Fear's Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy in an Age of Interdependence

Oct 21, 2003

Benjamin Barber urges the United States to curb its militaristic impulses in favor of working for "global comity" within the framework of universal rights and law.


JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome members and guests to our Books for Breakfast program.

This morning we are very pleased to have with us Benjamin Barber, who will discuss his book Fear’s Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy.

Less than three years into the twenty-first century, two major events have had an impact on America’s foreign policy and most probably will shape the course of events for years to come: the attacks of 9/11 and the war in Iraq.

Shortly after September 11th, Mr. Bush announced: "In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action, and this nation will act." And act Mr. Bush most certainly has, for in response to the threat of the possibility of future terrorist attacks, this Administration has initiated a war on terrorism, invading countries which it suspected of harboring terrorists or wishing to harm American interests in the future.

This strategy of preemptively waging war, with an underlying belief that "it matters not if they hate us as long as they fear us," is both wrongheaded and dangerous, according to our guest this morning. In Fear’s Empire Mr. Barber suggests that unilateral military action perpetuates an image of America as an aggressive force, which operates outside the accepted precepts of international law and policy.

Mr. Barber contends that the Bush administration's pursuit of this strategy is hazardous and self-defeating, provoking enemies rather than deterring them. He makes an impassioned argument in favor of a multilateral approach, offering a detailed plan for a more conscientious foreign policy alternative.

Benjamin Barber is often referred to as one of the world's most inspiring voices on behalf of democratic citizenship. He is particularly attentive to both civic participation and education, believing as he does in a vibrant civil society. Therefore, it is not surprising that in his new book Fear’s Empire he argues for an American foreign policy that promotes an engaged world citizenship.

Over the years, his theories and concepts have filled thirteen books, including Jihad vs. McWorld, which was prescient in depicting the post-Cold War world as subject to both fragmentation between religious and ethic fundamentalism and the homogeneous forces of global capitalism.

His writings frequently appear in Harpers, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, Le Nouvel Observateur, Die Zeit, and many other scholarly and popular publications in America and Europe.

He was a founding editor and for ten years served as editor-in-chief of the distinguished international quarterly Political Theory. Additionally, he has been the recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Social Science Research Fellowships. In 2001 he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland as Gershon and Carol Kekst Professor of Civil Society and became a principal of the Democracy Collaborative, an organization that undertakes integrated activities aimed at leveraging the resources of higher educational institutions in support of democratic renewal, civil participation, and community building.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest.


BENJAMIN BARBER: Thank you very much. I will introduce some of the themes of my book and explain why the current policies of the Bush Administration are disastrous in the long term for the U.S. and for national security—never mind for ethics and the problems of justice around the world.

The real problem is that this policy is failing to secure the United States, while at the same time it is shrinking our domestic liberties and creating a world in which terror is more, rather than less, likely, and more importantly, in which those nations—many of them not friends, in some cases adversaries—are less, rather than more, likely to be our allies and collaborators in the assault on terror.

The most effective initiative of this Administration in the past two years is the multilateral quiet cooperation with Interpol and with intelligence agencies in nations that are not our friends to track down individual terrorists. But the unilateralist, aggressive military policies have themselves undermined our capacity to collaborate with others, and in countries like Iran, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sudan and Syria, where we need the cooperation of police and intelligence forces, our work militarily in Iraq, and to some degree even in Afghanistan, have gotten in the way.

The President has now waged two wars to achieve the goal of greater security for America, yet even the Administration now agrees that we are no safer. The President continues to warn us that America is vulnerable to further terrorist attacks in the continental U.S. We know that almost nothing has been done in crucial areas of securing the cargo holds of our passenger and cargo planes; of dealing with the millions of containers that come un-inspected from foreign capitals, not just to our ports but from there by truck to cities around the country.

We know that we remain as vulnerable as ever to terrorists operating inside the United States. And we want to remember that 9/11 was itself a set of acts perpetrated not from abroad but by those who had been living inside the country.

