A distorted view of the present is the worst way to prepare for the challenges of the future. To describe the struggle against international terrorism as “World War IV, as the leading American neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz does in his new book, is wrongheaded in any number of ways.
First of all, when and where was World War III? The Cold War, precisely because it never became “hot, was never the equivalent of World War I or II. Of course, the “World War reference may be intended to create an “us versus “them logic, but this does not correspond to the nature of the challenge posed by radical Islam, given the complexity and the many divisions that exist within the Muslim world. Indeed, by militarizing our thinking, it renders us incapable of finding the right answers, which must be as much political as security-oriented.
As always, words are important, because they can easily be turned into weapons that boomerang on those who use them inappropriately. Wrong analogies have already led America to disaster in Iraq, which had nothing in common with Germany or Japan after World War II – the parallel that some in the Bush administration used in arguing that democracy could be made to sprout in former dictatorships through occupation.
Obviously, the terrorist threat is real and endures, as the recent foiled plot in Germany attests. That plot, which included a young German convert to Islam, showed once again that terrorists can threaten us from both without and within. The nihilistic and destructive instincts that some young Germans of the Baader/Meinhof generation acquired from extreme leftist ideology in the 1970’s, it seems, can be transformed into a “romanticization of al-Qaeda.
We must of course protect ourselves in the most serious and determined manner from the threat that terrorism may pose should, say, extremists acquire nuclear or biological weapons. Intelligence, diplomacy, security forces, and educating people to the requirements of life lived under the shadow of an invisible menace must all be brought to bear. A certain “Israelization of our daily lives has unfortunately become inevitable.
But that does not mean that we must become literally obsessed with terrorism at the expense of losing sight of broader historical challenges. The assassination of the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at Sarajevo in July 1914 was not the cause of World War I, but its pretext. The big picture then was not the “anarchist plot to destabilize empires, but the rise of exasperated nationalisms, coupled with the suicidal instinct of a decaying order and the fatal mechanism of the logic of “secret alliances.
The big picture then was that, with the transportation revolution and the deployment of mass armies, war could no longer be seen as the continuation of politics through other means. The industrialization of war had made it “obsolete in rational terms. Less than the defeat of Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire, World War I meant the suicide of Europe.
The big picture today is the possible passage of global leadership from the West to Asia. The paranoid reaction of neoconservatives in America to the terrorist threat can only accelerate that process, if not render it inevitable, by endangering our democratic values and thereby weakening the “soft power of the United States, while giving fuel to the terrorist cause.
Terrorism is the product of a fusion within a part of Islam of religious extremism, thwarted nationalism, and what Dostoyevsky called “nihilism. Our challenge is to understand the root causes of these forces and to make distinctions among them. In other words, we are faced with the challenge of complexity, which requires us to ensure that a small minority is not joined by greater forces.
Greater stability in the Middle East, which implies a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, together with more effective integration of Muslims in our societies based on social justice and a stronger humanistic message, are the key elements of a cohesive Western strategy. If we lose sight of that in our struggle against terrorism and its causes, we will be left unable to face successfully the long-term challenge of “Chindia.
Dominique Moisi,a founder and Senior Advisor at Ifri (French Institute for International Relations), is currently a Professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)