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Volume 2, No. 8 - January 2003

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September 11 in International Relations Theory
Sreeram Chaulia

An event as epochal as September 11 is bound to provoke theorists of international relations. Over the past year or so, there has been a race in academia to claim the first prize for the best theory to explain the events before and after September 11. The consensus is that the dominant discourse of realism has won, because it conceives of conflict and destruction as natural in an anarchical world (from Thomas Hobbes' "anarchical state of nature"). It also justifies America's threatening military actions after the terror strikes as a natural form of behavior of strong states, which always bully the weak into compliance to serve the former's selfish interests.

The more interesting contest is among the alternative theories to realism. It is a race for second prize, and the main competitors are feminism, globalism/neo-Marxism and pluralism.

Feminism
The fundamental premise of feminism is that international politics is a "man's world" and a "gendered activity". Gender is a social construction based on ideas of "autonomy", "objectivity", "sovereignty" and "virtu" (Niccolo Machiavelli), of which only men and masculine states are allegedly capable. Writing after September 11, feminist novelist Arundhati Roy encapsulated this critique, saying, "Women of the world stand between two extremes, both represented by androcentrism, Rambo culture and patriarchy - Osama bin Laden and George Bush." Bin Laden reportedly has 42 wives and is a defender and instigator of Taliban-style hardline Islamic "structural violence" against women. Bush heads the most conservative American administration since Ronald Reagan, pursuing vested interests of the military-industrial complex and giant oil multinationals that extort women in the Third World (a line favored by Marxist feminism).

Realist dogmas and metaphors of "war of every man against every man" and "stag hunt" (Jean Jacques Rousseau) have been pursued vigorously by the US government since September 11, accompanied by a culture of "manliness" and glorification of soldiers and ultra-patriotic themes in the media. "Imperial brotherhoods" (Robert Dean) among mujahideen and the Bush cabinet are waging destructive wars to quench their fanaticism and male egotism. Some feminists see the World Trade Center itself as a symbol of male capitalist egotism which ran into another kind of Arabic male chauvinism on September 11.

Feminists also like to point out that the majority of women in the world, including Palestinians, mourned the deaths of innocents in the terror attacks, and called for a foreign policy of reconciliation instead of revenge. But state-centric "military security" orthodoxy dominates the discourse and active voicing of peace by women has been relegated to peripheral activity and condescendingly dismissed as "human interest stuff" (Ann Tickner). The outcome is that human security and "common security", an all-encompassing concept including domestic non-violence, is sorely lacking as the US prepares for more wars. Feminist scholars have particularly lamented how the US has compromised with chauvinist male warlords in Afghanistan, who are only a shade better than the Taliban, and which is still claiming for propaganda value that American military action "emancipated" Afghan women.

Feminist interventions since September 11 have labelled the event and its aftermath as an instance of patriarchal "technology of destruction and domination". They urge a dire need to transform the realist paradigm and to include one half of the world's population in deciding on foreign policy so that a more harmonious world and a "just peace" can be arrived at. However, feminism has no unified tenor. Despite using phrases like "sexual terrorism" (Dorothy Roberts) as a much bigger threat to human security than Islamic terrorism, feminists are a highly divided lot, with competing visions of "radical feminism", "white Western feminism", "ecological feminism", "post-modern feminism", et al. Feminist international relations deconstruct realist policies with gusto, but offer no alternative model for transforming practice of world affairs. Can a superpower be realistically expected to simply "forgive" and "heal" terrorists who killed nearly 3,000 people in one single day? Feminists seem to be putting forth a chimerical ideal.

Globalism/Neo-Marxism
Globalism/Neo-Marxism is a structural theory that rates economics, not security, as the driving force of international relations. Under-development of Third World states leads to "dependency" on rich industrialized states, which exploit the peripheral states through an integrated capitalist system. Saudi Arabia, which produced the majority of the hijackers on September 11, is a classic case of exploitation by gas-guzzling and oil-hungry America. Globalists believe that domestic bourgeois forces reinforce foreign domination. In the Saudi example, collusion between transnational American corporations and the Saudi royal family oppresses common people and forcibly imposes foreign values on Arabic society.

The ill-effects of US-led globalization deepens crises in the Muslim world and creates angry young suicide bombers and hijackers willing to lay down their lives to hit the Mecca of capitalism - the World Trade Center. Peaceful reordering and change of economic inequities between have and have-not nations is not feasible. Hence, poverty and frustration in the Third World feeds into terrorism. Another insight globalists give is that since foreign policy depends on economic and geo-economic resource strategies, the US government is using its war on terrorism as a pretext to open Iraq for oil exploration.

Division between the European Union and the US on war against Iraq can also be seen as a symptom of intra-capitalist struggle and "differential growth rates" of the northern states (Lenin). Europe and America are headed for a titanic "struggle among imperialists" to colonize the world, and this cleft is widening day by day, as was proved when the last German presidential poll was fought primarily on whether or not Berlin should support Washington in war. Alignment of "part-capitalist" states like Russia, China and India with the US in the post-September 11 phase is an indication of core and "semi-periphery" (Immanuel Wallerstein) joining hands not just against the common enemy of Islamic fundamentalism but to jointly "transfer surplus value" from least developed and weak states, and to prise open their markets to exports.

