The World Order and the War on Terrorism

The United States Is Performing a Balancing Act on a Razor's Edge

Men in downtown Sofia, Bulgaria read a special edition of Bulgarian newspaper 24 Tchasa on Oct. 8, 2001. The headlines read 'Kabul Burns' and 'Sofia on Alert' (Photo: AFP).

It has now become a cliché that following the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the world is no longer the same, that it is undergoing a profound transformation in barely predictable directions. Equally clichéd is the idea that what is going on will have a fundamental effect on U.S. policy, international relations, and the course of globalization.

In the aftermath of the U.S.-British air strikes against Afghanistan we can go even further, and speculate that the changes and rearrangements on the world stage we are witnessing now are comparable to the historical breakthroughs that followed World War II. A curious parallel can be drawn between the Truman Doctrine of 1947, designed to counteract the spread of communism, and President Bush's initiative to combat international terrorism and the so-called "rogue states". The justification for both is a perceived foreign threat to the United States and the American way of life.

But are such forecasts justified? Are such radical consequences to be expected of the United States' Machiavellian maneuvers and machinations in its attempts to broker an elastic, global coalition against terrorism and its sponsors?

How long will Bush's unusual war spearhead U.S. strategy in its foreign relations? Could chronic problems resurface, either gradually or suddenly, to challenge the vital interests of the American empire? What of economic recession? What of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? What of the conflict over Kashmir, fought by two countries that only recently developed nuclear arsenals? What of a possible clash between China and Taiwan? What of a potential military explosion on the Korean peninsula or in the Balkans?

It is clear that some states in the Washington-molded coalition—such as Russia or China—stand to benefit from the emerging order. Others, such as Pakistan and Israel, could emerge losers. One way or another, as the United States tries to shore-up an unprecedented alliance against terrorism, it is walking on a razor's edge. The U.S. campaign, even in its initial stage, is provoking contrasting reactions and justifiable misgivings.

Professional optimists on both sides of the Atlantic applaud the Bush administration's "determination" to abandon the track of one-man decisions and unilateral actions. Even the superpower, they argue, has become aware that it needs allies in order to achieve its goals. But such talk is premature, to say the least. It may soon turn out that the much-touted "global alliance" is just a smoke screen and the United States will try to implement its agenda single-handedly.

Following Vladimir Putin's series of summits with Western leaders over the past month, the media have proclaimed a new era of U.S.-Russian relations. In fact, the Americans are not that interested in Russian reconnaissance concerning Al Qaeda or in Moscow's support for U.S. efforts to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

We can hardly expect that the Kremlin will agree to any significant American presence in former Central Asian Soviet republics now ruled by neo-Stalinist dictators. Putin will deftly seek military and strategic concessions from the Americans and eventual relief of Russia's heavy debts to Western financial institutions. Putin's first priority will be to restore Russia's international status and improve its credit rating. To do this, he will need to convince the U.S. government to make his priorities Washington's.

The United States must force Israel—its loyal, but increasingly nervous ally—to coexist in this loose coalition with a horde of hostile Arab and Islamic countries. Should the U.S. campaign run upon the rocks, the multifaceted coalition would fall apart soon after it was assembled. Particularly if the United States runs into difficulties in its military strikes on Afghanistan, a surge in Islamic radicalism could destabilize Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. But Washington's gravest danger is that the war could destabilize the Arabian Peninsula, home to the lion's share of the world's petroleum resources.

European politics could also run in unexpected directions. So, too, could transatlantic relations. Great Britain remains a staunch U.S. ally, but Germany—because of its special interests in the East and its still-shaky military self-confidence—is in a delicate position. And France, which is home to 5 million Muslims and has close ties to North Africa, is visibly disturbed by the possibility of a strong Islamic backlash.

Against the backdrop of an overhaul of U.S.-Russian relations, Europe's familiar dilemmas—the expansion of the European Union and NATO—gleam with a new light. The war against terrorism makes the expansion of the European Union seem a more urgent priority. But the need for tighter immigration controls will doubtless counterbalance this trend. And at first glance, the war on terrorism makes the expansion of NATO seem more logical and easier. But Bulgaria and Romania should not rejoice yet, for Western governments would rather see the Baltic states [Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia] join NATO before the Balkans. And any enlargement of NATO would depend on the state of relations between Washington and Moscow.

London's Financial Times has speculated that should Washington opt for long-term involvement with the Islamic world, sooner or later it would need to withdraw its forces from Kosovo and Bosnia. In that case Balkan extremists may feel encouraged to take up arms again.