungary chose war out of despair and the exhaustion of alternatives, convinced that there was nothing else to do because the existing international system was broken, offering it no good alternatives. The United States at the outset chose war out of confidence, but knowing at the same time that trying to handle the crisis through the existing international system in the normal ways (the UN, NATO, other allies, and normal international pressure and coercive diplomacy such as has been applied in the Balkans) might defuse the crisis without solving the real problem. It might, for example, make the Taliban regime expel Osama bin Laden and close some terrorist bases, which, while preserving the general peace, would only alleviate terrorism temporarily without getting at its deeper and wider roots. This would not satisfy the U.S. government or the enraged American public, and would waste an opportunity for a more radical solution to the terrorist problem along American lines. Thus, for different reasons, Austria-Hungary and the United States both saw the business-as-usual parameters of the international system as a hindrance.
Now, many observers would defend U.S. policy precisely on these grounds. But the point to be understood here is that the American choice of war as a first resort does collide with the rules of the reigning international system, which calls for meeting international threats and crises--including those involving revolutionary, subversive, or terrorist attacks by the subjects or citizens of one country on another--not by the old lex talionis but through international action. That action, which can include legal, moral, diplomatic, political, and, where necessary, military pressure, is supposed to prevent a crisis from escalating into war and, wherever possible, to bring about a solution acceptable to all parties with legitimate stakes in the dispute.
This is not just a practice developed since the end of the Cold War or since 1945, but a further evolution of practices and rules developed over centuries and already normative in the 19th century. A recent book by German scholars, for example, shows that 33 instances in which great power conflicts loomed in Europe between 1862 and 1914 were de-escalated and controlled by these means, most often under the aegis of the European Concert.2 Austria-Hungary's action in 1914, though understandable given its perceptions, unquestionably broke with this tradition.
In our present case, the immediate declaration of war on terrorism may have been more a matter of imprudent rhetoric in the heat of the moment than a carefully calculated decision, and the remarkably successful efforts to build an international coalition in support of American action may constitute in effect an American return to the normal rules. Even the administration's insistence upon reserving its right to act unilaterally does not disprove this interpretation, for that could also be a normal bargaining ploy to recruit allies and keep them up to the mark. (By the same token, the apparently spontaneous rallying to the American cause by so many countries may be in part a normal device to control American action so as to prevent the United States from running amok.) But two points, both easily supported by much history, stand out and need to be taken seriously.
The lesser of these points concerns the integrity of the coalition we are building, which to some degree reflects the integrity and utility of the international system itself. The real struggle going on within the administration and in the press between hawks and moderates is whether the United States' assuming that it succeeds with the help of the international coalition in achieving its more immediate goals of ousting the Taliban regime and destroying the Al-Qaeda networkâ€"will go beyond these goals, which are widely supported and agreed on by our allies and associates. Clearly, pursuing the punishment or overthrow of other governments such as Iraq, Syria and Iran in order to get at the supposed roots of international terrorism is a course that even close allies and friends have indicated they would not support, and which may be depended upon to break up the coalition.
Second and of more direct importance, whichever course the United States follows will affect not just the future of the terrorist threat or American leadership and prestige in the world, but also the future of the international system. Success in a minimalist campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, even had it required a considerably greater use of military force, would still have strengthened the existing international system, giving it added prestige and a new vital function. Even an indecisive outcome or relative failure would not necessarily have hurt it. On the other hand, even a successful campaign of the maximalist type directed against other supposed terrorist-supporting states could do major damage to the international system by turning it back to unilateralism and the use of pre-emptive force. A failed campaign would discredit both the United States and the system with it.
Admittedly, it is hard for many people, particularly realists, to get excited over the fate of so abstract and nebulous a thing as the international system, especially under the impact of dramatic events such as those of September 11. And it is true that no international system is foolproof or adequate to meet every challenge; obviously the international system prevented neither World War I nor II. But the present international system is no more abstract, really, than the physical environment or the rules and practices that constitute our civil society, and in its way no less necessary for purposes of international peace and stability. If the comparison between 1914 and 2001 makes us think more deeply about the long-range impact of what we do on the international system and its rules, then so much the better.
