The new geopolitical arrangements and threat of terrorism

European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 December 2004



Shlapentokh, D.V. (2004), "The new geopolitical arrangements and threat of terrorism", European Business Review, Vol. 16 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The new geopolitical arrangements and threat of terrorism

The new geopolitical arrangements and threat of terrorism

Keywords: Ideologies (philosophy), Terrorism, Political philosophy

Abstract The ideological conflict underlying the Cold War is widely believed to have given way to a “clash of civilizations” in which “Western” values of democratic pluralism confront “Islamic” values based on hierarchy and faith. Argues that this view is at best a simplification. The Cold War itself was based more on realpolitik than a battle of ideas between capitalism and communism. Nor do radical differences of history and culture between states or regions of the world necessarily affect relations between them. In international affairs, as in affairs of the heart, opposites are just as likely to attract as those with similar worldviews. The “clash of civilizations” theory can do little to explain the current differences between the United States and continental Europe over the Middle East, or the rapprochement between Maoist China and the Nixon Administration in the early 1970s. Concludes that grand theories such as “clash of civilizations” ultimately distract people from an understanding of the complexities of international relations and a more pragmatic and flexible, and less ideological approach to the study and practice of foreign policy is required.

The several years which have passed since 11 September 2001 have led to a new challenge for the United States. The peculiar feature of the new era is that in many ways it has created a situation, perhaps for the first time ever, in which the US is experiencing increasing difficulty in finding solutions to international problems.

These new, emerging problems are undermining the idea of US global predominance, which was based on the notion of technological superiority and the related strategy of what could be called “isolationist imperialism,” which emerged in the first two years of the Bush presidency. This doctrine implied that the US could exert global predominance without its soldiers actually setting foot in the various parts of the globe. It also related to America's belief that the views of Cold War allies in Europe were basically irrelevant in the geopolitical arrangements.

These assumptions have been challenged not just by 11 September and the spread of terrorism but also by a continuous development which, above all others, the US and other nations face: the erosion of the monopoly of high technology by a few nations. All of the above created the conditions not so much for the new order but for increasing the push for geopolitical disorder. Dealing with these problems became much harder than to face the enemies of the past.

The clash of civilizations or geopolitical pragmatism: the road to early Bush foreign policy doctrine

It is obvious that from the beginning of his tenure, Bush had been guided not by ideologies – regardless of the official pronouncements and, possibly, subjective feelings of the president himself – but by pragmatic raison d'etat. And he was in no way different from that of other presidents who preceded him, nor, indeed, of any chief of state.

Geopolitics, pragmatic interest as the guiding force in the relationship between the states, had been an essential component of US and USSR. foreign policies even during the coldest period of the Cold War. The geopolitical conflict between the two imperial centers, the Soviet Union and the United States, had been presented simply as the conflict between the two ideological and sociopolitical systems. By the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the USSR, the fig leaves did not disappear, and geopolitical pragmatism was recast and presented in a different guise as the “clash of civilizations.”

This new theory is that conflicts between nations are not due to ideological paradigms of the ruling elite, for example, communism vs capitalism. The root of the conflict here was seen as being much deeper. According to this hypothesis, each civilization has a specific set of cultural genes that was shaped at the dawn of that particular nation's (or group of nations') history. Therefore, it is believed that because Russia and China have different civilizational backgrounds than the West, post-Soviet Russians are not able to fully accept Western ideas and China has a strong predisposition to authoritarian/totalitarian rule.

The theory of different civilizations is an old one. It was born during the romantic era, at the beginning of the 19th century and has been elaborated upon quite extensively throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Such thinkers as the Russian Nikolaii Danilevsky, the German Oswald Spengler, and the Englishman Arnold Toynbee deliberated upon it at length. Today, the American Political Scientist Samuel Huntington has once again taken up the idea.

There are some problems with it, however. While it can reasonably explain the friction between the West and China or between the West and Russia, or even the conflict with Muslim countries, it offers little help in understanding America's troubled relationship with Europe from the outset of Bush the Younger's administration. Indeed, Europeans have the same political values as the United States and belong to the same civilization. The understanding has always been that this common background was the basis for the strength of the NATO alliance.

