Will there be a bin Laden peace dividend?

By Chrystia Freeland
May 6, 2011

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.

6 comments

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OBL’s demise has less to do with making the world safer than the popular uprisings currently taking place in the Middle East. If oligarchy does not give way to anarchy as these autocratic regimes are overthrown, figures like OBL will lose their popularity. Our policy in the region should focus on nurturing democracy without engaging in neocon nation building.

Posted by Fishrl | Report as abusive

Whatever demon needs to be created, to justify the non-stop, unlimited commitment to Israel, will be created. It clearly does not matter what you call the demon, he/she must be unleashed to justify what is done to the American people.

Everyone who is skeptical ought to reread Orwell’s 1984.

War without end.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

The celebrations over the very cagey death of Bin Laden are a little premature. I felt good for a few hours and than started to remember a few things. It’s an ambiguous triumph that is only a triumph if one thinks the death of a very elusive character, with a vaguely defined role as commander of his forces, actually proves to stop anything. He was “Emmanuel Goldberg” txgadfly refers to.

Bin Laden was called an “evil mastermind” “a fanatic bent on destroying the infidel”, “the democratic governments”, the “dictatorial regimes”, “western influence in the ME” “capitalism” and almost anything else anyone cared to project onto him.

But his death didn’t change any of the core reasons he existed at all, did it? The Israeli’s are recalcitrant and really haven’t wanted to respond to any peace initiatives. And 50 years of UN resolutions are meaningless to them. And so was the World Court decision regarding their new “ghetto” wall that conveniently gobbles up a little more territory across borders that are so amazingly flexible when they want them changed to suit themselves. And now that Fatah and Hamas are actually talking together and trying to create a state that deals with their own difficulties, that has become yet another reason for the Israeli’s not to engage them. Face it – the fate of about 500,000 illegal settlers and billions of shekels of real estate development hangs on not dealing with the issue and on diverting attention from it.

The uprisings in the ME have yet to show what they will produce. How much organizational leadership does it really take to plant bombs anyway? They are cheap, easy and anyone can do it. Civil wars make populations loose blood and treasure and anyone engaged in them from outside does likewise.

Iran may or may not be producing nuclear weapons but that show is on hold for now. I haven’t read much about them in months. Not in Reuters anyway. It’s a ripe joke that the veto power on the SC is held by the big boys who built their arsenals when it was the politically fashionable thing to do and keep them still. Hypocrites can and only resort to bullying because they cannot lead by example.

What is a position that will create long-term economic success? What country, or even empire, has ever enjoyed long term economic success? That term is almost as ambiguous as the term “war on terror”. I’m not sure what “money” means any more either.

I’m still trying to figure out what “closure” means. Maybe you only get it if you have a short concentration span and an equally short memory?

And don’t forget to read Brave New World. A lot of my best friends are on some kind of Soma. I use a variant of it but nothing beats a long nap.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Very wishful thinking… there will be no GWOT peace dividend. Obama & company are GWOT warrior-enthusiasts and will not abandon their crusade. Indeed, Obama has taken the use of drones to a new level. I would not be surprised to see the Obama neo-neo-cons decide to “do something” about Pakistan. If Iraq is good for decade or war, Pakistan must be good for a generation worth of war.

Consider the nonsense today of Chuck Schumer wanting to have airport-style security for passenger rail in the US. Can you imagine anything so stupid?

We have a $1 trillion annual expenditure on the national security state and there can be little doubt that it will continue at these gargantuan levels until the day when the US collapses like all other empires before it.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

The truth of the matter is Osmama bin laden was less significant then he has been potrayed .Thw west needs to create an enemy to rule the world. I wont be surprised it creates another Frankenstein.

Posted by Ismailtaimur | Report as abusive

I had to smile at the idea of a bin Laden peace dividend. We first dreamed about one of those around 1990, soon after the dissolution of our old enemy, the Soviet Union. Naturally there never was a dividend. New excuses to feed the armaments manufacturers must always be created. I can’t see why that situation would be any different now.

Instead of gradually ramping down centuries of useless wars, we are hyperactively looking around to find new places to fight. Exactly why this should be so I do not know. It is possible that war has become instinctive for humans.

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive