The United States Must Choose a Global Role to Fight Terrorism

April 2, 2007

Seven years into the New Millennium, globalization has staked its claim to being the dominant conceptual framework for foreign affairs. If globalization has a challenger, however, it is terrorism. These forces conflated on Sept. 11, 2001, and gave birth to new monster-globalized terrorism.

Al-Qaeda is certainly an example of a globalized organization. Its membership is intercontinental, internationally mobile, and enjoys funding thanks to the ease of capital flows that characterize globalization. Its reach is global, as are its aspirations.

This is not the only example of globalized terrorism. In 2001, the separatist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) outsourced its bomb-development to members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who went to Colombia to teach FARC how to make explosives.

Later, British-born terrorists blew themselves up in the London underground in 2005 in the name of an ideology born abroad and imported to the Britain through immigration, satellite television, and the internet. The London bombings suggest that al-Qaeda's metamorphosis is ongoing, and that it is moving from being a globalized organization into something perhaps more dangerous—a globalized ideological phenomenon, carried by digital means and word of mouth.

That globalized terrorism is upon us is clear. How to react to it is less so. One theoretical answer features the "Israelization" of America. This is the belief that America's national priorities make security absolutely supreme in political affairs. This kind of isolationism would feature government policy relying on a cast-iron border security system, a robust military with limited incursions into the world, and the capacity of our own intelligence services. The United States would become absolutely unilateral, minimizing the risk of intelligence and foreign policy failures by taking sole responsibility for those operations and curtailing its presence abroad.

What makes this argument so compelling is that it represents an attempt to get the genie of globalization back in the bottle. If the hallmark of globalization is multilateralism, this is the reverse: It is an attempt to make every aspect of American affairs unilateral, to reduce America's exposure in a dangerous world.

The United States cannot afford this kind of unilateralism for practical reasons, chief among them that it is impossible to have eyes and ears everywhere in the world at once. While it unclear that increased intelligence ties with foreign governments could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks, it is unwise to believe that turning our back on security cooperation enhances our ability to defend ourselves.

Ethical concerns also plague the path of isolationist unilateralism. U.S. involvement abroad has benefited Americans and others, as when an U.S.-led NATO expedition saved the lives of thousands of Kosovars and helped bring about the end of Slobodan Milosevic's reign. U.S. failures to engage internationally have come at great cost: A minimal troop commitment could have preserved hundreds of thousands of Rwandans from a gruesome fate, and our current inaction in the Sudan condemns hundreds of thousands more.

These arguments raise an important question about the future of American foreign policy. Is U.S. tolerance for casualties so low that it will not risk blood and treasure to preserve the lives of thousands of people even when no direct line can be drawn from saving those lives to an attack on Americans? It is, after all, one thing to believe that the United States should not risk its national security to preserve the safety of another country's citizens. It is another to believe that the United States should renounce its role in the world because it defines national security as preserving the life of every single American, uniformed and civilian.

Herein we reenter the realm of the operational. Imagine a woman in a Muslim neighborhood in Berlin overhears her neighbors talking about a plot to bomb a U.S. military base. She might be appalled at the idea, but will she be willing to risk her own safety for the citizens of a nation that as a matter of policy will not return the favor? Even if she were to report the conversation to the police, will the message pass from German to U.S. intelligence in time?

If "no" is acceptable as an answer to both questions, then isolated unilateralism is a practical option for U.S. foreign policy. If not, the United States cannot hope to pin its hopes on reducing its global footprint or shaking free of the web of international ties. The genie of globalized terrorism is out of the bottle. Al-Qaeda is out in the world—it is out in the world that America must meet it.

Spring is an associate of the Carnegie Council and is scheduled to begin work in counterterrorism this summer.

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