The first global crisis of the new era

Felípe González, former Prime Minister of Spain, reflects on the new threats the world faces

Issue 3, Volume 49, 2000


Years of discussion about whether we were entering a new era came to an end on the apocalyptic morning of 11 September. The response of the United States, the explanation of the operation and the threatening riposte and admission of responsibility by Bin Laden left no room for doubt about the radically new nature of armed conflict.

All at once we are beginning to understand that globalisation of information, of the economy and now of terror and insecurity is not something we can accept or reject but rather a different reality, new in many ways, which has to be responded to in new ways.

We must not waste energy on a search, as futile as it is dangerous, for new enemies of cultures or religious beliefs different from our own but rather use all our efforts to investigate the causes of the first global crisis which started off as an economic one but is now a security one.

The need to find the enemy, to put a face to evil, can lead us to criminalise those who have different religions, cultures or skin colours pushing us down a road towards a world split for different reasons than before the fall of the Berlin Wall and all the more dangerous for peace.

Since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the US and the European Union appeared able to put to one side and compartmentalise regional crises, whether they were economic and financial or to do with security. This was the case with the Mexican financial crisis of 1994 and the Asian disturbances of 1998 which quickly spread to Russia and Brazil like an infection. This happened also with the Balkan conflict, the Great Lakes massacre, with the dramatic recrudescence of Israeli-Palestine conflict and many other difficult situations.

Only Japan, among the central powers, suffered a structural crisis, despite its great technological development and its enormous level of savings.

But in 2000 the economic and financial crisis stopped being peripheral and started to seriously affect the US in the first instance and then the European Union. Both economic areas - almost half the world's economy despite relatively small populations - have lost a big part of their savings on the stock exchanges. The American slow-down was something more than the soft landing that Greenspan posited. The Europeans’ presumption that they enjoyed a margin of autonomy that would prevent them from being affected by the braking of the US motor soon dissipated. Thus the worsening of all indicators continued in the first half of 2001 despite the fact that public opinion did not realise its full gravity.

The terrorist attacks of 11 September have added an unprecedented worry to human tragedy. The feeling of insecurity has also lost its regional characteristic and become worldwide. The idea that nothing which happens in any other part of the world is alien to us has gained ground.

The attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon exacerbated an economic crisis that we were already suffering. In fact, although the economic crisis was not the consequence of the 11 September terrorist attack, these events will be mixed in the public mind. And despite the fact that this relationship of cause and effect does not exist, the brutal loss of confidence means that resolving the security problem is a pre-condition for economic recovery and not just an unavoidable need to protect the civilian population.

The fight against terrorism has thus become the principal security interest of the new era. For that reason one must reflect on the threat and the way to face up to it.

Is it possible to find an answer to the security problem which puts so many lives at risk? Is it possible to act to stop the explosion of an economic and financial crisis in which we were already sunk? Is it possible to reduce tensions in many parts of the world which could have incalculable effects? Is it possible to advance down the road of governability in this new global reality of globalisation, of the economy, of finance and now of terror?

The old order of mutually assured destruction disappeared with one of its two protagonists, the Soviet Union. But it has not been replaced by another responding to the new reality. The new paradigm is that there is no paradigm. Neither a uniform way of thought, nor the idea of an unregulated market, so dear to neo-liberal fundamentalists, nor schemes for space shields are sustainable responses to international disorder in the economic, financial and security fields.

The challenge is for us to put aside the politics of stupid demonisation, the contempt for political life as a space for regulated co-existence and as the instrument for the ordering of interests and values in each one of our societies and in the international sphere. With understandable anxiety the cry has gone up for political leadership to respond to the threat, for the guilty men to be found and punished and for some of the confidence lost in a more brutal way than any experienced in the past 50 years to be regained.

But the leadership that is demanded from those same politicians who are being systematically despised cannot be merely verbal; it must be sensitive to citizens' concerns but not dragged along by them; it must be effective rather than spectacular because the immense horror of the tragedy which we are experiencing will abate but the threat will persist, and, if we commit mistakes, grow larger. The new enemy, fanatical enough to commit suicide in the cause of destruction, has created a demand for security in many parts of the population and among those in the economic and financial worlds.

