Decade of strategic upsets

A striking phrase resonated at an international conference that convened last week in Geneva to evaluate global strategic change. It encapsulated the 21st century’s profoundest geopolitical development in this way: the three most important words of the post 9/11 decade were not the ‘War on terror’ but ‘Made in China’.

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi

Published: Sun 18 Sep 2011, 9:34 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:56 AM

This reflects a theme that has increasingly been dominating the international intellectual discourse especially in the West. It is that while the so-called ‘war on terror’ became the overarching preoccupation of the US and its allies, the defining characteristic of this decade has been the spectacular shift in power from the West to the rest.

This year’s annual conference organised by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) coincided with the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. This focused the discussion not just on the dramatic changes sweeping the Arab world but on what the decade following 9/11 has entailed. The conference provided many fresh and diverse perspectives.

Different answers were offered to what the 10th anniversary of 9/11 meant. For many it marked the closing of a decade-long cycle of war, chaos and security paranoia. Hope was voiced that the passing of the era of “security wars” would yield “collaborative” rather than unilateral leadership. This is especially so as the US adjusts to the relative diminution in its power in a world where the economic centre of gravity has shifted to Asia and when the age of America’s global primacy has ended. In fact, the US, distracted by the protracted ‘war on terror’, confronted its consequences in the shape of debilitating financial crises due in part to the debts contracted in this decade. Ten years later, this has urged the Obama administration to give priority to nation-building at home and begin disengaging from military interventions abroad.

As one speaker put it, more than September 2001, it was September 2008 – when the financial crisis erupted – which was more far reaching in its effects that reshaped the global strategic landscape. Economic troubles have forced the US into a mode of ‘managed retrenchment’ from a phase of intense kinetic operations and security surges.

There was general consensus that for all the hyperbole, 9/11 did not change the world. The world has changed since 9/11 but not necessarily because of it. Professor Francois Heisbourg, IISS chairman, chose to describe this ‘new age’ as that driven by the inexorable forces of globalisation. The 21st century, he said, had started with ‘strategic upsets’ and this was likely to remain its defining feature. In that sense the 9/11 attacks were a symbolic opening of the door signaling this trend. Globalisation was both a force for good and for violent transformation, wrenching in its consequences.

There was considerable agreement that the US had overreacted to the 9/11 attacks, tragic as they were. This also reflected a common theme in many analyses of the post 9/11 decade in the international media. Several thoughtful reviews have concluded that America’s response to the 9/11 attacks was a fateful, “wrong turning” that plunged the world into conflict, fear and paranoi and led to nullification of the very standards and values – of civil liberties and human rights – that the US and its allies claimed to uphold.

The sessions on the ‘Arab spring’ were among the most hopeful in their prognosis of the trends ahead. But there was acknowledgement that this chapter was an unfinished one and could see diverse outcomes. There were also cautionary voices that the revolution of rising expectations that produced the Arab upheaval could yet turn into revolutions of failed expectations. Nevertheless there was optimism that what are quintessentially movements about justice and dignity would lead to stability and validate that the soft power of globalisation was a more effective antidote to terrorist violence than hard power.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom

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