Eight years on, we’re still caught in the shadow of the twin towers. As a rule, terrorism in its proper sense isn’t just morally indefensible — it also doesn’t work. In contrast to mass national resistance campaigns or guerrilla movements, the record of socially disconnected terror groups, from the Russian anarchists onwards, has been one of unmitigated failure. But the wildly miscalculated response of the US government succeeded in turning the Sept. 11 atrocities into what may rank as the most successful terror attack in history.
It also triggered the first of four decisive changes that have ensured that the 21st century’s first decade has transformed the world — in some significant ways for the better. Osama bin Laden’s initial demand was the withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia, which was carried out in short order. But it was former US president George W. Bush’s war on terror that paradoxically delivered the greatest blow to US authority and the world’s first truly global empire, in ways al-Qaeda could scarcely have dreamed of.
Not only did the lawless savagery of the US campaign of killings, torture, kidnappings and incarceration without trial spawn terrorists worldwide and comprehensively dispose of Western pretensions to be the guardians of human rights, but US-British invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, in the latter case on a flagrantly false pretext, starkly exposed the limits of US military power to impose its will on recalcitrant peoples prepared to fight back.
In Iraq, this had already amounted to a strategic defeat — at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives — by the point the US surge bought some time by splitting the resistance movement. Both on a regional and global scale, the demonstration of US military overreach strengthened the hand of those prepared to defy the US and revealed 2003 as having been the high-water mark of US imperial pomp.
The election of US President Barack Obama on a platform of withdrawal from Iraq, and Russia’s crushing response to the attack on South Ossetia by the US client state of Georgia, confirmed that shift by signaling the end of unchecked US unilateralism. The unipolar moment had passed.
The US’ unexpected decline was further underlined by the economic meltdown of the past two years, the greatest crash since the 1930s and the second epochal development which has defined this decade. Incubated in the US and deepened by the vast cost of multiple wars, the crisis has played the greatest havoc with those economies that bought most enthusiastically into the catechism of deregulated markets and unchained corporate power.
A voracious model of capitalism forced down the throats of most of the world for the last 20 years as the only acceptable form of economic management, at a cost of ever-widening inequality and devastating environmental degradation, has now been discredited — and has been rescued from collapse only by the greatest global state intervention ever. In less than 10 years, the baleful global twins of neoconservatism and neoliberalism have been tried and tested to destruction.
Both failures have accelerated the rise of China, the third vital change of the past 10 years, which has not only taken hundreds of millions out of poverty as the economic gap with the US has halved (China has in fact overtaken the US in domestic capital generation), but also begun to create a new center of power in a multipolar world that should expand the freedom of manoeuvre for smaller states. Its blithe disregard for free market orthodoxy has only added to its success in riding out the west’s slump. So perhaps it’s no surprise that western politicians are increasingly anxious to blame China for their own failures, in everything from trade imbalances to the fiasco of the Copenhagen climate change negotiations.
The decade’s last globally significant shift, less often remarked on than the others, has been the tide of progressive social change that has swept Latin America. Driven by the region’s dismal early experience of neoliberal economics, and assisted both by US absorption in the war on terror and the emergence of China, a string of radical socialist and social-democratic governments have been swept to power, attacking social and racial injustice, challenging US domination and taking back resources from corporate control. Twenty years after we were told that there would be no 21st century alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, Latin Americans are creating them here and now.
Of course, the positive dimensions of the events of this decade come with a heavy dose of qualifications. The US will remain the richest and overwhelmingly dominant global power, with a military presence in most countries in the world, for the foreseeable future. Its defeat in the Middle East, in any case partial, has been bought at huge human cost. It continues to wage the war on terror, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. And the emerging global multipolarity brings its own risks of conflict.
Free market capitalism may now be reviled, but governments have mortgaged their citizens’ futures to keep it afloat, while the crisis has generated mass unemployment and attacks on the living standards of the already poor across the world. China’s success has been bought at a high price in civil rights and inequality. And in Latin America, the elites show every sign of wanting to reverse the social gains of the past decade, as they have already succeeded in doing by violent coup in Honduras, with US acquiescence.
But at least there is now more space for progressive movements and states to maneuver. The Washington consensus is gone and the post-Soviet new world order is mercifully no more. Who predicted that at the millennium? Meanwhile, citizens of the US and its allies have shown increasing reluctance to send their sons and daughters to die in neocolonial wars. With the re-emergence of other independent powers, American leaders might even see the advantage in a rules-based system of international relations.
Liberal commentators in the US have branded the past 10 years as a “lost decade” and a “big zero.” They have certainly seen catastrophes and crimes on a wanton scale. But for most of the rest of the world, there have also been crucial advances.
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