The Magazine

The Real New World Order

The American and the Islamic challenge

Nov 12, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 09 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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On September 11, our holiday from history came to an abrupt end. Not just in the trivial sense that the United States finally learned the meaning of physical vulnerability. And not just in the sense that our illusions about the permanence of the post-Cold War peace were shattered.

We were living an even greater anomaly. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and the emergence of the United States as the undisputed world hegemon, the inevitable did not happen. Throughout the three and a half centuries of the modern state system, whenever a hegemonic power has emerged, a coalition of weaker powers has inevitably arisen to counter it. When Napoleonic France reached for European hegemony, an opposing coalition of Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria emerged to stop it. Similarly during Germany's two great reaches for empire in the 20th century. It is an iron law: History abhors hegemony. Yet for a decade, the decade of the unipolar moment, there was no challenge to the United States anywhere.

The expected anti-American Great Power coalition never materialized. Russia and China flirted with the idea repeatedly, but never consummated the deal. Their summits would issue communiqu s denouncing hegemony, unipolarity, and other euphemisms for American dominance. But they were unlikely allies from the start. Each had more to gain from its relations with America than from the other. It was particularly hard to see why Russia would risk building up a more populous and prosperous next-door neighbor with regional ambitions that would ultimately threaten Russia itself.

The other candidate for anti-hegemonic opposition was a truncated Russia picking up pieces of the far-flung former Soviet empire. There were occasional feints in that direction, with trips by Russian leaders to former allies like Cuba, Iraq, even North Korea. But for the Russians this was even more a losing proposition than during their first go-round in the Cold War when both the Soviet Union and the satellites had more to offer each other than they do today.

With no countervailing coalition emerging, American hegemony had no serious challenge. That moment lasted precisely ten years, beginning with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. It is now over. The challenge, long-awaited, finally declared itself on September 11 when the radical Islamic movement opened its worldwide war with a, literally, spectacular attack on the American homeland. Amazingly, however, this anti-hegemonic alliance includes not a single Great Power. It includes hardly any states at all, other than hostage-accomplice Afghanistan.

That is the good news. The bad news is that because it is a sub-state infiltrative entity, the al Qaeda network and its related terrorists around the world lack an address. And a fixed address -- the locus of any retaliation -- is necessary for effective deterrence. Moreover, with the covert support of some rogue regimes, this terrorist network commands unconventional weapons and unconventional tactics, and is fueled by a radicalism and a suicidal fanaticism that one does not normally associate with adversary states.

This radicalism and fanaticism anchored in religious ideology only increased our shocked surprise. We had given ourselves to believe that after the success of our classic encounters with fascism and Nazism, then communism, the great ideological struggles were finished. This was the meaning of Francis Fukuyama's End of History. There would, of course, be the usual depredations, invasions, aggressions, and simple land grabs of time immemorial. But the truly world-historical struggles were over. The West had won. Modernization was the way. No great idea would arise to challenge it.

Radical Islam is not yet a great idea, but it is a dangerous one. And on September 11, it arose.


It took only a few hours for elite thinking about U.S. foreign policy to totally reorient itself, waking with a jolt from a decade-long slumber. During the 1990s, American foreign policy became more utopian and divorced from reality than at any time since our last postwar holiday from history in the 1920s. The liberal internationalists of the Clinton era could not quite match the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact abolishing war forever for sheer cosmic stupidity. But they tried hard. And they came close.