"The world after 11 September: a balance sheet"
Address by Gareth Evans to the Academy of International Business Conference, Sydney, 19 November 2001
There are not too many invitations I get to speak these days which are irresistible, even when they involve me coming back to Australia. Of course it’s nice to get away from Brussels, where the moules frites and the Trappist-brewed beer are wonderful – but need to be to make up for the weather, the bureacracy and the taxes. And of course it’s nice to visit my family and my friends – but it has to be for me to travel all this way knowing just how masochistic my fellow countrymen can be when it comes to electing their government.
The main reason this invitation appealed to me was the way it was couched. I would be talking, I was told, to “ a group that represents the world’s intellectual elite of international business thinking, research and teaching”. That was pretty good for a start – we lifelong democratic socialists love talking to any kind of elite. But then came the knockout line, which I’m sure was absolutely meticulously crafted and not just a typo: this conference, I was told, would be bringing to Australia hundreds of academics “ from some of the world’s most imminent business schools”. And being a happening, here-and-now, move-quickly-and-seize-the-moment kind of person, I found the invitation to address not only some of the world’s most imminent people one I simply couldn’t refuse.
There has certainly been a hell of a lot happening, here and now, in the last few weeks for the world’s most imminent people to be thinking about, and wrestling with. September 11 was not just another catastrophe, another CNN media moment of the kind with which we’ve become all too complacently familiar as a result of too many moments of well-documented TV horror over the last decade or more. What happened on that bright sunny morning – when more people were killed in two hours than were lost to terrorist atrocities over the last 50 years in Ireland and Israel combined – was a genuine watershed in world history: things are not going to be the same again.
Obviously a number of the changes that have occurred have been for the worse: it’s not hard to list them, and I will. But the shock of 911, as shock often does, has also produced a number of changes which - if they can be sustained, and that’s a big if – have the potential to make the world a better, safer and saner place than it has been. Let me make an effort, then, to sketch out a balance sheet of the world after 11 September, at least as I see it from my present vantage point in the International Crisis Group.
Since where you stand often depends on where you sit, perhaps I should say a word about that vantage point. The International Crisis Group – of which I have been full-time President and CEO since January 2000 – is a fascinating, and I think unique, private, non-profit, multinational organisation which tells governments around the world what they should be doing to prevent and contain deadly conflict. We give them analyses of what’s going wrong, and policy prescriptions as to how to put things right, which they usually don’t want to hear, and often don’t even want to think about, but which they are certainly increasingly taking notice of.
The organisation began in 1995 essentially as a response to the policy disasters of the early 90s in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda. It’s founders were a group of well known international figures from the US and Europe, who have now been joined on a rather glittering governing board full of former Presidents and Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers and the like. ICG has grown rapidly, especially in the last two years, to the extent that we now have field operations in some 20 countries across four continents, along with advocacy offices in Brussels, Washington, New York and Paris.
We now produce some 80 reports and briefing papers a year which go out on our website as public goods, as well as being distributed more directly to senior policy makers and those who influence them around the world. ICG will have by next month some 70 full-time staff, and our budget next year (if I can raise by the end of December the last $1.5 million of it) will be nearly $ US 9 million, raised roughly 50 per cent from major foundations, 40 per cent from governments, and 10 per cent from individuals and corporations.
I spend nearly two-thirds of my time travelling out of Brussels, mainly elsewhere in Europe, in North America and in Asia, talking to governments and intergovernmental organisations like the UN, EU and World Bank; fund-raising; and generally managing an organisation full, as you can imagine, of the most wonderful prima donnas ( a perfectly comfortable state of affairs so long as, as former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam once famously said, I remain prima donna assoluta).
From that platform, what is to be said first of all about the negative side of the 911 ledger?
The world’s new physical vulnerability. Not only the immediate physical impact of the 911 attacks, but their demonstration effect, has been extremely scary. If this is what a handful of well-organised, imaginative fanatics can do by totally low-tech means – using primary weapons no more complex than knives or box-cutters – how much more damage can a handful of well-orgnised and imaginative fanatics do employing the high-tech weaponry that is potentially available to them with chemical, biological and bomb-in-an-icecream van nuclear weapons? Every major city, every major financial centre, in the world is hopelessly unprepared either to prevent or to cope with such an attack at the moment, and we are deluding ourselves to deny it.
The world’s new economic vulnerability. This audience will know better than most, and be better able than most to calculate the order of magnitude involved, the extraordinary economic damage done by 911: consumer confidence has collapsed, investment is not happening, trade is falling away, the tourism and travel sectors are on their knees, productivity is sliding backward as inventory management systems fall apart, the stock market is reeling, unemployment is skyrocketing, and recovery seems a long way away.
Of course it has all been made worse by the economic downturn that was well and truly underway by 911, but even the most buoyant environment would have been punctured by the enormity of the events of that day, and the knowledge we now have of what more danger might be possible.
The psychological scars that have been inflicted. I am not talking here only about the gut-wrenching impact of ground zero, not only for the families and friends of those who died there but for anyone who visits the site or even just sees it on TV; nor even just the palpable new fear around the place, most easily measurable by the huge number of people in the US and around the world who are now refusing to fly. I’m talking also about something more insidious – the suspicion and hostility on racial and religious grounds that 911 has brought to so many of our human dealings and interactions, notwithstanding all the highly laudable efforts of Western leaders from the outset to characterise the war against terrorism as a war against deeds not beliefs.
At the macro-level we’ve seen it in the kind of ugly campaign against Afghan boat-people refugees that Prime Minister Howard and his party were able to mount to win the recent Australian election, which I doubt would have had quite the same resonance before 911, and probably wins hands down the world title as the year’s most squalid piece of political opportunism.
And at the micro-level we see it happening all the time: in my case most recently in New York late last week, boarding my flight to LA to connect to Australia. Every passenger had already been through the most comprehensive electronic and manual search procedure, with every bag emptied and pocket turned out. But that didn’t stop the captain of the aircraft standing at the door and turning back, in the most obvious and humiliating way possible, for further interrogation and body searching, anyone of Middle Eastern or West Asian appearance. The young man beside me who – as he told the flight crew and anyone else who would listen – had been born and raised in Manhattan, studied at Wharton and now worked for Goldman Sachs – was almost crying with rage and pain at being singled out in this way for his appearance alone, and it was difficult for a lot of us not to cry with him.
The downside costs and risks of new conflict. It is difficult to argue against the US reaction to 911 taking a partly military form. When any country’s homeland and heartland have been attacked on the scale that happened in September, when the ultimate responsibility could reasonably be sheeted home to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda -despite all the problems of court-proof evidence – and when this group was so obviously being sheltered and nurtured by the deeply unlovely Taliban, a punitive retaliation was inevitable and defensible. But it was even more inevitable that, even with the best conceived and managed such campaign, innocent civilians would die in the process. It continues to be desperately necessary as a result that any such campaign be as limited as it possible to be: not only to meet the immediate moral imperative, but also to avoid giving fuel to extremists elsewhere, making the whole problem of extremist-generated terrorism worse than it was to begin with.
And it is also crucial in this context that the costs and risks of embarking on any new military campaign – above all in Iraq – be weighed very carefully indeed.
In all this litany of gloom and anxiety, how can there possibly be any ground for optimism about the future? What on earth could have been positive in the fallout from 911? Well, let me give you my own list of half a dozen items for a start, which I think do make a reasonable case in defence of optimism.
The end of American disconnectedness. 11 September shattered any illusion that the two-ocean cocoon in which the US has felt so sheltered for so long was any longer a protection for the heartland. And with that recognition has come a much greater recognition, psychologically, across the nation and not just among policy makers (who I don’t think ever really believed it), that isolationism – switching off from the rest of the world’s problems and just focusing on America’s own – is just not an option.
