Two Years Later, a Thousand Years Ago

The New York Times, 11 September 2003

Among the ideas that seemed to collapse along with the twin towers two years ago was a view of globalization as a kind of manifest destiny. Unlike the 19th-century version of manifest destiny, this vision didn’t involve expanding America’s borders. Rather, America’s values—notably economic and political liberty—would spread beyond those borders, covering the planet. And this time around America’s mission didn’t have the widely assumed blessing of God. But it had the next best thing: the force of history. Globalization was seen by some as a nearly inevitable climax of the human story—destiny of a secular sort.

In some versions of this scenario, like neoconservative ones, tough American guidance might be needed—coercing China, say, toward democracy. In other versions, international economic competition would do the coercing. After all, microelectronics was making free markets a more essential ingredient in prosperity, and free markets work best with free minds. As some libertarians saw things, all you had to do was end trade barriers and then sit back and enjoy the show.

Some show. As commentators started noting around Sept. 12, 2001, the terrorists had turned the tools of globalization—cellphones, e-mail, international banking—against the system. What’s more, their grievances had grown partly out of globalization, with its jarringly modern values. It started to seem as if globalization, far from being a benign culmination of history, had carried the seeds of its own destruction all along.

Two years later, that view is still defensible. Though the United States has been free from serious terrorism, anti-American terrorist networks are intact—and the war in Iraq has given them both a new rallying cry and conveniently located targets. Further, Islamist terrorism is assuming more global form; one can imagine a chain of attacks setting off a worldwide economic tailspin. With biotechnology and nuclear materials emphatically not under control, out-and-out collapse in some future decade is possible.

Still, viewed against the backdrop of history, the case for a kind of manifest destiny is stronger than ever. In this version, America’s mission is different from the ones libertarians and neoconservatives have in mind—passive role model or aggressive evangelizer, respectively. It is in some ways a grander mission, carrying a deep and subtle moral challenge. Indeed, the challenge is so deep, and so natural an outgrowth of history, that the idea of destiny in some nonsecular sense isn’t beyond the pale. In any event, Sept. 11, 2001, illustrates the challenge in painfully vivid form.

Globalization dates back to prehistory, when the technologically driven expansion of commerce began. Early advances in transportation—roads, wheels, boats—were used to do deals (when they weren’t used to fight wars). So too with information technology. Writing seems to have evolved in Mesopotamia as a recorder of debts. Later, in the form of contracts, it would lubricate long-distance trade.

All this is grounded in human nature. People instinctively play nonzero-sum games—games, like economic exchange, in which both players can win. And technological advance lets them play more complex games over longer distances. Hence globalization.

What makes globalization precarious is that nonzero-sum relationships typically have a downside: both players can lose as well as win. Their fortunes are correlated, their fates partly shared, for better or worse. As a web of commerce expands and thickens, this interdependence deepens. The ancient world saw prosperity spread but also saw vast downturns—like collapse across the eastern Mediterranean around 1200 B.C.

One reason trouble can spread so broadly is that it often uses the economic system’s conduits of transportation or communication. The collapse of 1200 B.C. seems to have been abetted by raiders who exploited shipping lanes. In the Middle Ages, the bubonic plague moved from city to city along avenues of commerce. Today a bioweapon could spread death globally the same way. And support for terrorism proliferates via the very satellites that convey stock prices, as appeals from Osama bin Laden, or images of civilian casualties in Iraq or Gaza, are beamed around the world.

One way to protect an expanding realm of interdependence is through expanded governance. The Roman Empire, in its heyday, kept vast trade routes secure. But governance needn’t come in the form of a full-fledged state. In the late Middle Ages, merchants in German cities formed the Hanseatic League to repel pirates and brigands.

Today the globalization of commerce, and of threats to it, has created the rudiments of international governance, from the World Health Organization to arrangements for policing nuclear weapons. Global governance sounds radical, but it’s just history marching on—commerce making the world safe for itself.

In light of 9/11, there is room for improvement. For starters, we need more routine and forceful means of policing the world’s nuclear materials and, more challenging still, its biotechnology infrastructure. This will involve rethinking national sovereignty—for example, accepting visits from international inspectors in exchange for the reassuring knowledge that they visit other countries, too. But we have little choice. The aftermath of the Iraq war suggests that even a superpower can’t afford to invade every country that may have illicit weapons.

History’s expansion of commerce has entailed the growth not just of governance, but of morality. Doing business with people, even at a distance, usually involves acknowledging their humanity. This may not sound like a major moral breakthrough. But prehistoric life seems to have featured frequent hostility among groups, with violence justified by the moral devaluation, even dehumanization, of the victims. And recorded history is replete with such bigotry. The modern idea that people of all races and religions are morally equal is often taken for granted, but viewed against the human past, it is almost bizarre.

Can moral enlightenment really be rooted in crass self-interest as mediated by the nonzero-sum logic of expanding economic interdependence? Certainly that would explain why an ethos of ethnic and religious tolerance is most common in highly globalized nations like the United States. And it would help explain why, in contrast, open hatred of Christians or Jews is found in some Muslim countries that aren’t deeply, organically integrated into the global economy.

Some favor a different explanation, blaming belligerent passages in the Koran for radical Islam’s intolerance. But during the Middle Ages, when Islamic civilization was at the forefront of globalization, and co-existence with Christians and Jews made economic sense, Islamic scholars devised the requisite doctrines of tolerance. Muslims can read Scripture selectively when conditions warrant, just as many cosmopolitan Christians and Jews are profitably unaware of the jihads advocated in Deuteronomy.

