Each generation assumes it lives through tumultuous times. But as we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we can surely claim that the last ten years will be remembered as a decade of extraordinary volatility and insecurity. We now assume – as if it is a basic law of the universe – that 9/11 not just changed the world but set in train a sequence of events that has pitched the world on a roller coaster ride of seismic geo-political activity.
The evidence seems compelling. 9/11 turned Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden from shadowy obscurity to global infamy overnight. The US and a coalition of allies went to war in Afghanistan to destroy their capability to repeat the carnage. A similar US-led coalition was then distracted from Afghanistan into regime change in Iraq.
Al Qaeda and its affiliates continued to plan attacks. Some succeeded horribly in London, Madrid, Bali and elsewhere. Others were frustrated by the massive international counter–terrorism effort designed to stop them. But we became conditioned to the inevitability of future attacks. This anxiety was used to justify forms of intelligence gathering – extraordinary rendition, water-boarding and other techniques we had previously preferred not to know about.
Public support fractured. The moral clarity of the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was replaced in part by cynicism in the west as the objectives of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became less about building shiny new nations and more about bringing our troops home with a modicum of dignity intact. In the west, opinion seemed to oscillate between aggressive defensiveness from the political right and hand-wringing contrition from the left. There seemed little room in which a coherent central consensus could coalesce.
In the Muslim world responses varied. In countries like Saudi Arabia, pragmatic support for the US remained firm not least out of a shared animosity to Iran as well as fear of local, radical Islamism. In Pakistan, fragile political stability was ruptured by the spill over from Afghanistan culminating in the killing of Osama Bin Laden by US Special Forces a few miles from one of Pakistan’s top military establishments. In 2011, the prospect of an enduring peace between Israel and Palestine remains pretty much where it started ten years earlier: nowhere.
To everyone’s surprise – including the senior leadership of a deflated Al Qaeda – the decade ends with the wave of revolts against corruption and incompetence that has spread across North Africa and the Middle East dispatching rulers in Tunisia and Egypt and disrupting the dynastic plans of the Gaddafi family. Syria hangs in the balance. Theirs is an unfinished story and despite the acres of analysis and theorising on why all this happened and where it will end, the only thing we know for sure is that unpredictability is the only certainty.
It does seem that our world has been spinning faster and that threats are multiplying. Somalia is no longer a state in anything other than name and is currently ravaged by the tragedy of an entirely avoidable famine while teenage pirates push ever further from the country’s shores to hold the global shipping industry for ransom. Where Somalia leads, Yemen follows.
If we add in the spate of natural disasters in recent years – Louisiana, Haiti, Queensland, Tohoku -then our sense that our fragile planet is in peril is magnified further. And it is not as if there is any comfort to be found in economic performance. The US and Europe are still reeling from the financial crisis in 2008 and America’s economic woes have reduced its political processes to a farce. Or is it the other way around?
Greece is now – to adapt a phrase – Upper Volta with temples. And even if the Euro survives, it will take ages for the cause of greater pan-European integration to regain any genuine credibility. The UK is desperate to be smug about the misfortune of its continental near neighbours but for the fact that the UK banking system is up to its neck in Euro debt. Only Germany in Europe seems to know the secret elixir for strong growth that combines upper-end manufacturing with a modern service economy.
So is it any surprise that this catalogue of calamity and woe should leave us feeling insecure? No, of course not. But it is an inaccurate view of the world.
For a start, it is a singularly trans-Atlantic perspective. The last ten years feel very different if you have spent the decade in Beijing, Bangalore or, indeed, Bogota. We take for granted the extraordinary economic transformation underway in India, China, Turkey, Korea, Brazil and many other countries. Russia stands apart for not making bigger structural changes to an economy padded and protected by the hydro-carbon boom of the last few years.
But given their scale, it is India and China that stand out for how they have reshaped the world. Inevitably, the west tends to focus on the new China as a rival and India as a partner. This may be reality or a function of cultural familiarity and the fact that India has made a shorter ideological journey to embrace market economics. As a consequence, less attention is given to the stabilising impact of China’s integration into the world economy and the opportunities that this opens up for the rest of us.
Of course, there is much that could go wrong. A successful outcome for China’s plan for combining free-ish market capitalism without western-style democracy is not assured. So much is dependent on the competence of China’s meritocratic leadership steering a steady course both internationally and domestically. By contrast, Manmohan Singh apart, India prospers despite of not because of its political leadership.
But the key point is that more of the world – in fact, nearly all of the world – is open for business on a scale never before seen in human history. And Chinese and Indian growth has been such an important factor in creating this prosperity. Since 2001, the global economy has grown from $47 trillion to $74 trillion, the world’s population has increased by 800 million and millions have been lifted out of poverty. Sometime in 2008, a majority of us started living in cities, a trend set to accelerate.
Despite these massive changes, since 9/11 there have been fewer wars, fewer coups, fewer refugees and less terrorism than at any time in the recent past. More people than ever before face the prospect of being able to live longer, more safely, earn more, trade more freely and fairly and improve the prospects for their children.
Even in Africa, which too frequently underperforms other regions, there will be twenty elections this year – not all of them models of Scandinavian-style democracy admittedly – but nevertheless progress of sorts.
This is not to underplay the seriousness of the problems that have beset us or that we still face. Nuclear proliferation, terrorism, extremism, famine, persistent and appalling poverty, fraud and corruption, resource nationalism, organised crime, environmental degradation, economic shocks: all of these and more are stacked up all around us. They will require all our ingenuity and a quality of political leadership not obviously in abundant supply.
But this has been a decade when we have made a profound shift in improving our per-capita prosperity and security and, crucially, our inter-dependence on each other. America may fear China but it needs it to fund its budget deficit. China may resent America’s continued economic supremacy but it needs access to American markets to keep economic growth at a level needed to maintain social cohesion. Of course, this degree of economic interdependence heightens the contagion risk but overall mutuality is a stabilising restraint and underpins the reality of the relationships between the major powers.
We may be able to rationally demonstrate that we are globally better off than ever before but we find it hard to believe. It is almost as if we want the world to be on the edge of apocalypse. One of the reasons is that we have access to immediate coverage of all the problems from anywhere in the world (actually, almost anywhere; CNN’s Pyongyang coverage is still limited). Overloaded with vivid images of seemingly endless problems, we find it very difficult to distinguish risk from fear. Measuring risk is analytical and objective: experiencing fear is visceral and emotional. We feel the latter when we should assess the former.
To compound this problem, we want the world around us to unfold according to some logical narrative structure. We want events to be linear and to be explicable by what has gone before according to a predictive formula. In so doing, we wilfully ignore the fact that unexpected events are the norm.
It is not just the Arab Spring that has surprised us: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rolling back of the Soviet Bloc in 1989, the peaceful demise of Apartheid, China’s embrace of the market – all of these were not expected to happen according to the prevailing wisdom of the time. The world does not follow neat lines. It is noisy, contradictory and never quite how it seems.
The good news is that many companies are better at dealing with all of this than governments. Better at distinguishing risk from fear and better at responding to the unexpected. Others are less able to adjust seeing risk where they might see opportunity and feeling lost when their carefully laid plans are upturned by an unusual turn of events. Success in the future will favour those best able to see the world as it is: more chaotic and unpredictable for sure but also safer and more prosperous than on this sad anniversary we might feel able to admit.