Globalists provide a very valuable recommendation that war on terrorism must include a war against poverty, not a war against the poor in Iraq and elsewhere. If the gap between North and South is not bridged soon, terrorism will flourish and gain deeper socioeconomic roots. However, in the post-September 11 world, it is inconceivable that the "transformation of global capitalist hegemony" will ever come about. It is also doubtful if proletariat and subordinated classes everywhere sympathize or approve of Osama bin Laden, who is himself a capitalist millionaire. Al-Qaeda and Islamic holy warriors bother least about capital accumulation and most about religion. If at all there is a global struggle in their minds, it is not one between have and have-not states but a "clash of civilizations" (Samuel Huntington) between Islamic and Judaeo-Christian worlds. Globalist medicines to counter the capitalist world system are also impractical. Self-reliance and autarchy are discarded options in today's world, be it for tackling terrorism or underdevelopment.

Pluralism
Pluralism is another structural theory of international relations which agrees with globalists that world politics is often governed by economics, not security. But pluralists perceive no exploitative super-structure. They believe free trade and barrier-free investment will eradicate all differences between have and have-not states. They support the neo-liberal macroeconomic consensus of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as the answer to the ills of poor countries, including terrorism. It is an optimistic pro-globalization stand a la Francis Fukuyama's position that secularism, liberal democracy and free markets will reduce all tensions in the world.

In game theoretical language, international relations are a positive sum-game, not a negative or zero sum-game. By extension, what the Osama bin Ladens of the world hate most are America's "free way of life" and its efforts to "modernize" the world. Pluralists consider non-state actors very important entities, having transnational impact. Al-Qaeda is a great example of the "cobweb image" of pluralist international relations, where multiple players crisscross national boundaries and act in concert to influence foreign policies. Global jihad knows no territorial border. Another aspect of non-state actor prominence after September 11 is pluralist faith in efficacy of international organizations to promote worldwide cooperation and regulate conflicts. There is a heightened need today for a comprehensive global convention against terrorism under the aegis of the United Nations. Robert Keohane's "hegemonic mover", the US, has to take the new initiative for a new "regime" against terrorism at the UN.

Pluralists also approach foreign policy decision-making through models like "groupthink" and bureaucratic politics. American governmental decisions after September 11 are redolent with institutional turf battles between the CIA and FBI, the US State Department and the Defense Department, for example. Instead of using a paint-brush and faulting president George W Bush as a "Rambo" or a "capitalist exploiter", some pluralists go down the ladder by choosing smaller units of analysis at the intra-governmental stage and give a more thorough and detailed description of the parts that make a whole and give rise to the final foreign policy "outcome".

Pluralism offers a perfect theoretical explanation of terrorist groups as "super-empowered non-state actors" who challenge state sovereignties and foreign policies. Nevertheless, the theory fails to explain why the US waged war on Afghanistan and is planning another in Iraq. "Internationalism" and John Ruggie's "multilateralism" are nowhere to be seen at present, as the US is showing increasing signs of "going it alone" in its war against terrorism. International organizations have been reduced to meaninglessness, as the US seems least interested in sharing even declaratory documents from Iraq meant actually for the UN. Talk of "integration" and world consensus based on free market ideas appears Utopian as America is igniting more and more conflict in newer theaters to safeguard its own national security.

The Fukuyama brand of pluralism is far too naive in a world on the verge of war and in deep economic recession. Another problem with pluralists is that they are almost exclusively all Americans and reflect an ethnocentric view of the global system and motivating factors in international affairs. The concept of a benevolent hegemon enforcing rules and regimes for the benefit of all appears incredulous in the case of a US that is not signatory to some of the most important international treaties and conventions. Pluralists do not have the tools to explain why the US is not continuing in the camp of Immanuel Kant's "peace union" of liberal states. Is "democratic peace" really not a cover behind which advanced neo-imperialist countries intervene in and exploit poorer states?

The winner
From our discussion of alternatives to realism, globalism/neo-Marxism comes nearest to a thorough explanation of the events preceding and succeeding September 11. Imbalances in economic development between North and South directly fuel the fires of anti-Americanism and terrorism. They create a reservoir of young people without jobs who are willing to vent their spleen on targets selected by religious fanatics. Pluralist triumphalism about exporting Western liberal polity and economy to end all inequalities does not stand ground on serious scrutiny. Globalization has discontents, and is not an unmitigated success story. Addressing the problems of those discontents will assuage most of the rage that translates into terrorist attacks. Feminism has its own distinct contribution on September 11 by voicing the cause of voiceless women in the periphery, but it cannot offer a rational step-by-step explanation of the terror attacks and the US response by merely deconstructing and criticizing the existing system of international relations.

Globalism is thus the runner-up in the battle of the "isms".

[Sreeram Chaulia is Columnist for Asia Times, Hong Kong.]


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