The world is a highly connected place these days, as every highbrow study and lowbrow piece of journalism keeps telling us, and dirty little wars in faraway places that may not seem to be anyone’s business in the developed world - and political and economic and social and cultural grievances that no-one wants to have to even think about in the West – have shown themselves to be capable of generating, directly or indirectly, the most catastrophic damage in the West. The impact on North America and Europe of instability and conflict in faraway corners of the world has been obvious enough for years if anyone had wanted to look in the spread of narcotics trafficking and other international crime, in the spread of disease like AIDS, in spillover environmental disasters, and in mass movements of the refugees and displaced . And, as nobody now needs reminding, it’s there with international terrorism. What 911 has done is force everyone to face up to the reality of international connectedness, and to accept that this means some kind of policy engagement.
The greater embrace of multilateralism in American foreign policy. It’s one thing to recognise that engagement is necessary, quite another to carry it out in the right way. A turning away from isolationism doesn’t mean an end to unilateralism. Small or medium sized countries have long recognised the need for engagement to occur on a cooperative, give-and-take, multilateral basis, not least because they don’t have the economic or political or military clout to be able to do it any other way. But big guys – and especially very big guys – find it hard to be persuaded not to act unilaterally. As the old Swahili saying has it: Where does the elephant sit? The elephant sits where he likes…
Things were not really all that different in substance under either Bush Senior or the Clinton Administration, as I can testify from eight years as Australia’s Foreign Minister – and we were one of their favorite countries! But unilateralism was at its most extreme level for a long time in George W’s Foreign Policy Mark I (the one prevailing from January to 10 September this year): America didn’t really need much help from anyone else, and it certainly didn’t need to enmesh itself in tiresome and restrictive treaty obligations on climate change, biological weapons, small arms, the new international criminal court … .
While I don’t want to exaggerate the extent of the conversion – and there are certainly many EU members who would remain to be convinced of the US’s enthusiasm for acting in any way but unilaterally – I do think it’s fair to day that since 911 there has been something of a conversion. The realisation does seem to have dawned in a major way that there are a whole bunch of inter-related problems, not least those involving terrorism, that no country in the world, not even the US, can solve all by itself. Building sustainable defences against international terrorism means not only mounting punitive military action (which needs, at the very least, bases and overflight rights in other countries), but intelligence cooperation, money trail cooperation, public diplomacy cooperation (what used to be indelicately called propaganda) and cooperation in addressing root cause grievances through effective development assistance and conflict resolution diplomacy.
If the multilateralist approach the US is very effectively adopting at the moment in the war against terrorism – and which it’s going to have to maintain there for a long time to come – can start filtering out into other areas of externa, policy, as it seemed to last week with the flexibility shown at the Doha WTO negotiations on a new trade round, the US is going to win more genuinely appreciative friends around the world than it’s had for a long time, and that will very much work to the country’s long term interests both in security and economic terms.
A better US relationship with Russia. President Putin’s alacrity in responding to 911 with policy support across a wide front (intelligence cooperation, air corridors, support for basing in Central Asia) may have been opportunistic – motivated by a desire to get some cover for Chechnya, hold some lines on missile policy and get some help for the Russian economy. But it’s certainly breathed new warmth and content into a relationship that certainly needed both, and could lead to some real benefits – not least getting a real policy partnership going in resolving the remaining problems in the Balkans. Among the unthinkable things that have now become thinkable is Russia’s admission to NATO – although Russia could of course end up taking the rather sophisticated Groucho Marx view that it wouldn’t want to belong to a club that was prepared to have it as a member…
A better US relationship with China. Even more extraordinary than the US-Russia love-in has been the rapprochement in Washington-Beijing relations, a remarkable turnaround from the deep freeze relationship – with the spy plane affair as the nadir – just a few months ago, which Bush Foreign Policy Mark I seemed determined to create and maintain. China, again, has its own motives for wanting to be cooperative on terrorism – with its anxiety about Islamist extremism in its western border zones , but the thaw is in everyone’s interest. And I say that with particularly deep feeling as someone whose foreign policy life has been concentrated in the Asia Pacific reason, and dedicated in particular to forging a workable set of relationships around the region with China.
