For the US, the terror attacks of Nine Eleven the time in a before and an after. Thus, the upcoming twentieth anniversary will not only be about September 11 (the collapsing towers, the victims) but also everything that came after: America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus the chaos and disasters to which they in turn led. President Biden wants to draw a line under that story, witness the hasty departure from Kabul. It is essential that he new story for his country: the confrontation with China. Does he also drag Europe from one crusade to the next?
The fall of 2001 can be seen as the heyday of Western universalism, the belief that the whole world can and will become like us. Under the leadership of George W. Bush, the US and allies were going to liberate Afghanistan from the ‘backward’ Taliban and would bring security, democracy and human rights, including to women, gays and girls. That mission, we now know, was a complete failure. For a week, the Taliban have regained all power; tens of thousands, especially young Afghans, are fleeing their country.
In that fall of 2001, the powerful belief in globalization took shape in another way. Three months after the Al-Qaida attacks, on December 11, 2001, China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). A less spectacular theater, but with the same hope: embedding communist China in the international economy would bring the country development and lead to political freedom. “Our biggest export product,” said President Bush the year before in a flaming WTO plea“is not food, movies or airplanes: our greatest export is freedom. And the Chinese people are ready to receive it.”
China a great rival
That second gamble from 2001 also turned out differently. Foreign investors poured in, hundreds of millions of Chinese did indeed climb out of poverty, but from 2012 President Xi pulled the strings tight. The new prosperity did not bring democratization but propped up the autocratic regime. This enabled Xi to challenge the Western world order, wielding power far beyond China’s borders – from New Silk Road and acquisitions in the high-tech sector to global vaccine diplomacy. The US now faces a major economic, technological and military challenger.
The high-reaching, universalist and interventionist moment of right after 9/11 brought a huge, double blow to the US. Chaos in Afghanistan and the Middle East, plus China lifted onto a stage from which it emerges as its rival. What strategic conclusions does Washington draw from this?
One conclusion came from Donald Trump: America First, its slogan and geopolitical guideline. This succinct response to universalist hubris found and resonates with American voters: many are tired of wars overseas and see China’s economic boom as the source of their own unemployment.
The other answer, since Biden’s victory back in the sphere of power, is: our story of freedom and democracy holds true. America is back. There’s a straight line of America’s hubris 9/11 to the new crusade against China. The neoconservative ideologue Robert Kagan, who instigated the Iraq war in 2003, and the Democrat Antony Blinken, now Biden’s secretary of state, found each other in 2019 in a plea for a ‘league of democracies’ against authoritarian states. Saddam offending then and Uyghurs outrage now are pages from the same great book by and for the Washington elite: America leading the way in the fight of Good versus Evil.
Disruption of the western worldview
President Biden, who comes from this school, also recognizes his voters’ aversion to faraway adventures. He navigates between selfish withdrawal like Trump and armored engagement like Blinken & Kagan. He will not sacrifice sons and daughters for ‘women’s rights’ in Afghanistanhence the retreat from Kabul. But in the meantime, he is building the anti-China coalition the hawks want. Certainly, this time not in retaliation for an attack on the US but to bring a Great Bad Enemy to its knees by economic means. The ideological rhetoric, which sees peace only as China changes his behavior, it does not matter (see the authoritative report Longer Telegram, early 2021).
In Washington it remains so unspoken, but in fact ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘China’ say the same thing: the West cannot recreate the rest of the world in its image. So we will have to share the planet with powers and forces that are not (and most likely will not be) democratic. This disruption of our worldview deserves more thought than the hasty fighters of new injustice admit.
China’s rise in particular tests this self-image. The failure in Afghanistan can still be dismissed as another example of ‘imperial overstretch‘; before the US, the British and Russians were already biting their teeth on land. But such thinking does not work with China: Asian superpower of 1.4 billion people, a civilization as old as Europe or India, which no longer conforms to the world order as the US established it after 1945. China ‘provincialises’ our universalism into something Western, if not in a philosophical sense, at least in a political sense. Last year, loyal Chinese intellectuals said in The New York Times: “Back when I was weak, I had to play the game by your rules. Now I am strong and confident, so why not follow my own rules, values and ideas?” Their question is not so easy to answer.
We Europeans too derive pride, self-awareness, yes, a historical sense of superiority, from the idea that the ‘universal values’ of democracy, human rights and critical science emerged on our continent. We wish them generously all over the world.