Getting What You Wish For
There is one final way in which the 1914/2001 comparison can help us think about the September events. Put colloquially, it is this: "Look for some key element or elements in the whole situation that those involved in the discussion and decisions are not thinking or talking about, either because they are genuinely unaware of them or because they choose to ignore them."
In 1914 that ignored element can be identified precisely. European international politics in the decade before 1914 concentrated intensively on a number of interlocking questions--how to avoid a war if possible, but prepare to fight it victoriously if it came; how to shore up the various alliances; how to protect one's own state interests and prestige; how to capitalize on opportunities for gains and relative advantage; and finally, especially in the Balkans, how to prevent local conflicts and wars from erupting into a great power war that would almost certainly become general. These questions were important, but two even more important questions were never seriously discussed, much less taken up and treatedâ€"though everyone knew about them. They were, first, how to manage or solve the Austro-Serbian conflict and, second, what to do about the decline and (many thought) the impending collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
This sounds incredible, I know. From 1908 and the Bosnian Crisis through the Balkan Wars to the outbreak of war in 1914, the Balkans were for most of the time the center and obvious flashpoint of European politics, and Austro-Serbian relations and the general problem of Austria's putative weakness and instability were obviously key elements in them. Yet the statement is nonetheless true. All the Concert diplomacy of that era focused not on doing something to solve or alleviate the basic Austro-Serbian problem (that is, the problem of a small state's repeatedly challenging and provoking a neighboring great power with impunity under the protection of another great power), but only on how to keep the Austro-Serbian conflict from erupting into general war.
The same remarkable myopia prevailed in regard to the oft-predicted demise of the Habsburg Monarchy. Everyone in the chanceries talked about this possibility secretly. Many in the parliaments and press did so openly. But the one thing one cannot find is any serious discussion, much less action, among responsible statesmen to prepare for the inevitable repercussions of such a huge upheaval in the European system. Those officials and diplomats from different countries (there were a few) who warned that Europe needed to pay serious attention to this eventuality and its consequences got nowhere with their own governments. The attitude in St. Petersburg, Rome, Paris, London and (even until early 1914) Berlin, was that this was Vienna's problem.
Historians often fail to sniff out things that are important because they are not there but ought to be. They are so trained to concentrate on hard evidence that they tend to act by the motto, Quod non est in actis non est in mundo ("whatever is not in the documents does not exist in the world"). If the foregoing analysis is right, however, World War I resulted less from what the great powers thought and did than from what they failed to think or do. They failed to address the two problems that, left to fester unattended, were almost bound to lead to war. Historians have debated whether Serbian grievances against Austria-Hungary and vice versa were justified, and devoted even more debate to the question of whether the monarchy in 1914 was staggering toward a deserved demise, or was instead a fairly decent, modernizing state that could have soldiered on indefinitely, managing its insoluble problems without succumbing to them. Both debates miss the point. It does not matter how justified or unjustified Serbiaâ€™s grievances and claims were, or how sacred its pan-Serb cause. One simply cannot allow a small power to get away with repeated challenges and provocations to a great power neighbor without inviting a violent reaction sooner or later.
It matters still less whether Austria-Hungary deserved to die or not. So central and indispensable a member of the international community, especially in the extremely tense rivalry of the early 20th century, could not conceivably disappear without bringing a great war in its wake, and it was almost bound to decide to fight rather than to die peacefully. The remarkable insouciance of the European powers on the Austrian problem persisted throughout the war and after; the Allies fought the war against Germany, the foe and threat they mainly feared, to defeat it and reduce its power but keep it intact, while in practical terms they fought it to destroy Austria-Hungary, which was not considered a serious menace. It was this latter outcome, far more than the treatment of Germany in the Versailles Treaty, that contributed most to the chaos of the interwar era and to the origins of World War II.
