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Ten Years On: The West Is in Crisis, but Globalization, Not bin Laden, Is the Culprit

Author: Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow
September 5, 2011
Corriere della Sera

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This is an English translation of the original op-ed, which appeared in Italian in Corriere della Sera.

The transatlantic relationship has been on a rollercoaster ride since September 11, 2001.  Periods of impressive solidarity alternate with moments when Europeans and Americans alike seem ready to wash their hands of strategic partnership. The Iraq war was uniquely divisive, American drone strikes remain controversial, and forging a collective strategy toward Afghanistan, Libya, and the Arab Spring has been no easy task. Nonetheless, Europe and the United States have admirably weathered the ups and downs in their relationship and demonstrated impressive cohesion in facing the new set of strategic challenges that emerged on September 11.

But even if reasonably unified and effective in dealing with terrorism and the broader Middle East, the Atlantic democracies have fared less well when it comes to their own affairs. Indeed, what is perhaps most striking about the current state of the Atlantic community is its pervasive political weakness. At least for now, the most pressing threat to the well-being of the West stems not from Islamic extremism, but from the incapacity of Europe and America alike to tackle their own political and economic troubles. The United States is suffering through a period of paralyzing polarization, while the EU is facing perhaps its most severe political crisis ever.

September 11 has played only a tangential role in spawning this political crisis within the West.  Bush's response to the attacks – the invasion of Iraq in particular – certainly polarized the U.S. electorate and added to America's economic woes.  And in Europe, a decade of heightened confrontation with Islamic extremism has made immigration an even more controversial issue and strengthened the appeal of the far right's anti-immigrant and anti-EU message.

But the attacks of September 11 and the political weakness of the West are more closely linked than meets the eye. Indeed, the chief culprit in this enfeeblement of the West may well be globalization – the same force that soon after 9/11 was frequently identified as one of the main causes of Islamic extremism.  Threatened by the socio-economic, political, and cultural dislocation produced by a globalized world, extremists were fighting back and seeking to drive out Western influence from their communities.  For many, the attacks of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed were unmistakable signs of the “clash of civilizations” brought on by an interdependent world.

In the end, however, globalization has weakened rather than strengthened Islamic extremists.  Al-Qaeda may have made good use of the internet to recruit and organize.  But the West has made better use of it to monitor and disrupt terror cells and to cut off their sources of funding.  The 9/11 perpetrators used aircraft to attack the United States, but a combination of intelligence and military power have ultimately proved effective in tracking down Osama bin Laden and putting Al-Qaeda on the run.

Perhaps most importantly, globalization has played a central role in bringing to life the Arab Spring. Social networks and the popular movements they have facilitated have helped produce the stirrings of political change and begun to bring down the repressive regimes that have long held back progress and opportunity in the broader Middle East. Such progress is ultimately the best antidote to extremism.

But even as globalization has done more to neutralize than intensify the threat that Islamic extremism poses to the Atlantic community, it is taking a more direct toll on the West by undermining its own political and economic vitality. The United States is tied up in knots just as the renationalization of European politics is eating away at the EU's sense of unity and purpose. It can hardly be accidental that both sides of the Atlantic are simultaneously experiencing acute problems of governance.

Globalization appears to be weakening state capacity at the same time that it confronts electorates with new challenges that they look to their governments to address. It erodes the capacity of open and democratic states by penetrating borders and rooting around the normal levers of control that governments have at their disposal.  Unable to respond adequately to global challenges – volatile capital markets, de-industrialization, global warming, and immigration, to name a few – democratic governments face an angry brand of populism that makes matters worse. The resulting gap between the demand for good governance and its short supply alienates voters and leaves governments only less effective and more vulnerable.

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, coined the phrase “super-empowered angry man” to refer to extremists of the sort that attacked the United States on September 11.  A decade after the tragic events of that day, empowered and angry men and women right here at home pose the more telling challenge to the well-being of the West.

The risk at hand is that even as the West enjoys solidarity in confronting external threats to its security, the Atlantic community could erode from within as liberal democracies face crises of legitimacy and effectiveness that go unaddressed. The West will thrive in the years ahead only if its constituent members enjoy political and economic solvency.  Getting the West's own house in order will require nothing less than breathing new life into its political and economic institutions, which only then will be able to manage effectively globalization and ensure that the West remains the world's anchor of liberal values and purpose.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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