In an essay for Trouw I thoughtlessly called Bush Jr. a modern Napoleon, who would bomb Afghanistan into modernity
The friction begins when such wishing, urging, or gentle pressure promoting turns into coercing, imposing, converting, conquering. The border is not sharp. An expansive, universal urge permeates European thought, from Christian Crusaders to revolutionary Marxism or colonial civilization missions. Often the fire of the idea has been accompanied by the sword of power – a seductive couple.
I too was once briefly captivated by that temptation. It was in the same turbulent autumn of 2001, when a cultural battle about Enlightenment and Islam ignited on Dutch opinion pages and Pim Fortuyn began his march. As a philosophy student in Paris, I was annoyed by anti-American protesters – not far from my room, near Place de la Bastille – who, a few weeks after September 11, shouted ‘Down with the US’ on one banner and ‘women’s rights in the other’. Afghanistan” demanded. What do you want now, I thought, if you want the Good, you also need Power. In an essay for Fidelity I thoughtlessly called Bush Jr. a modern-day Napoleon, who would bomb Afghanistan into modernity – referring to the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jalloun, who in those days in Le Monde the French colonial rulers for bringing secular education to the Arab world.
Not long after, in December 2001, I and Arnold Labrie interviewed the great German historian Reinhart Koselleck about utopias at his home in Bielefeld. The conversation – about Thomas More, Nazism, Bauhaus and more – also came up on the news. After September 11, you saw how Bush and Bin Laden each embodied the devil for the other. Both positions, according to Koselleck, were utopian, because of their universalistic pretension and a dualism of Good and Evil. While in politics there are always competing truths and multiple perspectives. And always surprises. Koselleck: “For me as a historian there is only one general law: something else always comes out than one wants.”
Such philosophical skepticism and historical irony soothed the crusader in me. It helped that from March 2002 I spent time in the Brussels bureaucracy; school in conflict of interest, where big words meet intractableness. The media who wanted to hear from me in 2003 a defense of Bush’s Iraq raid, I gave no objection. Since then, I have still felt that inexorable tension between the desire to remain faithful to the lofty Western self-image and the awareness of concrete opposing forces, but I try to stay away from expansive universalism.
Also read: What has 20 years of Afghanistan brought the Netherlands?
Crusader in our mistrust
There is a big difference between America and Europe in dealing with this tension. Both continents drink from the same ideal source, but on the old continent we are more marked by the tragedy of history. We experienced the massacres in which the big right can end – from the 17th-century Wars of Religion to Nazism and Stalinism. Also, more recently, we recognize the colonial crimes. Thus we have gradually learned to distrust the crusader in ourselves. In addition, today, unlike the US, we lack the power to go out on our own, unless as a lukewarm ally.
Said a few years ago a Leiden professor of military studies on democracy and the rule of law: “That we are dealing with something universal here is apparent from the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Tahrir Square in Cairo, Maidan Square in Kiev […]. And if we no longer believe in it ourselves, can we still muster the moral strength to bear the burden of our own defense?”
But is it also conceivable that we defend ourselves without want to change, dominate or crush the opponent? Can we separate our self-esteem and identity as Europeans from harnessed universalism? That calls for tolerance, for pluralism, and therefore for the recognition of difference – not so much between individuals (in fashion) but also between states and cultures worldwide (out of favour).
The US seems incapable of learning the lessons 9/11 probably not even after the Kabul debacle. Too tempting is the story of the Power that does Good, too powerful is the story factory of Washington, Hollywood & Silicon Valley. For example, we Europeans, sensitive to this rhetoric ourselves, risk being dragged into the new crusade after Afghanistan and Iraq, with Taiwan as the target, for example. A first Dutch naval vessel is already on its way to the South China Sea in British-American company. When we went to bring democracy to Iraq, it ended in civil war and in terror state IS. We’d rather not know what the irony of history has in store for us this time.
So it is important to determine what we as a European Union do and do not want, while keeping an eye on setbacks, surprises and mistakes, and to develop the ability to make the choice ourselves. Currently, the Netherlands and its neighbors can only hobble behind the US in terms of security; the fact that we do so grumbling or doubting only makes it more embarrassing. Just regaining the ability to say ‘No’ or ‘Rather this way’ to Washington on big questions is going to be very hard work for Europe. Yet it must. Time to draw new political strength from this awareness of vulnerability.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 21 August 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 21, 2021