The Magazine

How to Fight a Superpower

Al Qaeda as an NGO

Dec 31, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 16 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Why? Or rather, why now? Many have propounded theories on the subject, but the theories often suffer from the defect that those putting them forth are also cheerleaders for NGOs--as a new way for people to make their voices heard, as a new route to direct political participation, as a response to new challenges globally and locally, as a way to pressure nations to think beyond national interest, as the only institutions left with the hope of humanizing the global advance of capitalism, etc. No doubt this is all true to some degree. But there is another explanation for the rise of the NGOs that has the virtue of allowing us to see why al Qaeda and its terrorist brethren can properly be said to constitute the dark side of the NGO. It is no accident that NGOs and al Qaeda increased vastly in significance in the decade after the end of the Cold War. They are a logical response to a world that is essentially unipolar.

WHEN THE UNITED STATES emerged as the "world's sole superpower" following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many theorists and commentators thought that American preeminence would be short-lived. A bipolar world characterized by superpower rivalry might be fairly stable, and a multipolar world based on balance-of-power politics could potentially be stable, but a unipolar world? Surely this was a recipe for strife, as other powers would rapidly join forces to balance the biggest power. While the end of the Cold War might have ushered in a "unipolar moment," it was apt to be little more than a moment.

It turns out that this analysis was wrong. The definitive essay on the subject, by William C. Wohlforth, appeared as the lead article in International Security in summer 1999. In it, he swept away decades of international relations clutter and established that a unipolar order was likely to be stable, durable, and peaceful in terms of relations among states. His analysis comports perfectly with the evidence of the past decade, and in this regard, September 11 changed nothing. Where the United States has taken an interest--which is not everywhere in the world and in everything going on--the United States has had decisive influence. Sometimes this has taken the form of military action (Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo), sometimes of the extension of security guarantees (in Europe through an expanding NATO, in East Asia, in the Middle East), and sometimes, as in Central and Latin America, there has been a long commitment to intervene to keep foreign powers out. U.S. dominance extends well beyond the sphere of security; no other country has nearly the influence of the United States in writing rules for international conduct in areas from trade to the Internet to bank secrecy. And again, what is equally striking is that there is no area in which the United States takes any interest in which it does not also have dominant influence.

It seems difficult to the point of impossibility for the United States to act as if it were any less powerful than it is. To a degree, and especially in areas that have long been of only peripheral concern, the United States can forswear action. U.S. non-intervention in response to the horrendous slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda in 1994 is one such example, as was the Clinton administration decision to abandon Somalia following an October 1993 gunfight in Mogadishu with local militia that left 18 American soldiers dead. The breakup of Yugoslavia teaches a related lesson. In the effort to stop the bloodshed and ethnic cleansing there, the United States at first tried to defer to the leadership of European governments. But it turned out that Europeans did not have the means to broker and enforce a peace, and this failure transformed what started as a crisis on the periphery of Europe into a full-blown European crisis. The United States finally took the lead, having learned that the failure to do so results not in others' taking the lead but in no leadership at all.

There was a time when other governments could effectively oppose and sometimes humiliate the United States. Most of these instances, from the Vietnam war to the "Brezhnev Doctrine," had a Cold War backdrop, in which the principal antagonist was not just the local adversary but also the Soviet Union (the taking of U.S. hostages by revolutionary Iran was an exception). But it is, in truth, no longer possible for other governments to plague the United States in this fashion, certainly not without the risk of overwhelming retaliation. One of the most striking details of the Somalia debacle, in Mark Bowden's brilliant telling in "Black Hawk Down," was the near-certain expectation among Somalis that the United States would return in huge force to avenge the American dead. Our retreat came as quite a surprise to them.