Happily, this kind of wilful absent-mindedness does not prevail in the United States now. The media reflect a lively debate both in official circles and among the educated public over the potential side effects of the war on terrorism-fears about the possible destabilization of fragile regimes in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, for example. The discussion over how to carry on the war and how far to pursue the roots of terrorism includes a heated debate on whether the United States should change its policy in the Middle East and elsewhere (vis-a-vis Iraq and Israel/Palestine, for example) in order to decrease the widespread resentment that allegedly feeds terrorism.
These are important issues, but they concentrate on how this campaign can best be waged with a minimum of undesired secondary effects: they still miss deeper aspects that need to be recognized and considered. Two of these aspects concern what happens if we win. Put differently, they raise the question of whether and how we can sustain the victory and manage its wider effects. The first concerns the provenance of government, and the second the vicissitudes of hegemony.
As to the former, suppose a military campaign against the Taliban leading to its overthrow. Can we or anyone provide stable government for Afghanistan, or do we leave it and its neighbors, some of them almost equally fragile states, to deal with the mess? The scenario becomes far worse if we include other states targeted for their alleged support of terrorism, such as Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya. What does this region and the wider world do without governments in those states that, although brutal, are stable?
Some people seem to think that states and their governments are somehow fungible, replaceable--that if one is destroyed or overthrown, another can take its place--and that if the state or government overthrown was evil and dangerous, anything that replaces it will be better. Historical experience by and large teaches otherwise. Only in a few instances (Hitler's regime in Germany, Stalin's in Russia, for example) can we confidently say that anything that could have replaced them would have been better. The normal experience is the reverse. Things get worse, at least for a good while, before they get better. Many in World War I thought Imperial Germany was as evil and dangerous as a German government could get. Twenty years later they learned otherwise. Frenchmen in 1789 thought their monarchy was an oppressive regime. In four years they had the Terror. The monarchies of Europe thought the French Jacobin Republic and Directory as aggressive and dangerous as France could become, and welcomed Napoleon's seizure of power. They soon knew better. Nationalists in Eastern Europe and many in the West believed that the downfall of Austria-Hungary would enable the nationalities questions of the region to be solved. These are now mostly solved (except in the Balkans), but only after twenty years of instability and internecine conflict leading to the greatest war in history and to two of the worst instances of imperialism in history, German and Soviet, lasting two generations and attended by massive episodes of genocide, forced shifts of populations, and catastrophic general destruction.
One thing, then, to remember throughout this crisis is that states are not fungible, easily replaceable or dispensable. There have to be powerful grounds for overthrowing any regime effectively governing a state, and a clear idea of how to replace it. This crisis is itself a striking refutation of the current talk among historians and political scientists about the alleged decline and obsolescence of the state and the takeover of its sovereignty and administrative functions by international and supranational organizations, non-governmental entities, multinational corporations, and other transnational groups and movements. When this attack came, the American people rallied overwhelmingly behind their government and expected it to act, not any of these other entities. And when the American government sought support abroad for its campaign it also looked to other governments.
It has become clear, moreover, that if this campaign against terrorism in general is to succeed in the long run, it will require strong, effective governments in control of many states where such governments do not now exist. One factor contributing to World War I was the fact that the Serbian government was not in effective control over its military officers. A major concern now is that a wider conflict could arise for the same reason in Pakistan. Part of the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian question is the lack of effective government in the areas ruled by the Palestinian Authority and the extreme difficulty of creating it. Something of the same holds for the whole region and itself contributes to breeding terrorism.
This, like much else said here (and as suggested at the outset), is a highly conservative stance. But, under current circumstances, it is likely to arouse the most ire among certain conservatives because it does not satisfy the American demand for justice and fails to get at the root of the problem of terrorism. The short answer to both objections is that in international affairs order takes priority over justice, and that a determination to get at the root of an evil and destroy it is the precise definition of radicalism, not conservatism.
