As soon as the shock of the terror attacks on New York and Washington was felt, commentators began saying that September 11, 2001, marked the beginning of a new era in world affairs. It is a misleading interpretation of a horrible event. What was new was the demonstration that a small number of well-organized conspirators could cause thousands of victims in the territory of the “only superpower” and thus show that the US was not any safer from attack than far less mighty nations. But the change of scale and the location of the targets do not represent a transformation of international relations. The terrorists brutally drew our attention to a phenomenon that had long been partly hidden from sight by the cold war and by decolonization, two historical developments that were quite traditional: an epic contest between two great powers, and the troubled birth of a large number of (more or less shaky) new states.
While these struggles went on, something drastically new was emerging: a global society in which states were no longer the only or even the essential players. Insofar as they keep the appearance and trappings of sovereignty, the states are still, on the surface, the shapers of their foreign policies. But unlike in the dominant model of world affairs taught to future academics, statesmen, and businessmen, the goals of states are now only partly “geopolitical,” consisting of territory, resources, security from rivals, prestige, etc. States have increasingly had to take into account the demands and wishes of their people—jobs, welfare, ethnic or religious sympathies and hatreds, protection from internal or external wars, etc. Governments that neglect such preferences and pressures do so at considerable peril. Nothing is purely domestic or purely international anymore.
Even more important has been the recent emergence of a global civil society, made up of people and groups that operate across borders and whose decisions and acts sharply reduce the freedom of maneuver of governments: not only multinational corporations, secular and religious nongovernmental organizations, and investors able to move their money at lightning speed from one stock market to another (and thus to shake up domestic currencies), but also drug cartels, mafias, and terrorists. The distinction between state and civil society is of course artificial. Many of the components of civil society want governments to adopt measures aimed at satisfying their demands, whether for education, pro-tecting the environment, or treatment of AIDS or other illnesses; there are very few “private” actors who do not need and obtain financial or political support from governments. But global civil society has suffered both from neglect by students of world affairs, and from being even more unmanageable than a world of states with only a fragmentary collective governance. The shock of monetary crises in the 1990s was fortunately not strong enough to destroy the world economy. The shock of September 11 has been so great because it resulted from an attack; it was not, moreover, an attack by anonymous speculators on national currencies but …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.