When the President first announced after 9/11 that he intended to hold responsible any states that harbored terrorists, I was deeply worried. The notion that you can hold responsible for terrorist acts states that may harbor them is in its simplest form a category mistake. That is to say, the terrorists are not, have not, and will not be states. Terrorism and terrorist organizations are, in effect, malevolent NGOs that operate in the interstices of the American system—they are Criminels Sans Frontières.

One of the problems is that the metaphor that has been used for terrorism is that of a cancer on the body politic of an immune-deficient state. We can call rogue states immune-deficient states, and they grow, in effect, terrorist cancers on them, and one rather extreme way to deal with cancer is to kill the host body. The belief has been that if you kill off the Taliban state, al-Qaeda, the Ba'athist regime, you will kill off any associated terrorist cancers.

The appropriate metaphor for terrorism is not cancer, but mobile parasites living inside of both willing and unwilling hosts. It is no surprise that, although in Afghanistan the Taliban regime is gone, the parasites—al-Qaeda and others—who were there simply moved on.

The mobility of terrorists is a signal that they understand the new interdependence that characterizes the modern era better perhaps than our own government. They have a better grasp of how the world system works today— around forces that operate across borders—whereas the U.S. still believes that nineteenth-century strategies based on national sovereignty and the projection of armed might are an effective way to deal with this new phenomenon that reflects a new global structure.

Just as a seemingly sovereign and powerful United States is not in a position to prevent one job from going offshore, one firm from leaving this country, nor to govern the flows of capital around the world or their uses, neither is it capable through its sovereign military forces of governing the flow of crime and terrorism around the world.

This must be done collaboratively and cooperatively with others, which requires that we work through the international frame of law, through a UN that doesn’t always work well but represents the various countries.

International cooperation, working through, not against, the rule of law, is no longer an idealist aspiration, but, rather, the harsh reality of a new global context in which cooperation and multilateralism are the premise for successful policy in an interdependent world.

The new idealists are that group over in the Pentagon and in the Vice President's office who think you can project American power hegemonically, in a sovereign way, as if we still lived in the nineteenth century. This President reasserted the primacy of American sovereignty. We refused to allow a single American soldier to serve under a commander from another regime, even Canada or NATO, let alone a UN commander, at the same time when the reality of that sovereignty has long since slipped away from the U.S.

Multilateralism is today the council of realism, and unilateralism is the council of idealism, the kind of nineteenth-century idealism that thinks that individual nations can still use their own will.

The President and his government have to some extent played inadvertently into the hands of our adversaries, because the terror started on September 11, 2001 has continued, because in deciding to take on the terrorists with the armed military might of the U.S., our government has, in effect, agreed to fight the war on terrorism’s turf. That turf is fear and terror, the only weapons that terrorism possesses.

The terrorists changed our habits of liberty, of immigration and of a multicultural society whose strength was in its variety and its multiculturalism and its open borders.

We now rely on strategies of "shock and awe," and on a nineteenth-century army whose forces are incommensurable with the forces of terrorism. The Administration responded to the reality of an asymmetrical enemy by saying, "If we can’t find the terrorists, let’s go after the people we can find. We don't know where al-Qaeda is, but we know where the Taliban are, so we'll take out the Taliban." And we have done that, but al-Qaeda and Osama are still on the loose.

But we are not attacking the enemy, because rogue states are not the enemy. Two state regimes have been liquidated that were in many ways dangerous to their own people, and possibly some danger to us, but without any meaningful impact on the terrorist movement, other than perhaps to serve as a powerful recruiting tool for terrorism.

This Administration believes that overthrowing tyranny is synonymous with establishing democracy. But history teaches us that overthrowing tyranny from the outside creates not democracy but anarchy, civil strife, turmoil, and unrest, and the most likely outcome of those conditions is renewed tyranny.