The Vicissitudes of Hegemony
ONE MORE question needs thinking about, inappropriate and distracting though it must seem amid a military campaign. Suppose that we win, by which is meant the end of Osama bin Laden, the disruption or destruction of his terrorist network, the closing of the training camps, the replacement of the Taliban regime with something at least less driven by Islamist ideology, and the cowing or replacement of other regimes who have encouraged or aided in the promotion of terrorism. Suppose, too, that victory thus defined means at least a temporary cessation of terrorist activity, so that American and other armed forces beyond those normally in the region can be brought home. Suppose, finally, that all this is accomplished with few American and allied losses, no great damage to the American economy beyond the frailty already in train before September 11, and only minimal overt destabilization of other regimes in the region. What would this achieve in the longer run?
In domestic politics, it would doubtless be a great boost for President Bush and possibly for the Republican Party. In world politics, it would produce a great near-term gain in prestige for the United States, cementing its leadership, further heightening its prestige, and making its pre-eminence in the region and in the world even greater and more unchallenged than before. But would that be a good, stable outcome? Would an even greater degree of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and the world represent a long-term gain for any of the parties?
One prominent theory of international politics, neo-realism, holds that hegemony is inherently unstable because weaker states almost automatically coalesce against an actual or potential hegemon as a threat to their security and thus restore the balance of power. This theory is wrong; sometimes a hegemonic power touches off efforts at counterbalancing, but it can be demonstrated that the main response of smaller powers to actual or potential hegemons has been not to balance against them, but to join them or to try to hide from them. Two other generalizations about hegemony and hegemons are true, however, and have much to say about the stability and desirability even of a hegemony so apparently unobjectionable as that which would be produced by an American victory over terrorism.
First, hegemony does not only or even mainly bring security, power and glory, but difficulty, responsibility and burden. The hegemon may or may not have to defend his leading position against challenges, but he surely will have to deal with all the quarrels into which he is drawn by virtue of being hegemon, to fend off all the demands and pleas for help from those who join his camp hoping to take advantage of it, to provide a disproportionate share of the security for threatened allies, and above all to husband the military force necessary to keep the peace in the last resort and to use that force when, but only when, really necessary.
Second, in order to be stable, any hegemony has at least to be perceived as natural, invulnerable and tolerable, if not wholly benign. It has to be natural in the sense that the hegemon is seen as belonging where it is as a leader and therefore somehow legitimate; invulnerable not in the sense that no blow can be struck against it, but that no blow will really hurt or overthrow it, and that the consequences will be worse for those who strike it; tolerable or benign in the sense that at least some who live under its hegemony feel that they benefit from it and that others, even if uncomfortable, still feel that they have room to move and air to breathe. These requirements are inescapably vague in the abstract, but they can be applied historically; when they are applied they explain why some hegemonies have proved remarkably stable and durable (that of the United States in the Western Hemisphere, that of Britain on the seas and in the colonial world from about 1750 to the early 20th century; that of the United States in Western and now Eastern Europe since 1945), while others that for a time represented overwhelming power (the Spanish Habsburgs in the 16th and early 17th centuries, that of Louis XIV's France, Napoleon's, Hitler's, that of the Soviet Union) crumbled fairly quickly and disastrously.
The question Americans need to ask themselves now, while this campaign is still in its early stages, is whether, if and when it is victorious, the American hegemony that it will inevitably further promote in the world, and especially in the Middle East, will be natural, invulnerable, and tolerable or benign--and therefore desirable and sustainable--or not. That question must arise; indeed, it is asked already, and bound up with our understanding of the terrorist attacks. There has been endless talk about why these terrorists attacked the United States, and why so many Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere evidently hate us. Do they hate and target us for what we have done, our alleged sins; or for what we are, our alleged values and virtues?
