*By Stan Grant
It is tempting to imagine our world without the September 11 terror attacks. Wind the clock back to September 10, 2001 — before most of us knew the name Osama bin Laden or had heard of Al Qaeda.
America was basking in post-Cold War glory. The Soviet Union had collapsed 10 years earlier and the United States stood alone as the world’s sole superpower.
America took what’s been described as a break from history. Indeed in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama dubbed it the “end of history”.
The great ideological battles, so it was thought, had been fought and won and liberal democracy emerged triumphant. The rise of China was still a dot on the horizon.
In 1992, Bill Clinton lectured the Chinese Communist Party that it was on the wrong side of history.
Clinton summed up the ’90s with his slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid!”. Yes, it was all about the economy.
And his election theme song, Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop — “thinking about tomorrow” — was a catch cry for a generation for whom tomorrow was an endless horizon.
This was what would prove to be the last gasp of neoliberalism. Clinton and Britain’s Tony Blair merged progressive politics with the legacy of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s market rules economics.
President George HW Bush had proclaimed a “new world order” that he bequeathed to his successor, Clinton.
International security analyst Patrick Porter captures that time, writing: “America regarded its settlement as not only legitimate but sacred.”
In his book, The False Promise of Liberal Order, he cautions that “every order, including America’s, has its shadow”.
America had cast a very long shadow. A nation that had waged endless war whose armies still occupied countries; who propped up despots and dictators; who made the rules of global commerce and bent them or broke them to suit.
Pre-9/11 America could not or would not see what was coming.
We now know that the holiday from history was an indulgence in hubris.
The West went to sleep. Political scientist Joseph Nye said the US turned its eyes inward. Americans, he said, “became arrogant about our power, arguing that we did not need to heed other nations. We seemed both invincible and invulnerable”.
Former Singaporean Ambassador to the United Nations Kishore Mahbubani said: “Fukuyama’s end of history did a lot of brain damage; having won the Cold War, the West went on autopilot.”
America was obsessed with the soap opera sleaze of the Clinton White House and the Monica Lewinsky affair.
George W Bush followed his father into the presidency with no appetite for America to continue as the world’s policeman.
But history was lurking. In China in the ’90s, Deng Xiaoping was telling his people to hide their capacities and bide their time. He watched the fall of the Soviets and set China on a different course.
Meanwhile, in the mountains of Afghanistan, a terrorist leader was plotting an attack that would bring America to its knees.
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Bin Laden’s monstrous assault killed thousands of innocent people. There is no justification for such barbarity but it doesn’t mean we can’t ask why.
He said he wanted to “destroy the myth of American invincibility”. In truth, he revealed what was already there.
America, despite its power, had long been unravelling. The deep political fractures that are now so evident were never far from the surface. This is a country that had gone to war with itself. Presidents had been assassinated.
From the ’60s the culture war of left and right accelerated. The Clinton presidency may have sold itself as a moment of sunny optimism, but political partisanship hardened and set a pathway for the Trump presidency to come.
Americans grew ever more disillusioned and angry with cynical, elitist Washington politics.
The so-called triumph of the liberal democratic order masked a crisis of liberalism itself. Big thinkers had long identified the breakdown within democracy.
Political philosopher Judith Shklar traced the decline of political faith. She called it “the alienated soul” who has “lost all faith in the beliefs of the past, having been disillusioned by skepticism, but is unable to find a new home for its spiritual longings in the present or future”.
A generation of philosophers traumatised by World War II and the Holocaust spearheaded a counter-Enlightenment, wondering what was the good of modernity — and its twin progress — if it led to such mass slaughter.
Liberalism, Shklar said, had become “unsure of its moral basis, as well as increasingly defensive and conservative”.
The neoliberals, led by a group of European economists, including Nobel prize laureate Friedrich Hayek, championed a new order that sought justice through the market.
Hayek famously said social justice was a mirage, a concept with no meaning apart from the market.
His great disciple, Margaret Thatcher, took it further, questioning the very existence of society. “And who is society? There is no such thing,” she said.
While the West pondered the meaning of society, exalted the market, fomented alienation and resentment and relaxed in the “unipolar moment” of unrivalled American power, the ghosts of the empire were stirring.
Bin Laden did not emerge from a vacuum and he was not simply the crazed eighth-century Muslim fundamentalist he was caricatured as.
He was the dark side of liberalism; both a product of and a reaction against. Indeed, American money through the backhand of Pakistan during the ’90s helped fund bin Laden’s terror network.
Ideologically, bin Laden’s brand of political Islam has been a mirror of the West. The two locked in a death hold, each a reflection of the other.
Bin Laden cast the West as the great evil, yet it was the very existence of the West that gave him and his followers meaning. It has been said that Islamic ideology and Western modernity are attempts to shrink the world to certainties that do not exist.
Bin Laden was striking against America on 9/11, but it was not an act of liberation. Bin Laden, like Islamists everywhere, had no plan for the future of Islam other than an endless cycle of violence.
After the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, Islamist groups have been celebrating a victory. But if it is a victory, it is without achievement other than survival. There can be no political future for a movement that is locked in the past.
Islamists and Western liberals share a fixation on nostalgia. There are those who believe that the answer to the crisis of liberalism is just more liberalism. As Patrick Porter said, you cannot spare “the order any blame for its own plight”.
“Pax-Americana remains innocent of its own undoing,” he said. Not that America deserved attack — Porter praises much of what America has given to the world — but the error of those who simply wish for a return to some pre 9/11 imagined glory “is to suppose that American power and its liberalism was not only good, but essentially good”.
Anyway, there is no pre 9/11 to return to. For America, the past 20 years has been a spiral of violence, war, economic collapse, and political chaos.
Globally, liberal democracy has been in retreat. There are fewer democratic states in the world today than there were in 2001. And illiberal democracy has taken hold, on the back of resurgent political populism exploiting anxiety and fear and stripping away the guardrails of democracy — rule of law and freedom of expression.
America still remains the most powerful nation but in a world where power alone is not enough.
Joe Biden claims America is back. But Biden’s presidency is now framed by the disaster of the fall of Kabul. He appears unsure of America’s mission or the virtue of American liberalism itself as a globalising principal.
It is, I suspect, too much to expect Biden to restore the US let alone a global order. I can only hope he proves me wrong, more people would opt to live in Biden’s America with all of its flaws than Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia or the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
But the US itself is facing a future as a normal — albeit powerful — nation and not an exceptional one. It alone cannot set or dictate the rules, and that will mean an adjustment for nations like Australia. We may have to spend more on our defence for one thing.
French President Emmanuel Macron has already given this a name: “strategic autonomy”. Not a world without America, but at times a world apart from America.
In hindsight, we can see America enjoyed just 10 years of unrivalled hegemony between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Ten years in which the US ignored the gathering storm at home and abroad.
It takes an especially depraved madness to plot an attack that kills thousands of innocent people going about their daily lives, but had bin Laden not existed, the world and America would likely still have reached this tipping point. Terrorism didn’t crash the financial system, or abandon the poor and black after Hurricane Katrina, or trash the Capitol Building.
Bin Laden brought the World Trade Centre Twin Towers crashing down but the foundations of America and the West were already shaky.
*Stan Grant is the Vice Chancellor’s Chair of Australian/Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University. He was formerly ABC’s Global Affairs and Indigenous Affairs Analyst. He is one of Australia’s most respected and awarded journalists, with more than 30 years experience in radio and television news and current affairs.
*This article first appeared on the abc.net.au website