Will there be a bin Laden peace dividend?
Osama bin Laden is dead. Now it is time for the peace dividend. That’s a phrase you may remember from the early 1990s, when Soviet Communism, the big existential threat of the second half of the 20th century, collapsed. Today, America needs a peace dividend even more than it did 20 years ago. But cashing it in will be a challenge.
That’s partly because, as in 1991, the death of Bin Laden should be the trigger for a much broader rethinking of U.S. foreign policy. That will be tough to initiate. Since 1941, the United States has defined its role in the world largely in opposition to an unambiguously evil foreign enemy: first the Axis powers, then the Soviet bloc, and, for the past decade, Al Qaeda and its allies.
This kind of foreign policy was expensive — but it had the virtue of intellectual and moral clarity. One measure of how comforting this Manichean approach was came from the speed with which the threat posed by Al Qaeda came to be equated with the dangers of Soviet Communism.
Recall an important essay published in January 2002, by Daniel Pipes, titled “Who is the Enemy?” Pipes is literally, as well as figuratively, a son of the Cold War warriors — his father is Richard Pipes, the eminent Russian historian and one of the seminal theorists of totalitarianism and its baleful international impact.
For Pipes fils, radical Islam was the 21st century’s version of Soviet totalitarianism, and it was every bit as dangerous. In his Commentary essay Pipes approvingly quoted the view of Willy Claes, secretary general of NATO in the mid-1990s, that “not only did militant Islam pose the same kind of threat to the West as Communism before it, but the scale of the danger was greater.”
Pipes went on to explain: “The situation, then, is grim. But it is not hopeless, any more than the situation at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union was hopeless. What is required, now as then, is not just precision and honesty in defining the enemy but conceptual clarity in confronting it.”
Even in January 2002, with the horror of the Sept. 11 attack fresh in American minds, that equation of the danger posed by the scraggly, stateless guerillas of Al Qaeda with the nuclear-armed, oil-rich, territorially vast Soviet bloc was a stretch. Today, with bin Laden killed in a commando raid and with tweeting democrats on the rise in much of the Muslim world, the fear that militant Islam was this century’s version of Bolshevism seems even more far-fetched.
Instead, when the euphoria over bin Laden’s death subsides, Americans will realize the foreign policy challenge this generation faces is not quite as extreme, but much more intellectually complex. American foreign policy today cannot be defined by the fight against a single, ideologically clear, enemy.
Instead, the United States faces the much murkier job of helping to figure out the rules of a new world order that is governed neither by a single, dominant hyperpower — as in the Pax Romana, or the brief, sole reign of the United States in the ’90s — nor by the balance of power created by dueling superpowers.
The big international questions in this new, multipolar world are economic: Now that the superpowers aren’t duking it out for global supremacy, the bloodiest power struggles are within countries, not between blocs. But what we haven’t figured out yet is how to manage economic relations between one another.
America is, at least for now, still the world’s largest economy, and, more than any other, it is the country whose economic system has served as a model for everyone else. So it is inevitable — and essential — that the United States should play a leading role in today’s pre-eminent foreign policy challenge of sorting out a new global economic order.
But there are two big obstacles to that sort of energetic, international U.S. economic leadership. The first is America’s massive deficit and government debt — it is hard to be a leader when you are in the red. The second is the enfeebled state of the nation’s middle class. The United States is a true people’s democracy, and it works best when Main Street is prospering. That’s not the case today.
That’s where the peace dividend comes in. America will be the real winner from the killing of Bin Laden if his death can be the beginning of the end of the war on terror and the start of a focus on the problems of the world economy, and the effort to find the right place for America within it.
But performing that pivot won’t be easy. After World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the political perils of what he dubbed the military-industrial complex: “The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.”
He concluded: “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
The war on terror has its own military-industrial-intellectual complex and already its advocates are insisting that bin Laden’s death does not kill the threat posed by militant Islam. Speaking on CNN earlier this week, Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of Defense, warned: “I think OBL will be replaced by a successor. And if we capture and kill the successor, that individual will be replaced. The people are determined. They’re vicious.”
One reason Americans are rejoicing this week is because it is nice to have such dramatic evidence that their state can be competent. An even tougher mission for that state will be to use this week’s military triumph to position the country for long-term economic success.