Yet, history, both recent and not so recent, has demonstrated time and again that neither common political paradigms nor similar civilizational backgrounds are prerequisites for alliance. Nor are very different backgrounds a guarantee that two civilizations will be hostile toward each other. In fact, two very different civilizations may even enjoy an amiable relationship.

For example, in 1939, Joseph Stalin, the leader of the USSR (which later would become “Eurasia,” the mortal enemy of the “Atlantic” civilization of the West) was a bloody tyrant. However, by 1942-1945, he was “good old Uncle Joe” and even became Time magazine's man-of-the-year. At that point, the differences between the communist USSR and the capitalist West were ignored and the deep-seated similarities were rediscovered.

In 1946, of course, the situation reverted, and the deep differences between the two factions were rediscovered. The reason for this sea change is simple enough: during World War II the USSR was needed as an ally in the war against Germany.

China is another case in which the theory of the “clash of civilizations” does not quite hold. In 1972, after Nixon visited the country, Maoist China became rather acceptable. And it remained so throughout the Reagan and Bush (the elder) era, despite these two presidents' strong anti-communist credentials. This friendly relationship was especially odd in the case of Reagan who supposedly had a messianic zeal to rid the world of communism and the “evil empire,” the USSR – at least, if his rhetoric was to be believed.

The relationship soured in the 1990s when China was in the process of moving away from its Maoist legacy. It was precisely at this time that the differences between Chinese and American civilizations were re-emphasized. Indeed, today American political pundits are busy converting China into the new “evil empire.”

While all of this may seem strange at first glance, the logic can easily be understood if one remembers that ideology (either as political doctrine or civilizational paradigm) has little to do with the relationships between countries. Rather, it is national interest that defines such relationships. And this includes the relationship between the United States and its European allies.

NATO, which was born in the wake of World War II and based on the idea of Atlantic civilization, seemed a genuine marriage in which realpolitik did not matter, at least publicly. Yet, while there was a notion of mutual love, it was based in many ways on the nature of available weapons and geopolitical interests – first of all, on the fear of Russia.

Mutual interests were the bedrock of the alliance. It is the changes in the nature of these interests, or at least in the way Europeans and Americans perceive them, that has led to a growing discord between Europe and the United States. And reinforces the emergence by the United States government of what could be called “imperial isolationism.”

Thus, the new American foreign policy has come into existence not only because of the collapse of the USSR, but even more so because of increasing technological developments. It is these circumstances that led to the geopolitical doctrine of “imperial isolationism.”

The new technology and “imperial isolationism”

Karl Marx once proclaimed that it was “productive forces,” technological developments, which defined the configuration of social and political entities and in the long run defined the nature of what is called the “historical narrative,” the way in which events combine. The same can be said of destructive forces: weapons. The new, technological weapons are changing the nature of warfare and, in many ways, military alliances.

During the Cold War, it was in the United States' national interest to prevent the Soviet Union from controlling all of Europe and its vast economic resources. More important, or at least equally so, however, was the threat of the Soviet Union launching atomic weapons. The United States badly needed European bases for quick strikes against the USSR. It would seem that a half-hour difference in the time that it would take a missile to reach the Soviet Union from the other side of the Atlantic is negligible. But it could be crucial in a nuclear exchange. Moreover, mid-range missiles were much cheaper than intercontinental ballistic missiles. Also, bombers loaded with nuclear weapons could strike more efficiently from European bases than from bases within American borders.

There is no doubt that, at that time, proximity to a potential target was extremely important. In fact, the United States was prepared to risk a nuclear war with the USSR when Krushchev placed missiles in Cuba. For the Soviet Union, the island nation's geographical position would have been the equivalent of Europe for the US. One hardly need add that West Europeans saw the United States as their only protection from Soviet aggression. Thus, as is the case with most empires, the spread of the American empire was not only the result of the country's strength. It was also born out of necessity and technological limitations.

