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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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The post-September 11 realignments in the international system have been swift and tectonic. Within days, two Great Powers that had confusedly fumbled their way through the period of unchallenged American hegemony in the 1990s began to move dramatically. A third, while not altering its commitments, mollified its militancy. The movement was all in one direction: toward alignment with the United States. The three powers in question -- India, Russia, and China -- have one thing in common: They all border Islam, and all face their own radical Islamic challenges.

First to embrace the United States was India, a rising superpower, nuclear-armed, economically vibrant, democratic, and soon to be the world's most populous state. For half a century since Nehru's declaration of nonalignment, India had defined itself internationally in opposition to the United States. As one of the founders in 1955 of the nonaligned movement at Bandung, India helped define nonalignment as anti-American. Indeed, for reasons of regional politics (Pakistan's relations with China and with the United States) as well as ideology, India aligned itself firmly with the Soviet Union.

That began to fade with the end of the Cold War, and over time relations with the United States might have come to full flower. Nonetheless, September 11 made the transition instantaneous. India, facing its own Taliban-related terrorism in Kashmir, immediately invited the United States to use not just its airspace but its military bases for the campaign in Afghanistan. The Nehru era had ended in a flash. Nonalignment was dead. India had openly declared itself ready to join Pax Americana.

The transformation of Russian foreign policy has been more subtle but, in the long run, perhaps even more far-reaching. It was symbolized by the announcement on October 17 that after 37 years Russia was closing its massive listening post at Lourdes, Cuba. Lourdes was one of the last remaining symbols both of Soviet global ambitions and of reflexive anti-Americanism.

Now, leaving Lourdes is no miracle. It would likely have happened anyway. It is a $200 million a year luxury at a time when the Russian military is starving. But taken together with the simultaneously reported Russian decision to leave Cam Ranh Bay (the former U.S. Naval base in South Vietnam, leased rent-free in 1979 for 25 years), it signaled a new orientation of Russian policy. On his trip to European Union headquarters in early October, President Vladimir Putin made clear that he sees Russia's future with the West -- and that he wants the West to see its future including Russia.

This shift is tactical for now. America needs help in the Afghan war. Russia can provide it. It retains great influence over the "-stans," the former Soviet Central Asian republics. From their side, the Russians need hands off their own Islamic problem in Chechnya. Putin came to deal. In Brussels, he not only relaxed his opposition to NATO's expansion to the borders of Russia, not only signaled his willingness to compromise with the United States on missile defense, but broadly hinted that Russia should in essence become part of NATO.

Were this movement to develop and deepen, to become strategic and permanent, it could become one of the great revolutions in world affairs. For 300 years since Peter the Great, Russia has been unable to decide whether it belongs east or west. But in a world realigned to face the challenge of radical Islam, it is hard to see why Russia could not, in principle, be part of the West. With the Soviet ideology abandoned, Russia's grievances against the West are reduced to the standard clash of geopolitical ambitions. But just as France and Germany and Britain have learned to harmonize their old geopolitical rivalries within a Western structure, there is no reason Russia could not.

Cam Ranh Bay and Lourdes signal Russia's renunciation of global ambitions. What remain are Russia's regional ambitions -- to protect the integrity of the Russian state itself, and to command a sphere of influence including its heavily Islamic "near abroad." For the first decade of the post-Cold War era, we showed little sympathy for the first of these goals and none for the second. We looked with suspicion on Russia's reassertion of hegemony over once-Soviet space. The great fight over Caspian oil, for example, was intended to ensure that no pipeline went through Russia (or Iran), lest Russia end up wielding too much regional power.

That day may be over. Today we welcome Russia as a regional power, particularly in Islamic Central Asia. With the United States and Russia facing a similar enemy -- the radical Islamic threat is more virulent towards America but more proximate to Russia -- Russia finds us far more accommodating to its aspirations in the region. The United States would not mind if Moscow once again gained hegemony in Central Asia. Indeed, we would be delighted to give it back Afghanistan -- except that Russia (and Afghanistan) would decline the honor. But American recognition of the legitimacy of Russian Great Power status in Central Asia is clearly part of the tacit bargain in the U.S.-Russian realignment. Russian accommodation to NATO expansion is the other part. The Afghan campaign marks the first stage of a new, and quite possibly historic, rapprochement between Russia and the West.

The third and most reluctant player in the realignment game is China. China is the least directly threatened by radical Islam. It has no Chechnya or Kashmir. But it does have simmering Islamic discontent in its western provinces. It is sympathetic to any attempt to tame radical Islam because of the long-term threat it poses to Chinese unity. At the just completed Shanghai Summit, China was noticeably more accommodating than usual to the United States. It is still no ally, and still sees us, correctly, as standing in the way of its aspirations to hegemony in the western Pacific. Nonetheless, the notion of China's becoming the nidus for a new anti-American coalition is dead. At least for now. There is no Russian junior partner to play. Pakistan, which has thrown in with the United States, will not play either. And there is no real point. For the foreseeable future, the energies of the West will be directed against a common enemy. China's posture of sympathetic neutrality is thus a passive plus: It means that not a single Great Power on the planet lies on the wrong side of the new divide. This is historically unprecedented. Call it hyper-unipolarity. And for the United States, it is potentially a great gain.

With Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa on the sidelines, the one region still in play -- indeed the prize in the new Great Game -- is the Islamic world. It is obviously divided on the question of jihad against the infidel. Bin Laden still speaks for a minority. The religious parties in Pakistan, for example, in the past decade never got more than 5 percent of the vote combined. But bin Ladenism clearly has support in the Islamic "street." True, the street has long been overrated. During the Gulf War, it was utterly silent and utterly passive. Nonetheless, after five years of ceaseless agitation through Al Jazeera, and after yet another decade of failed repressive governance, the street is more radicalized and more potentially mobilizable. For now, the corrupt ruling Arab elites have largely lined up with the United States, at least on paper. But their holding power against the radical Islamic challenge is not absolute. The war on terrorism, and in particular the Afghan war, will be decisive in determining in whose camp the Islamic world will end up: ours -- that of the United States, the West, Russia, India -- or Osama bin Laden's.


The asymmetry is almost comical. The whole world against one man. If in the end the United States, backed by every Great Power, cannot succeed in defeating some cave dwellers in the most backward country on earth, then the entire structure of world stability, which rests ultimately on the pacifying deterrent effect of American power, will be fatally threatened.

Which is why so much hinges on the success of the war on terrorism. Initially, success need not be defined globally. No one expects a quick victory over an entrenched and shadowy worldwide network. Success does, however, mean demonstrating that the United States has the will and power to enforce the Bush doctrine that governments will be held accountable for the terrorists they harbor. Success therefore requires making an example of the Taliban. Getting Osama is not the immediate goal. Everyone understands that it is hard, even for a superpower, to go on a cave-to-cave manhunt. Toppling regimes is another matter. For the Taliban to hold off the United States is an astounding triumph. Every day that they remain in place is a rebuke to American power. Indeed, as the war drags on, their renown, particularly in the Islamic world, will only grow.

After September 11, the world awaited the show of American might. If that show fails, then the list of countries lining up on the other side of the new divide will grow. This is particularly true of the Arab world with its small, fragile states. Weaker states invariably seek to join coalitions of the strong. For obvious reasons of safety, they go with those who appear to be the winners. (Great Powers, on the other hand, tend to support coalitions of the weak as a way to create equilibrium. Thus Britain was forever balancing power on the Continent by supporting coalitions of the weak against a succession of would-be hegemons.) Jordan is the classic example. Whenever there is a conflict, it tries to decide who is going to win, and joins that side. In the Gulf War, it first decided wrong, then switched to rejoin the American side. That was not out of affection for Washington. It was cold realpolitik. The improbable pro-American Gulf War coalition managed to include such traditional American adversaries as Syria because of an accurate Syrian calculation of who could overawe the region.

The Arab states played both sides against the middle during the Cold War, often abruptly changing sides (e.g., Egypt during the '60s and '70s). They lined up with the United States against Iraq at the peak of American unipolarity at the beginning of the 1990s. But with subsequent American weakness and irresolution, in the face both of post-Gulf War Iraqi defiance and of repeated terrorist attacks that garnered the most feckless American military responses, respect for American power declined. Inevitably, the pro-American coalition fell apart.

The current pro-American coalition will fall apart even more quickly if the Taliban prove a match for the United States. Contrary to the current delusion that the Islamic states will respond to American demonstrations of solicitousness and sensitivity (such as a halt in the fighting during Ramadan), they are waiting to see the success of American power before irrevocably committing themselves. The future of Islamic and Arab allegiance will depend on whether the Taliban are brought to grief.

The assumption after September 11 was that an aroused America will win. If we demonstrate that we cannot win, no coalition with moderate Arabs will long survive. But much more depends on our success than just the allegiance of that last piece of the geopolitical puzzle, the Islamic world. The entire new world alignment is at stake.

States line up with more powerful states not out of love but out of fear. And respect. The fear of radical Islam has created a new, almost unprecedented coalition of interests among the Great Powers. But that coalition of fear is held together also by respect for American power and its ability to provide safety under the American umbrella. Should we succeed in the war on terrorism, first in Afghanistan, we will be cementing the New World Order -- the expansion of the American sphere of peace to include Russia and India (with a more neutral China) -- just now beginning to take shape. Should we fail, it will be sauve qui peut. Other countries -- and not just our new allies but even our old allies in Europe -- will seek their separate peace. If the guarantor of world peace for the last half century cannot succeed in a war of self-defense against Afghanistan(!), then the whole post-World War II structure -- open borders, open trade, open seas, open societies -- will begin to unravel.

The first President Bush sought to establish a New World Order. He failed, in part because he allowed himself to lose a war he had just won. The second President Bush never sought a New World Order. It was handed to him on Sept. 11. To maintain it, however, he has a war to win.

Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

November 12, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 9