Let me read you a quotation: "If you are going to try to topple Saddam Hussein, you have to go to Baghdad. Once you've got Baghdad, it is not clear what you do with it. It is not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that is currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime, a Kurdish regime, or one that tilts towards the Ba'athists or one that tilts towards Islamic fundamentalists? How much credibility is that government going to have if it is set up by the United States military when it is there? How long does the U.S. military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?"

The author of these words is Vice President Dick Cheney in 1991, commenting on why Bush Sr. should not continue on to Baghdad.

The administration has cultivated what is a new notion of Pax Americana, a way of extending our sovereignty to a dangerous world to try to repress by force any threat to America. But once there, we have a responsibility to create a democratic regime that will no longer be a threat to the U.S. How do you create democracy in regimes that have known only tyranny, theocracy, dictatorship, or even totalitarianism? Our record here is not great.

We insist that the road to democracy leads to privatization and capitalism. We say, "Develop free markets, privatize your industry, and you will have democracy." But this is a misunderstanding of the relationship between capitalism and democracy. Most of us believe that there is meaningful synergy between free societies and free markets, between free government and free markets, but that is not to say free markets constitute and are tantamount to a free society and a free government.

Capitalism needs democracy more than democracy needs capitalism, because it is precisely a regulatory, popular sovereign that is able to embrace and contain the inefficiencies and the paradoxes of capitalism, to do for capitalism what it doesn’t do well for itself.

Capitalism is a remarkably productive system. It produces wealth more efficiently, more grandly, than any economic system the world ever had. It doesn't produce jobs half so well as it produces wealth, and it doesn’t produce social equity and justice anywhere near as well as it ought to.

One of the very first things that Paul Bremer has done in Iraq is to say, "The Iraqis will have a privatized media, a privatized energy industry, and privatized heavy industry."

The decision itself constitutes the most important sovereign decision a new Iraq democracy has to make, and by making it for them we have taken out of their hands the essence of their democracy, and at the same time mistaken the notion that free markets and a free government are one and the same. The notion that the path to democratization lies directly through marketization is itself a terrible mistake.

The second mistake is to believe that democracy is about elections: "Let's get a multiparty system, let’s FedEx the Bill of Rights, let's send over some constitutional experts and show them how to write a constitution." We are much more concerned with the written constitutions and the institutional top-down edifice than the underlying civic infrastructure and foundation on which it necessarily rests.

The future of democracy, if there is one, in Afghanistan and Iraq has much more to do with education than whether you privatize the energy industry. Our adversaries know this, terrorists know this, zealous Wahabi fundamentalists know this. There are 30,000 madrassas, 30,000 Wahabi schools, in Pakistan where young men are being trained, on the one hand, in literacy and the usual subjects and, on the other hand, in ideological hate, theological intolerance, and deep opposition to the West.

You will not find a single political theorist or a single historical instance of a democratic country where civic education, the training of citizens, the development of a civic infrastructure, was not seen as the crucial precondition of making democracy work. Yet when we go to make democracy in Iraq, we think more about creating new police, new prisons, new militia, than about schooling.

But don't we understand that smart children are much better than smart weapons, and that making smart kids creates a world in which you don’t need smart weapons, that it is much more expensive to kill them when they grow up and become terrorists and tyrants and people with small, angry minds? That suggests a way of doing business in the world that America has to understand.

Democratization has to be both fast and slow, and we are doing neither. Fast in the sense that people need to be empowered immediately, because one way to teach responsibility is empowerment. If democracy is anything, it is the right of a people to make their own mistakes, and those mistakes may not please the U.S.

And now people worry: "There's a chance that if democracy comes to Iraq, they will elect a majority, which happens to be Shiite. We might get a Shiite regime." Yes, that’s the way democracy works. The majority does win elections.