By the beginning of Bush's presidency, the situation was changing as the new technology may have made it possible to create an anti-missile shield, which would force a re-examination of the old geopolitical paradigms. The object of the new policy was to construct a shield that would protect America from nuclear attack. While ideas of this sort had circulated since the Reagan era, the technology had not been good enough. However, with advancing technology, these ideas have again surfaced in the beginning of Bush the Younger's administration. Officially, the shield would protect the United States from the small number of missiles that could be launched by a few “rogue” states, for example, Iran, North Korea, etc. It was clear, however, that if such a system could be developed, in the long run it could provide the country with an effective shield against any nuclear power, including Russia and China. At least this was the intent.

In the new geopolitical arrangement that would result, Europe could cease to be crucially important in the United States' strategic design. Moreover, the US could actually live without any true military allies. Instead, when the situation calls for it, the Americans could concentrate on putting together coalitions of countries with mutual interests (or effectively buy cooperation, as was the case during Desert Storm). The United States' stress on isolationism can be substantiated by the fact that it was assumed that the role of NATO in future local contacts could be limited.

One might think here that the country had returned to traditional isolationism. Yet, this is hardly the isolationism of the 19th century. It is rather the belief that America could protect itself against nuclear attack, or any attack for that matter, and was totally self-sufficient. The country could also effectively strike any of its enemies. This was also, as it was assumed, due to the new technology, in which missiles can strike precisely despite being thousands of miles from the target. The same technologies would allow American troops to be quickly transported from bases in the United States to trouble spots in any part of the world. All of this implies that the US would not retreat into a self-isolated shell, but rather would engage in an active and, if needed, aggressive foreign policy.

As the situation looks in the beginning of Bush's presidency, the major threat comes not from Europe but from Asia. In the minds of many Americans, China had replaced Russia as the threat from abroad. And it was assumed that America's active geopolitical posture was seen as essential to confront China, as was the case with the USSR before.

Such a foreign policy was hardly the self-imposed isolationism of the 19th century, nor was it the imperialism of the Cold War when the US and its rival, the USSR, each tried to establish their presence globally. This foreign policy was an absolutely new paradigm – one that might be deemed “imperial isolationism.”

All of this makes NATO strategically irrelevant. NATO, in its Cold War form, could be to some extent as much of a hindrance to American foreign policy objectives as the nuclear treaty with the USSR in dealing with post-Soviet Russia. The old Cold War arrangements did not fit well with the new “imperial isolationism” of the United States.

These new geopolitical and technological realities had caused President Bush and his entourage to ignore the “feelings” of its NATO allies. It was the arrangement of this new realpolitik, not the personal traits of the President nor the ideology of the party he represents, that defines America's relationship with Europe. The truth was that the American elite little cared that its remarks could have a negative implication for the fate of the alliance.

The crisis of imperial isolationism: the proliferation of technology

“Isolationist imperialism” was, in many ways, based on the assumption that the US would have absolute technological superiority, and those who could destroy the US in a nuclear exchange, actually Russia and, to some extent, China, would be “sane” enough not to engage in the preventive nuclear attack. The other players would not appear, not so much because of the force of international law and not only because of the fear of the US attack, but for another important reason. It was assumed that the technological know-how would be confined to a few states. It was believed here that what was called “Third World countries” – those who might wish to engage in this suicidal-type of behavior – would not be able to develop high technology on their own.

The last years have demonstrated that these assumptions were false. Increasing numbers of what were usually dubbed “Third World” countries have developed the technology needed to produce sophisticated weapons. This technology is not only equal to but could even be ahead of the West. And thus strongly suggests that the US strategy to stop the spread of the weapons of mass destruction most likely would not work.

Cloning in Korea and the spread of the weapons of mass destruction

The recent startling progress in cloning a human being has attracted the attention of news media all over the world. And while the implications of these discoveries for the future of humanity have been pointed out, the reporters have failed to mention the importance of the fact that the discovery was made in Korea, not in the West. The global community has changed much in a few generations.