The President and evidently the majority of Americans come down solidly on the latter side, yet this conclusion misses the most obvious and central point: The terrorists attacked us here because we are there. Yes, they undoubtedly hate us for what we are and for all the values we consider best, but they would not attack us and would not enjoy the sympathy of others in the region for doing so if there were not a powerful American influence and presence in that region that is felt by many as alien, oppressive and corrupting. No one can suppose that the attack was intended somehow to convert Americans from their way of life to that of Islam. It is because these terrorists and their sympathizers see their way of life being corroded and eaten away by secular Western values and customs that we are under attack. They see America at the head of this corrosion, with most Arab and Muslim governments fecklessly collaborating with it. They see this corrosive power and influence exemplified spectacularly in such exercise s as Desert Storm and less spectacularly in innumerable links between American and Western business interests and corporations and Arab and Muslim countries. They see it daily confirmed in an ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which, no matter how even-handed the United States tries to be, it is always seen as supporting Israel. The attack comes in the form of terrorism because they have no other more effective means of reprisal.
This is not in any way a defense of the terrorists or an excuse for their attack, and it does not alter what we need to do in response to it, except perhaps at the diplomatic margins. It is solely an attempt to understand the meaning of the widespread Arab-Muslim reaction to U.S. power, and to see it as one more indication of what ought to be obvious on the face of things: an American hegemony in this region--at least a direct, intrusive, overt and coercive one--is not and cannot be natural. This is a region where local states are too weak to effectively counterbalance against U.S. hegemony, but where cultural and historical cleavages reduce their propensity to join with it, as well. The obvious truth is that we do not belong there in the same way as we belong in the Western Hemisphere, the Atlantic, central and eastern Europe, and the Pacific. Yet a victory in this war against terrorism will unfailingly commit us to an even more direct and intrusive hegemony than before. All the support we are getting from the various governments in the region comes, we may be sure, with price tags and strings attached and explicit or implicit IOU's extracted that will soon be called in. We can already see what these are in respect to Russia (Chechnya), Pakistan (Kashmir, foreign debts, its nuclear arms) and other states. The full total will only become clear with time, but that they will commit us willy-nilly to more active intervention in the region's politics is unmistakable. Even more obvious and important, if victory against terrorism means preventing its recurrence, we will have to stay openly in the region in a major way both politically and with armed forces, interfering in its politics and putting constant pressures on its governments, for an indefinite future.
Such an intensified hegemony would not only be more unnatural than our present one, but also more vulnerable. In that sense it would play again into the hands of our worst enemies. One of the objects of the terrorist attack was to prove that the United States was not invulnerable--that it could be hurt even by small, relatively weak groups of dedicated fighters. The reaction of most Americans to the attack has played into their hands. By endlessly rehearsing the magnitude of the loss, labeling it a national tragedy, disaster, and even catastrophe, by hyperventilating in denouncing the action and demanding vengeance, and by panicking at the fear of still more attacks, we have encouraged the terrorists to believe that the United States really can be badly hurt by actions like these.
In fact, the opposite is true, and should constantly be emphasized. This was a monstrous crime and an individual tragedy of the deepest kind for many thousand of victims and their survivors, a genuine though less direct tragedy for all their friends and for all the businesses and employees more or less directly affected, a blow especially to all New Yorkers and a shock to all Americans--it was all these things and more. But it was not a national tragedy, much less a national disaster or catastrophe. On the scale of real national disasters and catastrophes in the world over the last fifty years it would not rank in the top hundred. It was a sneak punch for which we were surprisingly unprepared, but which had the effect of waking us up and making us stronger and more alert than before.
The attack does not prove that the United States is vulnerable and insecure as a nation and a world power until terrorism is destroyed. It simply adds to the existing proofs of two obvious propositions: that the whole Middle East, a region vital to our interests and even more to those of our best and strongest allies and friends, is vulnerable to crises spawned by such attacks, and that our leading position is thereby indirectly threatened; and that American hegemony in this region is not seen by many who live in it as tolerable or benign. It does not matter if this is unfair, the result of malicious anti-American propaganda and a grave distortion of the facts. Nor does it matter in the long run (though it certainly does in the immediate crisis) that we have most governments on our side and that any enemy governments are temporarily lying low. In the longer run hegemonies that are not at least accepted as tolerable by the majority of the public in the countries living under the hegemony do not last. If this is true in general, it is even truer for the era of mass politics since the mid-19th century.