The possibility of forward movement on the Israel-Palestine conflict. There has been a great deal of rethinking going on in the US since 911 about American relations with the Islamic world generally, and the need for the US to win moderate Arab support for the war on terrorism has led to some useful signs in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict – that it wants to play a role back in the field and not in the bleachers, that it is prepared recognise the absolute legitimacy not only of the Israelis’ but also the Palestinians’ claim to have a viable state of their own, and that it is prepared to be tough about some of Mr Sharon’s more egregious excesses.
But of all the areas for optimism generated by 911 that I have identified, this has to be the flimsiest. It’s not possible to be very optimistic about anything with the Palestinian leadership as rudderless as it usually seems to be, and with the present Israeli leadership all too clear in its determination to steer anything resembling a viable peace plan straight on to the rocks. That said, an activist role by the US is an absolutely indispensable precondition to dragging the present awful situation in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank back on track, and it’s good that it’s starting to be played.
A new focus on the values that really matter. Tragedy can be cathartic, and there’s plenty of evidence of 911 jolting people in the United States into new patterns of behaviour that are genuinely admirable. One thing that many people have remarked upon, and as a regular visitor to New York I can vouch for it, is a new kind of courtesy and consideration for others that is genuinely noticeable in this normally brash, tough, swaggering, in your face, me-me kind of town. I’m not suggesting that Manhattan turned overnight into a kind of hippy commune, and you would have to be a supreme optimist to think this will last forever, but it’s nice while it does – and maybe New Yorkers will actually get to like it.
Another phenomenon is the bursting of the conspicuous consumption bubble of the 1990s, with a great many people in this country, as well as the West generally, having second thoughts after 911 about whether the things that really matter in life are all the material badges of success – as distinct from home, family, personal relationships and deeper values. What we are also perhaps seeing is the beginning of a glimmer of recognition that maybe it’s not all that good idea to be showing it off so much in a wider world where per capita income in the world’s richest country is 100 times higher than the poorest, as compared to a ratio of just 9 to 1 a century ago; where in a number of places not just relative but absolute levels of poverty are growing as well; and where around half the world’s 6 billion people are struggling to survive on less than $2 a day, and have never seen a personal computer or even made a telephone call.
There’s one other value, of particular resonance with this audience, that has been getting a lot of attention in the aftermath of 911 – not so much in the context of the US or the West, but rather that of the regions of the world where terrorism is bred - and that is education. The relationship between the rise of Islamist extremism and the collapse of the secular public education system in a number of countries has been much remarked upon – especially in Pakistan, where poor families have been left with no alternative but to send their children to madrassas, with an almost wholly religious curriculum designed in the 18th Century, the numbers of which have grown from 3000 in the late 70s to 39,000 today. If ever there was a job for educationists, and a priority target for development assistance in the Middle East and West Asia, this is it - and it’s encouraging to see the extent to which that has been accepted.
I’ve tried to make a case for deriving at least a little good cheer from the aftermath of events which themselves had nothing but horror about them. It’s the fate of optimists to be constantly disappointed by the real world - optimism, as they say, is simply the triumph of hope over experience - and it may be that many of the developments I have mentioned will prove all too unhappily transitory.
But it’s the nature of optimists to bounce back, and that’s an important dynamic in the world out there. Optimism can be just as self-fulfilling as pessimism and despair, and if it leads you to take risks – hoping always that some good will come from disturbing the status quo – then just occasionally some good is just what will happen. A little bit of intelligent, adventurous optimism, combined with some faith in basically decent values and the ultimate power of good to triumph over evil, is what not only the United States, but the whole world, mosts need right now. And the more people there are saying that, and believing it, and acting upon it, the faster we will put the horror of 11 September behind us and create a world which is a genuinely better place for all its citizens.