The remarkable progress of Korean societies toward becoming the peer of the West is even more striking if we remember that exactly a hundred years ago Korea was merely prey for Japan and Russia, which engaged in a 1904-1905 war for control of Korea and northern China. Korean scientists' discoveries testify to the erosion of the Western scientific and technological monopoly, in many ways a result of the very globalization that the West, particularly the United States, has spread.

The US has regarded globalization as a phenomenon that would ensure US domination, by creating markets for American goods; but this has not been the case. The rise of Asian scientific prowess is directly related to the rise of Asian competitiveness. As the fight for the White House intensifies, Bush's critics lament that globalization and related free trade have led to the export of American jobs rather than of American goods.

The groundbreaking Korean achievement in genetic engineering has had another, much more important, implication for the United States and the global community. It is a threat to preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, which is, perhaps, the major goal of the American foreign policy.

It is no secret, and, in fact, the CIA recently reported, that terrorists continue aggressively to seek weapons of mass destruction. For some time, the Bush administration assumed that the technological know-how to develop such weapons could be acquired only in the advanced countries of the West, America first of all, whose technological and scientific predominance is said to match its economic and military prowess.

Even Europe was not seen as being very important as sources of new technology and scientific achievement; nor was Russia, whose scientific abilities have been in steady decline; and certainly not most Asian countries.

To reduce the risks of America's supposed expertise in these fields falling into the wrong hands, another of the Bush administration's major goals has been to limit access to American educational institutions by students from potentially dangerous countries.

But the belief that only Americans, or at least Western Europeans, could be a source of the knowledge needed to produce sophisticated weapons has been shattered. It was discovered that Iran could and has acquired this know-how, neither from Western Europe nor even from Russia, but apparently from Pakistan or North Korea. This as well as the amazing achievement of South Korean scientists testifies that many Asian countries, not just Japan, long ago ceased to be backwaters that could only imitate the West. They may actually be ahead of the West.

The United States will continue to lose high-tech jobs unless powerful “de-globalization” closes American markets to foreign, especially Asian, competitors. But the far more dangerous implications are that the know-how for producing and using weapons of mass destruction can be acquired in many countries, especially in Asia. More countries and groups of potential terrorists can easily obtain them. Scientific globalization, so hailed by the West in general and Americans in particular, has opened a Pandora's box that can hardly be controlled.

The danger of terrorism: Russian example

The rise of the spread of technology among the various countries, including those who could be defined as “rogue” states and who could be engaged in the suicidal attack on the US, is one of the major problems which challenges the country's “imperial isolationism.” The other, even more important, is the spread of global terrorism. It was bred on the social disintegration brought about by capitalism's arrival in traditional societies, the collapse of the USSR as the essential aspect of the global order, and the virtual breakdown of international law, which has followed the current Iraq war. Terrorism has now spread worldwide. Its pervasive nature can be seen by the fact that it was the former USSR, the highly policed society of a generation ago, that has become one of the centres of global terrorism. It shows clearly that there may be no forces – including the US – that can halt its spread.

The recent explosion in the Moscow subway was one of the most deadly ever in the Russian capital and spread a true sense of unease among Muscovites for whom the subway is the main form of transportation. There was a troubling response. There was increasing harassment of Chechens, in fact of all groups that the Russians call people of “Caucasian nationality,” i.e. people from the Caucuses, with their characteristic facial features and swarthy appearance. Some observers actually stated that pogroms are in the air. Russian nationalists, such as the members of the Russian Duma faction “Rodina” (Motherland), demanded the purge of the local Chechen community. This provides the ammunition for liberal politicians to proclaim that there is a danger of the fascisization of Russia. Yet neither of these threats, of pogroms or of the rise of fascism, is likely.