Globalization, then, might eventually dampen the appeal of radical Islam, especially if economic liberty indeed tends to bring political liberty. In a world of economically intertwined free-market democracies, not only will more Muslim elites rub elbows with non-Muslims in business class, but also more young Muslims will have nonlethal outlets for their energies, thanks to new avenues for political activism and economic ambition.

Sounds great—and, in fact, it’s a prospect that has been hopefully invoked by many, including some hawks in advocating war with Iraq. But before deciding how to get from here to there, we might ponder one of history’s lessons: bursts of technological progress can bring great instability. A particularly unsettling parallel with the current moment lies in a previous revolution in information technology, the coming of the movable-type printing press to Europe in the 15th century.

When transmitting information gets cheaper, groups that lack power can gain it. Within weeks of Martin Luther’s unveiling his 95 Theses in 1517, German printers in several cities took it upon themselves to sell copies. An amorphous and largely silent interest group—people disenchanted with the Roman Catholic Church—crystallized and found its voice. Protest was now feasible. (Hence the term Protestant.)

The ensuing erosion of central authority went beyond the church. The ‘’wars of religion’’ that ravaged Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries were about politics, too, and by their end the Hapsburgs, not just the pope, had lost possessions. If Europe’s powers had adjusted more gracefully to the decentralizing force of print, much bloodshed might have been averted.

Today, similarly, new information technologies allow previously amorphous or powerless groups to coalesce and orchestrate activities, from peaceful lobbying to terrorist slaughter. And the revolution is young. As the Internet goes broadband, Osama bin Laden’s potent recruiting videos will get more accessible—viewable on demand from more and more parts of the world. Other terrorist televangelists may spring up, too. As in the age of print, far-flung discontent will grow more powerful—often through peaceful means, but sometimes not.

Paradoxically, the increasing volatility of intense discontent puts Americans in a more nonzero-sum relationship with the world’s discontented peoples. If, for example, unhappy Muslims overseas grow more unhappy and resentful, that’s good for Osama bin Laden and hence bad for America. If they grow more secure and satisfied, that’s good for America. This is history’s drift: technology correlating the fortunes of ever-more-distant people, enmeshing humanity in a web of shared fate.

The architects of America’s national security policy at once grasp this crosscultural interdependence and don’t. They see that prosperous and free Muslim nations are good for America. But they don’t see that the very logic behind this goal counsels against pursuing it crudely, with primary reliance on force and intimidation. They don’t appreciate how easily, amid modern technology, resentment and hatred metastasize. Witness their planning for postwar Iraq, with spectacular inattention to keeping Iraqis safe, content and well informed.

Nor do they seem aware, as they focus tightly on state sponsors of terrorism, that technology lets terrorists operate with less and less state support. Anarchic states—like the ones that may now be emerging in Iraq and Afghanistan—could soon be as big a problem as hostile states.

Grasping the new challenge of terrorism doesn’t render the problem simple or undermine President Bush’s entire terrorism strategy. Obviously, we can’t grow so concerned with grassroots opinion that we give in to specific terrorist demands. And sometimes we may have to use force in ways that, in the short run, inflame anti-Americanism. And so on.

Still, only if we see the growing power of grassroots sentiment will we give due attention to the subject that hawks so disdain: ‘’root causes.’’ With hatred becoming Public Enemy No. 1, a successful war on terrorism demands an understanding of how so much of the world has come to dislike America. When people who are born with the same human nature as you and I grow up to commit suicide bombings—or applaud them—there must be a reason. And it’s at least conceivable that their fanaticism is needlessly encouraged by American policy or rhetoric.

Putting yourself in the shoes of people who do things you find abhorrent may be the hardest moral exercise there is. But it would be easier to excuse Americans who refuse to try if they didn’t spend so much time indicting Islamic radicals for the same refusal. Somebody has to go first, and if nobody does we’re all in trouble.

Even if we dawdle, and make no progress on either the moral or governmental fronts—fail to move toward a global norm of tolerance and toward sound global governance—history will eventually concentrate our minds. A nuclear explosion, or epic bioterrorism, will lead even some hardened unilateralists to embrace arms control and other multilateral actions.

But it would be nice to avoid the million deaths. Besides, if we wait until an American city is erased, by then hatred of America will be broad and deep. One can imagine national and global policing regimes that could keep us fairly secure even then, but they would be severe, with expanded monitoring of everyday life and shrinking civil liberties.

In other words, the age-old tradeoff between security and liberty increasingly involves a third variable: antipathy. The less hatred there is in the world, the more security we can have without sacrificing personal freedom. Assuming we like our liberty, we have little choice but to take an earnest interest in the situation of distant and seemingly strange people, working to elevate their welfare, exploring their discontent as a step toward expanding their moral horizons—and in the process expanding ours. Global governance without global moral progress could be very unpleasant.

As the world’s most powerful nation, and one of the world’s most ethnically and religiously diverse nations, America is a natural leader of this moral revolution. America is also well positioned to lead in shaping a judicious form of global governance.

This role wasn’t inevitable. But for a few quirks of history, some other nation might be on top at this moment of challenge. What was more or less inevitable, in my view, is the challenge itself. All along, technological evolution has been moving our species toward this nonzero-sum moment, when our welfare is crucially correlated with the welfare of the other, and our freedom depends on the sympathetic comprehension of the other.

That history has driven us toward moral enlightenment—and then left the final choice to us, with momentous stakes—is scary but inspiring. Some, indeed, may see this as evidence of the higher purpose that was widely assumed back in the 19th century. But a religious motivation isn’t necessary. Simple self-interest will do. That’s the beauty of the thing.