9/11: The End of "The End of History"

Mackubin T. Owens

September 1, 2003

The “end of history” ended on September 11, 2001. You remember the end of history. It was the title of an article, and later a book, by Francis Fukuyama, suggesting that with the end of the Cold War, liberalism had defeated its one remaining ideological competitor. Fascism had been destroyed with the allied victory in World War II. Now communism had joined it on the ash heap of history.

To be fair to Fukuyama, he acknowledged in his book The End of History and the Last Man that, despite the progress of “a universal and directional history” leading to the end state of liberal democracy, there were many parts of the world in which liberal democracy had not yet triumphed. Nonetheless, he argued, there was an increasing acceptance of the idea that “liberal democracy in reality constitutes the best possible solution to the human problem.”

The corollary to the universal triumph of liberal democracy was “globalization,” the irresistible expansion of global capitalism that would create worldwide, interdependent markets Advocates of globalization concluded that interdependence and cooperation had replaced competition in international affairs and that the result would be more or less spontaneous peace and prosperity. Political scientists and economists alike agreed that this was the most important characteristic of our epoch, against which geography and culture didn’t stand a chance.

But it is useful to remember that the last time the world was as “interdependent” as it was at the end of the 1990s was on the eve of World War I. Then too, optimism reigned. In his 1911 book, The Great Illusion, Norman Angell argued that the liberal, European-led economic system that then pervaded the world had become stable and permanent. In such a system, war had become so costly and devastating as to be unthinkable. In his memoir The World Crisis, Winston Churchill mocked this optimism as manifest during the Agadir crisis of 1911, which although it was peacefully resolved, marked another milestone on the road to Armageddon:

“[War] is too foolish, too fantastic, to be thought of in the 20th Century …Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, liberal principles, the Labour Party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong.”

Just as the liberal optimism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was swept away in August, 1914, so the liberal optimism of our time was swept away by 9/11. In both cases, an allegedly permanent liberal international system did not prove to be permanent after all.

9/11 revealed the complacency of the 1990s. Some had warned that there was a gathering storm, but these warnings went unheeded. The conventional wisdom of the time held that the proper way to attack terrorism was to eliminate poverty and its other “root causes” such as the Arab-Israeli conflict.

9/11 revealed an emerging geopolitical reality—that the world’s most important fault line is not between the rich and the poor, but between those who accept modernity and those who reject it. In a controversial article for Esquire entitled “The Pentagon’s New Map” and a series of briefings, my colleague at the Naval War College, Tom Barnett, has described a world divided between a “Functioning Core” and a “Non-Integrating Gap.” The former, where “globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, and collective security,” is characterized by “stable governments, rising standards of living, and more deaths by suicide than murder.” The latter, where “globalization is thinning or just plain absent” is “plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and—most important—the chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists.”

According to Barnett, “Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are pure products of the Gap—in effect, its most violent feedback to the Core. They tell us how we are doing in exporting security to these lawless areas (not very well) and which states they would like to take ‘off line’ from globalization and return to some seventh-century definition of the good life (any Gap state with a sizable Muslim population, especially Saudi Arabia).” Why is this?

Al Qaeda terrorists did not fly airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because they were poor, but because they saw what the United States represents as a threat to their world view. The Future of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula After the Fall of Baghdad, a recent book by one of Osama bin Laden’s closest associates, makes crystal clear that the source of al Qaeda’s war against the west is a fundamental rejection of liberal democracy and capitalism.

The author is Yussuf al-Ayyeri, also known as Abu Muhammad, who was killed during a gun battle with Saudi security forces earlier this year. As quoted by Amir Taheri of the New York Post, al-Ayyeri argues that secular democracy is far more dangerous to Islam than any previous manifestation of modernity. The danger of democracy’s “seductive capacities” is that they persuade Muslims that they are in charge of their own destinies and can, accordingly, shape policies and pass laws in violation of the sharia.

He goes on to argue that democracy can also “make Muslims love this world, forget the next world and abandon jihad.” Democracy in a Muslim country would lead to economic prosperity, which, in turn, would make Muslims “reluctant to die in martyrdom” in defense of their faith. Al-Ayyeri gives voice to the Gap, and that voice supports the contention of those who say that “they hate us” for what we are rather than for what we do.

If 9/11 revealed this new geopolitical order, it also made it possible to envision and ultimately to implement the necessary strategy to deal with it. Before 9/11, some had argued that it would be necessary to go after the terrorists in their lairs, but such an approach was not politically possible. When Osama bin Laden was merely blowing up US embassies in Africa or attacking individual US ships in the Persian Gulf region, the options available to the United States were limited. It is no doubt true that President Clinton could have done much more to counter al Qaeda, but he could never have done what President Bush was able to do after 9/11.

The post-9/11 strategy is based on the idea that the only way effectively to deal with the dangers arising from the Gap is for the countries of the Core to intervene in the Gap with the goal of reducing it. The president seems to accept contention that ignoring the Gap or, at most, seeking to “manage” it merely reduces further what little connectivity the Gap has with the Core and renders it more dangerous to the Core over the long haul.

the Gap is not reduced, the Osama bin Ladens and the Yussuf al-Ayyeris will keep coming. That was the message that President Bush sought to convey to our friends and allies in his speech of 7 September—that Iraq is the central front of the war against terrorism, the Gap’s main export to the west, and that if Europe, for instance, does not pitch in to help stabilize Iraq, the Gap may very well strike at Europe as it has at the United States.

The post-9/11 strategy also recognizes that a liberal world order does not just occur through the actions of a global “invisible hand.” Instead, it depends on the willingness and capability of a “hegemonic power” to provide the collective goods of economic stability and international security. In other words, the liberal world order that so many people take for granted does not just arise spontaneously; the conditions for peace and prosperity must be created and maintained by the United States or some other hegemonic power.

As Sam Huntington has observed:

A world without US primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.

If the United States lacks the will to use its power to stay the course in Iraq, if it permits the terrorists to rest and rearm in the sanctuary of the Gap, 9/11 will come again.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is on leave from the Naval War College to write a history of U.S. civil-military relations. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam, 1968-69.