Those who pointed to the threat of fascism in Russia usually forget that fascism requires not just pathological xenophobia but also a strong sense of national solidarity. And this is conspicuously absent in Russia, where Muscovites look at the provincial Russian with indifference and often hostility, as if he were a representative of foreign or ever-hostile countries. The rise of pogroms is also highly unlikely because authorities are quite aware of the fragility of the social order and would not allow this to happen. The terrorist event in Russia should be studied by the outside world for other reasons.

Although terrorism is spread worldwide, Russia belongs to a group of a very few countries in which terrorists have the freedom to be extraordinarily creative in their activities. In fact, the country became a testing ground for experimenting with ways to engage in a variety of terrorist acts. People could be killed in military bases, in hospitals, or in administrative buildings. Vehicles, which would crash into buildings, could bring the explosive materials, or explosives could be brought into the building surreptitiously. Not just administrative or military facilities could be exploded, but entire buildings with hundreds of residents could be obliterated by the blast, as was the case in Moscow in 1999. And recently, the terrorists' continued experimentation in suicide bombing has expanded the range of targets. People could be killed in public concerts, in commuter trains, in downtown Moscow near the major hotel, and finally, in packed subway trains.

One might conclude that the Russian experience is not related to the majority of other countries but rather to Russia's war in Chechnya and even more so to the poor work of Russia's law enforcement agencies and indifferent common people, which hardly helps to detect terrorists. Still, one should remember that the present-day international terrorists, including Al-Qaeda, are quite sophisticated and not likely to miss the opportunity to study the experience of other terrorists. And one should definitely consider the deadly impact of the Moscow subway blast – the numerous casualties and, even more so, its chilling and paralyzing effect on the general public.

The degree of the American authorities' attention to the Moscow subway attack could be explained by the fact that they consider trains one of the most likely US terrorist targets. And, indeed, soon after the Moscow bombing, the terrorists exploded a train in Madrid, killing some 200 people and injuring 1,500 others. There were also threats against trains in France. All of these acts and threats demonstrated not only the spread of terrorism worldwide but also the inability of any state to deal effectively with the problem.


The Cold War was not as much the conflict between the opposite political/ideological systems but the conflict between two centres of global powers – actually empires – the US and the USSR. Both empires in this case were “evil empires” if one would use the terminology of Ronald Reagan, for both of them sought global predominance. Logically, the collapse of the USSR did not lead to the end of the United States' imperial aggrandizement but plainly sped it up. During the Cold War, the geopolitical conflict was displayed as that between communism and capitalism (the “democratic society” in the terminology of the West). After the collapse, the conflict was presented as that between civilizations or, more recently, as between the Western values of freedom and freedom-hating fundamentalist Islam.

It is apparent that the United States' new imperial policy was based on the philosophy of “imperial isolationism.” Implicit in this philosophy was the belief that future wars would be mostly a contest of highly sophisticated weapons and that the US could strike any place on earth either from the US or from the cosmos. In such a case, foreign bases and the old allies became quite useless. This approach also implies that sophisticated technology would be out of reach of most of the countries of the world. And that, conversely, America's own advanced technology could actually shield it from any external attack. All of these assumptions have been disproved by recent developments.

The spread of globalization and the increasing ability to produce the weapons of mass destruction can be found in states that recently were seen as Third World countries. Some of them could well engage in reckless, almost suicidal behavior, i.e. strike the US or provide the weapons for international terrorists. Secondly, international terrorism has become a powerful and independent force. The United States' war on Iraq, which supposedly was launched to stem global terrorism, has actually increased its intensity. Not only New York or the capitals of the West European states, but also the capital of the former USSR have become the targets of terrorist attacks. This indicates clearly the “end of history,” but very unlike that professed by Francis Fukuyama in the wake of the collapse of the USSR. It is not the global spread of democratic institutions and also the United States' global predominance – “Pax America” – but quite a different arrangement. It could be defined as the process of transformation of the unipolar world in the geopolitical disorder, which neither the US nor any power can actually control.

Dr Shlapentokh's book, East against West, will be published by PublishAmerica in 2005.

Dmitry V. ShlapentokhDepartment of History, Indiana University, South Bend, Indiana, USA