This suggests that the wisest course for the United States might be to declare victory at the earliest possible moment and go part way home--that is, to use a victory and the heightened prestige it will bring to reduce rather than expand our hegemonic role in this particular region. We might be well advised to try to devolve the leading roles in managing and controlling its problems upon others nearer to it, more naturally and historically tied to it, and having even more critical interests in its stability--a more mature European Union, perhaps. Doing this would not be easy, and it may not even be practically possible. But a recognition that a heightened hegemonic role in the Middle East for the United States as the result of victory over terrorism could be a danger rather than an asset would at least steel us to do the difficult.
There is nothing particularly objectionable, to my mind, about American hegemony, and plenty objectionable about a return to anything like isolationism. But in drawing on historical experience to distinguish between workable, durable, and tolerable or benign hegemonies (which American hegemony in much of the world since 1945 has mostly been) and unworkable, unstable, and intolerable ones, we may alert ourselves to ways to save, improve and prolong American leadership in the world. Still less has this argument anything to do with excusing the terrorists or blaming America for creating the conditions that led to terrorism, or even criticizing the policies that have made us the target of terrorist malcontents. It is an attempt merely to face facts and to calculate their probable consequences, to correlate means and ends, to know the enemy and oneself--in short, to apply long-term thinking and rational calculation to a field, international politics, that desperately needs it precisely because it is in many respe cts so resistant to it.
THERE ARE good reasons, to be sure, why this kind of analysis is unlikely to have an effect on policy. Beyond the simple fact that policymakers are too busy to consider these kinds of arguments, this particular one runs counter to the public mood, which still seems concentrated on self-pity over our loss, self-congratulation over our virtues, and calls for dissenters to shut up. There is another reason, too, why policymakers cannot afford to give much consideration to arguments based on long-range historical reflection, even if they had the time to do so. They must act quickly and decisively on the basis of imperfect information in situations full of uncertainty, and having chosen a certain course must stick to it lest a reversal generate even greater costs than those already in store. Too much reflection on all the possible consequences could lead to paralysis. Thus by historical reflection the native hue of resolution would be sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, and history would make cowards of us all.
Nonetheless, this kind of thinking is neither idle nor worthless, even or especially in wartime. In wartime above all times it is important constantly to reflect on what we are really doing and to calculate what the likely long-range results will be. Two Latin axioms neatly express the tension in wartime between the need for immediate decision and the need for long-term reflection: carpe diem ("seize the day"), and respice finem ("remain mindful of the goal"). One frequently must seize the moment; one always must remain mindful of the goal. A sense of history can be invaluable in balancing the two, not for prescription but for perspective and insight; or, as the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt once said, not to make us more clever for this or that occasion, but wiser for all time.
A final word: One subject on which we could use some wisdom concerns the nature of fanaticism. Our war, insofar as it is a war, is against fanaticism. But one definition of a fanatic is someone (to paraphrase Winston Churchill) who, facing evidence that he has lost sight of his objective or is headed in the wrong direction, redoubles his efforts. We can see that clearly in our enemies. They believe fanatically that they are serving their religion by their actions, where they are only discrediting and dishonoring it. They believe they have struck a powerful blow against us, when in fact it will mean far more powerful blows against them. Even in the face of evidence of this, they can be expected to try harder.
But we have less to fear from their patent fanaticism than from our own latent variety of it. We can do even more damage to ourselves than they can, not because we are worse--for all our faults, we are genuinely far better--but because we are so immensely more powerful. The chief danger for the United States lies in its impulse to use its power to wipe out this evil regardless of the consequences; it inheres in what George F. Kennan has called "the blind egotism of the embattled democracy." In the fight against this tendency, we could do much worse than to appreciate perspectives gained from history.
Paul W. Schroeder is professor emeritus of history and political science at the University of Illinois. This essay was written in late September.Essay Types: Essay