September 5, 2004

Terror: We face hard choices

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This week marks the third anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers: the day the 21st century began in earnest.
People refer to the period between 1914 and 1945 as Europe’s Civil War; this was followed by the Cold War. On Thursday night, at the Republican Party convention, George Bush spoke repeatedly of the new era and the “war on terror”.

It is clear that this amorphous concept of a war without frontiers (as opposed to a traditional war over resources), coupled with its unavoidable undertones of a “clash of civilisations”, is the dominant issue of our times, setting the political, economical and financial agenda.

This new agenda has clear ramifications for Ireland’s future choices.

Both the clash of civilisations and the old-fashioned war of resources were evident in North Ossetia last Friday, where massive loss of life occurred when Russian special forces stormed a school where Chechen rebels were holed up with hundreds of hostages, most of them children.

The Chechens are not only in favour of an independent Islamic Chechnya, but are also well aware that the reason Russia has devoted so much time to their tiny republic is that it is geographically crucial for Russia’s oil interests in the Caspian.

Meanwhile, last Friday also saw French Muslims rallying around the Republic rather than the headscarf. This move is hugely significant in the context of the clash of civilisations.

It came after the French public were faced with the horrific prospect of two of their compatriots being murdered by Islamic radicals in Iraq over the right of French Muslim girls to wear the headscarf in secular French state schools.

The French Muslim community backed down and instructed their young women to go to school without the headscarf and without protest.

For liberal secularists in France committed to the separation of church and state, this was a big victory. It remains to be seen whether it is a decisive one rather than a symbolic one.

Back in Iraq, things are still extremely messy. Any hope that the transfer of power would change things for the better has surely been extinguished in the two months since that event. The rebellion of Moqtada al-Sadr was eventually finessed away by wordy formulas rather than the deeds promised by the US army.

The rebel preacher and his men live to fight another day. More fundamentally, the underlying Shi’ite Muslim radicalism – presumably being stoked by Iran for its own purposes – has not gone away and must be expected to flare up in due course, probably in a different location.

Meanwhile, the Sunni Muslims are pursuing their own guerrilla war and the various foreign terrorists groups active in Iraq are pursuing their own agendas, which are steadily widening to include victims from more countries – unfortunate Nepalese workers and Turkish truck drivers being the latest.

The only constant is the steady rise in violence, which will surely continue. In addition to attacks on people, the oil industry seems to be becoming a more prominent target – and this seemingly self-destructive activity serves as an excellent metaphor, and indeed benchmark, for the ongoing demise of Iraq as a functioning country.

Whether things change after the US elections – or after the Iraqi elections, if they ever take place – is anyone’s guess.

My hunch is that the US election will change very little. The way the numbers are now stacking up, it appears that George W Bush is likely to be a two-term president. If this proves to be the case, we are likely to see Europe and the US continue to deviate dramatically in terms of global politics.

In this context, what should Ireland do?

Where should we position ourselves?

The worst of all worlds for Ireland is for Europe to stand up to America and try to act as a global counterweight to the US during a second Bush term. Over the years, Ireland has played a very smart game. We have been promiscuous with our favours.

We have happily got into America’s economic bed. We have seduced US corporates with all the shamelessness of hookers in a hotel bar.

At the same time, we have wedded ourselves to the EU in the most politically correct manner. The result is that we have the economy of Connecticut and the social aspirations of Sweden.

We are like a jockey riding two horses.

When the American horse and the European horse are riding in tandem, moving together nicely and smoothly, all is fine, as the jockey can comfortably handle the two steeds.

Up to September 11, 2001, both horses behaved impeccably. But when the horses decide to move off in different directions (as the US and the EU are doing now), the jockey’s groin becomes very uncomfortable indeed. So what are we to do?

It is very clear that we have profited enormously from US hegemony, and that America’s pre-eminence in the world is in our interests.

The Yankee “hyperpower”, so widely disparaged by many European politicians, is our meal ticket. American hegemony has been good for the little guys like Ireland, and this is because it treats all other countries, whether nominally friends or foes, with suspicion.

Take the Iraq war. If it was about oil, whose oil supplies was it about? America derives most of its oil from Alaska, Venezuela, Mexico and Texas; only 25 per cent of its oil comes from the Middle East. By contrast, Europe, Japan and increasingly China get the lion’s share of supplies from the Gulf region.

The American logic is that they will protect our interests in order to prevent us from protecting ourselves. This is especially the case in Asia where, in the coming years, the possibility of an arms race between China and Japan cannot be ruled out. So America pays today to ensure that today’s friends do not threaten it tomorrow.

Underneath this American military umbrella, the economies of Europe and Asia have flourished at unprecedented rates. The system that the US has fostered has led to enormous improvements in the standard of living for most of us.

Politically, Ireland has been able to express itself in Europe, feeling like an equal at the top table. Do you think this would have been possible in an EU dominated by the military aspirations of France, Britain, Germany, Italy or Spain? No way, Jose.

The increase in our living standards has been the result of cherry-picking from both the European and American way.

By attracting foreign investment on the one hand, and taking advantage of the European pool of savings on the other, we have profited in ways unimaginable only a few years ago. We have moved from a society of emigrants to one of immigrants.

Historically, this has always been a good sign. The technology transfer from the US to Ireland has also been unprecedented in the past few years. All this has been possible because of, not in spite of, American hegemony.

So, if four more years of you-know-who are in prospect, Ireland might have to make a few political and diplomatic choices.

Consider the medieval city-states such as Venice and Dubrovnik. These cities knew that avoiding confrontations with the big boys was crucial to their survival and by playing off the bigger powers, the small cities could prosper. This meant playing a deft diplomatic game, more like a negotiator in a deal than a player.

This is precisely what we should aim to do if EU and US relations deteriorate, because the man who is pulling the strings is not George Bush, Jacques Chirac or Tony Blair, but Osama bin Laden.

Amazingly, three years after September 11, bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network continue to set the global agenda: the big powers are merely reacting with various degrees of ineptitude.