But at the same time there needs to also be a lot more patience because real democracy and democratization takes time. It takes learning through mistakes. We have taken a couple of hundred years to not altogether get it right. But in Iraq the pessimists say it will take two years, the optimists say six months. And they worry about holding elections.

The path to democratization, which is to create a world in which terrorism and hostile, mobile terrorist parasites are no longer nurtured by a background environment of abuse, tyranny, marginalization, despair, anger, and outrage, is a world we have to work to achieve. The road to that world is preventive democracy—not preventive war, not making war on states, which, even if you succeed in liquidating tyrannical regimes, doesn't begin to touch the conditions that breed terrorism.

What appalled me after 9/11 was not that a small clannish terrorist organization motivated by a distorted view of what Islam is about and with deep hatred for America and the West had done these dastardly acts, it was that so many men and women around the world, who themselves would never be terrorists and never condone those acts, nonetheless took pleasure in them, celebrating in the streets, seemingly rewarding the terrorists for their acts.

That led us to ask: "Why do they hate us? Why do so many people around the world not get America?"

The answer has to do not with what the Bush Administration has said, that they hate democracy and freedom, but that they detest what they see as our hypocrisy, what they see as our unwillingness to back up in the world what we say we believe here, to be interested in democracy that includes them, to create a world in which their children are as safe and as educated as ours. We are the most multicultural country in the world. We are one of the most open societies, more open in many ways than Europe, to immigration, even undocumented workers. But we tend to project the old nineteenth-century hegemonic militant sovereignty to the world rather than what we represent.

We need to take risks on behalf of a world that is more just, less marginalized, more inclusive, a world that looks more democratic—not a world that looks more like America, but a world in which America looks more like the world.

JOANNE MYERS: I would like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: How did Paul Wolfowitz get his position at Johns Hopkins? Ideologues are not generally rewarded with deanships.

BENJAMIN BARBER: You are too kind to the academy by far. The academy houses all kinds of folks, with all kinds of views. Wolfowitz is an ideologue. He is also an idealist. He has a very simplistic view of the world. But if people were punished for unwarranted or unfounded beliefs in the academy, you would have to eliminate about nine-tenths of the professoriate.

QUESTION: Do you think that America can change in the multilateral cooperative way that you believe and go on to be even more powerful in a different context, or are we now in inexorable decline?

BENJAMIN BARBER: America is not in decline, let alone inexorable decline. Indeed, our potential greatness lies before us in modeling within America the kind of multicultural global society that will eventually look more like the world.

There is extraordinary ambivalence about America in the world. People can't take their eyes off us, and it is not just because of our military power. We represent a seductive, but at the same time seemingly corrupt, civilization. We represent the future, but we also represent the past. We represent extraordinary power, but we also represent potentially extraordinary transparency and openness.

What bothers me about my nation right now is that we seem to project America as if we were a tight, little, nineteenth-century island with a powerful navy and a powerful army and a dominant economy and that’s all we have going for us.

The U.S. has to resume the leadership that it had as the champion of law and of justice. That means finding ways to participate in the international treaty system, in the new International Criminal Court, in the Kyoto Protocol. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a right to demand, given our special power and special responsibility, that our membership be negotiated in terms that serve our special concerns and special interests.

America has a right to say, "If we are going to join the Land Mine Treaty, we need a dispensation. We need it to be recognized that we are often asked to go into places, and therefore we need to negotiate."

The same with the International Criminal Tribunal. I understand that an American policeman that the world wants to be the policeman cannot then allow its soldiers to be subjected to ideological forces in a country that might try to bring a prosecution against them.

QUESTION: What do you see as the UN’s role today?

BENJAMIN BARBER: The UN is like democracy in Churchill's description. The United Nations is the absolutely worst international organization I have ever seen except for all the other international organizations.

We know that nations aren't the ideal units to be represented. Many of them are tyrannical. They don't always represent and embody the populations they govern. There are all kinds of problems of corruption. The General Assembly has become a debating society where it is easy to pass motions that censor various nations based on issues that have nothing to do with real issues of justice.