Recovery of confidence demands the definition of the threat and a strategy to reduce it drastically. In the UN terrorism has been made responsible but we have not really advanced towards a definition of it that is acceptable to all. Not even in the European Union.

But the difficulty is that we are not faced by a threat of organised crime which can be fought by police and judges. Nor is it a traditional warlike threat to which defensive weapons can offer a solution. It has components of both but is not fully identifiable with either. For that reason there have been errors of analysis which will not lead to effective remedies though these are proposed in good faith.

When the US says it has suffered a warlike aggression and adduces legitimate defence it is correct, although the form of aggression is not foreseen in the laws of war. This makes the unanimous reaction of the Security Council all the more important in legitimising the US response.

Terrorist phenomena do not usually have an identifiable territorial origin in a state although there are states which, as in this case, assist terrorist groups. But neither do they have a concrete territorial objective though the aggression has been towards the US as is clear from Bin Laden's words.

A threat of this sort demands a combination of police, judicial and military means with strong international intelligence back-up. It is the case that terrorist groups linked to one territory have ever more links with others of different origins, all united in the common interest of creating terror.

Perhaps the most important thing about the globalisation of terror is the need to create a consciousness of solidarity among all in the face of the threat. Or, if you like, a consciousness of intelligent egotism. If that is achieved we will understand that the ‘frontier’ of a nation state has lost its relevance for standing up to the threat.

Citizens can and must know that the fight against criminality in the form of terrorism can be fought effectively if it is seen as the real threat, much more real than the supposed threat from which an anti-missile space shield could defend us. If this is accepted, information is 85 per cent of the fight and the remaining 15 per cent are the operations to capture and destroy the conspiracy.

The most striking thing is that this information is almost entirely available and could reach maximum efficacy if a dozen countries which felt themselves to be friends and allies pooled their resources. But this is not happening. It is easier to exchange information on the classic military terrain than among the intelligence services of these allies.

At the same time we must avoid a drift toward blaming those who do not share our beliefs. We cannot forget that ETA kills people of the same religion or that in Northern Ireland we saw with horror - before the global horror of the Twin Towers - Christian Protestants trying to prevent with bombs Catholic Christian children going to school. Or vice versa. Fanatical murderers are to be found in very different creeds. Rabin lost his life due to his desire for peace with the Palestinians at the hands of a fanatic of his own religious beliefs.

Moreover if we want to build an international order for the new era which answers present challenges and is based on democracy we cannot deny it by our own actions.

The disorder of globalisation - with its cruel increase in inequalities, its uncontainable flow of migrants fleeing poverty or tyranny, the unforeseeable nature of the international financial casino and its growing inter-cultural hatreds - demands an effort to build a new international order for the 21st century adding on factors for greater governability, rather than trying for excessively theoretical constructions of a World Government so beloved of pure Cartesians. (Whom would we accept as president of that World Government?)

Supranational areas such as the EU or Mercosur would be able to continue to set up new, better balanced, more cooperative and kinder structures. A review of the functioning of such bodies as the IMF, the World Bank and the UN itself must go hand in hand with this process.

It is possible, not just desirable, to put in train responses to improve security, identifying and combating the worst criminality we know.

It is possible to do so without sliding towards religious and cultural hatreds, because the problem is not there - though confusion can contribute to worsening it.

It is possible to reduce dangerously violent regional tensions. The Mediterranean, the cradle and meeting place of civilisations, must seek to overcome the violence now present from one end to the other. The Caucasus must follow a similar policy.

It is possible to combat the first great crisis of the new economy which was said to have no cycles and endless benefits, even as we saw the growth of poverty, the loss of quantity and quality of international cooperation and internal cohesion in rich countries.

It is possible to build a political Europe with its basic values in a stronger local democracy and as a world power able to improve internal cohesion and contribute decisively to peace and international solidarity.

We can attack the immediate causes of insecurity and take new measures to end its causes.

All this is urgent, but rather than rush we must prepare ourselves for a long and complex task.