There are many other organizations out there. The Breton Woods organizations—the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO—are all institutions that in some ways are more democratic, small "d" democratic, than NGOs, which have their constituencies, but are not necessarily transparent.

These Breton Woods institutions are run by the G8 and a group of other nations. To the extent that they are not pursuing the interests of international justice, to the extent they are defending the interests of financial capital and its flows, that is our fault. That is because we have elected governments who go in and say that’s what you want to do.

We also need new forms of global organization. We all know that the NGO sector has become more and more powerful. I would like to see the muscling-up of global civil society, of global NGOs, working more together.

The Community of Democracies is an idea that came out during the Clinton Administration, with George Soros's help and others, and that is an attempt to bring together every couple of years, democracies with NGO groups and get them talking to one another.

If we put the energy and imagination into elaborating the international infrastructure and law, that we put currently into elaborating military hegemony over the world, we could make the system more effective than it is today.

QUESTION: What other dynamics do you think were in force in causing the invasion of Iraq?

BENJAMIN BARBER: I know that many people would answer "Halliburton, oil, wag the dog, revenge for his Dad." Although those all play a role, if I were to identify a paramount or a principal cause, I do believe that national security was Bush's primary motivating factor. He thinks that he is making the world and America safe against terrorism. I do believe that that is his goal, and that he does believe that in a world of interdependence, where American sovereignty is penetrated by new international terrorist organizations, what you have to do is not work with the world but extend American sovereignty to that world.

He recently said, "An Islamic regime in Indonesia would not be tolerated by the United States." That is the same kind of thing he was saying earlier about Iraq.

The administration genuinely believes that the only way for America to proceed in the world is to exert military authority, force and occupation in countries that it believes are dangerous to the United States. But these policies seem to be diminishing rather than enhancing our security and that is why they are so dangerous.

QUESTION: I agree completely that education is the key to defeating terrorism around the world ultimately. The question, however, is: What kind of education are they getting? Unfortunately, most of the terrorists on 9/11 were well educated.

The American Jewish Committee just did a study of textbooks used in Saudi madrassas all over the world. They are filled with hatred—of the West, of Christians, of Jews—and intolerance. How do we get our friends the Saudis to withdraw those virulent, hate-filled textbooks? How do we remove that poison from the world when the distributor of that poison is our friend Saudi Arabia?

BENJAMIN BARBER: Some of those textbooks are also used in madrassas in the U.S.

The more serious and difficult question is: what does civic education look like in more religious and theocratic societies? It comes to the question of Islam and democracy, which sometimes lurks behind this. Some people argue that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible.

That is a complete distortion of reality and a misreading of our own history. All religion stands in tension to secular society, and always has. Christianity probably had the largest problem with that of any religion in the world. We know that for four or five centuries—during the Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation, and persecution, and religious intolerance, and St. Bartholomew's Day, the Salem witch hunts here in the U.S.—secular society had a very hard time co-existing with the Christian religion. But we found our way.

It's a difficult relationship. Some of the tensions between religion and state are healthy. But they must be negotiated on a constant basis.

We see Islamic societies today that have negotiated it well—Bangladesh, Iran, Morocco, and Turkey.

The biggest problem of theocracy in the modern world is a Hindu nationalist government in India. That is also risking an imbalance in the relationship.

Some people think that a Jewish state and democracy are incompatible in the long run unless we solve the problem of the Middle East, because we are working towards a world in which Jewish Israel to stay Jewish may have to cease to be democratic, or to become truly democratic it may have to cease to be Jewish. That is a terrible paradox.

The question is: Will current policies make America safer? No president can martyr American safety on the altar of internationalism or some international idealism. My problem with our policies is that they are not working, that America does not appear, by the Administration's own claims, to be safer today, and we need policies that will enhance our security as well as keep us free.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for a very stimulating morning.

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